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The Return of the Harmonica

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In the 1970s, Hohner, the world’s largest harmonica manufacturer, changed its flagship model, and in the process its signature sound. A few musicians and harp customizers waged a quiet rebellion. And they won.

By BEN MARKS

The Return of the Harmonica | Craftsmanship Magazine, Summer 2015

Lee Oskar, seen here performing with WAR in 1970, was so frustrated with the quality of Hohner's harmonicas at the time that he eventually founded his own harmonica company. (Photo by Michael Parrish)

In the late 1960s, as the general manager of Don Wehr’s Music City in San Francisco, Reese Marin sold guitars, drums, keyboards, and amps to the biggest psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. His customers ranged from Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Guitarists as musically diverse as Carlos Santana and Steve Miller could find what they were looking for at Don Wehr’s; so did jazz virtuosos George Benson and Barney Kessel, who would walk down Columbus Avenue from Broadway in North Beach—where the jazz clubs competed with strip joints for tourists—whenever they were in town.

These legends were some of the most demanding and finicky musicians on the planet. So it should have been easy for Marin to sell a couple of $5 harmonicas to Lee Oskar, whose melodic riffs on hits like “Cisco Kid,” “The World is a Ghetto,” and “Low Rider” gave one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, WAR, its signature sound. Oskar, however, heard imperfections in his chosen instrument that Marin didn’t know existed. Oskar was not tentative in his quest for what he considered a “gig-worthy” harmonica. “I spent all my money on harmonicas,” Oskar told me recently, “just to find 1 out of 10 that was any good.”

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