Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Return of the Harmonica

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 20thcentury, 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? (...)

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.”

by Ben Marks, Craftsman |  Read more:
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