A Full-Tilt Tribute to the 1896 Harmonica

A harmonica? The thing’s only four inches long! All kinds of notes are missing! Harp players have to show up with a briefcase full of different keys, just to play! They’re so tinny and shrill! So why would a serious musician ever choose the harmonica to play music on?

Admittedly, this is good question. But a large one.

American harmonica has a long and venerable tradition. For now, this means the Hohner Marine Band 1896, the four inch long diatonic model, the one most people picture when someone says “harmonica.” Twenty years before records were first pressed, “harps” could be found from coast to coast, border to border.  As soon as recordings began, records featuring harmonica were among the nation’s best sellers. Sears and Roebuck catalogs, furniture stores, and booths at county fairs brought this German-made instrument to American city and town. Abe Lincoln campaigned with one. Small towns sponsored blow-offs and players from surrounding areas competed and then shared their secrets with each other over a glass of something refreshing. The best players’ reputations preceded them — people gathered to hear them play, to cheer them on, to believe that there in the crowd might be someone who sounded even better than who they’d just heard. Schools provided harps and taught kids music with them, singly and in group settings. Affordable and portable, Americans have always loved their harmonicas.

Yes, important notes are “missing.” The 1896 was designed to get three octaves (36 notes) out of only 20 reeds, so there are holes, even in the major scale. But “harmonica” implies harmony (the blending of two or more notes), the root and the five chords (the C and the G on a C harmonica) sound when inhaled or exhaled—and the trade-off is an incomplete, a gapped scale. So early on, players learned how to “choke” the reeds, to micro-adjust the mouth and body cavity to get missing notes on both the draw side on the blow side, making chromatic scales reachable. All twelve major and minor scales are right there, on one harp! So notes are only missing when a harp lives in the tackle box.

If good music mimics the human voice, if music is about full human expression, sometimes micro-tones (the non piano-based “notes between the notes”) are needed. Those notes are also available when players take the time to learn what they’re doing. Vocal-like tones and fluid melody lines make the short harp a perfect vehicle to carry tune and embroider it through improvisation. But not to worry! Beginners can still play “Oh Susanna” and “Home on the Range” on the same harp advanced players use for Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing” or Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” Wrestling a Marine Band to the ground can provide a lifetime of musical exploration; besides, it’s a whole lot of fun.

The question still remains: Why would a serious musician choose the harmonica to play music on? I suppose the answer depends on what’s meant by “serious musician.” Every instrument has inherent advantages and disadvantages, and the harp is no different. Additionally, I can’t think of a single example where a novice’s first choice to learn on is also countless legends’ final choice. So lift high a glass to the “humble” Marine Band harmonica, the pocket rocket, the band in a box. Its only limitations are self-imposed ones.

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Dan Todd read literature at Colorado College and law at UCLA before returning to Colorado to teach and play music. He has taught at PPCC, his alma mater, since 1987.