When asked the question, “What is the world’s best-selling musical instrument?”, many might immediately think of a guitar, maybe a Fender or Gibson. After all, who doesn’t love a cool-looking guitar to shred away at?
You might be surprised to learn that the world’s best selling-instrument is actually the harmonica!
That’s right. That little reed wind instrument sees millions of sales each year, having found steady success since the mid-20th century.
The history of the harmonica actually stems back all the way to ancient China, where its first prototypes can be found.
The instrument then began to be produced in Germany in the 1850s.
In the late 1860s, harmonicas found their way to The United States, where they faced many ups and downs in their sales.
In the 1940s, African-American blues singers of the South began to incorporate harmonicas into their songs, and the rest is history.
Nowadays, musicians of all musical genres have included harmonica-playing in their tunes to add an interesting sound, including such players as Sugar Blue and Jerry Portnoy.
What Exactly IS the harmonica?
While most of us know what a harmonica sounds and looks like, many do not know what it’s entirely constructed of and how it works.
A harmonica is made of five parts, including the bottom cover, top cover, a draw reed plate, a comb and a blow reed plate.
The comb, or the actual body of the harmonica, is where the magic happens.
There are ten reed chambers cut into the comb, which make up the holes you see in a harmonica. When you blow into these holes, you form the musical notes heard from the instrument.
Those with more experience playing the harmonica will often use the technique referred to as ‘vibrato.’ This is when harmonica players move their hands around the holes in the harmonica, creating the well-known vibrating effect often heard in harmonica playing.
Musicians will often move their heads to increase vibration as well.
What are the different kinds of harmonicas?
There are several different kinds of harmonicas, including chromatic, diatonic, tremolo, octave, orchestral, and bass.
By far the most popular kind of harmonica is the diatonic, as they are easy to play and only contain notes of a specific scale.
New players can learn a variety of genres on this harmonica, including blues, rock, country and rock.
The other harmonicas produce different kinds of sounds with varying musical focus, which are usually explored by more advanced players.
Why purchase a harmonica?
So what makes these little instruments so popular for the tens of millions of people who have purchased them?
There are several key reasons why the harmonica continues to sell so well. First of all, harmonicas are extremely affordable.
A nice, new guitar can run you a few hundred bucks. That’s not to mention all the accessories that usually come with a guitar as well.
By contrast, a decent new harmonica can start at just ten bucks with no extra parts needed.
Even better, harmonicas are truly easy to play. There’s no need to learn how to use a guitar pick or drum stick properly, all you need is your breath. With a single blow, you can hear yourself make a proper note. Talk about motivating!
Lastly, harmonicas can be used to spice up any genre of music. Whether you want to play a classic blues song or introduce an awesome harmonica beat to a pop song, it’ll blend in beautifully.
Bonus? They’re very light, making them easy for transportation so they can be enjoyed everywhere!
Wait – harmonicas can help with medical issues, too?!
You read that right — playing the harmonica can be good for your health, particularly with patients who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Those with COPD have decreased airflow due to a group of lung diseases.
Playing the harmonica requires the awareness of various breathing patterns, regulating the breath and increasing the strength of the breathing muscles in the body.
In fact, many medical institutions offer a kind of harmonica rehab for those with COPD or other similar breathing medical conditions.
What should new players keep in mind when buying a new harmonica?
It might be tempting at this point to go off and buy a harmonica to jam out on. Before any purchase, there are some things to keep in mind:
– Harmonica’s combs (or bodies) can come in several different materials, including wood, metal or plastic. Many harmonicas these days have a plastic body, as they are easier on the lips. At the same time, some players prefer a wooden body as it feels more natural and seems to have a richer sound, though wood bodies are more prone to wear and tear. Others prefer metal as it’s stronger compared to wood or plastic, but metal is more expensive than the alternatives.
– Most diatonic harmonicas come in the key of “C,” though those wanting to try something new might want to try out getting a harmonica in the key of “A” or “G.”
– If you already have some experience playing harmonica, opt for a chromatic one this time. Chromatic harmonicas are typically seen as the next level-up after diatonic.
What are the most popular harmonica brands?
So you know what you’re looking for, but you’re not sure which brand of harmonica is actually considered high-quality. The following brands remain the most popular for new and expert players alike:
– Hohner (One of the most well-respected)
– Fender (A popular, recognized brand)
– Lee Oskar (Loved for its wide range of products)
– Seydel (Optimal for beginners)
– Suzuki (Favorite international brand)
Here’s a video showing some great harmonicas:
Harmonicas are a hit for many reasons. They have a unique sound that adds to any kind of music.
They’re light, easy, portable and, perhaps most importantly, they’re an actual affordable instrument.
It’s no wonder the harmonica has seen and continues to see millions of sales worldwide!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.