The Return of the Harmonica
Hohner, the world’s largest harmonica manufacturer, changed its flagship model In the 1970s, and in the process its signature sound. A few musicians and harp customizers waged a quiet rebellion. And they won.
Written by BEN MARKS
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.”
Marin says Oskar was exaggerating, but not by much. He was actually behind the counter when Oskar made his first of many visits to Don Wehr’s and asked to play all of the harmonicas the store had in stock in C, A, F, G, and E—the keys where rock bands live and die. On any given day, Marin maintained an inventory of 10 to 20 harmonicas in each key for each model they sold. That was a lot of harmonicas for Oskar to put his mouth on, so Marin decided to be firm. “I said, ‘You can’t play ’em unless you buy ’em,’” Marin told me, “and he said, ‘I don’t mind.’”
Shrugging, Marin rang him up, then Oskar proceeded to play every single harmonica on the sales counter, which he then divided into two piles—one for the gig-worthy harmonicas and another for the rejects, which were 80 to 90 percent of the total. “When he was done, I said, ‘Lee, what do you want me to do with all these harmonicas?’ and he said, ‘I don’t really care. I can’t use them.’” Marin ended up giving away a lot of used Lee Oskar-played harmonicas. “Lee did this over and over, every time he was in town,” says Marin. “It was crazy.”
Until relatively recently, playing a harmonica was sort of crazy, too, since doing so was essentially the same thing as destroying it. For harmonicas like the Hohner Marine Bands Oskar road-tested that day at Don Wehr’s, a player’s saliva would soak into the wood inside the instrument, causing it to swell. At the end of a gig, the wood would dry out and shrink. This process would repeat itself over and over, until the wood had swelled and shrunk so many times it would split and splinter, often causing a player’s lips to bleed. “I used to hack off the ends of the combs on my harmonicas with a carpet knife,” recalls Steve Baker, a London-born harmonica player and an authority on the Marine Band. Most players would never do that, of course, content to just toss their worn-out wrecks in the trash.
When players performed with their harmonicas, the wood inside would soak with saliva, dry out, and shrink. This process would repeat itself over and over, until the wood had swelled and shrunk so many times it would split and splinter, often causing a player’s lips to bleed. “I used to hack off the ends of the combs on my harmonicas with a carpet knife,” recalls one player.
For Hohner, this must have seemed like a very good business model. After all, the Marine Band had been Hohner’s most popular harmonica brand almost since 1896, the year it was introduced. In the United States, in the first half of the 20th century, American folk musicians and blues artists alike embraced the Marine Band as their own, giving the instrument originally designed to play traditional German folk tunes an aura of cool. With sales soaring after World War II, Hohner found itself making an instrument everybody wanted, even though it needed to be replaced regularly. How could a manufacturer’s product get any better than that?
Well, answered harmonica players and a small but influential community of harmonica customizers, how about an instrument that doesn’t wear out, is built to be serviced and tuned to a musician’s needs, and is made out of materials that don’t cause our lips to bleed?
In the 1970s, Lee Oskar and Steve Baker were at the forefront of a movement to get those questions answered. In Baker’s case, he’d been playing Hohner Marine Bands—sold in the U.K. as Echo Super Vampers—since 1969, when the harmonica was known for its rich, accordion-like tone. By the mid-1970s, though, Baker detected something dreadfully wrong with his beloved harmonica. So did his fellow members of Have Mercy, a country-blues-punk jug band that boasted three harmonica players (“maybe three and a half,” Baker says). With so many lips in contact with so many harmonicas, Baker and his mates were particularly well attuned to the quality of the Marine Band, which in their professional estimation had gone seriously south. “All of a sudden they were easy to blow out if you played them too hard,” Baker recalls. “We were trashing quite enormous numbers of them, boxfuls.”
Baker didn’t realize it when Have Mercy was destroying all those harmonicas, but he would soon become a catalyst in a three-decade struggle to save the Marine Band. His transformation began in 1976, when Baker and Have Mercy decided to try their luck in Hamburg, Germany, about 450 miles north of Hohner headquarters in Trossingen. Baker has been a resident of Hamburg ever since.
In Germany, Have Mercy signed on as Hohner endorsees, gaining the band access to Hohner’s distribution outlet in Hamburg. Baker became the band’s designated harp buyer, which meant he’d do what Lee Oskar had done in that San Francisco music store, except Baker’s shopping sprees happened every few weeks, and in a warehouse filled with harmonicas. “I rejected 60 or 70 percent of them,” Baker told me over Skype recently. As soon as he had learned enough German to communicate with the guys working there, Baker asked them the obvious question: “Why don’t you make harmonicas like you used to? These aren’t the same.” The warehouse workers, while polite, didn’t know, but they trusted Baker because of his status as a Hohner endorsee, and relayed his questions and critiques to Hohner headquarters. Not much change happened for a while, but Baker continued his conversations with the company. Eventually he became a paid consultant to Hohner, acting as the conduit between players, customizers, and the executives in Trossingen, a privileged relationship he has enjoyed for almost 30 years.
Knowing a guy in Trossingen, as it were, is not a bad thing if you are seriously interested in harmonicas. Just ask Harland Crain of St. Louis, Missouri. He has 5,500-and-counting harmonicas in his collection, thought to be the largest in the world. Probably 80 percent of these instruments were made in Germany or Austria.
In the middle of the 19th century, Crain says, harmonicas were little more than glorified pitch pipes, but by the late 1800s, harmonica makers in Germany, some from families of clockmakers, had figured out how to turn the devices into actual instruments. Accordingly, many of the harmonicas in Crain’s collection were made for traditional German folk songs, the 19th-century equivalent of pop.
Harmonicas with the same underlying design as the Marine Band were also sold as toys. Crain has harmonicas in the shapes of zeppelins and pistols, pianos and guitars. He’s got harmonicas with trumpet-shaped cover plates designed to amplify the instrument’s sound (“it didn’t work very well”), as well as harmonicas with bells on them, so one could play a German folk song, complete with accompaniment. Crain’s got Huck Finn harmonicas and Uncle Tom ones, too, harmonicas designed to only play certain chords, and others made to play specific songs (one of Crain’s favorites is a chord harp that’s good for little other than “God Save the King”).
The heyday of the harmonica, says Crain, lasted from 1910 to 1930, when some of the best gimmick harmonicas were made. “I’ve got one called a coin harp, he says. “It’s a tubular thing, about four inches long, and on one end it has a little spring-loaded compartment where you can store five nickels.”
In parallel with manufacturers’ preoccupation with novelty and gimmicks, serious musicians in the 1930s were pushing the instrument, particularly the Marine Band, to its breaking point, tricking their harmonicas into hitting notes they weren’t designed to produce. As it turns out, the Marine Band handled this punishment well, which is why between World Wars I and II, it became the harmonica of choice among blues and folk musicians.
According to Baker, the executives who ran Hohner during the 1970s didn’t understand what made the Marine Band so appealing to serious musicians of this era. Little wonder, then, that they didn’t appreciate the subsequent musical history their instrument had helped create (see our sidebar, “America’s Harmonica Stars”).
“The Marine Band was the backbone of their business, it made Hohner’s fortune,” says Baker, “but their view was, ‘What are all these Black people in America, these rock-’n’-roll guys, what on Earth are they doing with our harmonicas?’” As Baker got to know the company better, he realized Hohner was especially out of touch with the kind of music he loved. For them, harmonica music was trios and classical music, with harmonica arrangements written for the violin parts. “They thought the stuff people like me played—blues and rock ’n’ roll—was horrible. At the time, they didn’t understand it, so they had no respect for it.”
To understand why the Marine Band was such a favorite for musicians, it helps to know a little about how the instrument works, beginning with a mental picture of its guts. The Marine Band is what’s called a “diatonic” harmonica. It’s built out of five parts, which are stacked together like a sandwich (in fact, “tin sandwich” is just one of the instrument’s colorful aliases, “Mississippi saxophone” being another). In the center is the comb, on the top and bottom of which are two matching metal plates; those plates have been punched with rectangular holes, which align with the voids in the comb. Partially covering these holes are two rows of reeds, which vibrate in and out of the holes to produce a harmonica’s sound. Cover plates give the player something to grip, while openings at the back of the plates give the sound somewhere to go.
No single component of the Marine Band can claim credit for its signature sound, but if any part of a harp’s composition could be deemed especially critical, it would be the reeds. Unlike the reeds in wind instruments like saxophones and clarinets, which are made of organic material like bamboo, harmonica reeds are made of metal, usually the same stuff as the reed plate in which they vibrate. “It’s a dreadfully complicated topic,” Baker says. There’s the reed’s composition, how it’s hardened, and also its final degree of hardness. Lots of metals will work, but the degree of hardness is different for each one. And the parameters for a given material—bronze, stainless steel, or the brass alloys like Hohner uses—are very fine. “In the end,” Baker says, “it means people are trying out lots of shit until it works.”
For some reason, Hohner got all of this right with the Marine Band, which may explain why the company viewed with suspicion anything that did not conform to its sense of harmonica perfection. “Bending” notes, for example, must have seemed an especially black art.
Bent notes are one of the most recognizable auditory tropes in the blues, and any harmonica player who cannot get the note he’s playing to drop in pitch, or bend, might as well take up German folk tunes. “Until I started working for Hohner, they didn’t even know what happened when you bent notes,” Baker told me. Once upon a time, someone at Hohner must have understood how it worked, but in the late 1980s, Baker was the guy who explained it to Hohner again, right down to the physics of what bending does to the reeds (you can read his explanation for yourself in “The Harp Handbook,” published in 1990).
From Hohner’s perspective, bending notes represented a malfunction of the instrument, because it’s not what a Marine Band harmonica was designed to do. That, of course, does not mean it cannot be done, as any blues player knows.
The secret is in the reeds, two of which block the air in every hole, or channel, of a diatonic harmonica like a Marine Band. For those reeds to work together, the player needs to go for the throat—literally. In order to bend a note, a harmonica player has to physically change the length of the air column in his throat, which forces the higher pitch of the two reeds downward. Meanwhile, the opposing reed, which normally would only begin vibrating due to a blow air stream, starts vibrating in the draw air stream. It’s the interaction of these two pitches that creates a bent note. “When I explained all this to the people at Hohner,” Baker says, “they regarded it as a malfunction because notes in-between the 12-tone scale aren’t common in European classical or folk music.”
That explanation occurred some time after 1987, when Baker began consulting to Hohner. By then, Baker had learned what turned the company’s best-selling instrument into a piece of junk. For one thing, the milling tools used to cut those all-important reeds and reed slots were not being sharpened or replaced, causing sloppy work. In addition, the company’s protocols for tuning, which required all Hohner harmonicas, including Marine Bands, to be tuned three times, with rest periods in-between so the material could settle, were scrapped. “They cut out all of that because it was an easy way to make more money,” says Baker.
By this time, Lee Oskar had become so fed up with the quality of Marine Bands that he started his own harmonica company. “I had never thought of going into business to manufacture harmonicas,” Oskar says, “but I needed tools that could live up to my expectations.”
Happily for Oskar, a gentleman named Yasuharo Mano, who is the owner of a venerable Japanese musical-instrument manufacturer called Tombo, was a fan of Oskar’s music when he was with WAR. In 1983, Oskar and Tombo formed a partnership, and Lee Oskar Harmonicas was born.
One of the first things Oskar set out to fix was the way a harmonica is assembled. Marine Bands had long been held together with nails. A player could therefore open the instrument and try tuning the reeds, but when he went to put it back together again, there’d always be a small amount of air leakage. Oskar filled these gaps with beeswax so that the “repaired” instrument could play. “It was a pain in the butt, let’s put it that way,” he says. The solution seemed obvious: put harmonicas together with screws.
Oskar then worked with Tombo on the reeds. Like those in Marine Bands, the reeds in a Lee Oskar Harmonica are made of brass, which is not to say they are the same. Tombo uses more copper in its brass than just about any manufacturer, and that makes the reed more resilient. For Oskar, this translates to great response and great sound. “I play a harmonica very, very hard, but I play with finesse,” he says. “That’s what I was after.”
Although the problems with the Marine Band began in the 1970s, the instrument didn’t hit its low point until the 1980s. By then, Hohner’s marquee model was not only facing its first serious competition from Lee Oskar, the company as a whole was going broke. “Hohner should have gone bankrupt in the late 1980s,” Baker says, but around 1986, the Deutsche Bank bailed the company out, kicking out the Hohner family and appointing new management. The new regime could have turned to the many, excellent craftsmen in the factory for help and advice, but instead they hired a consulting firm. “They said, ‘What you need to do is automate. Then you can get rid of the workforce,’” recalls Baker. “It was very cynical.”
Meanwhile, more and more harp players were trying to figure out how to fix their unresponsive Marine Bands. “Many a professional harmonica player came banging on my door,” says Joe Filisko, recalling the 1990s at his shop in Joliet, Ill. Over the years, Filisko had gained a reputation for his harmonica customization work—many called him “the genius of Joliet”—and unlike your average tinkerer, Filisko had his own machine shop. “They were pleading for help,” he says. With the assistance of another player and customizer named Richard Sleigh, Filisko not only made harmonicas start sounding better, he also figured out how to tune instruments to suit a player’s style—a combination that became known as “the Filisko Method.”
For Filisko and Sleigh, no detail about the harmonica was too small. According to Sleigh, Filisko was the one who created the tools and techniques to reshape the cover plates, to make them look more like prewar Marine Bands and “give the draw reeds more room to swing at the low end of the harmonica,” (on low-key Marine Bands, the long reeds would actually hit the inside of the cover plate). Their work, Sleigh says, “was based on everything Joe and I learned from whoever would talk to us. There were no books; it was all unknown territory.”
As Baker got to know Hohner better, he realized the company was out of touch with the kind of music he loved. For them, harmonica music was trios and classical music, with harmonica arrangements written for the violin parts. “They thought the stuff people like me played—blues and rock ’n’ roll—was horrible. At the time, they didn’t understand it, so they had no respect for it.”.
To solve the technical problem posed by the Marine Bands, Filisko and Sleigh tightened the tolerances of the reed slots using a technique called “embossing,” which was developed by a harmonica player and customizer named Rick Epping. By 1990, Epping was consulting to Hohner’s U.S. branch, and he devised embossing, also referred to as “sizing” or “burnishing,” as a manual way to fix the sloppy work that was coming off the Hohner production line. The technique essentially involved forcing the edges of the reed and the reed slot together, by hand, with a specially designed tool. With countless poorly constructed Marine Bands floating around, Filisko and Sleigh were kept busy for years.
Meanwhile, Brendan Power, a New Zealand-based customizer known for his extreme harmonica hacking and alternate tunings, was getting even more experimental. Power took the notion of harmonica customizing literally, adding extra holes to off-the-shelf Marine Bands. “I’d take a hacksaw, chop them up, and glue them back together in different sizes,” Power told me. Power is probably best known for his 13-hole harps, his “lucky 13s.” These are basically 10-hole harps with an extra octave glued on the bottom, giving them an additional low range. “I call them stretch harps,” Power says.
California harmonica customizer, tuner, and technician Kinya Pollard went in the other direction. Because he has small hands, he reduced the size of off-the-shelf Hohners from 10 holes to seven. “I found I wasn’t really using the top three holes on a regular harmonica, so I chopped them off,” he told me. With harmonicas, size matters, especially if you are playing with electric amplification. In those situations, players cup their hands around the instrument, in order to create an airtight chamber that overdrives the microphone. (The technique was pioneered by Little Walter, who amplified his harmonica to the point of distortion by cupping his hands around the bullet-shaped body of a taxi dispatcher’s microphone.) When Pollard tried this trick, however, the harmonica got in its own way. “Now when I play amplified, I can close my hands completely and get a very fat sound.” Power may have had his “lucky 13” but Pollard had his “Mag7”—short for Magnificent.
As a harp tech and teacher, Kinya Pollard spends a lot of his bench time tuning harmonicas, which is surprisingly difficult for an instrument with so few moving parts. The first step in this process is to make sure the reed is positioned properly. To accomplish this, Pollard places the reed plate in a light box to produce a halo around the reed’s edges. When all he can see is a symmetrical sliver of light surrounding the reed, he knows he’s got good compression. And that means the player won’t have to blow hard to play expressively and with nuance.
“Tuning’s a very deep subject,” says Brendan Power. Jazz players and those who like to play melodies with a lot of individual notes prefer what’s called “tempered tuning.” Blues and folk players, who often play chords or combinations of notes, prefer something called “just intonation,” in which some of the reeds are deliberately tuned flatter or sharper in relation to others in order to achieve a nice, sweet-sounding chord. One is not better than the other, says Power. “If it sounds good to you, then that’s the right tuning.”
The growing interest on the part of the world’s best harmonica players for the work of people like Sleigh, Filisko, Power, and Pollard did not go unnoticed in Trossingen, in no small part because Baker was forcing Hohner to pay attention—particularly to Sleigh and Filisko. When they started customizing Marine Bands on a commercial scale, Hohner was initially very opposed to it, Baker recalls. “They said, ‘These guys are our competitors,’ whereas, actually, what they were doing was raising the quality of Hohner’s instruments back to where it ought to have been.”
While Baker was encouraging Hohner to watch what was happening beyond its factory walls, Rick Epping was trying to change the company from the inside. Before either had a chance to make their cases, however, the consultants had convinced Hohner to automate, which resulted in the installation of a robot production line during 1991 and 1992. “Once again,” says Baker, “they completely underestimated the complexity of the instrument. They succeeded in setting up a system that made harmonicas, but it didn’t work very well.” Things got so bad inside the factory that at one point Hohner thought it would be simpler to just pull the plug on the Marine Band altogether, but protests from players and the efforts of people like Epping and Baker prevented that.
Fortunately, says Baker, Hohner never completely discontinued its traditional production process—today, Hohner Marine Bands are still assembled by hand. By 2004, after a decade and a half of inside advocacy, Rick Epping finally persuaded Hohner to invest money in retooling, so the reed slots could be cut as accurately as possible.
For his part, Baker’s role in the rescue of the Marine Band was to implement the best practices of customizers like Filisko and Sleigh. Baker made it his particular mission to get Hohner to seal the instrument’s comb, or to use materials that would not swell, shrink, and crack. Until Baker showed up, Marine Band combs, which were made of pear wood, were not even sealed. “That’s why the wooden combs used to swell up, stick out, and cut your lips,” Baker says.
These and other improvements resulted in the Marine Band Deluxe, which Baker believes may be the best harmonica Hohner has ever made. But Baker was still nibbling at the edges—he wanted Hohner to get in bed with Filisko, to make him a part of Hohner. Finally, in 2007, a manager named Klaus Stetter arrived in Trossingen and read a 10-page report Baker had written suggesting the Filisko alliance. “I said, ‘Look, it’s essential we start working with this Filisko dude,’” recalls Baker. Apparently, Epping was opposed to this approach fearing people would say Hohner was simply imitating Filisko. Baker didn’t see why that would be so bad, and he cites the “Hohner Affiliated Customizers,” or HAC, which is a small, select group of harmonica customizers who are accredited by Filisko and only work with Hohner parts to produce high-quality custom instruments, as proof that working with Filsko was a good idea.
Today, harmonica players can choose from any number of top-of-the-line Marine Bands that have Filisko, Sleigh, and Baker’s fingerprints all over them, including the now-classic Marine Band Deluxe (around $55), the Marine Band Crossover, which has a bamboo comb (around $60), and the top-of-the-line, Joe Filisko-signed Thunderbird, which is a Crossover Marine Band with low tunings (around $125). “I think they’re just putting it out there to see what happens,” says Filisko.
From all indications, these innovations are inspiring still more innovation. The Thunderbird’s contribution to the Marine Band’s evolution is its thicker reeds. Meanwhile, Brendan Power is producing harmonicas with extra reeds, which come to life when a player bends low notes. Customizers and instrument manufacturers alike are also creating new kinds of combs, which Pollard calls a “cottage industry.” For his part, Pollard uses combs made out of Corian, a popular material for kitchen counters, but other harp techs prefer aviation-grade aluminum and even brass. “There’s clearly a weight difference,” Pollard says, “and it’s a little too heavy for me—I slammed it into my teeth a couple of times. I’m just not used to it.”
At the other end of the weight spectrum is plastic, which has captured the interest of many star performers, including Mickey Raphael. Respected as one of the harmonica world’s greats, Raphael has shared the stage with Willie Nelson for some 40-plus years. He is considered a master of the Hohner Echo Harp, which gives so many Willie Nelson tunes their sweet, sad sound, but there are times when a Marine Band that’s been customized by Filisko and Power is just the harp he wants. “I play hard, two hours a night, five nights a week,” he says. “I’m kind of abusive.”
During a recent conversation, Raphael explained that an older harmonica with a wooden comb is the perfect harp when he’s safe and snug in a climate-controlled recording studio, but the air in some of the places he plays with Willie Nelson can get pretty thick. “In the studio,” he says, “I can baby it. On the road, I want a harmonica I can hammer nails with.”
Today, Hohner is known, and once again respected, for both kinds of harmonicas. “The Marine Bands they’re making now,” says Sleigh, “are on the level of anything they did in the past. In many cases, they’re better.” Baker agrees. “I hardly need to adjust the instruments any more,” he says. “I just play them out of the box now. So does Joe.”
In the end, that’s all Lee Oskar was after back in the 1970s, when he was buying up the harmonica inventories of the world’s music stores. Despite all those years becoming a harmonica connoisseur, Oskar loves harmonicas for their democratic qualities. “The harmonica was originally designed for the musically hopeless,” Oskar told me. “It’s one of the few instruments that you can just breathe in and out of and sound like you’re making music. I failed music in school, in Denmark, as a kid,” he adds. “But when I was 6 years old and put a harmonica in my mouth, it sounded like a symphony.”
The 2015 convention of the Society for the Preservation & Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) takes place August 15-19 in St. Louis, Missouri. More information is available on SPAH’s website.
After this story was first published in 2015, WGN Radio in Chicago interviewed our author, Ben Marks, about what he learned while tracking down the secrets to harmonica excellence. The interviewer is a harmonica lover himself, making the discussion doubly worth listening to, which you can do here.