Harp Myth Busters

‘There’s more to some things than meets the eye. Mary Poppins’ handbag, Dr Who’s Tardis and the inside of my harmonica have a lot in common.’ Anon

Wally SchirraPseudonyms for the harmonica
Blues Harp, Blues Burger, Gob Iron, Mississippi Saxophone, Moothie, Lady Shaver, Cookie Cutter, Tin Biscuit, Tin Sandwich, Toot Sweet, Snort Organ, Fist Whistle, French Harp, Lickin’ Stick and Misery Whistle.

First polyphonic instrument in outer space
The four hole Hohner Little Lady harp was carried aboard Gemini VI in December 1965 by astronaut Walter “Wally” Schirra who used it to play Jingle Bells. A length of dental floss and square of Velcro were used to prevent the harp floating off into space. It’s now an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, USA.

seydel-sons-klingenthalOldest harmonica factory in the world
C.A. Seydel Söhne (CASS) harmonicas in Klingenthal, Germany. They have been there in one form or another since 1847.

Junior WellsJunior Wells was buried with a tray of Lee Oskar harmonicas
If the information on Wikipedia is reliable, the Hoodoo Man was buried in Chicago in 1998 with a tray of Lee Oskar harmonicas by his side. I spoke to Lee Oskar about this. He confirms that they were good friends and Junior used his harps. He also recalls hearing a story like this at the time, but he can’t remember any details. Then most unexpectedly the Harp Surgery received the following astonishing e-mail..

This is to verify that Jr Wells was buried with Lee Oskar harmonicas. I know this to be a fact because I was there at the funeral. Mr Oskar also played the most beautiful song (solo). I have never heard a harp played that way before. I would like to thank him for being his friend and honoring us with his presence. The reason I know all of this is because Jr was my dad. I miss him everyday but his fans and friends help keep him alive for our family. May God bless and keep all of you. Thanks Jr’s Family

Little LadyHohner built the smallest harmonica in the world
Hohner’s four hole Little Lady harmonica was the first of its kind. Their single octave, four hole, mini-harp is in the key of C major. It was also the first harmonica in outer-space.

Beatles harp detailHohner got The Beatles’ names wrong
True. A limited edition of Beatles harmonica was issued in 1964 together with a song book containing two Beatles songs, Little Child and Please Please Me. The often missed trivia item is that Hohner printed the signatures for Paul and George next to the wrong portraits on the box.

The harmonica is the most owned instrument
True. According to sales literature and statistics on units shifted. Please note this is not the same as the most played instruments in the world. No doubt there are many harps in cupboards and draws, down the backs of sofas, propping tables up and lurking at the bottom of rivers worldwide.

lee-sankey-4iThe harp can be played back to front
Plenty of left-handed people adjust to playing the harp in the standard position. However, others turn the harp round with the numbers underneath, low notes to the right and high notes to the left. This is full on left handed harp. But who plays this way? Sonny Terry, Paul Butterfield, William Clarke, Eddie Martin, Lee Sankey and Johnny Mars to name but a few.

walter-hortonBig Walter Horton was in the original Blues Brothers Movie
Fast forward to the shot on Maxwell Street Market outside Matt’s Diner with John Lee Hooker playing Boom Boom. Who’s the harp player sitting right there next to him? It’s Shakey all right!

Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica
True… and false. Having visited London and seen a wine glass player in action, he returned to America and actually called his invention the ‘Armonica’. It consisted of concentric glass bowls which rotated on a spindle and could be resonated with wet fingers. It soon became known as the Glass Harmonica. Mozart and the like were so impressed they wrote music for it. Indeed Tchaikovsky’s Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy was composed for the Glass Harmonica. Which may also be why the modern harmonica is sometimes called the Mouth Harmonica!

Nicky ShaneFastest harmonica player
With 103 notes in twenty seconds (or 285bpm), the Guinness World Record for fastest harmonica player is held by Nicky Shane of Santa Barbara, California, USA. The record was monitored at SRS studios in Santa Barbara on the 8th of September 2005 and the melody played was When The Saints Come Marching In. Maybe we should call it When The Saints Come Sprinting In. Nicky is a former stand up comedian who has more recently become a leading exponent of heavy metal harmonica. Check out the bandanna on your harp mic!

Dead Presidents and Harmonicas
Some of us can recall news footage of Bill Clinton blowing his Sax at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC on inauguration night, but Abraham Lincoln blowing the tin biscuit? Allegedly, yes, he was a harp player, though the evidence is scant. There is also on-line information about the Coolidges who, in 1925, allegedly hung 50 harmonicas on their Christmas Tree. Other information on line suggests that President ‘Ike’ Eisenhower was also a harpoonist.

Papa Dee Allen of WAR was buried with a Lee Oskar harmonica.WAR
True. Papa Dee died on stage of a brain haemorrhage while playing Gypsy Man. At his funeral, Lee slipped the harp he had been playing on stage into the grave.

Jesse James, Frank James, Billy The Kid and all the rest
Whether or not Frank actually played needs further evidence. There is a popular legend that his life was saved when a bullet was deflected by a harmonica he carried in his pocket. Allegedly Billy The Kid was a harp slinger too.

And on behalf of law enforcement
Allegedly Wyatt Earp carried a harmonica, although I have yet to encounter definitive proof. They say he had one in his breast pocket after the shoot out at the OK Corral.

yoda-harmonicaDarth Vader was really a lapsed Jedi rack harmonica player
False of course. But what a great idea…

Ex-Lib.Dem MP Lembit Opik plays harmonica
True… and false. He always carries one in his pocket. Whether he can actually play it is a matter for debate at Prime Minister’s question time. The MP for Montgomeryshire is certainly an active proponent of all things harmonica.

Finally – a bitta Borrah
Purely for posterity. Is it comical? Is it valid? Is it amazing? Is it sad? Was the man a tyrant in real life? It is certainly intriguing.

21 thoughts on “Harp Myth Busters

  • July 18, 2009 at 7:14 am

    This is to verify that Jr Wells was buried with Lee Oskar harmonicas. I know this to be a fact because I was there at the funeral. Mr Oskar also played the most beautiful song(solo). I have never heard a harp played that way before. I would like to thank him for being his friend and honoring us with his presence. The reason I know all of this is because Jr was my dad. I miss him everyday but his fans and friends help keep him alive for our family. May God bless and keep all of you. Thanks Jr’s Family

  • February 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    And of course, one of the best ever was a Belgian guy 🙂
    It’s because of Toots Thielemans that i’ve started playing it today 🙂

  • July 10, 2010 at 12:48 am

    who played harmonica on bruce channels…hey baby……..answer……delbert McClinton

  • July 12, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Hi RR!
    Thanks for your comments on Harp Surgery. I completely agree that even when life deals you the severest of blows, and we all get them, the harmonica never…that’s NEVER….let’s you down. It ain’t been sleeping around. It ain’t fleeced you for everything you have. It doesn’t kill. It won’t spit in your eye. It completely understands where you’re at. And it loves you no matter what. Ain’t that amazing? What’s more – it’ll give you a little oasis of peace and remind you of who you are and what’s important in life amidst the chaos. As for Bruce Channel – think we have some info on this one in the mix. Hope to hear more from you.

  • June 6, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    The harmonica player on the the 1970 hit ‘Groovin with Mr Bloe’ was Harry Pitch. Otherwise known for playing the theme tune to the British sit-com ‘Last of the Summer Wine’.

  • October 18, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    jr wells was a very very good player…i love to listen to his music.. however, could you tell me please, which key harmonica does lee oskar use in playing the song GYPSY MAN…..

  • October 30, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Hi David. The answer is a D diatonic in 2nd position (Cross Harp). So the band is playing in A. Now, forgive me for being direct and asking a question in return…what is preventing you from working this out for yourself? On the basis of giving a man a fish to eat, or teaching a man to fish for himself, I’m interested in helping you fend for yourself. Trial and error is one way to find the answer you need. But the bottom line is pinpointing the tonic (root note) vocally, and hence the key. Hum along! What’s the note it all keeps coming back to? In this case it’s A. Once you’ve done this and are humming the root note, work out the most likely options for a harp player and see what fits. In this case an A harp in 1st position, a D harp in 2nd position or a G harp in 3rd position. Now listen to the structure and mood being used. In this case the phrasing and flavour of the notes suggest a regular MAJOR blues scale. So the first port of call is cross harp (2nd position) on a D harp with the root note in draw 2. Et voila!

  • October 30, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Hi dave – please see my answer in your spearate enquiry. It’s a D harp in second position.

  • December 14, 2015 at 3:50 am

    we need more blues clubs!

  • July 2, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    love the harp surgery site! but i have to take issue with a minor yet annoying piece of information in the article above….saying that left handed people adapt to playing the instrument in their left hand is bogus….as a left handed person playing harp in my left hand …..im not adapting to anything….its a left handed instrument and in my left hand…….how can butterfield…….clarke……sonny terry be described as playing full on left handed players? they are playing with the harp in their right hands…this is therefore RIGHT-HANDED playing………also if they are playing with the numbers down this would be playing upside down……..these players and others get extra respect from me for playing the instrument upside down and backwards!……..but they are NOT playing left handed…….thanks for letting me pass this along

  • July 4, 2019 at 5:02 am

    lee sankey william clarke sonny terry and paul butterfield were/are right handed players not left handed players……..plus they played upside down……..wow to be that good despite playing it backwards……

  • July 29, 2019 at 2:34 pm

    Hi Jeff, I think this is the text to which you’re referring…

    “The harp can be played left handed
    Plenty of left-handed people adjust to playing the harp in the standard position. However, others turn the harp round with the numbers underneath, low notes to the right and high notes to the left. This is full on left handed harp. But who plays this way? Sonny Terry, Paul Butterfield, William Clarke, Eddie Martin, Lee Sankey and Johnny Mars to name but a few.”

    Let’s put it out there. Have I (as a right handed individual) been a left-handed player all these years and not realised? As far as I remember, the ‘unconventional’ colleagues I’ve spoken to have happily referred to themselves as left-handed players. However, taking into account the matrix of players, hand holds, and harp attitudes, what would your preferred terminology be? Conventional and unconventional, standard and irregular, orthodox and atypical? Is there a definitive index?

  • July 29, 2019 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks again – see my previous reply. Let’s add backwards and forwards to the list. In some cultures this might be open to debate too.

  • August 3, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    Ok, so us harp players are an opinionated lot. As one who’s been playing for several decades, I feel qualified to weigh in on this post. It does not matter which way you hold it, or whether it is “upside down”. If, when you first started playing, that’s the way you learned the position of the notes, then your method has achieved what it needed to. And now I will throw in what I believe is the ultimate proof of this. Anyone here ever heard of Borrah Minevitch? To paraphrase, early on (1930’s) he pretty much re-invented the chromatic, then sold those ideas to Hohner. He had his own line of chromatics AND diatonics, designed by him, and manufactured under his control and guidance. These were played exclusively by his band, The Rascals. In that era, he was touted as “The greatest Harmonica Player In The World”. ALL of his harmonicas had the numbers on the bottom cover, but in the correct position, IE: #1=lowest notes. Why is THAT relevant here? Because it illustrates how opinions vary, with regard to the correctness of how someone approaches almost any task. Some of us go left better than right–some of us are opposite that. In my opinion (which will not be shared by everyone), how it’s held is mechanically insignificant, but how you FEEL when you hold it your way is one of the MOST significant aspects of playing. Think back guys and gals…we’ve ALL changed our grip as we learned and progressed. Was our original grip wrong? No, we modified our grip to achieve something new we learned.
    I know this is off-topic, but here’s a little more about Borrah’s harps. I own a 30’s-40’s Borrah Chromatic, and a diatonic. The diatonic harp is far superior to all but the highest-priced harps being produced today, in tonality, construction and playing comfort. I bought it, cleaned it and have been using it for ballads only when gigging. After cleaning, I sat down to tune it, but it was nearly perfect…after70 or 80 years! I’m not done sprucing up the Chromatic yet, but I did play it before I tore it down, and was blown away by it’s ease and it’s comfort. They both look almost new, because of the thickness of plating.

  • September 28, 2019 at 11:13 pm

    maybe you have been a lefty player without knowing it lol. look however the player holds it is fine……im just one who believes certain words in the english language….mean one thing and one thing only….like hot or cold …..east west north south…..you can point toward the west and call it east…..call it anything one wants to…….i believe the words left and right and lefthanded and righthanded…..can be called something different if one wants….but left and right and the other words above mean exactly what they mean……..so if you are holding your harmonica in your left hand…then you can only be called a lefthanded player……butterfield can only be called a right handed player because harp was in his right hand…..so to better answer your above………you are a right handed person who is a lefthanded player….sorry if anyone reading this is bothered i mean no offence….but i believe some words have and should havea litteral…singular meaning…..otherwise confusion in our language will decend into a meaningless mess…..happy harpin everyone

  • February 20, 2020 at 2:50 pm

    Further update. I had a group member at my workshop yesterday who plays chromatic and diatonic ‘the other way round’. When another group member pointed this out, his own words were, ‘I play left handed’. Different strokes for different folks. Doc

  • April 2, 2020 at 7:11 am

    I hope you corrected him.

  • September 19, 2022 at 3:50 am

    I’m from Baltimore, Md., the same hometown Larry Adler came from. I don’t know his exact house, but it was on Bryant Avenue. Larry played the chromatic harmonica. I have played a chromatic, but I now have a Lee Oskar. One day while playing, the 6th hole draw got stuck and wouldn’t play no matter what I did. So I decided to soak it in hot water. You can do this, and it won’t ruin the harmonica. The harmonica covers are stainless steel and won’t rust. The reeds are brass and they won’t rust. And the comb is plastic and it won’t rust. But take care of your harmonica (s) and tap out any siliva after playing. I do this both front AND back.

  • February 26, 2023 at 7:13 pm

    I taught in a Hutterite school for ten years. An Anabaptist group related to Mennonites. They live in agricultural communities, share work and goods There are about 34,000 of them in Western Canada. The county school board places an “English teacher” on each colony. I was on a Lehrerleut colony, the most conservative of the three major groups. Musical instruments aren’t allowed ,but nearly all of the children have a harmonica or “gein” (sic) which is generally overlooked by the preacher. I was given permission to purchase about 30 Hohner harmonicas for my class. Most sing very well by ear and learn to blow harp very easily. It is a strange experience to hear 28 youngsters between 6 and 15 playing at one time.

  • February 27, 2023 at 5:36 pm

    An interesting story Sid and thanks for sharing. I’m not entirely sure which myth you’re trying to bust, but it’s great that your students enjoyed their music making. I was recently asked what the collective noun for a group of harmonica players would be. All I could come up with was a ‘racket’.

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