The harmonica has been an instrument with great influence in the musical world for the interpretation of different genres. However, its incorporation into the musical arena was not easy, as it has come a long evolutionary path to become the instrument of great influence that we know today.
The history of the harmonica has an oriental origin, since it was the emperor Nyn Kwya who invented a musical instrument that incorporated reeds made of metal into its structure and with independent operation. This equipment received the name of “Sheng”, which according to scholars would be the first predecessor of what we now know as harmonica. Although this concept used in China was quite innovative, when the instrument reached European lands in the 18th century, the inventors concluded that said mechanics applied to the “Sheng” were similar to those used by them for the construction of the harmonium and concertina.
During the year 1821, a young watchmaker known as Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann, decided to patent an instrument that was initially used to tune organs. “Aura”, as the inventor named this instrument, consisted of a total of a total of 15 metal tubes grouped horizontally. The structure was quite simple, incorporating only reeds that when blown produced sounds with a clearly chromatic tuning. The best thing about “Aura” was that it allowed a maximum of 20 notes to be created, with the particularity that each of them could be lengthened as long as the player wanted and in a sustained manner.
From this moment on, the design was imitated and modified by various inventors, notably Richter in 1826, who incorporated 20 reeds and 10 holes. For his part, Matthias Hohner used blown and aspirated reeds but retaining the standard Richter tuning. The design had 10 cells, each with two tabs respectively. Already in 1857, Hohner began the mass reproduction of said harmonica, becoming a pioneer regarding its manufacture.
Musical evolution of the harmonica
With regard to the musical evolution of the harmonica, we have to mention the African interpretations of the instrument, made by the workers who made life in the fields, who reproduced melancholic and rhythmic sounds that invited us to dance without inconvenience. Later, musicological studies revealed that blues harmonicas have the peculiarity of allowing some of their notes to be lowered, changing the pitch by means of pressure exerted on blown or sucked air, which was an eventual discovery.
The harmonica is once again present as an accompaniment to the “cowboys” in front of the customary bonfires to liven up their nights in the Wild West. In this way, the western harmonica style originated, while in the northern part the country tunes emerged, played by whites.
This genre, apart from using the harmonica, also added other instruments such as the violin, mandolin, bass and guitar. In addition, its appearance was almost simultaneously with the “rural blues”, played in the well-known farmer dances.
In a second stage of the musical evolution of the harmonica, we cannot fail to mention that Paul Butterfield was in charge of popularizing this instrument as a complement of great importance to rock music. This fact, in a way, was counterproductive for the blues during the 1950s, as it led to a dramatic decline in its sales.
During this same period, blues opened doors in Europe and due to the presence of British rock originating precisely in this genre, its resurgence began in the late sixties. Thus, the harmonica managed to position itself as a “rock and blues” instrument, thanks to the help of the great performers of the moment.
Starting in the 80s, interest in the blues progressively increased and even during the late 20th century the concept that encompassed the blues genre adopted some elements of jazz, among other styles, creating a structure that exceeded 12 bars.
Diatonic harmonicas: Number one in sales throughout the 20th century
1896 is the year of birth of the Diatonic Marine Band harmonica, a name given by its creator Hohner Marine Band. It is a classic harmonica that has not undergone many modifications over the years. In fact, in 1996, celebrating its first 100 years on the market, a limited edition was launched featuring an attractive gold-tone cover.
Experts in the field of music know that the diatonic harmonica, provided with a total of 10 cells in its mouthpiece, is the product that registers the highest sales in the entire 20th century, this being a position that it has managed to maintain to this day.
Main harmonica manufacturers
As expected, an instrument with the level of trajectory of the harmonica has a place of honor in the market, being manufactured by different brands. In this sense, it is not surprising to get several models within each family of harmonicas. A good example of this is the German house Hohner, which currently has an average of 60 models. Among them we can mention the “Little Lady”, a harmonica with a format of only three centimeters, being a fairly compact structure. For its part, “Chord Harmonica” is an instrument with a length of 56 centimeters and 384 reeds designed for the performance of a total of 48 chords.
It is important to mention that this last design is one of the most expensive. However, as we initially discussed, there are many more options patented by this brand, so it would not be difficult to get the best value for money harmonica in any of the lines developed by Hohner.
But this is not the only renowned manufacturer house regarding the construction of harmonicas, since there are others very well positioned such as the Japanese Suzuki and Tombo, the multinational China Huang, the Brazilian Bends and Hering, as well as a few other emerging marketers.