Playing the Saxon blues

Playing the Saxon blues
Photo: Seydel
The Local’s series Made in Germany presents the best the country has to offer, including the world-class blues harmonicas from Seydel.

From luxury cars to precision machinery, “Made in Germany” still means quality craftsmanship around the world. But the Teutonic attention to detail goes far beyond engineering. This series will feature a diverse array of products from both well-known German brands and less famous firms. But no matter big or small, all of them are focused on being the best at what they do.

You may have known that those American blues harmonica riffs come from an instrument originally created to play traditional German folk music. But you might not know that the world’s oldest operating harmonica makers, C.A. Seydel Söhne, are still making these instruments by hand in Klingenthal, Saxony’s “musical city.”

In 1847, two brothers from a mining family, Johann Christian Seydel and Christian August Seydel, were trained as instrument makers after mining in the area stopped. They founded a harmonica company, later named C.A. Seydel Söhne. As early as the 1870’s, some of their harmonicas were shipped to the United States, and by the 1890’s, the Seydel harmonicas produced in Klingehthal were sold around the world.

The company, which has had enough ups and downs to write a blues ballad of its own, continued to grow through the early part of the 20th century – during World War I, harmonicas were the only musical instrument soldiers were allowed to carry, and their mournful tunes could be heard on both sides of the trenches. With the end of war, however, nearly all the company’s overseas trading partnerships were destroyed.

A period of slow recovery was ruined by the deep economic depression starting in 1929, followed by another upswing in 1931. During World War II, two women took charge of the business, when the family men where conscripted into the army. After the war, the company became part of a large East German cooperative, and until the end of the communism in 1989, they mass-produced relatively inexpensive instruments geared for sale in the west.

In 1991, C.A. Seydel Söhne was returned to the Seydel family, and production was restarted using communist-era tools. In spite of several innovations (including a new ergonomic body and a plastic comb), the company stood on verge of bankruptcy in 2004. At its darkest hour, the German firm Niama Media, impressed by the employees’ loyalty (they kept showing up to work, even though their salaries hadn’t been paid), stepped in and saved the company.

As part of the restructuring that occurred after that, C.A. Seydel Söhne opened a subsidiary in the United States, an important harmonica market. “Before that, US distributors were taking our products and putting their own names on them, then selling them,” said Lars Seifert, who took over as president after the restructuring. “We wanted to go straight to the customer.”

Today, they have 24 employees in Klingenthal, and three salespeople in the United States. From start to finish, the Seydel harmonicas are German made, mostly in the Klingenthal factory. Prices range from €9.95 for the least expensive mini-harp to some costing €5,000 or more. Stainless steel reeds set newer models apart from the competition.

When Seifert took over in 2005, he didn’t know how to play the harmonica. That’s changed, though Bob Dylan probably doesn’t need to worry. “I can play, now,” he said. “But I’m no artist.”