Exploring the World of Harmonica: It may surprise you, but the harmonica was once mysterious. Virtuoso harmonica players would do anything to protect their signature playing techniques and bread winning musicianship from poachers halfway through the last century.
Little Walter (Marion Jacobs), the harmonica god, was said to play with his back to the audience to hide his technique. Until the end of the 20th century, you had to figure out how to recreate the masters’ sound and notes on this little instrument.
“I spent hours and hours with nothing but a harmonica and my record player”, says harmonica player Ben Bouman. There was no end to wondering how they did it. Internet opened up the world in the 1990s. Harmonica players worldwide began sharing their knowledge online, which was huge progress.”
ALL PIE FINGERS
Harmonicas are charming, mysterious or not. The small, affordable harmonica is expressive once you master it and works well for blues, rock, country, pop, and jazz. Steve Wonder and Toots Thielemans are involved. This blog will cover several harmonicas, but the “blues harp” is most popular.
Many ways to play the harmonica make it suitable for many styles. Bob Dylan and Neil Young demonstrated simple chords between vocal lines in the Summer of Love and still do. The harmonica’s melodic, banging solos make it a great lead instrument and accompaniment to chord-based instruments like the guitar.
Ben: “You could say that the harmonica has a finger in every pie. Because blowing into one makes it sound good, it’s underrated. Due to its simplicity, many people think the harmonica is a toy, but this isn’t true. Playing will show you that it takes years to master. Legendary American players practised six hours a day. Some players were in prison, so they had time.
China invented the first ‘free reed’ instrument, the sheng, around 3,000 BC. The ‘free reed’ principle vibrates a ‘tongue’ to produce a note with breath. Europe first imported shengs in 1776 after Western Europe wrote about them in 1636.
They immediately inspired instrument builders to experiment with the new ‘free reed’ principle until German craftsman Christian Friedrich Buschman invented a mini-accordion in 1821. Traditional German instruments like the squeezebox, accordion, and harmonica use the ‘free reed’ principle to produce sound and note variation.
The first harmonica’s brass reeds were tuned in a major scale, so blowing and drawing in air produced C, D, E, F, G A, B, and C. Drawing air vibrates a different reed than blowing, producing a different note. Harmonicas play multiple notes by pushing and pulling air through a set number of holes. We’ll discuss many note-taking methods later.
Richter, another German instrument maker, invented the diatonic harmonica with Richter tuning in 1825. The blues harp now exists. This ten-hole harmonica plays left-handed chords and right-handed melodies. Some tongue techniques let you play rhythm, chords, and melody simultaneously.
Naturally, the Richter harmonica was invented for German folk music because it resembled an accordion, which can play chords and melodies. Hohner brought Richter-tuned harmonicas to America in 1868, where poor ex-slaves working in cotton fields discovered their revolutionary features.
In particular, that you could bend notes to a slightly lower pitch, greatly expanding the note range, and hit beautiful blue notes—diminished thirds and fifths—by bending the right note. The blues harp, note-bending, and new playing techniques were invented. Anyone who could play the blues harp made extra money, and until the 1930s, combatants competed on the streets to imitate train sounds. Whole harmonica cultures emerged.
Many jazz musicians switched to blues in the 1940s and 50s for higher pay. Blues and blues harp grew together. Some former jazz musicians’ skill and formal musical education elevated the harmonica and blues harp to jazz.
The harmonica was often played as a clarinet or saxophone in 1940s and 1950s jazz orchestras, which started using amplified guitarists as they grew, inspiring Little Walter. Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs), the first harmonica amplifier, is the most important harmonica pioneer.
Little Walter generally played through an amplified setup in the 1950s and 1960s, and microphones had a crystal pickup connected to a valve amplifier for a unique sound. Louder playing caused more distortion, which suited the harmonica and electric guitar.
Little Walter used many guitar amplifiers’ reverb and tremolo effects. This and Little Water’s technique make him the standard for amplified harmonica players, who can be heard singing into a crystal-pickup microphone and valve amplifier.
Blues and jazz gave rise to rock and pop, and the harmonica changed. Early harmonica-playing Rolling Stones and Beatles were influenced by Chicago blues. Legend has it that John Lennon stole the harmonica from Bergmann music shop in Arnhem in 1960 on their way to Hamburg for their first single, ‘Love Me Do’.
Robert Dylan and Neil Young revived the harmonica during flower power and hippiedom. “Technically, the playing wasn’t incredible, but it supported and fitted the simplicity of the music,” said Ben Bouman. Bigger, heavier rock and blues-rock amplifiers produced rawer sounds, and players pushed the harmonica to its limits.
In the 1980s, INXS’ Charlie Mussel white played Suicide Blonde and Eurythmics’ hits featured the harmonica. Steve Wonder is another harmonica legend. The harmonica remains a popular blues instrument.
Just because you can play a harmonica without seeing one doesn’t mean you’re good. Learn to bend notes to play blues, pop, or rock. Otherwise, you’ll play a “nice tune.” Ben says, “You can actually learn to bend fairly quickly,” but then the real work begins.
Since then, you must learn when and how to bend gracefully. Bad harmonica is annoying. Blues harp requires a lot of practise to sound good. Simply put. I call it practise training because it is. Due to the time and effort required to improve, I’ve seen people quit.
Switching can be difficult because blowing and drawing air feels awkward. Hyperventilation can result from rapid breathing. “But once you’ve mastered the harmonica, the possibilities are endless,” says Ben. Everything is possible with this instrument.”
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