The harmonica may well be the easiest instrument to just pick up and play. You don’t have to worry about here to put your fingers or your feet. You don’t even have to make a funny face. Just pick it up and blow. This simplicity combined with the harmonica’s immense portability and affordability make the harmonica a great instrument for anyone and everyone to dabble with.
Inexpensive harmonicas can be a great way to introduce kids to music. Or they can serve as a faithful travel companion that lets you have an instrument in your pocket wherever you go. Despite this apparent simplicity, the harmonica can actually be a pretty tricky beast. Master harmonica players take what is little more than a toy in the hands of many and create amazingly evocative music.
This has earned the harmonica a place in a variety of genres spanning blues, country, folk, pop, rock ‘n roll, and even jazz. It turns out that finding the right harmonica to buy can be a little tricky, too. There are a few different styles which vary quite significantly from one another, along with a few details you need to know to get the right harmonica.
Let’s take a look at what you need to know to get a great harmonica.
Table of Contents:
- I. How To Choose A Harmonica
- II. About Your Harmonica’s Key
- III. A Word On Harmonica Microphones
- IV. How Much Should You Pay For A Harmonica
- V. Blow To Your Heart’s Content!
How To Choose A Harmonica
The first thing you need to know before purchasing a harmonica is what type of harmonica you’re looking for. There are three main types of harmonica, each quite different from the last:
- Diatonic Harmonica: This is the most popular and common type of harmonica. Diatonic harmonics are limited to a single key and are tuned in either a major or minor scale. This is the classic type of harmonica which requires nothing to play except for you to blow or inhale into it. Because diatonic harmonicas are limited to a single key, most harmonica players carry a set of diatonic harmonicas to account for a variety of musical situations. Diatonic harmonicas are the best option for beginners.
- Chromatic Harmonica: Unlike a diatonic harmonica, the chromatic harmonica is capable of producing all 12 tones of Western music. But it will require a bit of finesse. The chromatic harmonica works more or less like a diatonic one, but incorporates a level controlled by a small button which allows the player to access different tones. While much more difficult to master than a diatonic harmonica, chromatic harmonicas give access to any musical scale the player can dream up.
- Tremolo or Echo Harmonicas: Tremolo harmonicas (sometimes referred to as echo harmonicas) utilize a double reed system which produces two notes simultaneously. One note is intentionally tuned very slightly sharp and balanced by the other note being tuned very slightly flat. This creates a warbling “tremolo” effect and a very distinctive harmonica tone. Tremolo harmonicas can be found in both chromatic and diatonic varieties.
About Your Harmonica’s Key
When purchasing a harmonica, all the talk of keys, scales, and notes can get a bit mind boggling. Especially if you’re not much for music theory in the first place. Because the harmonica (specifically, the diatonic harmonica) is such a simple instrument, playing with other instruments gets a little complicated. For instruments to play in tune and harmoniously, they generally need to be in the same key, or in a related key which the musician knows will harmonize properly. But because a diatonic harmonica only has access to one set of notes, you can’t easily change between keys in the way other instruments can. As a result, you need a different diatonic harmonica for every different key you want to play in. To make things a little more complicated, blues harmonica players often play what is known as “cross harp,” where a harmonica tuned a perfect fourth below the key of the song is used. This creates the distinctively raunchy sound of blues and rock harmonica.
Because harmonicas are relatively inexpensive, harmonica players tend to accumulate a set of diatonic harmonicas in different keys. This allows for a lot of experimentation and enables knowledgeable harp players to make unique key choices to create unique scales and sounds. You might be thinking “well, I just wanted to play the harmonica. I wasn’t worried about any of that stuff.” So which key is for you, if you really don’t care and just want to play the harmonica?
For beginners, most instructors recommend a diatonic harmonica in the key of C.
A Word On Harmonica Microphones
It’s not uncommon for beginner or intermediate harmonica players to find themselves encountering some difficulty as they try to emulate the sounds of their favorite players. A big part of this can be due to the harmonica microphone being used on your favorite recordings. Although when practicing by yourself your harmonica is likely plenty loud, this is not the case in a band setting. It’s also not the case in a studio where the harmonica must be run through some kind of microphone to record the signal. These microphones can color and change the sound of the harmonica in ways both subtle and dramatic. Microphones and amplification even allow harmonicas to be run through effects and processing such as distortion, delay, reverb, and modulation effects.
So if you’re itching to get the sound of your favorite harmonica player, remember that the answer isn’t always buying a new harp. You may have to think outside the purely acoustic realm to get the results you desire.
How Much Should You Pay For A Harmonica
Being such a simple device, there are some extremely cheap harmonicas on the market. These go for as little as a few bucks, but they also amount to little more than cheap toys. Even high quality harmonicas are relatively inexpensive when compared to other instruments. Although high-end harmonicas can run up a bit of a bill, excellent quality harmonicas can be had for a small fraction of the cost of something like a guitar.
With that in mind, there is little reason to skimp on a harmonica if you’re serious about learning. Cheap harmonicas don’t work very well. They leak air, can have tuning issues, and have a poor tone. For a decent harmonica, you should expect to spend around $30-$70. This can get you access to a well built, quality harmonica suitable for practice or performance. However, cheap harmonicas from reputable manufacturers also have their place. We’ll take a look at a few super affordable harmonicas that can get you started for less than $20, but bear in mind that we recommend these primarily to familiarize yourself with the instrument without investing too much.
Let’s take a look at a few.
This harmonica from Fender is about as simple and as cheap as you’d want to go. Although it is bordering on being a toy, this is a decent way to introduce yourself to the instrument. Made to be extremely affordable at less than twenty bucks, the Blues Deluxe utilizes a molded PVC comb and brass reeds. It has a shiny chrome finish which gives it the look of a classic blues harp.
Although serious players are likely to find themselves wanting something a little more impressive, this Fender does provide a reliable entry level harmonica and is enough to show anyone the basic principles of the instrument. Plus, it’s cheap enough to buy on a whim. All in all, this is a not so shabby practice tool.
Stepping it up a little bit, we have the Hohner Special 20. Although three times the price of the Fender we looked at above, it probably offers ten times the build quality and still manages to retail for around $30. Hohner is a German company which bears the distinction of being the first company in the world to mass produce harmonicas. This move was instrumental in shaping the popularity of the harmonica in modern music.
Building on this pedigree, today Hohner remains one of the leading manufacturers of harmonicas. The Hohner Special 20 is an opportunity to have your own little piece of that history. Featuring an injection molded comb and brass reed plates enclosed in a stainless steel cover, this is a very well-built harmonica that won’t let you down at practice or on the stage.
Lee Oskar is a popular harmonica manufacturer with an expansive catalog of offerings sought out by beginners and professionals alike. This simple diatonic harmonica is in a major key. Its price point makes it extremely accessible for just about anyone, but its construction lends itself to serving well in a professional’s collection or as a stellar starter harmonica for a complete beginner.
One nifty feature beginners might find particularly helpful is the widened holes in the plastic comb, which make it easier to play the harmonica overall. It requires a bit less force as you move some extra air in with every draw or push. You also have the ability to replace the reeds on this Lee Oskar model, opening up the possibility of customization or to replace reeds that become fractured or damaged from use.
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Without a doubt, the Hohner Marine Band is one of the most iconic and recognizable harmonicas in music history. The weapon of choice for countless classic bluesmen from Sonny Boy Williamson to Little Walter and even used by pop music icon John Lennon, there is no other single harmonica model that has had as much an impact as the Hohner Marine Band.
A straightforward diatonic harmonica, the Marine Band makes use of an old school style wood comb and brass reeds. It has a distinctive look immediately recognizable to any serious fan of the harmonica and includes its iconic carrying case to round off the package. An absolutely essential entry in any harmonica collection and a fantastic place to start for any aspiring blues harmonica player.
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If you’re ready to break free from the restrictions of the diatonic harmonica, this chromatic Hohner is a way to do so in real style. Considerably more expensive than any of the diatonic harps we’ve looked at — and quite a bit more complicated to play — this isn’t the place for a complete novice to look. For those interested in stepping up their game and already comfortable with a diatonic harmonica, this is an excellent way to do so.
Offering a four octave range, all twelve delicious chromatic notes, and a beefy tone no diatonic harmonica can hope to match, this is truly an instrument to take your playing to the next level. Eminently versatile, this chromatic harmonica is more than suited to blues, rock, or even busting out some harmonica jazz.
Give a chromatic harmonica a try sometime. You might just be surprised what you find.
Finally, we’re rounding off the list with a quick look at a tremolo harmonica. The Suzuki 2Timer is a quality harmonica, well built and good looking. The dual-reed design produces the unique tone popularized in folk and country music. While not ideal for every application, the intriguing sound of a tremolo harp is one you’re not soon to forget. Very fun to play with and a great tool in any harmonica players’ arsenal.
We wouldn’t recommend a tremolo harmonica for a beginner, unless you already know that it has the sound you’re gunning for. But for anyone looking to spice up their harmonica playing with something unique, this is a fun and affordable way to do so.
Blow To Your Heart’s Content!
Find the perfect harmonica and it can be your companion wherever you go. Take the music with you! Whether you practice just a few minutes a day, or find yourself in-demand for performances as a harmonica player, it is an extremely rewarding hobby for your mind and your overall musicality.
Remember to never take your harmonica for granted. No matter how simple an instrument it may be, always remember the incredible expressiveness a master harp player can muster from his reed.