What is a Blues Harmonica?

By | April 6, 2021

The harmony of the accordion and the blues

The accordion came to the United States via Germany, but the instrument itself was invented in China. Easy to get along with, Americans, both black and white, were drawn to the accordion. But where witnesses considered it a child’s toy, slave members and free black communities incorporated the harmonics of their songs and field songs or work songs that were the origin of the blues.

Harmonica During the 20s

According to accordion historian Tony Eyers of Harmonica Tunes, the accordion was an important part of the blues genre of the 1920s and 1930s, when accordionists John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and Little Walter rose in popularity through recordings and live performances. Because the accordion was a relatively inexpensive instrument to buy, easy to learn and small enough to fit in your pocket, it became popular — and in some cases also — with so-called ‘hobos’, unemployed men traveling the country and often picked up the instrument along the way. Both black and white blues musicians used the accordion during this period.

Harmonica Style in the Blues

Between 1940 and the early 1960s, the harmonica remained a staple of the blues band, although the blues themselves were often shifted to gin joints and brothels, as rock and folk music dominated the popular music scene. Harmonica players found their home in the three styles of blues that had developed before and continued to refine during this period: New Orleans blues, Kansas City blues and Delta blues. The accordion played for each style was quite similar: wide vibrato, screaming melodies and sliding from and between notes were common everywhere.

The accordion in the 60s, 70s and 80s

The accordion declined in popularity as blues groups patterned more on the instrumentation of rock bands in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with electric guitar and bass instead of the traditional accordion, upright bass or brass of previous bands. While John Lennon, Mick Jagger and other stars all played the accordion and used it from time to time, it was not a crucial element in rock as it was for the blues, even for blues-tinted rock.

Harmonica in Blues Today

A resurgence in traditional blues seen in bands Aerosmith and U2 led to the return of blues harmonica in these bands’ albums. Crossover music, mixing the aesthetics of rock, country and other genres, has also included the frequent use of blues accordion. A playing style rather than an instrument, blues harmonica usually plays on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica or chromatic harmonica, both of which can produce all 12 notes of chromatic scale. Blues accordion games are played marked with ‘curved’ notes, which are intentionally played flat or sharp, glissando techniques or slide from one note to another, and vibrato, usually created by the shaking or vibration of the accordion itself as it is played.