Harmonicas are often described as the most popular instruments on the planet, mainly because of their portability and low cost compared to, say, a grand piano or tuba. But don’t mistake their ubiquity or simplicity for a lack of sophistication. Harmonicas pack a lot of engineering into a small space, producing different notes depending on whether the player is blowing out or breathing in. Players can further enhance these sounds by shaking their heads to create appealing vibratos, or bending notes to give the instrument a mournful moan that often recalls the wail of a distant train whistle.
Like accordions, harmonicas are thought to have been invented by a German named Christian Friedrich Buschmann, although as with the squeezebox, it was an Austrian who first patented the instrument (in this case, Georg Anton Reinlein in 1824). But the Austrian makers were soon overshadowed by the Germans, in particular, a company called Hohner, which handmade 650 harmonicas in its inaugural year, 1857. Thirty years later, Hohner hit the million-unit mark, and by 1920 its annual production exceeded 20 million harmonicas, which were exported all over the world, in chromatic and tremelo models, as well as standard diatonic harps.
During the 20th century, harmonicas were musical chameleons, favored by singing cowboys, jazz artists like Toots Thielemans, and Chicago bluesmen such as Muddy Waters’s sideman Little Walter, who used a wide-mouthed taxi-dispatcher’s microphone to give his harp its distinctive, and loud, sound. In the 1960s, everyone from Bob Dylan to Stevie Wonder to Brian Jones played the harmonica as an accompanying instrument, while artists like Neil Young, Magic Dick of J. Geils Band, and, later, John Popper of Blues Traveler put the harmonica front and center.