BOB DYLAN & HOHNER HARMONICAS: Sessions

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When you think of harmonica players in the last 50 years, a few come to mind, but none quite like Bob Dylan. The man pretty much codified a style for harmonica playing that all singer/songwriters have since become beholden to.

When you think of harmonica players in the last 50 years, a few come to mind, but none quite like Bob Dylan. The man pretty much codified a style for harmonica playing that all singer/songwriters have since become beholden to. And not only was Dylan a unique stylist on the instrument, but, especially early on, his long, searching, expressionistic harmonica interludes played perfect counterpoint to his fiery poetics.

And thus from the man who in a famous, off-handed remark called for the Newport Folk Festival audience in 1964 to “just throw up” [to the stage] any E harmonicas, comes the Bob Dylan Collection of hand-signed harmonicas from Hohner. For an artist known to innovate and change styles with practically every breath, Dylan has been uncharacteristically devoted to playing Hohner harmonicas through the years. And Hohner would certainly seem to be the ideal partner for such commitment; they possess the wonderful distinction of being one of the world’s oldest musical instrument makers.

“It was not easy to achieve the standard that Bob Dylan represents. Among other things, we gold-plated the reed plate in order to achieve the specific sonic requirements,” says Scott Emmerman of Hohner. The new harmonica has a decidedly louder projection with a thick, bright tone and, one imagines the increased volume and sonic variation will be ideal for Dylan, whose playing is all about expression.

For true aficionados of the harp and the man, Hohner is releasing a set of seven Marine Band harmonicas which have been played and hand-signed by Bob Dylan. This release is limited to 25 sets worldwide while an additional 100 harmonicas in the key of C, also hand-signed by Bob Dylan, will be available. (There will also be a regular collection of the set-of-seven, which is in the natural keys of C, G, D, F, A, B, and E, as well as single harmonicas available for individual purchase.)

Dylan’s harmonica-playing grew out of his early folk singer sensibility, but his style has also evolved with his music. The harmonica has served Dylan as an emblem through his various styles: folk, folk rock, country-western, gospel, blues, to name just a few. In an interview with Emmerman, Dylan describes his early attraction to the instrument. “When I was performing solo in coffee houses…I got the approach from Woody Guthrie…it really gave a coffee house performer more variety to be able to keep the rhythm on guitar while playing the harp.”

In the interview Dylan acknowledges the influence of Little Walter, although he notes that his own style is “a more chordal thing, as opposed to the single note style” of the great Chicago blues harmonica players. The way Little Walter locked in on the melody with Muddy’s thin, emotive Telecaster slide guitar playing made for some of the best blues cuts of the era. You’d be hard-pressed to find comparable playing today; indeed, Dylan notes that there has been nary a harmonica player that has piqued his interest in recent years.


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