Harmonica History and Construction – Rich Simmons

The harmonica is based on an ancient instrument, the sheng. A Chinese gourd and reed instrument, the sheng may have been invented as long as 5000 years ago by Chinese Empress Nyu-kwa. The basic design of the sheng allowed tones to be made while blowing or drawing air through the instrument making it unique among the ancient wind instruments.

Instruments resembling the modern harmonica had their genesis in the early 19th century. Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann bundled fifteen pitch pipes into a roughly square shape, approximately 4 inches wide and tall, to create the Buschmann Aura about 1820. This blow-only design allowed tunes to be played and became somewhat popular in Germany and Austria, but was a rather limited instrument due to its size and design. The next version of the modern harmonica came in America from a Bohemian immigrant known today only by his last name, Richter. He created a 10-hole, diatonic harmonica called the “Vamper” with two stacked reed plates that would produce a consistent tone when blowing or drawing air over the reeds. Its size, approximate 4 inches wide but only 1 inch tall, made it an immediate improvement over its predecessors. Still, the modern harmonica was more a curiosity than a respected instrument.

It took a German clock maker to catapult the harmonica to its current status. Mathias Hohner had manufactured “mouth organs” in his spare time since the early 1850’s. In 1865, he sent a small supply of his harmonicas to his cousins, who had emigrated to America a few years earlier, with the intent of establishing a market for his product. The tone and beauty of these simple instruments quickly won over many Americans, despite the looks of puzzlement these “immigrant salesmen” were likely given as they introduced their wares. Its portable size, quality construction, and superb tone made harmonicas a quick addition to the American landscape. Hohner almost singe-handedly established the harmonica in the American musical lexicon.

Harmonicas have a simple construction. The cover plate is the outer shell of the instrument. Its primary purpose is to hold the other parts of the harmonica together. The body or comb of the instrument provides the holes to blow or draw air. The reed plates sit on top and below the comb. In a standard diatonic harmonica, there are two reeds for each hole– one used on draw notes and the other on blow notes.

Materials used for the comb of the harmonica have their own tonal characteristics and unique quality. Wood typically produces a resonant, full-bodied timbre with an even note reproduction from lows to highs. A plastic comb is characterized by a warm, even sound while being smooth on the lips. Also available are metal bodies or a metallic finish which produce a bright and clear sound.

The pitch and resultant scale of the harmonica is directly related to two factors; the material that the reeds are made of and the length of the reed. Metal is the most common material used for reeds in instrument quality harmonicas. Plastic may be used as well but is most commonly found in inexpensive toys. The length of the reed determines the pitch; that is, the longer the reed, the deeper the pitch.

One of the unique features a harmonica offers is double row of free-standing reeds. A free-standing reed is attached to the instrument on one end with the opposite side standing “free” so that it may vibrate as air rushes around it. They are usually made of metal, plastic, or in rare instances wood. Stacking two reed plates allows the instrument to produce a tone as air is blown or drawn across it.

The standard diatonic 10-hole harmonica has a unique layout of pitches that can be traced back to Richter’s “Vamper.” Richter’s layout was truly ingenious in that chords could be played at any position on the harmonica, but a full scale is located at the center of the harmonica so that melodies can be easily played. His design is the standard for all 10-hole diatonic instruments to this day.

There are, of course, other scale patterns available in harmonicas. Chromatic harmonicas allow the player to play in any key using one harmonica. Chromatic models provide the complete 12 note octave with all sharps and flats. In harmonicas of this style, each hole contains four reeds: two are for natural notes and two for chromatic notes. The reeds for chromatic notes are brought into operation by pushing a slide button on the side of the harmonica. This closes off the airflow from one set of reeds and permits the other set to vibrate freely. Harmonicas in natural minor and harmonic minor scales are available from the Tombo Company as well.

Harmonicas were originally intended to play simple melodies. The diatonic varieties originally available were designed specifically for this purpose. This style of playing is known as straight harp. In short, the song you are playing is in the same key as your harmonica and the blow notes are emphasized.. This style is well suited to folk songs like Oh Susanna, fiddle tunes, and other old time music forms.

Another style of playing, cross harp, is a system in which a diatonic harmonica is played in a key seven half-steps up from the key in which the harmonica is tuned, e.g. a C harp played in the key of G. This produces a blues scale with a flatted seventh and has the advantage that the most important notes can be bent in the low end, producing a fluid quality and great expressiveness (see chart below). Much the opposite of straight harp, cross harp emphasizes the draw notes. Obviously, this style of playing fits well in blues, rock, country blues, and many other styles.

Song in this key… You play this harp..
F B-Flat
F-sharp B
A-flat D-Flat
B-Flat E-Flat
D-Flat G-flat
E-Flat A-Flat

We’ve not yet touched on techniques associated with playing other kinds of harmonicas with differing scales, nor have we delved into the rich history of musical styles in which the harmonica has flourished. Obviously, these topics are lengthy in their own right, so we’ll save them for another time.

The harmonica is an amazingly simple, yet diverse and adaptive instrument. Its ability to slide easily among a variety of styles makes it a welcome addition to almost any musical gathering. Music Folk is proud to offer a wide variety of diatonic, chromatic, Hohner and Lee Oskar harmonicas.

Note: Join us for a harmonica workshop on Sunday, March 9 with St Louis’ own harmonica guru, Sandy Weltman.

Acknowledgement: Much of the material for this article was derived from Harmonica Americana by Jon Gindick, the Hohner website, several smaller websites, and interviews with local players.

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