A harmonica is a free reed wind instrument which is played by blowing air into it or drawing air out by placing lips over individual holes (reed chambers) or multiple holes. The pressure caused by blowing or drawing air into the reed chambers causes a reed or multiple reeds to vibrate up and down creating sound. Each chamber has multiple, variable-tuned brass or bronze reeds which are secured at one end and loose on the other end, with the loose end vibrating and creating sound.
Reeds are pre-tuned to individual tones, and each tone is determined according to the size of reed. Longer reeds make deep, low sounds and short reeds make higher-pitched sounds. On certain types of harmonica the pre-tuned reed can be changed (bending a note) to another note by redirecting air flow into the chamber. There are many types of harmonicas, including diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, orchestral, and bass versions.
The harmonica is used in blues and American folk music, jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll, and pop music. The harmonica has other nicknames, especially in blues music, including: "harp", "blues harp", and "mouth organ"
The basic parts of the harmonica are the comb, reed-plates and cover-plates.
Comb material was assumed to have an effect on the tone of the harp. While the comb material does have a slight influence over the sound of the harmonica, the main advantage of a particular comb material over another one is its durability. In particular, a wooden comb can absorb moisture from the player's breath and contact with the tongue. This causes the comb to expand slightly, making the instrument uncomfortable to play. Various types of wood and treatments have been devised to reduce the degree of this problem.
An even more serious problem with wood combs, especially in chromatic harmonicas (with their thin dividers between chambers) is that the combs shrink over time. Comb shrinkage can lead to cracks in the combs due to the combs being held immobile by nails, resulting in disabling leakage. Much effort is devoted by serious players to restoring wood combs and sealing leaks. Some players used to soak wooden-combed harmonicas (diatonics, without windsavers) in water to cause a slight expansion which was intended to make the seal between the comb, reed plates and covers more airtight. Modern wooden-combed harmonicas are less prone to swelling and contracting.
Most harmonicas are constructed with the reed-plates screwed or bolted to the comb or each other. A few brands still use the traditional method of nailing the reed-plates to the comb. Some experimental and rare harmonicas also have had the reed-plates held in place by tension, such as the WWII era all-American models. If the plates are bolted to the comb, the reed plates can be replaced individually. This is useful because the reeds eventually go out of tune through normal use, and certain notes of the scale can fail more quickly than others.
A notable exception to the traditional reed-plate design is the all-plastic harmonicas designed by Finn Magnus in the 1950s, where the reed and reed-plate were molded out of a single piece of plastic. The Magnus design had the reeds, reed-plates and comb made of plastic and either molded or permanently glued together.
Since the 1950s, many blues harmonica players have amplified their instrument with microphones and tube amplifiers. One of the early innovators of this approach was Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs, who played the harmonica near a "Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers. This gave his harmonica tone a "punchy" mid-range sound that could be heard above an electric guitar. As well, tube amplifiers produce a natural distortion when played at higher volumes, which adds body and fullness to the sound. Little Walter also cupped his hands around the instrument, tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, somewhat reminiscent of a saxophone, hence the term "Mississippi saxophone". Little Walter learned most of his electrified harp playing from Big Walter ("Shakey") Horton. In the 2000s, some companies have recently started to produce electro-harmonicas which have their own amplification (Harmonix for example).
Harmonica players who play the instrument while performing on another instrument with their hands (e.g., an acoustic guitar) often use an accessory called a "neck rack" or holder to position the instrument in front of their mouth. A harmonica holder clamps the harmonica between two metal brackets which are attached to a curved loop of metal which rests on the shoulders on either side of the neck. Folk musicians and "one man bands" often use these racks.
The chromatic harmonica usually uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed-plate, although there was one design, the "Machino-Tone", which controlled airflow by means of a lever-operated movable flap on the rear of the instrument. In addition, there is a "hands-free" modification of the Hohner 270 (12-hole) in which the player shifts the tones by moving the mouthpiece up and down with the lips, leaving the hands free to play another instrument. While the Richter-tuned 10-hole chromatic is intended to be played in only one key, the 12-, 14-, and 16-hole models (which are tuned to equal temperament) allow the musician to play in any key desired with only one harmonica. This harp can be used for any style, including Celtic, classical, jazz, or blues (commonly in third position).
The tremolo harmonica's distinguishing feature is that it has two reeds per note, with one slightly sharp and the other slightly flat. This provides a unique wavering or warbling sound created by the two reeds being slightly out of tune with each other and the difference in their subsequent waveforms interacting with each other (its beat). The Asian version, on which all 12 semitones can be played, is used in many East-Asian musics, from rock to pop music.
"Horn harmonicas" are available in several pitch ranges, with the lowest pitched starting two octaves below middle C and the highest beginning on middle C itself; they usually cover a two or three octave range. They are chromatic instruments and are usually played in an East Asian harmonica orchestra instead of the "push-button" chromatic harmonica that is more common in the European/American tradition. Their reeds are often larger, and the enclosing "horn" gives them a different timbre, so that they often function in place of a brass section. In the past, they were referred to as horn harmonicas.
The other type of orchestral melodic harmonica is the Polyphonia, (though some are marked "Chromatica"). These have all twelve chromatic notes laid out on the same row. In most cases, they have both both blow and draw of the same tone, though the No. 7 is blow only, and the No. 261, also blow only, has two reeds per hole, tuned an octave apart (all these designations refer to products of M. Hohner).
'Vibrato' is a technique commonly used while playing the harmonica and many other instruments, notably string instruments, to give the note a 'shaking' sound. This technique can be accomplished in a number of ways. The most common way is to change how the harmonica is held. For example, by opening and closing your hands around the harmonica very rapidly you achieve the vibrato effect. Another way is to use a 'head shaking' technique, frequently used in blues harmonica, in which the player moves the lips between two holes very quickly. This gives a quick shaking technique that is slightly more than vibrato and achieves the same aural effect on sustained notes.
In addition to the 19 notes readily available on the diatonic harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch. This technique is called "bending", a term borrowed from guitarists, who literally "bend" a string in order to create subtle changes in pitch. "Bending" also creates the glissandos characteristic of much blues harp and country harmonica playing. Bends are essential for most blues and rock harmonica due to the soulful sounds the instrument can bring out. The famous "wail" of the blues harp typically required bending. In the 1970s, Howard Levy developed the "overbending" technique (also known as "overblowing" and "overdrawing".) Overbending, combined with bending, allowed players to play the entire chromatic scale.
In addition to playing the diatonic harmonica in its original key, it is also possible to play it in other keys by playing in other "positions", using different keynotes. Using just the basic notes on the instrument would mean playing in a specific mode for each position. Harmonica players (especially blues players) have developed a set of terminology around different "positions" which can be somewhat confusing to other musicians.
Harmonica players who amplified their instrument with microphones and tube amplifiers, such as blues harp players, also have a range of techniques which exploit the properties of the microphone and the amplifier, such as changing the way the hands are cupped around the instrument and the microphone or rhythmically breathing or chanting into the microphone while playing.
Owing to competition between the harmonica factories in Trossingen and Klingenthal, machines were invented to punch the covers for the reeds. In 1857, Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker from Trossingen, started producing harmonicas, eventually to become the first person to mass-produce them. He used a mass-produced wooden comb that he had made by machine-cutting firms. By 1868, he began supplying the United States. By the 1920s, the diatonic harmonica had largely reached its modern form. Other types followed soon thereafter, including the various tremolo and octave harmonicas. By the late 19th century, harmonica production was a big business, having evolved into mass-production. New designs were still developed in the 20th century, including the chromatic harmonica, first made by Hohner in 1924, the bass harmonica, and the chord harmonica. In the 21st century, radical new designs are still being introduced into the market, such as the Suzuki Overdrive and Hohner XB-40.
Diatonic harmonicas were designed primarily for the playing of German and other European folk music and have succeeded well in those styles. Possibly unforeseen by its makers, the basic design and tuning proved adaptable to other types of music such as the blues, country, old-time and more. The harmonica was a success almost from the very start of production, and while the centre of the harmonica business has shifted from Germany, the output of the various harmonica manufacturers is still very high. Major companies are now found in Germany (C. A. Seydel Söhne, Hohner - once the dominant manufacturer in the world, Japan (Suzuki, Tombo, Yamaha), China (Huang, Leo Shi, Suzuki, Hohner) and Brasil (Hering). Recently, responding to increasingly demanding performance techniques, the market for high quality instruments has grown.
The first recordings of harmonicas were made in the U.S. in the 1920s. These recordings are 'race-records', intended for the black market of the southern states with solo recordings by DeFord Bailey, duo recordings with a guitarist Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry, as well as hillbilly styles recorded for white audiences, by Frank Hutchison, Gwen Foster and several other musicians. There are also recordings featuring the harmonica in jug bands, of which the Memphis Jug Band is the most famous. But the harmonica still represented a toy instrument in those years and was associated with the poor. It is also during those years that musicians started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the 2nd position, or cross-harp.
A young harmonicist by the name of Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs revolutionized the instrument by playing the harmonica near a microphone (typically a "Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers, giving it a "punchy" mid-range sound that can be heard above radio static, or an electric guitar). He also cupped his hands around the instrument, tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, somewhat reminiscent of a saxophone. This technique, combined with a great virtuosity on the instrument made him arguably the most influential harmonicist in history.
Big Walter Horton relyed less on the possibilities of amplification (although he made great use of it) and more on sheer skill. He was the favored harmonicist of many Chicago blues bandleaders, including Willie Dixon. His colorful solos used the full register of his instrument and some chromatic harmonicas. Howlin' Wolf's early recordings demonstrate great skill, particularly at blowing powerful riffs with the instrument. Sonny Boy Williamson II used the possibilities of hand effects to give a talkative feel to his harp playing. A number of his compositions have also become standards in the blues world. Williamson extended his influence on the young British blues rockers in the 1960s, recording with Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds and appearing on live British television. Stevie Wonder taught himself harmonica at age 5 and plays the instrument on many of his recordings. Jimmy Reed played harmonica on most of his blues shuffle recordings.
Bob Dylan also played his harmonica to add a touch of blues to his folk and rock sound during this era. Dylan was known for placing his harmonicas in a brace so that he could simultaneously blow the harp and play his guitar. Van Morrison, a long-time harmonica player, first played the instrument onstage in 1963 during a performance of Sonny Boy Williamson II's song "Elevate Me Mama". Jr. Wells was the most soulful Chicago harp player, with his ability to distill the blues down to three or four notes of meaning.
George "Mojo" Buford, Jerry Portnoy, Lazy Lester, Corky Siegel, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Taj Mahal, Slim Harpo , Al "Blind Owl" Wilson of Canned Heat, Jack Bruce of Cream, John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful (whose father was also a harmonica star in the Larry Adler classical harmonica days), Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Roger Daltrey of The Who, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and others all contributed originality and creativity to the recorded history of the blues harmonica. John Lennon played harmonica on early hits as "Love Me Do" and "I Should Have Known Better" and in his solo career on songs such as "Oh Yoko!."
Recently, newer harp players have had major influence on the sound of the harmonica. Heavily influenced by the electric guitar sound, John Popper of Blues Traveler plays rapid solo lines, often with guitar effects. Blackfoot, a Southern Rock band composed of mostly Native Americans, used the harmonica on a song called "Train Train", to simulate a train whistle and track. Craig "Twister" Steward (also spelled Stewart), a former harp player with Frank Zappa, recorded on the 1980 song "Joe's Garage Act I".
Harmonica music started to develop in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Individual tremolo harmonica players from China moved to Hong Kong to set up different harmonica organizations such as The Chinese Y.M.C.A. Harmonica Orchestra, the China Harmonica Society, and the Heart String Harmonica Society. In the 1950s, chromatic harmonica became popular in Hong Kong, and players such as Larry Adler and John Sebastian were invited to perform. Local players such as Lau Mok (劉牧) and Fung On (馮安) were promoted the chromatic harmonica. In the Chinese Y.M.C.A. Harmonica Orchestra, the chromatic harmonica gradually became the main instrument. The Chinese YMCA Harmonica Orchestra started in the 1960s, with 100 members, most of whom played harmonicas. Non-harmonica instruments were also used, such as double bass, accordion, piano, and percussion like timpani and xylophone were also used.
In the 1970s Haletone Harmonica Orchestra (曉彤口琴隊) was set up at Wong Tai Sin Community Centre. Fung On and others continued to teach harmonica and set up harmonica orchestras. In the 1980s, the number of harmonica learners decreased steadily. In the 1990s, harmonica players in Hong Kong began to participate in international harmonica competitions, including the World Harmonica Festival in Germany and the Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival. In the 2000s, the Hong Kong Harmonica Association (H.K.H.A.) (香港口琴協會) was established. In 1898, the harmonica was brought to Japan, where the Tremolo harmonica was the most popular instrument. After about 30 years, they developed scale tuning and semitone harmonicas to be able to perform Japanese folk songs. The history of the harmonica in Taiwan began around 1945. By the 1980s, though, as living standards increased, many instruments that were once too expensive to buy could be bought by the Taiwanese. At present, Harmonica University at http://www.kouqin.com.cn is becoming the most popular harmonica teaching site in China and serving more than 25,000 Chinese speaking harmonica lovers all over the world.
In Hong Kong, Schools Music Festival is held every year for school students to compete in different music classes. Harmonica classes include band for primary and secondary schools, ensemble for secondary school, duet for secondary school, solo (junior, intermediate, and senior), and concert work (open). Every August there is a harmonica contest in Idaho. The contest has been running for eighteen years since 1989. The contest is held in Yellow Pine about 150 miles outside of Boise, Idaho and is called the Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest.
The glass harmonica has the word "harmonica" in its name, but it is not related to free-reed instruments. The glass harmonica is a musical instrument formed from a nested set of graduated glass cups mounted sideways on an axle and partially immersed in water. Each of the glass cups is tuned to a different note, and they are arranged in a scalar order. It is played by touching the rotating cups with wetted fingers, causing them to vibrate and produce a sustained "singing" tone.
There are many harmonica tab systems in use. The easiest tab system appears as follows:
Diatonic Harmonica tab:
2 = blow the 2 hole
-2 = draw the 2 hole
-2' = draw the 2 hole with a half bend
-2" = draw the 2 hole with a full bend
Chords are shown by grouping notes with parentheses
(2 3) = blow the 2 hole and the 3 hole at the same time
Chromatic Harmonica tab:
2 = blow the 2 hole
-2 = draw the 2 hole
<2 = blow the 2 hole with the button in
<-2 = draw the 2 hole with the button in
Harmonica tab is usually aligned with lyrics to show the tune and the timing, and usually states the key of the harmonica required for the song.
Complete example of harmonica tab:
Mack the Knife
5 6 -6 -6 5 6 -6 -6
Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear
-4 -5 -6 -6 -4 -5 -6
And he shows them pearly white
6 -7 -8 7 -7 -6 7 -4
Just a jack knife has MacHeath, dear
5 -5 7 -4 7 -7 -6
And he keeps it out of sight