The harmonica may seem as American as the blues. But for years, virtually every harmonica in the U.S. was made somewhere else, with Germany's Hohner accounting for most of them. Musicians now have a homegrown alternative. On Feb. 1, Harrison Harmonicas shipped its first batch of products from a workshop in a business incubator in Rockford, Ill. Its B-Radical mouth organ isn't for beginners—the hand-assembled harmonica sells for $180 vs. $25 for a Hohner Blues Bender—but Brad Harrison, the company's founder and president, says his harmonicas are built to last since every one of the 20 brass reeds can be swapped out for a new one. Harrison, 40, decided to start his own factory after 14 years of custom-building harmonicas for such celebrities as Bono and Bruce Willis and a short gig as a consultant in Japan for Suzuki Musical Instruments, which also makes harmonicas. In 2008 he entered entrepreneur competitions in Illinois and won $55,000. Harrison got further assistance from the Rockford campus of Northern Illinois University, which has lent him engineers to help him set up his shop. And he chipped in some $200,000 of his own, from savings and loans. He began taking orders through the company's Web site last year. Harrison Harmonicas now employs a half-dozen engineers and a half-dozen assemblers, who work an eight-hour shift. He hopes to produce and ship 30 to 50 harmonicas a day to start. At that pace, he says, his backlog alone will carry the company until April.
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