The story of the harmonica begins with the
Chinese Emperor Nyn-Kwya, who in 3000 B. C. invented a free-reed instrument called the
"sheng' (sublime voice) which is considered the forerunner of the modern harmonica.
The sheng was brought to Europe in the 18th Century, where the idea of the free-reed
principle was used in the creation of the reed organ, the accordion, the concertina, the
saxophone, and the harmonica.
The modern harmonica was invented in 1821 by a German clockmaker named Christian
Buschman who put fifteen pitch pipes together to create an odd little instrument. At first
harmonicas were produced by clockmakers as a sideline, but in 1857 Matthias Hohner decided
to manufacture them on a large scale and went into production in Trossingen, Germany.
The harmonica spread all over Germany, and with the mass emigration of Germans in the
latter half of the nineteenth century, all over the world. By the time of the American
Civil War, the harmonica was well established in the United States and many soldiers on
both sides played them. At first the repertory in this country for harmonica consisted of
folksongs, fiddle tunes, marches, hymns and the like, but somewhere along the way it was
taken up by the black man, and its potential as a blues instrument came to light.
The origins of blues harp in the South remain obscure in spite of all the musicological
research that has been done with blues. W.C. Handy recalled hearing train imitations
played on the harmonica as early as the the 1870's, and this was a likely sources of blues
harp. The discovery that the notes could be lowered in pitch by changing the pressure
exerted on reeds was probably an accidental one, but nonetheless the 'blue" notes of
the African vocal scale and the moans and cries of the field holler had been successfully
reproduced on a new instrument. By the 1920's, when recording companies began to go down
south looking for blues acts following the succes of Mamie Smith' Crazy Blues in
1920, blues harp was a common sound in the South.
After World War II there was a large shifting of the black population from the rural
south to the urban north, especially Chicago. Starting from the late thirties, four giants
of blues harmonica recorded and performed in Chicago: Sonny Boy Willianson, Little Walter
Jacobs, Big Walter Horton and Rice (Sonny Boy Williamson II) Miller.
Together these men created the sound of the Chicago-style blues harmonica with its
various moods and voices and sounds, ranging from eerie howls and raucous yells to
whispers and sighs. It was a compelling sound, demanding and getting instant attention.
A second generation of harpmen, consisting of Junior Wells, James Cotton, Paul
Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and others, learned the art directly from the older
masters (except from Sonny Boy 1, who was murdered in 1948). Paul Butterfield (1941-1987)
was among the greatest of this second generation, and did much to popularize the harmonica
as a rock instrument.
The advent of rock n' roll in the mid-fifties gave the blues themselves the blues.
Sales of blues records dropped, many performers had to seek other livelihoods, and even
Muddy Waters, whose bands always featured a harmonica player, found that audiences were
unreceptive to slow blues in the nightclubs of Chicago.
Meanwhile, the blues were being discovered in Europe, especially England, where young
guitarists with names like Clapton, Beck, and Page were wearing holes in their records
figuring out the riffs of B. B. King, Albert King, and other American black blues
guitarists. The blues-based British rock invasion of the late sixties repopularized the
blues, but now the audiences were young whites rather than blacks, who by then had moved
on to R & B, soul, and jazz. Unfortunately, the creators of the style got none of the
credit until 1964, when The Rolling Stones appeared on the TV show "Shindig"
along with blues legend Howlin'Wolf (The Stones got Wolf on the show by refusing to play
Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Al Wilson of Canned Heat, Pig Pen of
the Grateful Dead, and other famous musicians of the 'sixties all played the harmonica and
helped establish it as a rock as well as a blues instrument. With the resurgence of
interest in the blues, the fate of the blues harp playing now seems secure indeed.
The harmonica itself consists of a wood or plastic body called a comb, two brass reed
plates, and two nickel covers. The diatonic harmonica, which is the most popular model,
has ten holes. Each hole in turn provides one of two different notes, depending on
whether you are exhaling (called "blowing") or inhaling (called
"drawing") . The 20 notes available on the harmonica cover a range of three
octaves and are arranged in such a way that only the middle octave contains a complete
scale. The lower octave lacks the fourth and seventh steps of the scale (the harmonica is
designed this way in order to have the tonic and dominant chords in the lower register),
and the upper octave lacks the seventh step of the scale.
Most diatonic harmonicas are made by the Hohner Company, and one can choose from among
the Marine Band, the Special 20, the Golden Melody and the Blues Harp. The Special 20 and
Golden Melody have plastic combs while the Marine Band andthe Blues Harp have wooden
combs, I recommend the Marine Band, although the Silvertone Model by the Huang Company the
Lee Oskar harmonicas are very good too. Lower pitched harmonicas, being either the G, A,
or C scales, are a little easier to learn on.
The chromatic harmonica was invented in 1918, and is largly used for jazz and classical
music, although some blues is played on it. The chromatic is really a double decker
harmonica-two harmonicas pitched a half-step apart with a movable grill operated by a side
button that opens one harmonica at a time, allowing the player to obtain all the sharps
and flats of the chromatic scale. In spite of it's wide capabilities, the chromatic has
gained only limited acceptance in the art music world, and is not taught in any
conservatories. It is an unfortunte fact that the harmonica in both it's diatonic and
chromatic incarnations has long suffered from the perception of being a second class
instrument-it was not recognized by the American Federation of Musicians until 1956.
When you buy a harmonica, play softly for the first few days. This will help break it
in. I also advise against soaking the harmonica in water, beer, gin, etc. Although this
will break in the harmonica more quickly and increase the volume as well, it will also
drastically decrease the life span of the instrument. The best thing to do is just allow
the harmonica to break in gradually and naturally. You will get more for your money. You
should also keep the harmonica in its case when you are not playing it, because if a small
particle of dirt or even a hair gets stuck in a reed, it can prevent a note from sounding.
If this does happen, try using a pin to dislodge whatever is stuck.
Eventually, you will need a collection of harmonicas in order to be able to play with
other musicans. Guitar players usually play in the keys of A, C, D, E, G, or F, so I
always have at least a half- dozen harps with me if I am on my way to a club date or jam
session. That way, I can play on just about any tune.
If you're looking for a fun, portable and popular musical instrument with a dedicated
core of afficionados, the harmonica is for you.
Irish And American Fiddle Tunes for Harmonica
by Glenn Weiser
The Little Walter Transcriptions
Juke, transcribed by Glenn Weiser