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The Harp

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

Twenty years ago the novelist Elmore Leonard wrote his “Ten Rules of Writing.” The last of them advised, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” ( At this website readers are free to skip over stuff with ease, at will; nonetheless, I will try not to weigh it down with unnecessary content that is not relevant to the life and work of Paul Butterfield.

Butterfield did several things well: he played excellent blues harp; he played the instrument with significant amplification; he formed and led several bands. But in each case he was not the first to accomplish it. In forming and leading bands of immensely talented musicians, the Butterfield Blues Band and its successors “were as influential as any other group of their era.” (Field, 211) The band’s first album and subsequent live performances “were seminal events that changed the course of pop music.” (Field 212) Butterfield did it with this harmonica.

Look at this thing, the Hohner Marine Band 10-hole diatonic harp, which is what Butterfield used. Four inches from end to end, weighing a couple of ounces. There are lots of other models of harmonicas, but Butterfield stuck with the trustworthy Marine Band. He bought his first one for $4.00.

The Actual Thing

Why “Marine Band”? Because John Philip Sousa was very popular at the time that this model was introduced, leading the United States Marine Band, and the Hohner company arranged with Sousa to borrow that name for their new harmonica. (Richard Sleigh, ). Four inches, 3.2 ounces. Metal cover plates, 20 tiny brass reeds inside, 10 on top for blowing, 10 below for drawing. Hohner reeds are made of a brass or bronze alloy; they vary in length from about a half inch to about an inch and a half (the longer the reed, the lower the sound), 3/16 of an inch wide, and one 200th of an inch thick.

There are, then, twenty notes over three octaves: 10 blow, 10 draw. In that it is unique among instruments; you can’t draw on a trumpet, a clarinet, or any other wind instrument. Also unique is that the reeds are free reeds – that is, they are attached only on one end. They vibrate, 100s of times per second and more, to create the sound and pitch. When you breath out the blow reeds vibrate; breathing in – drawing – causes the draw reeds to vibrate. “Vibrate” in this case means the loose end flaps up and down. It’s that that up and down motion of the reed that creates the sound. Each time a reed enters or exits the slot it creates a small puff of air. The small puffs of air create sound waves, and that’s what we hear. The result is a plangent wailing tone that is not available in any other instrument.

Notice that this traditional model of the Marine Band is fastened by nails, not screws. Newer models have screws, so that a person can easily remove the screws, open the cover plates, and get inside the harp, then close it back. Why would anyone want to do that, you ask? Two reasons: to give the inside of the harp a thorough cleaning; I don’t have to explain that these things naturally and normally accumulate a lot of gunk from the player’s mouth. Secondly, and more importantly for the advanced harp player: you can, by taking off the next-down level cover plates, expose the tiny reeds in order to make alterations in tone, pitch, and, well, the sound of the harp by minute filing and bending them. Using just the right tools with just the right dexterity, a player who perceives that the tone of a specific hole should be adjusted slightly does so by bending the free end of the reed up or down. My advice: don’t even think of trying this.

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