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In 1821, a 16-year-old German clockmaker named Christian Ludwig Buschmann put 15 pitchpipes together and invented what we know today as the harmonica. The tiny instrument may have faded away unnoticed among all the exciting innovations of the 19th century, but Buschmann recognized his invention as “a truly unique musical instrument…only four inches in diameter and equally high, with 21 notes and crescendo playing possibilities…with harmonies of six tones, which can be held as long as the player has breath.” He named it the “mundaeoline,”which is German for mouth harp. In time, all of Europe had heard about this delightful hand-held wonder
After a few decades passed, another clockmaker purchased one of these handcrafted early instruments and decided to mass produce harmonicas. This young visionary was Matthias Hohner, who founded our company in 1857 at age 24. During that first year, Hohner, his wife and one employee produced 650 harmonicas (less than Hohner is able to manufacture today in just one hour!). Hohner then shipped some of his mouth harps to cousins, who had immigrated to the US, and harmonica demand soared as peddlers, emigrants and soldiers spread the diminutive instrument’s popularity across America. The US quickly became an important market for the emerging company’s musical products.
The instrument's increasing popularity extended even to the White House. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when worried friends told President Abraham Lincoln that his opponent was bringing a brass band, Mr. Lincoln reached into his pocket, grinned and said “the harmonica will do it for me!”
During that same era, Union and Confederate soldiers carried Hohner Harmonicas into Civil War battles. Many claimed that carrying harmonicas in their breast pockets defected bullets and saved their lives! Plaintive, melodious harmonica tones provided solace to many weary soldiers throughout that long war as well as many
battles to come.
As the country expanded westward following the Civil War, many pioneers depended on the harmonica for company while exploring the wilderness. Infamous lawman Wyatt Earp had a Hohner harmonica in his pocket at the OK Corral and Billy the Kid and Frank James were both noted harmonica enthusiasts.
In more recent years, the harmonica has gained status as a serious musical instrument. It can now be heard in the world’s most renowned concert halls, with music written specifically for harmonica by world-acclaimed contemporary composers. In New York, Classical harmonicists Larry Adler, Robert Bonfiglio, Larry Logan, and Tommy Reilly all staged recitals and New York’s City College became the first institution of higher learning to offer a degree program majoring in harmonica. In 1948, the American Federation of Musicians recognized the harmonica as a legitimate instrument and today lists thousands of harmonicists among its members. Since Matthias Hohner’s great undertaking of 1857, his company has made more than 1,500 harmonica models. The current US catalog includes more than 70 models ranging in size from a 23” chord harmonica down to the tiny “Little Lady.” At just 1 3/8”long, this harmonica plays a full 8-note scale and was the first instrument played in outer space, by astronaut Wally Schirra on the Gemini VI spacecraft in 1965. Of course, there’s more to the harmonica than a colorful history, and today there’s more to Hohner than harmonicas! In 1893, after founder Matthias Hohner passed away, his sons decided to expand the company to include the manufacture of another reed instrument, the accordion. Hohner quickly built a parallel reputation for excellence -- as a top accordion maker –a dedication to quality that continues to this day. Hohner later added recorder and melodica manufacturing to its line of top-quality instruments. Then, in 1986, Hohner founded HSS, a US division created to distribute Sabian Cymbals, Hohner Fretted Instruments and Sonor Drums & Percussion products. HSS proved quite successful and later expanded into additional products including Lanikai Ukuleles and several accessory lines.
Hohner, Inc./HSS currently occupies a spacious warehouse and office facility housing its US Corporate Headquarters in Glen Allen, Virginia, and a West Coast office and warehouse in Santa Rosa, California.
Lee Oskar History
There's no one in the pop music world quite like Lee Oskar. His unique role as a founding member and former lead harmonica player for the pioneer funk/jazz group, WAR, won him international renown for over two and a half decades (1969-1993). Oskar's signature harp solos helped to define the WAR sound from the band's beginning in 1969, adding dashes of color to their R&B;/Jazz/Rock and Latin influences. Oskar's position with WAR was a prominent one from their early days with singer Eric Burdon onwards. Audiences have marvelled at his improvisational wizardry, not to mention his animated stage presence.
"My playing has become more aggressive over the years," he says. "In the beginning, my role was playing horn lines. Today, it's evolved to the point where I'm playing a lead instrument. If I'm not doing a solo, I'm playing counterlines - I try to paint within certain spaces in the music to help create the overall picture."
The eclectic, multicultural nature of WAR's music is also evident in Oskar's solo projects. Three stellar albums released between 1976 and 1981 (and recently rereleased on CD) brought critical and popular acclaim including being voted No. 1 Instrumental Artist of the Year for 1976 in not one, but three major industry mags: Billboard, Cashbox and Record World. The albums, like Oskar's electrifying live performances, show the diverse influences that make up this hard-to-categorize musical giant. A renowned composer, his compositions have been featured on movie sound tracks and television commercials. He has been the recipient of many Gold and Platinum recordings and honored with special ASCAP Writing Awards.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1948, Oskar was six years old when a family friend gave him his first harmonica. "Everyone in my neighborhood was playing one that year," he remembers. "The next year, the fad was the yo-yo, but I had fallen in love with the harmonica, and stuck with it." He grew up listening to Danish radio, enjoying all types of music and cites Ray Charles as the biggest influence from that period.
Oskar moved to the United States at the age of 18 with little more than a harmonica in his pocket. Arriving in Los Angeles, via a few other cities, Oskar soon met and joined forces with Eric Burdon who had recently disbanded the Animals and was searching for new collaborators. Together, the harp-playing Dane and the British blues-rock singer made the rounds of the L.A. clubs, eventually hooking up with the soon-to-be members of WAR. Burdon agreed to the novel idea of pairing up Oskar's harmonica with Charles Miller's saxophone to form a horn section. This team-up set WAR apart from the start, giving Oskar room to display the full spectrum of his improvisational prowess.
Oskar's harmonica magic was always a vital element in WAR's music and performances. Oskar continued with WAR for 24 years non-stop. At the end of 1993 he made the decision to end his association with that group in order to have the time to pursue his solo career.
Between recording, performing and running his immensely successful harmonica company, Lee Oskar is a very busy man. The Lee Oskar Harmonica was introduced in 1983 and this venture has consumed much of Oskar's time for the last decade. Today, his firm offers harmonicas in a variety of tunings, along with replacement reed plates, tool kits, instruction books, and other related products. He plans to release an instructional video in the near future. Lee Oskar Harmonicas have become a household name with sales that are well-established and growing at a phenomenal rate worldwide. Oskar reports that business is booming and he derives great satisfaction from the positive feedback that his company receives daily about his products.