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.

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 20th century, 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?

In the 1970s, Lee Oskar and Steve Baker were at the forefront of a movement to get those questions answered. In Baker’s case, he’d been playing Hohner Marine Bands — sold in the U.K. as Echo Super Vampers — since 1969, when the harmonica was known for its rich, accordion-like tone. By the mid-1970s, though, Baker detected something dreadfully wrong with his beloved harmonica. So did his fellow members of Have Mercy, a country-blues-punk jug band that boasted three harmonica players (“maybe three and a half,” Baker says). With so many lips in contact with so many harmonicas, Baker and his mates were particularly well attuned to the quality of the Marine Band, which in their professional estimation had gone seriously south. “All of a sudden they were easy to blow out if you played them too hard,” Baker recalls. “We were trashing quite enormous numbers of them, boxfuls.”

Baker didn’t realize it when Have Mercy was destroying all those harmonicas, but he would soon become a catalyst in a three-decade struggle to save the Marine Band. His transformation began in 1976, when Baker and Have Mercy decided to try their luck in Hamburg, Germany, about 450 miles north of Hohner headquarters in Trossingen. Baker has been a resident of Hamburg ever since.

In Germany, Have Mercy signed on as Hohner endorsees, gaining the band access to Hohner’s distribution outlet in Hamburg. Baker became the band’s designated harp buyer, which meant he’d do what Lee Oskar had done in that San Francisco music store, except Baker’s shopping sprees happened every few weeks, and in a warehouse filled with harmonicas. “I rejected 60 or 70 percent of them,” Baker told me over Skype recently. As soon as he had learned enough German to communicate with the guys working there, Baker asked them the obvious question: “Why don’t you make harmonicas like you used to? These aren’t the same.” The warehouse workers, while polite, didn’t know, but they trusted Baker because of his status as a Hohner endorsee, and relayed his questions and critiques to Hohner headquarters. Not much change happened for a while, but Baker continued his conversations with the company. Eventually he became a paid consultant to Hohner, acting as the conduit between players, customizers, and the executives in Trossingen, a privileged relationship he has enjoyed for almost 30 years.

For the full version of this story, please go to Craftsmanship Quarterly.

Craftsmanship Quarterly is published by The Craftsmanship Initiative, which highlights artisans and innovators who are working to create a world built to last. Subscriptions and updates via email are free to anyone who signs up for the magazine’s newsletters.


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