Learning the anatomy of the harmonica, the harmonica terminology used, and how it is made is extremely important for any new harmonica player to know. It’s important to understand the mechanics of your instrument and how it works to know how to play the reeds, and even accomplish some troubleshooting if anything breaks or stops working.
However, there are many different types of harmonicas on the market all ranging in type and model to provide different scales, modes, and sound qualities. Each of these harmonicas can be designed slightly different to give it that unique sound. While each type can be assembled quite differently, this article will be looking at the history, materials, and manufacturing process of all harmonicas.
History of Harmonicas
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the harmonica was made. Many handheld reed instruments were being invented across the world and cultures, each providing a different style and purpose for their music during relatively the same time. However, The earliest encounter we’ve had with the harmonica we now have today is by inventor Christian Friedrich Buschmann, from Germany.
When he was only a teenager, he created a mouth harp that featured 21 chromatically arranged blow notes, but the end of the journey does not stop there. In 1826, Joseph Richter got his hands on the little mouth organ. He tweaked Buschmann’s invention to the standard diatonic harmonica we now use today. His model featured 10 holes, and 20 chromatically arranged notes with 2 reeds per hole. The reeds were both draw and blow notes allowing for double of notes one was able to play.
From there, Matthias Hohner popped on the scene. Hohner decided to take his skills into a new profession, and in 1857 was making harmonicas by hand out of his kitchen. Hohner, however, had one quality that the other inventors lacked, a business mind. He was able to figure out how to manufacture harmonicas for mass production. Not only was he able to uphold the quality of his work, but he was also able to dominate the market by mass-producing his instrument. Hohner still remains one the largest and widely acclaimed brands today.
The harmonica soon worked its way across the world, finding itself in many southwest, and folk style music. But soon, it took a different form. Many African American musicians during the early life of the harmonica, realized that this little instrument was much more durable, compact, and more affordable than the piano or guitar.
In fact, many musicians were realizing that the harmonica had a world of potential waiting to be unlocked. It wasn’t soon after, that the harmonica began popping up on the new blues and jazz music scene in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s sending a new wave of music through the generations. Today, many musicians are inspired by some of our great pioneers such as Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson II to also master the art of the soulful blues.
Each harmonica can be made out of slightly different materials depending on their model. This can range anywhere from plastic to metal, wood to silver (1). Originally, the body and comb of all harmonicas was constructed out of wood, and you will typically still see this in most harmonicas today.
Many styles offer a cheaper option of injection-molded plastic instead. This offers the same level of durability but at a much more affordable price. Some high-end models, however, can sometimes be made out of silver, Lucite, or other metals. These materials are highly durable, extending the lifespan of your instrument.
Each of these materials offers a slightly different sound quality depending on what you are looking for. Most standard and classic blues harmonicas continue to be made out of moisture resistant wood. This means that your harmonica will produce that strong, rich, blues sound without the consequence of swollen wood from the moisture your mouth produces when you play.
The reeds are what sit in the comb inside the harmonica. When you blow or draw notes on the harmonica, the reeds are what vibrate to produce sound. Reeds are made out of brass alloy, which is a mixture of copper and zinc material. Reed plates, which are what the reeds sit in, and cover plates, which help protect the reeds, are all made out of the same brass alloy material.
This material produces the rich, distinct sound of the harmonica, making it the only material option for reeds on all basic harmonica models. Screws and rivets are used to secure all of these pieces together and protect the reeds on the inside to prevent any damage. Here is how you can adjust the reeds to “tune” your harmonica.
The Design Process
Each individual part of the harmonica can be manufactured, allowing for mass production but still allowing for a high quality product. While each piece is manufactured, the assembly process is all done by hand to ensure top quality of each instrument.
As mentioned before, the comb is typically made out of wood or plastic. If it is made out of wood, the comb will be cut out of a wooden block and divots are carved in ascending length for the reed plates. If the combs are made out of plastic, then the plastic will be heated up to an almost liquid state and poured into the comb mold. Once the plastic has hardened, it can be popped out of the mold and will continue with normal assembly.
Reed plates, as a reminder are made of brass alloy. These are manufactured by machines and have slits that correspond with the divots made in the comb. The reeds are also stamped by machines, and when assembled, are laid over the slits in the reed plates. The reeds are fixed on one end of the reed plate to keep it secure, while the other side is left free. This is important to know if you plan to tune your own harmonica in the future.
Tuning the reed plates is very different than tuning any other type of instrument. You will need a tuner to make sure you are within the right pitch for each reed. From there, you will you will scratch off a tiny bit of the brass with sandpaper, which will either lower or raise the pitch of the reed. This sandpaper is specialized for harmonicas and typically comes in tuning kits. Filing the free end will raise the pitch of the reed, while filing the secure end will lower the pitch. Once the harmonica reeds have been tuned, manufacturers are able to start putting the instrument together.
Attached the reed plate to the comb requires very specialized tools and screws. Each reed plate is attached to the comb with tiny screws, securing it in place. This part of the process is done by hand at a workbench. From there, the plate cover is attached. This is also set in place with nails or screws and usually has the company or makers brand name on it. The last step is packaging up the product to hit the market.
In conclusion, understanding the anatomy and process of how the harmonica is made is extremely important. This helps you understand the mechanics of the instrument, but also how to fix it or tune it if anything were to go wrong. The tuning process, and even some repairs, will require that you take the harmonica apart to get to the reeds that need troubleshooting.
This can be a delicate and careful process that requires patience, practice, and a sharp eye. Knowing the anatomy of a harmonica gives you a leg up in this process. By understanding how the harmonica is built, you will understand how to best care for your instrument.