The History of the Harmonica


"Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe and playing my Hohner harmonica." - Abraham Lincoln,

(from a letter written by Lincoln during his presidency to the head of the Hohner Harmonica Company in Germany)



"When Johnny Comes Marching Home" - played by Richard Hunter

"Libby Rae" - played by Dan O'Connell




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 success 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 re-popularized 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 without him).


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 and the Blues Harp have wooden combs.   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 largely 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.    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 unfortunate 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.


Did you know??




May 12th, 1952 was a very significant date in the history of Chicago blues, and probably the most important day of Little Walter's career. 

It was the day that Little Walter recorded his first session as a leader for Leonard Chess, a session that produced his groundbreaking instrumental "Juke", which of course the song that has come to be known as "the national anthem of blues harmonica".   After the release and subsequent success of "Juke", according to Jimmy Rogers and others who were on the scene at the time,  if a blues band didn't feature a harp, they couldn't get a gig in Chicago,

and if the harp player couldn't play Juke, he wasn't considered a real harp player. 


"Juke" by Little Walter was the first harmonica instrumental ever to make it onto the Billboard R&B charts.   As far as anyone know, the only other blues harp instrumentals to ever make it onto the Billboard charts were "Sad Hours" (which amazingly reached #2 while "Juke" was still on the charts!),

"Off The Wall" which reached #8, and "Roller Coaster" which reached #6, all of which of course are also by Little Walter.  One non-blues harmonica instrumental made the Billboard charts: Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips, Pt. 2" in 1963, which peaked at #1 for six weeks, and spent a total of 15 weeks on the charts - which still falls short of the chart success of "Juke".


Watch this video clip

"Beacher's Madhouse Presents L.D. Miller"