The Harmonica: History, Types & Accessories

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  • 0:01 History of the Harmonica
  • 2:12 Types of Harmonicas
  • 3:04 Harmonica Accessories
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Common in the pocket of jazz musicians and soldiers, find out how the harmonica used mass production and two devastating wars to become an instrument of choice for jazz and blues musicians in this lesson.

History of the Harmonica

While the earliest harmonicas are thought to have been invented thousands of years ago in Asia, the development of the modern harmonica dates back to the 1820s, and most credit Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann with inventing the instrument. However, the harmonica as we know it today dates from 1857, when Matthias Hohner became the first person to mass produce them in Southern Germany. Some of these early mass-produced models were shipped to German-Americans, when America was on the verge of the Civil War. As the instrument was extremely portable, it soon became a favorite among soldiers on both sides of the struggle.

However, the greatest period of growth for harmonicas came during the years leading up to World War II, when the cheap price of the instrument, as well as its distinctive sound, made it a natural for inclusion in early blues and jazz music. While still rejected by many more prominent musicians, the price made it attractive to early pioneers in these genres, whom were often quite poor.

As the instruments became ubiquitous, another war soon loomed on the horizon. Yet harmonica enthusiasts in the United States faced a problem: the vast majority of harmonicas were produced in Germany or Japan, which happened to be the countries that the United States was fighting. However, harmonica production was saved when a method to create them from plastic was invented. In fact, the new plastic harmonicas proved to be so vital to the morale of soldiers that the US government relaxed brass rationing to allow more of them built (brass was still used to make the molds). In the years since the war, the harmonica has become even more prominent in music in the United States, not only in blues and jazz, but also in country and rock and roll.

Europe and the United States were not the only places to see the harmonica become popular. Just as East Asia was becoming industrialized, the harmonica became a very popular instrument. Craftsmen changed the structure of the instrument slightly to produce sounds more akin to what is found in Japanese or Chinese music, but the design was thoroughly still European. In fact, it is only in the last few decades that the harmonica has lost its appeal in East Asia.

Types of Harmonicas

Three major styles of harmonica exist, the tremolo tuned, the diatonic, and the chromatic.

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