21st Century Harp - Play Music, July 2005It’s a harp Jim, but not as we know it. Meet the HX-10000 Words: Chris Underwood
The harmonica has to be one of the most over-looked instruments in the history of music. As intrinsic to the birth of rock as the guitar, it shares exactly the same roots, originating in the blues and traditional folk music. Originally invented by a German clock-maker in 1821, it wasn’t until 1857 that anyone actually decided to mass-produce it.
It was at that time that the Hohner company started making harmonicas commercially and shipping them to the United States, where, to put it mildly, they went down pretty well. Abraham Lincoln had one, as did Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. The plaintive sound of the harmonica became synonymous with the American frontier spirit.
Decades later it found itself in frontier territory again, being the first instrument to be played in space. Until now however, the design and concept of the instrument has remained relatively unchanged. Harmonix’s radical new harmonica design should therefore be taken as a pretty significant step.
The company’s new Harmonix HX-1000 took six years in development and looks like an instrument from the future. It has a sleek ergonomic design and feels really comfortable to hold. It’s made from moulded plastic and slips easily into a pocket – one of the biggest selling points of the harmonica throughout its history has been its portability.
The first really smart thing with this harmonica, however, is the way in which it’s made up of three distinct parts. Firstly there is the cartridge, secondly the module and thirdly the housing which holds it all together. In essence this is a standard diatonic harmonica, in that it has 10 holes and 20 reeds.
Diatonic harmonicas traditionally get all their notes from only one key, so a harmonica, or ‘harp’ to use the lingo, in the key of G will only be able to give you notes in the key of G Major (and obviously its related keys). Ordinarily, you’d have to go out and buy different harmonicas in different keys or a slide-harp or chromatic harmonica, both of which use a slide system to give you the full chromatic range of notes and are considerably more expensive than diatonic harmonicas.
With the Harmonix HX-1000, however, the reed section of the harmonica comprises the cartridge, which is easily detachable from the main housing. You can buy a range of cartridges for around a tenner each and fit and remove whichever cartridge is in the right key for the song.
The second really smart thing about the Harmonix HX-1000 is that the other detachable part of the instrument can be replaced with either the EX-1 recording module or the WX-1 stagework module. The former comprises an integral microphone and 3.5mm jack socket while the latter features an integral microphone and licensed UHF wireless transmitter, although you will have to provide your own matching UHF receiver with this module.
Our Harmonix HX-1000 was so hot off the designer’s desk that we had to make do with a dummy microphone module but it did come with a funky CD-ROM with some basic tutorials and five ‘blues jams’ to play along to that kept me busking along for hours.
I have never played the harmonica on stage before but had always quite fancied giving it a shot, with the HX-1000 I had the perfect excuse. I had an acoustic gig booked at the Barfly in Camden that presented the perfect opportunity to properly roadtest my new harp. I’d had a play around with it in rehearsal and discovered that we definitely had at least one song in the key of C, meaning that theoretically anything I played with the C cartridge in would work. Whipping the HX-1000 out of my jeans-pocket as the song reached its big middle-eight section I dived into what I’d hoped would be a blistering bluesy refrain to accompany the guitar riff and guess what… it worked.
Technically it helped that it was impossible to play a bum note if the song is in the same key as the harmonica cartridge, but I was still excited enough to conclude that I may have found my perfect instrument. Now all I need to do is find me some frontier territory in which to practice. I wonder if Streatham Common will do? PM