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Amazing Free Reed History, from Harmonicist Pat Missin

June 15, 2012

Pat Missin is a harmonica player who’s pulled together an amazing history of free-reed instruments.  Free-reeds include harmonicas, accordions, concertinas, pump-organs, and those melodica mouth-piano things, and seems to almost include jew’s harps (like “Y” is a vowel sometimes).  Neat.


What Is A Free Reed?

A free reed is a small strip of material (most commonly of metal, but in some cases made of plastic or vegetable matter such as bamboo) fixed at one end, but set in or over a slot that is fractionally wider than the reed itself. As a result, when pressure (or suction) is applied, the reed swings freely though the slot to set up a vibrating column of air which gives voice to the instrument.

Origins Of The Free Reed

The free reed is represented in its most basic form by the enggung (or ngo) of Bali. This is a piece of bamboo or palm bark fashioned into the shape of a handle with free reed cut into one end. This end is placed over the player’s mouth and with the appropriate mouth shape, various notes can be produced.

[How to hand-make a free-reed]  A piece of brass or bronze (although certain Asian guimbardes are also made of steel) is hammered to the correct thickness, this hammering process also serving to work harden the metal, giving it a “springy” quality. The outline of the reed is scratched into the metal using a sharp tool, then this outline is worked over and over again until it is just visible on the other side of the metal, but not quite cut through all the way. This other side of the brass is then sanded lightly until the reed is freed, with a cut of extremely close tolerance around it.

He’s got a slew of pages that cover a lot of ground (literally, geographically).  His is the best run-down I’ve seen in English on Asian free-reeds and how they influenced the eventual European development of the accordion.  Hint: the Chinese Sheng was not the first free-reed.  And did I read it right that the modern harmonica was developed after the accordion?  Interesting.  I guess the whole “blow one way, suck the other” arrangement was a pretty clever innovation at some point.  Huh.  Cool stuff.

Eastern Free Reed Instruments  (many, many examples given with pages of photos and sound samples!)

The tödiap (also spelled töjiap, or tödiep), also known as toki or dding-rowang, is a side-blown free reed horn used by the Jarai of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. A slot is cut into the side of a water buffalo horn and a mouthpiece made of wax is built over it, containing an idioglottal free reed made of bamboo which responds to both blowing and drawing:

A Selective Discography Of Asian Free Reed Instruments

[I want all these records.  We need to do several episodes of Accordion Noir to cover these instruments.  Awesome!]

Western Free Reed Instruments (how the West got the accordion.)

This illustration is from Marin Mersenne’s 1636 work Harmonie Universelle. Although he describes the instrument as “Indian”, it is clearly something like the Thai/Laotian khaen.

Above are three versions of the Hohnerette blow accordion taken from a Spanish language Hohner catalog from the early 1900s. In addition to the models shown, Hohner also produced the 3B model which had no less than five brass horns. They made little difference to the sound, but they certainly looked impressive.

And who wants to miss the “Goofus!”

The above illustration is taken from French patent 569294 awarded in 1924 to the brass and woodwind manufacturers Couesnon. The instrument is described in the patent as a “saxophone jouet” (“saxophone toy”), but was marketed under the name Couesnophone. This proved a little difficult for English-speaking people to pronounce, so it was commonly anglicized as “queenophone”, but it was even more commonly known as goofus.
The instrument did resemble a sax, an instrument very much in vogue at the time, but it was actually a free reed instrument much like the harmonicor, with the reeds being selected by piston-like keys arranged in a similar manner to the keys of a piano – one row of keys giving a C major scale, the other row arranged in alternate groups of two and three to give the sharps and flats. It could be played whilst held in a position similar to a sax, but it also came with a long rubber tube that allowed the player to place it on a horizontal surface and play it like a keyboard whilst blowing it through the tube.

Thank you Pat Missin for your remarkable work bringing all this together!

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