A Brief History of Harmonicas Throughout The World
Harmonicas first appeared in Vienna during the 19th century. By the mid 1800s, there were no less than three companies producing harmonicas: C. A. Seydel Sohne, Christian Messner & Co., and Wurtt Harmonikafabrik Ch. WEISS. Only C. A. Seydel is still currently in business.
By the end of the 19th century, harmonicas were being mass-produced throughout Europe, having evolved in to a major business. New designs had been developed well in to the 20th century, such as the chromatic harmonica, chord harmonica, and the bass harmonica. In this century, new designs being introduced include the Hohner XB-40 and the Suzuki Overdrive. Major companies can now be found in Japan, Germany, China, Brazil, and the United States.
The first harmonica recordings made in the United States were in the 1920s. These recordings were mostly targeted for the southern black market with artists such as DeFord Bailey. Recordings were also made in hillbilly styles for white audiences that featured artists such as Frank Hutchinson and Gwen Foster. The harmonica at this time was mostly viewed as a toy instrument and something that was mostly played by the poor.
This changed in the 1930s when Larry Adler became among the first harmonica players to play major classical written specifically for the harmonica by the composers Malcolm Arnold, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Benjamin and Darius Milhaud.
During World War II, the United States had a harmonica shortage due to the lack of the metal and wood materials used to make harmonicas at that time thanks to demand by the military for these materials. As if this were not bad enough, Germany and Japan were the primary producers of harmonicas, both Axis powers that were enemies of the United States during the war. At that time, the molded plastic harmonica was perfected by a Dutch-American factory worker named Finn Harkon Magnus. Since the plastic harmonica had fewer parts than traditional harmonicas and molded plastic combs it was easier to produce, cheaper to produce, and more sanitary. Even though these harmonicas produced an inferior sound in comparison to their wood and metal versions, Magnus harmonicas quickly became popular among children.
In the 1950s, the harmonica became popular in blues music, especially in places like St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago. Aleck Rice Miller is probably the most significant harmonicist of this time period, who became popular with his full blues band in the South for his broadcasts on the show ‘King Biscuit Time’ every day. He also helped make the cross-harp technique popular, which would later become a very important technique.
Contemporary, modern day artists such as Howard Levy and Jason Ricci have continued to push the limits of the harmonica. Overblowing, which is a technique that allows the harmonica to play full chromatic scales across three octaves, is being integrated in to more rock and blues music by artists such as Howard Levy, Adam Gussow, and Chris Michalek.