Past Masters – Hohner Harmonica
It was early on in John Lennon’s career that he really sunk his teeth into the harmonica (metaphorically speaking, we hope). The Beatles’ early, R&B inspired hits like “Love Me Do” and “I Should Have Known Better” introduced a whole generation of newly minted rock’n’roll fans to the instrument’s lighting-quick runs and soulful, reedy sounds. He ended up putting it away as the group blossomed into their more album-oriented period, but Lennon still remains a figure strongly associated with the classic instrument.
Maker of the legendary Marine Band harmonicas (nearly synonymous with the instrument itself), Hohner has recently unveiled its very special John Lennon Signature Series: Harmonica. It’s only the third time the company has released a signature series. The first two were for Bob Dylan and Steven Tyler. This latest one is a handsome-looking instrument with beautiful white [things] and the instantly recognizable hand-drawn Lennon self-portrait sketch.
MMR spoke over the phone with Hohner director of marketing and sales, Scott Emmerman from his office in California about the product and its place in what’s turned out to be a very successful few years for the company, and how it correlates with Emmerman’s taking the position with Hohner five years ago.
Scott says the idea came to him when he first joined the company and began looking through old endorsement files. “Hohner is 157 years old and we used to make a keyboard called the Clavinet which was used by all the famous keyboard players,” he says. “So when I looked through all the old endorsee files, there were all sorts of names you’d never expect. Sammy Davis Jr. was an endorser, and Liberace, and of course Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock and those kinds of guys. Plus all the harmonica players through the years – Little Walter, Johnny Cash, John Mayall, and virtually every major recording artist who was playing a harmonica at the time.”
Then he came to one endorsement that never saw the light of day: The Beatles. “In 1964, Hohner did a deal with The Beatles management to produce a Beatles harmonica. It cost $2.99 and the box had pictures of the four Beatles,” he says. Unfortunately, Emmerman learned that a mistake in the packaging that switched members’ names in relation to their photos forced the company to scrap the entire project. “It was all destroyed and all the harmonicas were sold off to a liquidator so those harmonicas never really had much of a life in this country.”
Emmerman saw an opportunity. Why not re-issue the product with the historic tie-in in mind? It would have been a great deal just at that — the Beatles brand has been an ever-renewing well of popularity, especially with the recent re-releases of all of their albums and the massively popular Rock Band video game tie-in.
He never got much of a response from the people at Apple headquarters, but he did eventually get a call from the group’s merchandising representation at LiveNation. “They explained to me that The Beatles legal entity is fraught with legal constraints, disputes, and whatnot,” he says. “But they said that they do represent John Lennon and Yoko Ono and that they were interested in doing a Signature harmonica. That’s how it started. I then worked with LiveNation and Yoko Ono to develop the project.” Ono, Lennon’s widow, band mate, and outspoken artist to this day, remained heavily involved with the process and had full approval of every step of the project.
Emmerman says that Lennon makes a great candidate for the Signature Series treatment because of his history with instrument. “He played harp on four or five of their first top ten hits and it was a big part of many early Beatles songs,” notes Emmerman. “What’s interesting was that when they first came to the US, their manager, Brian Epstein, was very concerned with their image. He wanted them to be very squeaky clean and to appeal to Middle America. He thought the harmonica was more of a blues instrument and would be too associated with black R&B music, so John didn’t play it on that first tour and it kind of disappeared from their music in general. “You don’t really hear it much after that up until the White Album.”
And yet, Lennon’s use of the instrument proved to be influential to a generation of rockers. “He’s such an icon of the music business and I think his playing of it in those early days really broadened the instrument’s appeal to people who’d maybe never have known what a harmonica sounded like. He really brought a lot of new interest to the instrument.”
The new Signature Series Model, itself, was designed more as a tribute to the late pioneer, rather than a replica of he played. “Our goal was to honor him with a great contemporary instrument,” says Emmerman, who discovered that Lennon favored a model called the “Echo Vamper,” which was a version of the regular Marine Band only available in Europe. He says the Signature Series is very different: “Much more air-tight with more consistent response with better tone.” The result ended up being the first harmonica in Hohner’s entire history to come emblazoned with a full-color logo. “We used John Lennon’s caricature, that drawing of himself, but in rainbow color on white color plates and see-through acrylic chrome.”
The packaging, he says, looks like an Apple product. “It’s like nothing else we’ve ever made.”
The harmonica is available now and comes at a time when Hohner is posting great figures. Emmerman says the company, which has jettisoned brands like Sabian and distro deals for Remo, Vic Firth, Vader, ProMark, and others in favor of focusing on core brands, was up about 39 percent over their net income year-over-year from the previous year (in which they were up about the same amount).”It was a really strong year for us,” he says.
The company is also preparing for another lurch forward in the ukulele market, which it already seems to have a strong grasp on through its longtime Lanikai and Kohala lines. “We sold 300,000 ukuleles in the U.S. In 2011,” Emmerman says. “That makes us easily the number one brand in North America. Hohner is now working on its new Tuna Uke technology, a system designed to enable a ukulele (always a finicky intonation) to play totally in-tune across the fretboard.
“We introduced the prototypes at the [Winter NAMM Show] and had a lot of excitement around it,” Emmerman says. He expects the first units to begin shipping this summer and says it should be a solid addition to the company’s steady handling of ukuleles. “We want to make instruments that musicians want to play,” he says. “We’re not really interested in gimmick ukes or jokey kind of quirky stuff. A lot of guitar players nowadays want a uke to add to their repertoire. It has joined the mandolin, the banjo, and the 12-string guitar as another voice in the fretted players toolbox.”
Throw in a brand new marketing center designed to test out new POP displays and even stage convention booth displays (they perform dry runs of NAMM setups in the new space as well), and it would seem Hohner has a lot to look forward to throughout the second half of 2012. Emmerman chalks it up to common sense. “We’re just trying to focus on our strengths.”