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Musical instruments are an ancient way of telling stories that transpire time. The Harmonica or mouth organ has its notable place in history as one such instrument. Its small size and light weight body makes it perfect for travelling musicians who like to share their love of music wherever they go.
The harmonica was developed in Europe in the early part of the 19th century. Free reed instruments have been used in East Asia since ancient times but became relatively well known to Europe after being introduced in the late 1700’s by a returning traveller from China. It’s not clear who gets the credit for being the first person to develop a working harmonica in Europe. However, everyone agrees that Joseph Richter (a bohemian instrument maker) invented the blow and draw mechanism that is the signature feature of the Harmonica we know today.
In 1857 Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker from Trossingen, started producing harmonicas. He became the first person to mass produce them, which is why the German brand Hohner is known all over the world for its harmonica’s. Diatonic harmonicas were designed primarily for playing German and other European folk music. Over time the design and tuning proved adaptable to other types of music such as blues and country.
Technically there are many types of harmonicas which include diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, octave, orchestral, and bass versions
The comb makes up a large proportion of the instrument. When the reed plates are placed around the comb, individual reeds vibrate into the air chambers made up by the comb. Traditionally harmonica combs are made from wood but can be made of plastic or titanium. The material type arguably doesn’t affect the sound of the harmonica (because it’s neither large enough nor able to vibrate freely due to its fixed position between the reed plates). However, the material used for the comb will affect its durability. Wood combs (whilst the most traditional) do absorb moisture from the players breath and tongue contact.
The reed plate consists of several reeds in a single housing. The reeds are usually made out of brass and fixed to the plate with rivets. Sometimes the reeds are welded or screwed in place. Reeds fixed on the inner side of the reed plate (and sit within the comb chamber) respond to blowing, while those fixed on the outer side respond to suction or drawing.
The instrument maker can manipulate the pitch of the reed by changing its length, the weight near its free end or the stiffness near its fixed end. A longer, heaver and springier reed produces deeper and lower sounds. Shorter lighter and stiffer reeds make higher pitched sounds.
The cover plates go over the reed plates that have been fixed to the central comb. The choice of material of the cover plate is usually a personal choice of the player as it projects sound and determines the tonal quality of the harmonica. Traditional open designs of cover plates which are stamped metal or plastic are there to be help play the instrument whilst an enclosed design offers a louder tonal quality.
Wind savers are a one-way valve made form thin strips of plastic, leather or Teflon glued to the reed plate. They are typically found in Chromatic harmonicas. Wind savers are used when two reeds share the same cell and leakage through the non-playing reed can be significant.
The mouthpiece is sometimes integral with the comb or part of the cover. Its purpose is purely that of an ergonomic aide to make playing more comfortable.
A harmonica is a free wind instrument and is played by using the mouth (lips and tongue) to direct air into or out of one (or more) holes along the mouthpiece. Behind each hole is a chamber containing at least one reed which is tuned to individual pitches. When the free end of the reed is made to vibrate by the player pushing air into the chamber using their mouth it alternatively blocks and unblocks the airway to produce sound. The reed is usually fixed above or below the plate of the slot and so responds differently to blowing or withdrawing air.
Chromatic harmonicas allow for the player to redirect air from the whole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed plate. Control over the air flow can be obtained by means of a lever-operated flap at the rear of the instrument or a “hands free” design that allows the player to shift the tones by moving the mouthpiece up and down with his lips.
Diatonic harmonicas are usually designed to play in a single key
The distinguishing feature of the tremolo-tuned harmonica is that it has two reeds per note, with one slightly sharp and the other slightly flat. This type of set up enables a 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.
An important technique in Harmonica playing is understanding the different playing techniques.
Vibrato – a playing technique that gives the note a ‘shaking’ sound. This technique is accomplished usually by opening and closing the hands around the harmonica very rapidly. An effect similar to vibrato is that of the ‘trill’ (or roll or warble). This technique has the player move their lips between the two holes very quickly, either by shaking the head in rapid motion or moving the harmonica from side to side.
Bending – in addition to the notes readily available on the harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure (shape of their lips and mouth on the mouthpiece) and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch.
See our range of German made Hohner Harmonicas!
Hohner is a 160-year-old German musical instrument manufacturing company. They are the world leader in Harmonica and accordion craftmanship. Matthias Hohner Founded the company in Trossingen, Germany, 1857.
Statements from the German Company Hohner (www.hohner.de)
HOHNER’S COMPANY HERITAGE
A lot has happened since Matthias Hohner founded his company in Trossingen, Germany in 1857. HOHNER became the market leader in harmonicas and accordions with a worldwide network of artists through consistent dedication to quality. Our instruments have strongly influenced the development of the Blues, become a vital part of Folk music traditions around the world, played a significant role in the ongoing evolution of Jazz and found their place on the Classical concert stage. Today we continue to develop new instruments and improve existing ones. Always with the intention to enable everyone, everywhere to Enjoy music.
One aspect of music is definitely the instrument you create it with.
With over 160 years of technical expertise, a sympathetic ear for our customers, and countless collaborations with musicians and teachers, we have continuously improved our craft – and will continue to do so.
Most of our harmonicas and accordions are still manufactured in Trossingen, our hometown and world headquarters. Combining modern production technology with traditional handiwork, our skilled staff produce high-quality instruments for worldwide distribution. And since most of us are musicians ourselves, we understand and share your expectations.
Our in-house Research & Development department is staffed by highly skilled specialists for free reed instruments and is dedicated to setting and maintaining the highest standards of quality. In close cooperation with leading musicians, endorsees and teachers from around the world, we continually conceptualize new instruments and improve existing ones.
We at Hohner are proud of our craft, our quality standards, and the longevity of our instruments. We will continue to manufacture high-quality instruments that allow people worldwide to Enjoy music.