The History of the Wooden Harmonica
The diatonic harmonica is not an overly complicated instrument; its components consist of vibrating reed plates, comb, and cover plates.
Reeds alternate between blocking and unblocking an airway, producing sound when played via blowing and drawing. To bend notes, change the angle between reed and plate by moving one or both reeds back and forth.
Early Life and Education
The harmonica, an early 19th-century free-reed instrument similar to Chinese sheng, evolved as a mouth-sized, resonating hole instrument with lips-sized holes which produce tones based on lip shape, tongue placement or covering unwanted holes (or covering unwanted ones with tape or covering unwanted holes with fabric). It can play one note or multiple notes simultaneously.
Matthias Hohner, a clock salesman who ventured into harmonica sales, started his own harmonica company that quickly became immensely popular among German immigrants who settled in America.
Some players think harmonicas made of wood sound better than those with plastic combs, while experts contend that tonal differences arise largely from how each instrument is played – this includes lipping technique, hole shapes and reed plates size, how they are held etc.
Harmonicas are easy to pick up and start making sounds with, though becoming adept takes practice and might cause inconvenience to those nearby. They’re also noisy – which might put people off.
Some players contend that the materials used to manufacture harmonicas affect how they sound; however, blind tests have failed to demonstrate any variances in performance between models.
There are two primary varieties of harmonicas: diatonic and chromatic. Diatonic harmonicas were originally designed for German and European folk music but have become popular across genres like blues, country, old-time music, as well as blues. Chromatic harmonicas use a slide that allows players to quickly switch notes – notable chromatic players include Little Walter, Huey Lewis and Toots Thielemans who were instrumental in shaping its sounds and techniques.
Achievement and Honors
Early harmonica production saw immense demand, prompting numerous small factories to emerge to meet it. Matthias Hohner opened his factory in Trossingen, Germany in 1857 and quickly expanded it, eventually purchasing several smaller harmonica makers as part of their operations.
Hohner harmonica company is currently the world’s largest harmonica manufacturer, producing innovative yet high-quality instruments that are both responsive and durable. Their persistent investment in research and development combined with their experience ensure that they stay at the cutting-edge of harmonica technology.
Corky Siegel is an international champion harmonica player, composer, band leader and teacher who has won multiple accolades such as being honored as Harmonica Player of the Year by the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonicas (SPAH) as well as being nominated for a Grammy award.
Harmonicas’ comb, reed plates, and cover plates may be made from metal, wood or plastic; some players believe that material choice influences sound produced.
Harmonicas tend to degrade quickly when subjected to heavy use or given dirty fuel (ie: being played too frequently). Serious players typically dedicate significant effort and time towards refurbishing wooden-combed harmonicas.
Es remains an ongoing debate as to whether embouchure adjustments (bending) can actually bend reeds. While pitch can be adjusted using this method, bending individual reeds can also lower or raise their tone of harmonicas with wind-savers requiring more advanced embouchure techniques for control.
Some harmonica collectors will make significant investments to acquire instruments they deem particularly valuable, whether due to the quality of reed plates or case material; but more often this comes down to signing by a famous musician who hand-signed it.
Hohner Marine Band harmonicas from prior to World War II are highly sought-after harmonicas, not because they’re rare but because they tend to sound better than modern models.