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.
- Harmonica Terminology
- Top 5 Harmonicas
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.
Top 5 Harmonicas
Hohner Special 20 Harmonica
Founded in 1857 by Matthias Hohner, Hohner is easily one of the most notable manufacturers of harmonicas ever. Just about any musician to ever play the harmonica has used a Hohner at one point in time, and they’re so pervasive that even to this day they’re still the first choice for a variety of professional harmonica players. Currently they sell almost a million harmonicas a year, and if recent trends are anything to go by there’s nothing to suggest they’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
Hohner was actually a clockmaker by trade, hand carving his own harmonicas as a hobby rather than a career. However, by 1857 he turned his hobby into a financial pursuit. Originally, the harmonicas were made by only Hohner himself, his wife, and a single employee. However, the harmonicas quickly gained a lot of attention. He went from selling 650 harmonicas in his first year to having the largest harmonica factory in the world by his death. Hohner was also one of the first to produce chromatic harmonicas, which with the inclusion of a special valve could be played in any key (as opposed to the diatonic harmonica, which is limited to two or three keys depending on the skill of the musician in question). One of the most endearing harmonicas produced by the company is the Hohner Special 20, a professional grade harmonica that’s arguably one of the most popular in its class. To learn more about how it stacks up against the competition check out the specifications below.
The first thing to know about this harmonica is that it features a plastic comb. While this isn’t as traditional as pear wood, plastic actually isn’t a bad choice for a harmonica. The sound of the instrument is dictated by the reeds more so than the comb (the slotted portion that you blow through), so while it does have an impact on the sound it is by no means objectively worse. Plastic is also a long lasting material, less prone to the swelling inherent to wood combed harmonicas. Considering that professional grade harmonicas are at least $30, and the fact that you’re going to need harmonicas in several different keys, this longevity is a great selling point.
The Special 20 is also prized for an airflow suitable for advanced players. It’s responsive enough that it’s easy to play, but not to the point where bends or other more advanced techniques become difficult to accomplish.
This harmonica is available in 12 different keys, in addition to octave models as well as lower and higher octave tunings. It’s also the harmonica of choice for virtuoso John Popper of Blues Traveler, as well as the harmonica that was played by Bob Dylan on his 2007/2008 tour.
Special 20 harmonicas are prized for the responsiveness and sweet tone, which manages to pull of the aggressive wails exclusive to the instrument without sounding piercing or shrill. It’s also prized as a great beginner’s harmonica because it’s responsiveness allows inexperienced players to easily develop proper breath control and sealing techniques. For the price it’s one of the best options available. It’s affordable and durable enough to keep up with consistent practice.
The Hohner Special 20 is a great example of why Hohner has the place in the music industry it does. The instrument is well made, and for the price point it’s easily one of the more durable harmonicas you can buy. It’s also well suited to the needs of a beginner, constructed in a way that supports the development of proper beginner and advanced techniques.
Johnson Blues King Harmonica
While a professional grade harmonica isn’t all that expensive, it should be noted that to have the full range of the instrument available to you you’re generally going to have to ultimately purchase at least 12 harmonicas. This allows you to be able to play in different keys in a variety of positions (also called cross harp), giving you flexibility similar to that you’d get with any other instrument. So while a great harmonica may only be $40, if you multiply that by 12 you’re still going to be looking at an investment of close to $500. This is also a pretty bare bones harmonica rig, not counting the extra cost of a decent harmonica mic and niche harmonicas like octave or tremolo models.
Thankfully, for those of you who want to get into the harmonica without spending a lot of money there are a few options available to you. A notable example of which is the Johnson Blues King Harmonica.
The key thing to note about this harmonica is that it’s intended to be either a beginning harmonica for a musician who is looking to find an affordable way to get started with their instrument or a way for more advanced players to cheaply bolster the number of harmonicas they have in order to have the ability to play in a variety of different keys. So with that being said, you should know that this harmonica isn’t built with the same materials as something more expensive.
A good thing about this harmonica is that it does include a plastic carry case. Many cheaper harmonicas overlook this feature, which ends up making it very common for debris to end up being trapped within the reeds during transport because the harmonica doesn’t have any protection.
The main selling point of more expensive harmonicas is actually air flow, believe it or not. Cheaper harmonicas are generally prone to leaking air, which means that they require more air to play and to execute more advanced playing techniques. This results in bottom of the barrel harmonicas being almost impossible to play with any degree of proficiency because they don’t facilitate any of the techniques that make a harmonica a viable addition to an ensemble.
With that being said, the Johnson Blues King is relatively proficient in this area. It doesn’t have quite the warmth or breadth of tone you find with more expensive harmonicas, but it is sealed well enough to be a great learning option for beginners.
The Johnson has a very consistent volume from hole to hole. The benefits of this shouldn’t be understated, because this is a key component to having the ability to play more advanced passages easily. Overall, this is a great choice for beginners looking to try out the harmonica.
Suzuki Bluesmaster Harmonica
Much like Yamaha, Suzuki is a multi-national company that produces a staggering variety of different products. An interesting fact about the company is that they actually started as a loom company, facilitating Japan’s silk industry. This industry was arguably one of the most important industries in the country, which is likely why they had the capital to diversify to the point where they are today.
This is where the company began producing automobiles, building a variety of different small vehicles which were easily attainable for Japan’s burgeoning middle class. Unfortunately, due to the massive strain that WWII placed on the country automobiles for private use were deemed a non-essential good. This led to Suzuki once again returning to their roots until 1951 where they were able to diversify once again.
The challenges faced by Suzuki inform their business decisions to this very day, which is what inspired them to start manufacturing musical instruments and accessories. Their music division has produced a variety of well received products, including acoustic guitars, electronic instruments, and most notable harmonicas.
Suzuki harmonicas are the weapon of choice for a sizable portion of professional musicians, and while the company may not be best known for their musical instruments no one can say that the harmonicas they produce aren’t on par with any of their peers. A perfect example of the quality harmonicas produced by the company is the Suzuki Bluesmaster.
The key thing to know about this harmonica is that it’s built with durability and longevity in mind, featuring stainless steel cover plates. The plates are also designed to be incredibly ergonomic, fitting easily into the hand and facilitating proper coverage.
The Suzuki Bluesmaster also has a plastic comb, which while plastic isn’t generally considered a very acoustically rich material it does have its perks when used in a harmonica. Wood combed harmonicas are prone to swelling after they’ve been played consistently, absorbing the moisture from your mouth. The bad thing about this is that it can change the intonation of the notes you play, which makes you sound out of tune when you play. Wood is generally considered to have a warmth which plastic lacks at the cost of decreased longevity.
Lastly, the Suzuki Bluesmaster comes with a standard hardshell plastic harmonica case. This is expected at this price point, but it’s still an inclusion that’s heavily beneficial to whomever purchases the harmonica.
The most important thing to know about the sound of this harmonica is that it’s a professional quality instrument, and as such the tone and volume is going to blow any budget harmonica out of the water. It’s warm without sounding dull or muffled, and it features an aggressive high-end bite that manages to avoid becoming piercing.
The airflow of the harmonica also facilitates advanced techniques while still being responsive. The main difference from a Hohner harmonica (the main competitor at this price point) is that Suzuki harmonicas are generally considered to have a looser response. What this means is that while it takes more air to properly play the harmonica you don’t have to be quite as careful when performing advanced techniques like bending. You’re also less likely to overblow accidently, making the harmonica a solid choice for more inexperienced players.
A parallel that can be drawn with harmonicas is that Suzuki is to Hohner as Fender is to Gibson. Dedicated Hohner users find that the Suzuki’s airflow can make it a bit difficult to play, while those who prefer Suzuki believe that the increased airflow helps to produce an instrument that require less precise control to play. The various differences between the brands are up to personal preference, as while they’re both objectively a viable option they’re still going to vary based on playing technique and preferred tonal response.
The Suzuki Bluesmaster offers a great value to any musician looking for a quality harmonica. The only thing that you need to keep in mind is that Suzuki harmonicas generally have a looser feel than equivalently priced Hohners, which while they require more air to play the looser response does make it a bit easier to successfully pull of advanced harmonica techniques.
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.
Lee Oskar Harmonica
The main thing that differentiates one brand of musical instruments from another is their company ethos. There are companies who focus on occupying an underserved niche, those who try to make viable options for musicians on a budget, and those that are founded by musicians as a result of the founder being dissatisfied with the products available.
Lee Oskar harmonicas fall into the latter category. Oskar himself is actually a notable harmonica player in his own right, a founding member of the influential funk-rock band War. To this day he still plays regularly in three bands, so it’s safe to say that while his company has gone on to be a notable presence in the marketplace he definitely has not lost contact with his roots.
His company, which shares his name, was founded in 1983. He founded the company with the aim of increasing the flexibility of the harmonica and ensuring that musicians of all stripes will have a quality instrument available to them. With Oskar at the helm the company has inarguably furthered the harmonica’s place in modern music, creating new harmonica tunings which allowed musicians to explore previously unattainable genres such as Gypsy Jazz and Latin music.
A great example of Lee Oskar’s dedication to quality, the Lee Oskar Harmonica is a powerhouse in the market place. The sections below will give you more information on how it stacks up against the competition.
The Lee Oskar features a plastic comb, making it a viable choice for musicians who practice or play live very consistently. Plastic is a great choice for harmonicas because the sound is generated by the reeds rather than the material of the comb, so by using plastic manufacturers can ensure that their harmonicas have a longevity that wood combed harmonicas can’t match.
Another important factor of this harmonica is that Lee Oskar provides replacement reeds at a very affordable price, which considering that fact that many manufacturers sell their replacement reeds for almost the same cost of a new harmonica is pretty impressive.
Lastly, this harmonica is available in four different sizes. Larger harmonicas generally have more volume than their smaller counterparts at the expense of some focus. Noticeable larger harmonicas may even have an extra octave available, giving musicians even more flexibility in how they use they’re instrument in an ensemble setting.
This harmonica is a very warm sounding instrument, well suited to a variety of different genres. Lee Oskar harmonicas are also one of the tightest harmonicas available, making bends easily achievable. The con to this is that it’s significantly easier to overbend or overblow, which may make this harmonica a bit difficult for beginners to learn on. Lee Oskar harmonicas generally tend to have a higher level of quality control than similarly priced harmonicas, which is incredibly important if you plan on gigging or practicing regularly.
The Lee Oskar Harmonica is a great option for advanced harmonica players, but do to the stiffer response it has beginning harmonica players may find that the care required with playing this harmonica may make advancing on the instrument difficult.
Hohner 255 Chrometta 12 Harmonica
While harmonicas are a viable addition to a wide variety of genres, they’ve always had a significant flaw. Most harmonicas are diatonic, meaning that they’re unable to be played in more than a small handful of keys (the scale of the IV chord and the relative minor) without significantly advanced techniques, necessitating the purchase of a variety of different harmonicas in order to have the ability to play in the majority of keys that musicians will encounter.
Thankfully, if you’re looking to expand the amount of music you can play with a single harmonica you do have options available to you. You can learn a bit more about the theory of the instrument, gradually learning the necessary techniques. You can also pick up a chromatic harmonica, which via a valve on the side of the harmonica allows for a great variety of notes. A perfect example of a great chromatic harmonica is the Hohner 255 Chrometta 12 Harmonica. To learn more about this instrument, and the situations in which it will be a viable option, be sure to check out the information below.
In order to understand this harmonica, you first have to know the pros and cons of a chromatic harmonica. Most harmonicas are diatonic, meaning that they feature the notes of one scale. You can play in keys that share these notes, but as you get farther away from the original key it gets more and more difficult to play in others. Chromatic harmonicas fix this problem by having a valve, which when engaged changes the notes of the instrument. This gives you notes you wouldn’t have access to otherwise, making it easier to play different types of music.
The pros of this is that you have a greater degree of flexibility, but the downfall is that due to how these harmonicas function bends and overblows/draws are harder to accomplish. These techniques are the defining sound of blues and country harmonica. That’s not to say it’s impossible, it’s just difficult.
With that out of the way, the Hohner 255 uses a plastic injection molded comb. The channel openings/holes on this harmonica are wider, facilitating precision when playing fast single note passages. This can make chording a bit more difficult though, so it may necessitate a different approach for some styles.
This harmonica also utilizes two stainless steel cover plates. Stainless steel is great for harmonica plates due to its durability and resistance to tarnishing. There isn’t really a flaw associated with stainless steel covers apart from the fact that they’re more expensive than other options, which is why you generally find them on more expensive harmonicas.
This harmonica is a terrific option for an entry-level harmonica. Chromatic harmonicas require a greater degree of precision and a more complicated arrangement of components than diatonic harmonicas, which is why they are generally more expensive.
Lastly, the case is also reported as feeling a bit flimsy. This is a petty concern, but it should still be noted nonetheless.
The Hohner 255 Chrometta 12 Harmonica is a good option for a musician looking for a cheap entry level chromatic harmonica, just so long as prospective buyers realize that though this instrument is more expensive than diatonic harmonicas it’s equivalent in quality to a mid-range diatonic harmonica. Lastly, there are some reviews that state that they received instruments that suffered from poor quality control.
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.