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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Harmonica

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Harmonica

Nothing says ‘American folk music’ more than a harmonica. A staple in blues and country, the 19th century wind instrument is synonymous with cowboy hats and singing about your wife leaving you for your best friend.

But there’s more to the humble harmonica than you might think. The likes of Bob Dylan (pictured), Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, Neil Young and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler have all helped to make the harmonica a cool addition of the rockstar image.

There is a wide variety of models out there designed to be used in classical, jazz, rock n’ roll and more genres. Hell, I’ve even recently bought one myself that’s designed to look like a Nintendo game cartridge…

Anyway, in the latest instalment of our Anatomy of an Instrument series, MI Pro outlines everything you could possibly need to know about the harmonica.
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What is a harmonica?

Also known as a French harp or mouth organ, the harmonica is a free reed wind instrument. The basic parts of the harmonica are the comb (the main body of the instrument), reed plates and cover plates (a typically metal plate that covers the reed plates), windsavers (one-way valves), and the mouthpiece (which is placed between the air chambers of the instrument and the player's mouth).

Diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, octave, orchestral, and bass versions are available, with the reeds pre-tuned to individual pitches.

Longer, heavier and more flexible reeds typically produce deeper, lower sounds, while shorter, lighter and stiffer reeds create higher-pitched tones.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

You produce sound from a harmonica by directing air into or out of one or more holes along a mouthpiece using your mouth. Behind each hole is a chamber containing at least one reed.

A harmonica reed is a flat elongated spring typically made of brass, stainless steel, or bronze, which is secured at one end over a slot that serves as an airway. When the free end is made to vibrate by blowing or breathing into the mouthpiece, it alternately blocks and unblocks the airway to produce sound.

Here are a few of our favourite harmonica performances:

Should I stock them?

The harmonica is an incredibly compact and portable instrument that most people can easily play about with, making it a great beginner instrument. It’s a real ‘easy to pick up, hard to master’ type of instrument, because of this, there is a wide variety of harmonica’s on the mark at various price points, meaning you can choose to stock lower-range instruments to appeal to young players and beginners. Or if you’re more of a specialist, there are plenty of high-end harmonica models to appeal to a seasoned player.

Who makes them?

Here’s a list of some notable harmonica manufacturers and links to their websites:



Lee Oscar


Suzuki Music

Read all of our Anatomy of an Instrument articles by clicking here.

Tags: harmonicas , harmonica , Anatomy of an Instrument

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