'The harmonica is the most expensive instrument in the world'

Cathal Johnson, harmonica player, in his workshop where he repairs the instruments. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

Cathal Johnson, harmonica player, in his workshop where he repairs the instruments. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

Nestled amid the cluster of arts and crafts enterprises to be found around the small courtyard of The Forge, in New Road, is the workshop of Cathal Johnson, player and repairer of harmonicas.

Harmonicas of all shapes and sizes crowd his worktop on the day I visit, ranging from a choral orchestral harmonica which is over a foot long to the miniscule ‘Little Lady’ harmonica. The orchestral harmonica belongs to actor and musician Patrick Bergin, with whom Johnson has performed in the past — and they will be gigging together again soon with The Dominic Street Ramblers.

I began our chat by asking Cathal when he first became interested in the harmonica. “It was when I was in Redeemers Boys primary school in Dundalk,” he tells me. “Our teacher Jimmy Johnstone taught kids harmonica after school voluntarily. He was an All Ireland champion dancer three years in a row. He competed against Michael Flatley and always beat him, though Jimmy never took it up professionally like Flatley did. After I was taught by Jimmy I went to another man in Dundalk called Owney Kelly who was an even better harmonica player than Larry Adler; he was a genius, he was as good as Toots Thielemans. He was asked to play the theme music for Midnight Cowboy and was invited over to Hollywood but he was a Dundalk home-bird and wouldn’t leave the town. He was a roofer and just wanted to do his gigs with his band who played weddings, he just wasn’t interested in going to Hollywood.”

“Owney taught me how to play the chromatic harmonica,” Cathal continues. “He showed me the scale and when I came back a week later able to play it he told me ‘nobody taught me how to do that; I had to lock myself in my room for six weeks and figure out how to play the chromatic scale by myself. I show you and you come back in a week having got it.’ It showed how valuable it is to have a teacher working with you one-on-one can be. He was a great teacher. He actually told me to give up the harmonica because it is the most expensive instrument in the world to play. A lot of people find that hard to believe but it is true. Eddie Clarke was a famous Irish musician who played jigs and reels on the chromatic harmonica but he played them so vigorously that they’d break and he was having to buy new ones all the time and then within hours he’d have them broken. He used to play six hours a day so he just went through them and then he simply couldn’t afford to play them anymore. Today they’d be €180 and that choral orchestral harmonica would cost around €1,600. I first learned how to fix harmonicas because they kept on breaking on me so I started figuring out how to repair them.”

Cathal’s harmonica-repairing career began in 1994 while he was with the Access Music Project in Galway. “That’s when I started tweaking them which is what we call it in harmonica technician lingo,” he recalls. “I’d tweak notes that were out of tune and I managed to make the harmonicas last a bit longer. Then, crucially, when I finished my music degree [in solo harmonica playing] in 2010 I went over to Brendan Power in Canterbury and formally learned off him. He taught me how to change broken reeds; I remove a broken reed with special pliers, then use a hand-drill, I have thousands of reeds in there in the various keys and octaves. It’s a process that takes a bit of a knack but I am so used to it now I can do it really quickly. Brendan also taught me the different configurations you can retune a harmonica into. The harmonica is a very interesting instrument and in the last 30 years they discovered all these new notes that they never knew existed.”

Cathal gives a quick lesson in harmonica history and recent developments: “It was first designed to play German music. It was originally designed by clock makers in the 16th century and there used to be handles on them. In the 19th century Joseph Richter came up with this configuration that had the blow and draw mechanism so the first four notes are a chord and you play the melody with the side of your mouth. They then discovered that you could bend the notes even though they weren’t designed to do that. In the last 30 years a man called Howard Levy wasn’t happy with that and kept blowing looking for a note, he could hear there was another note in there and with a bit of customisation and what’s called profiling the reed — sinking it into the reed-plate and bending the end so it catches the air — he found this extra note and it also makes the diatonic harmonica into a chromatic one. Brendan Power is inventing loads of innovations as well.”

Johnson has also written a dissertation on the history of the harmonica in Ireland: “All the primary schools from the 1920s right up to the 1970s had harmonica bands, consisting entirely of harmonicas,” he explains. “In Irish music the harmonica came before the accordion and concertina. Those bands disappeared in the 1980s; we had one in my school when I was in primary school which had a lot of harmonicas as well as other instruments. I wrote about people like Don Baker, Brendan Power, who has Irish heritage, he played with Riverdance and did a lot for the revival of the harmonica in Irish music. Then there was the Murphy brothers of course. So the dissertation was on its history, where it went, where it is now and where it is going in the future.”

And where is the instrument going in the future? “What’s going on now probably won’t kick in for another 10 or 15 or 20 years with the developments that are going on,” Cathal replies. “Brendan Power is doing great things, Rick Epping from Sligo who was in Pumpkinhead is another great man, he developed this revolutionary harmonica the XB40, which is my favourite harmonica; it is beautiful. A lot of players haven’t yet realised what they can do with them, all that has yet to take place. Those ‘overblow’ harmonicas developed by Howard Levy have only been around for 30 years, though over-blowing is an advanced, difficult technique but Rick has made it simple with the XB40. All these innovations are fantastic. The harmonica is the highest selling instrument in the world; it outstrips all the others by millions.”

Johnson has been repairing harmonicas in earnest since 2011: “I set up a website that year and I won an environmental award for recycling harmonicas because people had been just throwing them away and even throwing away the reed-plates. If you send them to me your harmonica becomes more customised and sounds better. I then got formally endorsed as a repairer by Hohner and the National Harmonica League in England list me in the top three out of 20 in the whole world. Professional musicians like Patrick Bergin or Andy Irvine will send me a dozen or so harmonicas at a time and I’ll fix them up for a fraction of the cost of replacing them. They also get back a handmade crafted and customised instrument.”

So folks, don’t throw away those old and broken harmonicas — bring them along to Cathal Johnson.

Cathal Johnson will host a harmonica workshop on August 18 and 19 at the Forge Arts Centre on New Road. Starting at 11am to 1pm with a lunch break and back at 2pm to 3pm on both days. The workshop will include learning to bend notes, tongue techniques and embouchure, learning a blues or Irish tune, harmonica care and maintenance, with written and audio material included. Cathal will also include some harmonica repairs. Attendees please bring the key of C major. Harmonicas are available for sale at specially reduced rates on the days. Cost for the two day workshop is €150. Concession rates, €120. Ten places available only.

Cathal will also play with Patrick Bergin and The Dominic Street Ramblers at the Crane Bar on Sunday, September 15.

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