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The History of Harmonica: Part 2

harmonica history from hohner - part 2

As we saw in our previous installmentup until the 1900s the harmonica was still developing as the instrument we know it as today. It wasn’t long after the Hohner company successfully established itself however that the harmonica became more widely used, particularly in blues and country music. For the first time in history, musicians were became famous for playing harmonica. One of the most influential early blues harmonica players was Deford Baily, who in 1927 started to perform regularly on the popular “Grand Ole Opry” show.

Deford Baily grew up in a musical family where nearly everyone played an instrument. Most notably, his father was a champion fiddle player. He was not given toys as a child - instead his parents gave him a harmonica at the tender age of three. After constant experimentation and practice he soon became an incredibly skilled harmonica player, but unfortunately his talent was not discovered until years later later while working as an elevator operator. Baily soon became well known for his masterful unconventional harmonica style, and was celebrated as the “harmonica wizard” across the country. 

While Deford Bailey was on the rise to national fame, another blues harmonica player arrived on the scene. John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williams made his first recordings in 1937 and pioneered the way for modern blues harmonica players with his dynamic call-and-response style.

For the next 30 years, there was an increasing popularity and demand for more blues harmonica music. In 1947, the most successful harmonica record in history was made by Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats, with the album Peg O’ My Heart selling over 9 million copies.

Another pioneer harmonica player appeared on the scene in 1952 by the name of Little Walter. One of the greatest Chicago blues harpists of all time, records like “Juke” became a no. 1 R&B hit and first established the sound of amplified harmonica.

A key member of the Chicago blues scene, Little Walter played in many blues ensembles. It frustrated him to be overpowered by the other louder instruments in the band such as the electric guitar, so he devised a solution: use a microphone. Cupped a small microphone in his hand along with the harmonica, he was able to amplify the sound as well as create never-before-heard sonic effects. Little Walter is actually credited to be the first person to ever experiment with electronic distortion. Who would have thought that distortion started from playing harmonica? 

hohner harmonica - johnny cashJumping ahead to the mid 1960s, the harmonica continued to rise in popularity and reach new audiences. Legendary acts like Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Cash, and The Beatles all made it more hip by signing endorsements with Hohner, as did many other popular groups of the time.

As the harmonica continued its rise to prominence in music, new playing techinques were beginning to develop by some ambitious players. In the 1970s, Howard Levy introduced the overblow technique, a revolutionary way to play all notes of the scale in any key using a basic diatonic harmonica.  At the young age of 19, Howard discovered that using a series of overblows and overdraws, he could play a diatonic harmonica as a full chromatic instrument - an unprecedented breakthrough.

With a passion to explore all forms of music, Howard was able to journey outside the realm of traditional harmonica music and explore other genres including jazz, classical, middle eastern, latin and many other styles of World Music. Howard continues to explore new boundaries for the instrument and today is recognized as the greatest harmonica player of all time. We are honored to have him as one of our music instructors, teaching harmonica lessons online here at ArtistWorks.

Have you heard his breathtaking version of "Amazing Grace"? Even if you have, take a few minutes to listen again - there is nothing like it. 

As is evident, the harmonica has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings in East Asia. Here’s a fun fact to bring it full circle: in 2009 a Guinness World Record was set in Hong Kong for the largest harmonica orchestra - imagine 6131 harmonica players playing together all at once!

While there may not be another 6,000+ harmonica ensemble for a while, anyone who wants to learn harmonica can do so directly from one of its greatest masters, Howard Levy. Fill out the form to check out free samples lessons and visit for more information about how Online Harmonica School works. 

Related Harmonica Blogs:

harmonica lessons with howard levy

howard levy hohner harmonica 70s



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