Photo by Axel Hartmann
For the average musician, harmonicas are a bit of a mystery. Each company that specializes in harmonicas has dozens of different models available, in a wide variety of keys and price points. So what’s a musician to do?
Well if you’ve always been curious as to which harmonica will be the best fit for you, you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you the run down on what to look for in a harmonica, as well as an explanation on some of the terminology associated with the instrument.
Just like any other instrument, the harmonica has a lot of terminology associated with it. The section below certainly isn’t comprehensive, but it will cover everything that you’ll need to know in order to make an informed purchase.
Diatonic: When a harmonica advertises itself as being diatonic, it means that it’s designed around being easy to play in a single key. It doesn’t mean that it only plays in that key, because of course there are shared notes from key to key. For example, you can play a harmonica that’s labeled as being a diatonic in the key of C in A minor (because A minor is the relative minor of C and the two keys share the same notes) and F major. You will have to play things differently, but it can be done.
Chromatic: A chromatic harmonica on the other hand, is designed to facilitate playing in every key. Whereas a diatonic harmonica is limited to its labeled key, its relative minor, and a few neighboring keys, a chromatic harmonica can be played in every key.
Comb: On a harmonica, the comb is the material that holds the reeds. This doesn’t include the top plate, which is where you place your hands to hold the harmonica.
Reeds: Generally made of bronze, the reeds are what you blow air through to make noise.
Tuning: The tuning of a harmonica doesn’t refer to the key, it refers to the layout of the notes on the harmonica. Almost every western harmonica uses Richter tuning, which facilitates playing triads (groups of three notes) as well as easy lead lines and scales.
Though harmonicas are largely inexpensive, you still get what you pay for. Try to steer clear of instruments in the $5 to $15 range, as you will be getting an inferior instrument. All of the harmonicas below fall in the sweet spot of being pretty inexpensive while offering a lot of playability and some great tone.
The choice of professional musicians the world over, the Hohner Special 20 Harmonica provides an excellent value to any musician. Sporting a durable airtight plastic comb, this diatonic harmonica is a durable workhorse. Handmade in Germany, the Hohner Special 20 is more than capable of meeting whatever challenge you have to throw at it.
From the rip roaring tones of Chicago all the way to folk superstardom, the Suzuki Bluesmaster Harmonica is a tone machine. Sporting an ABS plastic comb, stainless steel covers, and ergonomically designed reeds, this harmonica is a great fit for budding and professional musicians alike. Like the Hohner, the Suzuki Bluesmaster is available in all 12 standard keys.
If you need a no frills blues or rock harmonica, look no further than the Lee Oskar Harmonica. Sporting an airtight plastic comb with larger holes to facilitate clear lead lines and extra volume, replaceable reeds, and a sleek minimalist design, it’s no surprise that the brand has garnered the praise that it has.
According to general consensus, the Lee Oskar Harmonica has a warm and expressive tone, perfect for everything from the blues to folk a la Bob Dylan.
For more than a hundred years, Hohner has been the world’s premier harmonica manufacturer. And while different models, designs, and materials have all come and gone, they’ve always had a reputation for manufacturing quality products.
The Hohner 255 is no exception to this trend either, sporting wide channel openings in the reeds to facilitate playability, a plastic injection molded comb, and stainless steel covers, this chromatic harmonica will be more than capable of accompanying you wherever your music leads.
Like any other instrument, choosing the right harmonica for your needs can be a bit of a challenge. But hopefully with the information you’ve found in this article, you’ll be able to make a decision as to which instrument will be the right choice for your needs.