The Mouth Organ Is Number One

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The humble harmonica—also known as the mouth organ or the French harp—is the world’s best-selling instrument. First made in the early 19th century in Vienna, the European version using metal reeds was inspired by a Chinese bamboo reed instrument called the Sheng, brought back to Europe in the late 18th century.

By 1847, the harmonica was mass-produced by the German factory founded by clockmaker Matthias Hohner, who was also responsible for shipping the instrument to the United States, where they became massively popular. Abraham Lincoln carried one in his pocket, and soldiers on both sides during the Civil War loved them. Over the next few decades, harmonicas became part of America’s musical landscape, first recorded in the 1900s and introduced into jazz and jug bands by the 1920s. Around the same time, the New York-based radio program the Hohner Harmony Hour increased the popularity of harmonicas by teaching audience members how to play. In the 1950s, the harmonica became the instrument of prominent blues artists, like Sonny Boy Williamson II, who had a daily radio show called King Biscuit Time. Meanwhile, Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs invented the technique of cupping the hands over a microphone that is electrified through a guitar amp, a method that gives today’s harmonica players their signature sound. The 1960s folk movement saw Bob Dylan and many others playing the harmonica, as did 1970s country western. Though less popular in the 1970s and 80s, the harmonica still found a place in rock music. The influence of blues and Americana in more recent popular music has led to it revival.