Building a better mouth harp
By Dan Day
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
Lee Oskar is one of those legends whose name you may not know, yet you’ve probably heard his harmonica playing. His distinctive harp riffs provided the hook for chart-topping classic hits such as “Cisco Kid” and “Low Rider” with the pioneer funk/jazz group WAR. He’s also recorded many solo albums and his music has been featured in TV commercials. For the last 25 years, a line of harmonicas bearing his name has become a favorite of many players around the globe. Musician’s Friend interviewed Lee Oskar to find out what led him to develop his own harmonica. Lee explained that, as a professional musician, he had played many harmonicas, leading to a lot of frustration that built up over the years.
“Available harmonicas lacked the quality I wanted and needed. I would go to a music store and buy 10 harmonicas and find only one played properly.” By the late 1970s Lee had decided he wanted a better harmonica, so he began working on his own design ideas.
Teaming with Tombo
It took Lee five years of hard work to achieve his goal of a better harmonica. His first task was finding a company to manufacture his harps. He heard about Tombo Musical Instrument Company in Japan, a company that had been producing quality harmonicas for more than 80 years. In late 1978 Lee started talking to Tombo about his ideas.
“I explained exactly what I wanted from my harmonicas: greater response and smoother action; I wanted a singing quality. Right out-of-the-box most harmonicas had terrible action; the reeds were stiff and didn’t respond quickly and accurately. A major problem was air leakage, which robs a harmonica of power and makes it harder to play. Tuning existing harmonicas was a problem—you couldn’t easily remove the cover plates and reed plates to file the reeds. Reattaching the cover and reed plates was difficult. They had deficiencies that needed modification, but they couldn’t be easily tweaked.”
Building a quality harmonica
Lee used Tombo’s 10-hole harmonica as a starting point. A dozen prototypes were created as Lee and Tombo worked to refine the variables. He wanted cover plates and reed plates that could be easily removed and reattached with screws.
A big problem for many players is that wood combs swell up, then shrink and splinter, injuring the player’s lips. Lee replaced the wood comb with a plastic comb because plastic doesn’t swell and is easy to clean. The plastic comb is precision molded and the recessed bed holds the reed plates snugly and securely to prevent air leakage. This super airtight design along with wide reed chambers makes Lee Oskar harmonicas easy to play with smooth vibrato and easy note bending. Tombo suggested reeds that were narrower and longer than those used in other harmonica lines. Lee was impressed with their specs, which included more copper for better resilience. He wanted reed plates that were interchangeable, so when a reed went bad the player didn’t have to buy a new harmonica.
After completing research and development, Tombo began production of Lee Oskar harmonicas. To this day, extreme attention is paid to quality control so that each Lee Oskar plays exactly as specified right out-of-the-box. “Tombo’s production process is incredible to watch as reeds and reed plates are manufactured to exact tolerances using precision die-cutting. My harps are tuned slightly higher for a brighter sound. The slightly higher tuning also counteracts the natural tendency of harmonica reeds to go flat.”
Word of mouth
By 1983, with production underway, Lee finally had a product to sell. “Then I had to go out and sell it. Marketing was a challenge. Retailers were asking, ‘Why do we need another harmonica?’ Instead of spending a lot of money on advertising, I realized that I should go out and promote it myself, create a buzz among players at the grass-roots level, and let word of mouth spread the news.” Some famous people who have played Lee Oskar harmonicas include Dan Aykroyd, Van Morrison, Beck, Clint Black, Roger Daltrey, Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Wells, and, playing the Natural Minor tuning harp, Mick Jagger and the late Willie Dixon. Lee emphasizes this did not involve endorsement deals where the player is approached by the company and compensated to use the product; these were players who had discovered the Lee Oskar harmonica on their own and loved its design and playability.
In addition to the major diatonic harmonica, which is the most commonly used tuning for blues, rock, country, and folk players, Lee Oskar offers three altered tunings: The Melody Maker, Natural Minor, and Harmonic Minor. With the Melody Maker you can play single-note melodies in cross harp position without having to bend notes; however, notes can still be bent for more expressive playing. Describing the Natural Minor Lee said, “It plays in minor keys for that soulful, funky sound. They’re great for playing minor blues, rock, country, pop, reggae, and jazz, without having to strain with advanced playing techniques such as bends and overblows to find all the missing notes.” Again, like all Lee Oskar harmonicas, many notes can easily be bent to add even more color and expression to your playing. The Harmonic Minor makes it easy to play exotic Eastern European sounds including gypsy, Yiddish, Italian, and Greek, as well as Asian modes.
Features & Specs
- Airtight construction
- Plastic comb
- Stainless steel cover plates
- Tuned to 441Hz for brighter tone
- Replacement reeds in all keys for all four harmonica tunings (except Melody Maker: A, C, D, E, and G only)
- Slide-together interlocking boxes