In our harmonica buyers’ guides we outline the differences between the models produced by the major manufacturers. This time it’s the turn of Lee Oskar.
What’s in a Name?
The world of harmonicas has its fair share of artist-related products – from the signature models of harp produced by Hohner and carrying the names of such luminaries as Bob Dylan and Ozzy Osborne, through to artist-endorsed models, such as Stevie Wonder’s Super 64x.
There is, however, only one musician who has established an entire company devoted to designing and promoting a complete range of harmonicas – legendary virtuoso and ex War member, Lee Oskar.
Lee Oskar – A Brief History
Oskar was given his first harmonica at the age of six, during a time when, he recalls, the instrument was enjoying a period of particular popularity amongst children in his neighbourhood. Unlike many of his peers, though, Oskar persisted with his playing, and when he moved to the United States, at the age of 18, the harmonica was one of the few items that travelled with him.
Following a short period busking on the streets of New York, Oskar made his way to Los Angeles, where he met former Animals frontman Eric Burdon. This meeting ultimately led to the two collaborating with other musicians to form the band War, which won international plaudits for its output in the emerging jazz funk genre in the late 1960s and beyond.
Oskar left War in 1993, after 24 years, to pursue solo projects and expand his harmonica company, which he had started a decade earlier, and which today produces a range of harmonicas in a wide variety of tunings, all manufactured by Tombo in Japan.
A Model of Simplicity
With many of the older harmonica manufacturers there’s an often bewildering array of models and harmonica types on offer, many with similar names, which can make choosing the correct one for your needs somewhat difficult.
Lee Oskars harmonica range, in comparison, is mercifully simple: one basic design of ten hole harp with four varieties of tuning. They’re even colour coded to help with identification. Let’s look at the design, and key differences:
This is a standard major key diatonic harp, with an identical note layout to other major diatonic harmonicas, such as the Special 20, Folkmaster and Marine Band. Played in the first position, the root note, therefore, is on the 4th hole when blowing.
In terms of construction, it features a plastic comb, which eliminates the swelling issues that can afflict wooden combs, and replaceable brass reed plates. These are mounted to the comb with 3 self-tapping screws, which enable easy disassembly.
It’s interesting to note that all Lee Oskar models are tuned to 441 plus – slightly higher than the 440 which has become a modern standard for many instruments. This can provide a brighter sound, but it also compensates for the slight flatness induced by most harmonica players. Furthermore, they’re equal tuned, as are many harps produced in Japan, which makes them particularly suited to single note playing.
Lee Oskar recommend this harmonica for blues, folk, rock, country and pop genres.
This natural minor harmonica is identical in construction to the major diatonic, and features the same equal tuning, but the notes available are from the listed natural minor, rather than major, scale.
These harps are designed to be played in the 2nd position and are labelled as such (ie a G minor will have its root note at hole 2 draw, not hole 4 blow).
The Natural Minor is suited to playing minor key material without the need to bend to reach the requisite notes of the minor scale. Lee Oskar recommend it for use with minor key music in the blues, rock, country, reggae, pop and jazz genres.
The Harmonic Minor model is, again, identical in construction to other Lee Oskar harps. In terms of tuning, it is similar to the natural minor harp, but with the seventh note raised one semitone. So, for example, A harmonic minor would have the same notes as A natural minor except that the F would be replaced with an F#.
This tuning is particularly suited to traditional ethnic music, which can be difficult to play on a major diatonic or natural minor harmonica.
The Harmonic Minor is labelled in the first position.
Melody Makers are tuned to play major scales, but are designed to be played in the second position (and are labelled as such). This makes it possible to play certain pieces of music, especially those that contain exact melodies that do not include bending, much more easily than on a major diatonic harp.
This makes them less suited to the blues, but more suited to country, pop, world, African and reggae genres.
Having a range of harps with different tuning types can add colour to your playing and can have the beneficial effect of encouraging you to explore new musical directions. Try one of the Lee Oskar harmonicas today and see where it takes you!