Many harmonica histories begin around 1100 B.C. with the sheng, a Chinese instrument featuring a bundle of bamboo tubes attached to a curving pipe. The instrument contains a free reed, a strip of flexible metal that flaps up and down when a player blows through the sheng’s holes, thus creating musical tones. But most present-day historians say the harmonica’s more immediate forerunner was invented by the Dutch physician and physicist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, who in 1780 used the free reed to create a device meant to approximate human speech, the better to understand the mechanics of voice. He called his contraption, the size of an upright piano, a “talking machine.”
Over the next century, more musically minded inventors reduced the size of Kratzenstein’s device, calling their various creations a terpodian or harmonium. The pocket-size “mouth organ” arrived in the 1820s and would spread throughout Europe, and then the United States.
German clock salesman Matthias Hohner formed his namesake company in 1857 and found a huge market in America, selling harmonicas to German immigrants fanning out across the South. The company remains the leading harmonica brand to this day.
According to Kim Field’s Harmonicas, Harps and Heavy Breathers: The Evolution of the People’s Instrument, “the golden age of the mouth organ” came between the world wars, when vaudevillians toured with mouth harps and Hollywood westerns put them between the lips of glamorous cowboys. In 1944, a former Marine from Chicago, Jerry Murad, formed a trio of harmonizing harmonica players in dinner jackets and ties called the Harmonicats; their whimsical formula for reinterpreting pop songs paid off with the million-seller “Peg O’ My Heart” in 1947. Not long after, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter were pioneering a wow-wow-wow technique, the heart of the churning Chicago blues. Each of these trends influenced folk, rock and soul players, from Bob Dylan to Stevie Wonder to John Popper of Blues Traveler.
The harmonica’s timeless sound continues to be as urgent as an ambulance siren or as soothing as a campfire under the stars. In 2020, electronic dance music superstar Diplo used a harmonica riff as the backbone of his hit “Do Si Do,” while Taylor Swift employed the instrument to channel a Dylan-style plaintiveness when performing her new song “Betty” at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Hohner and other brands have taken a hit during the pandemic, as customers avoided retail stores—sales are down 25 percent—but the harmonica continues to enchant.
“It’s intuitive, it’s easy and it’s cheap,” says Morgan Franke, a Hohner marketing executive and producer of the forthcoming harmonica documentary In the Reeds.
Editor’s note, March 22, 2021: The original version of this story conflated the “cross-harp” harmonica technique with the wow-wow-wow rhythmic style of the Chicago blues.