Harmonica/Harmonica Purchasing guide
Paraphrasing from the Guitar book: An instrument that doesn't get played is worthless at any price. As such, when buying a harmonica, it is best to buy one that is of good quality, and have plenty of materials for it.
Unless you get a harmonica off someone you know very well or have found a very special variety, and are willing to go through the process of sanitizing the harmonica, you should never buy it off of someone else — especially not on eBay. Unlike other instruments, harmonicas have much more contact with the mouth, and also are seldom cleaned; the end result is numerous gunks on the harmonica. My own harmonica has plenty of skin cells on the mouthpiece, so who knows what's inside the body of the harmonica.
That being said, a harmonica is not an expensive instrument, so you do not have much reason to go for a second hand, unless, as stated, you need a special variety. For example, a good quality diatonic, such as Hohner's Big River Harp, is about $20 (£30) with tax, while a low quality one is even less, such as Hohner's Bluesband ($3.50, £15) and Hot Metal ($7.00). The problem, of course, is the quality; Bluesband, for example, is not polished, just completely machine made. Also, a good quality harmonica will always come with a hard plastic case, with the higher end offer cushioned linings and a certain degree of protection (that being said, don't expect your harmonica within to survive a two-story drop).
Comb Material Recommendation
While comb materials do not come into play in terms of sound (especially to the general audience), they do matter in terms of maintenance. There are four kinds of materials:
- Wood: The famous Hohner "Marine Band" and "Chromonica 270" harmonica have wooden combs, and some say it has a better, more "warm" sound than any other material. This, however, remains to be proven. A wooden comb has the marked disadvantage of swelling with moisture, as well as being prone to other problems (humidity-related change of size, splintering, warping, and so on). Sometimes, the swelling of a wooden comb can cause it to jut out and cut into your lips as you play the harmonica, although, this rarely happens on newer wooden combed harmonicas. The new deluxe version of the Hohner Marine Band avoids this with specially re-engineered and sealed pearwood, but it is still relatively moisture-sensitive when compared with plastic or metal.
- Plastic (ABS): Easy to maintain, and is becoming the most-used material for the comb. It is also very easy on the lips.
- Plexiglass: Common in high-end models. As a plastic variant, it is easy to maintain, but many say it can crack easily.
- Metal: Usually a thick Aluminium billet, but sometimes stainless steel is used. Sounds the same as plastic, but less prone to wear and tear due to screws. However, watch out for the aluminium oxide powder that may form, since it is abrasive. Expensive.
For a beginner, I'd recommend picking one of the two plastic combs (or a metal comb, if you do not care about the price), since it has almost no disadvantages.
For all kinds of harmonicas, the cover (or more correctly, the resonating chamber the covers formed) is what actually create the acoustics of a harmonica. There are two basic kinds:
- Traditional cover This appears in the cheap-to normally priced harmonicas, such as Hohner 270, 280, and Big River. The back of the covers are more open, delivering a bright and clear tone of the instrument. This makes playing amplified through a bullet mic better, as it basically delivered all the sounds; thus is preferred by Blues players. Note that both Marine band and Big River have holes on the side too, which makes the sound even brighter.
- Cover-all This design is especially common in most high-end harmonicas, such as Hohner Meisterklass and Hohner Super 64. It slightly muffled the harmonica but resonate it more, which produce a warm, mellow tone that is much fuller (aka "a fat tone"); this is essential for playing in a more acoustic nature, such as playing Mississippi blues, Bluegrass, Jazz, and classical music. In fact, due to the tight requirements of classical music, many classical players prefer cover-all designs.
Lastly, there's the cover material. Traditionally, cover is made of metal, which provides a brighter sound. Plastic (e.g. CX-12) produces a softer sound in what some players have described as a displeasing "plasticy" timbre. Many players, however find the CX-12 to have a loud Rock, R&B and Jazzy tone suitable for those genres of music and in sound test after sound test no listener described the CX-12 as 'plasticy'. In fact the CX-12 sound is considered bright and loud compared to many other chromatics and the instrument is growing steadily in popularity. Suzuki Pureharp is one of the tiny production models that use wood as a cover, which produces a pleasantly soft sound.
Note: what is a good tonal quality is heavily dependant on the music you're playing and the audience.
Choice of key
There are many keys available for the harmonica; chromatic come in all twelve keys.
- C major: This is known as the standard key, especially for diatonic. Most special edition chromatics (e.g.: hard-bopper, 16-holes) are only available in this key.
- B major: This is a common key used to play Irish music. In terms of a chromatic, it's slide-in position is exactly the same as the slide-out position of a chromatic in the key of C. One can acquire an Irish-tuned C major chromatic by reversing the slide (flipping the slide upside down), so that the slide out position is in the key of C, while slide in will flatten the notes (B major). Note that for the CX-12, you can not flip the slide upside-down.
- G major and F major: Another common alternative key, since there is only one sharp/flat to address.
- E-flat major and B-flat major: Allows one to play any music written for Bb clarinet or Saxophone. E-flat enables one to play E-flat in straight harp and B-flat in crossharp, while Bb enables playing Bb in straight harp and F in crossharp.
For beginners, it is best to get a harmonica tuned to the key of C as you can play most songs with that key. Also, for some higher-end models (especially 16-hole chromatics), the stock version only comes in the key of C, so players should just get used to playing in the key of C until they gain more experience. It is possible to play in D Dorian or G Mixolydian on a C Major harmonica without the use of bending.
Some claim that diatonic harmonicas are easier to learn than chromatic harmonicas, and this may be true for some people. However, it is best to choose which type you want to learn and focus on it, rather than buy a harmonica just because it may be easier to learn. Here is a list of which music genres each type is used in, if it helps you decide which type of harmonica is right for you:
- Chromatic: Used mainly in Jazz and Classical music, but it can cross-over into Blues music sometimes.
- Diatonic: Used mainly for Blues music, but sometimes for Rock, Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Celtic and Gospel music.
- Tremolo: Mainly used in Folk music, especially Asian folk music.
- Other types: Don't even consider buying any other type of harmonica than the ones listed above if you are an absolute beginner. The other types (Bass, Chord and Octave) are quite hard to learn, and there is little learning material available for them. The Horn, Bass and Chord harmonicas are used in Classical music and also in harmonica-only ensembles. Octaves are mainly used for Folk music.
Listed below are recommendations for each type of harmonica, apart from the Bass, Chord and Octave harmonicas.
Note: If the place you buy from does not have a harmonica tester (a device with a bellow that blow and draw air), do not buy it; for all you know, the harmonica is busted, and it's very often you cannot return/replace/refund a harmonica.
In North America, a good quality 10-hole diatonic is a good starter. I would recommend the following, in the following order:
- Seydel Session: This harp is all German made with high quality and sleek design. An amazing array of tunings are offered and replacement reedplates are easy to obtain.
- Seydel Solist Pro: Sealed wood comb and bolted assembly.
- Suzuki Bluesmaster: Overall cover and high-quality construction.
- Hering Vintage 1923: Brazilian made with a sealed wood comb. Tuned in "Just Intonation" like the early Marine Bands.
- Lee Oskar Major: Completely airtight and has large chambers. It is also tuned slightly sharp for a bright single-note sound. Replacement reed plates are available for it.
- Hohner Special 20: One of the most popular diatonic models. Completely airtight.
- Hohner Pro Harp: The ProHarp is part of Hohner's new Modular System. The harmonica is airtight, and replacement reed plates can be bought for it.
- Hohner Blues Harp: This is also part of Hohner's new Modular System. The wood resists swelling, and replacement reed plates are available for it.
- Hohner Marine Band: One of the most famous harmonicas, and is the oldest model among the others listed here. Its covered slots help towards a more bluesy sound and the new Deluxe Edition of it is made of wood which is resistant to swelling.
- Hohner Big River: The Big River, cheapest among these choices, also use Modular System. The harmonica is airtight, and replacement reed plates can be bought for it. use Marine Band style covers.
Once you learn your diatonic skills (particularly bending) it would be a good idea to consider the Hohner XB-40, especially for Blues and Jazz music. The ease of bending is especially suited to play chromatically.
Unlike a valved diatonic, the XB-40 allows true chromatic notes to be played with ease, since it has a total of forty reeds, as well as separated chambers for blow and draw notes. This can also be considered as a very expensive first harmonica, but it is still possible to learn on it like a normal diatonic; only thing to keep in mind is that there was no material made specifically to take advantage XB-40's ability yet.
The advantage of the XB-40 is that it does not need a slide to play chromatically, thus it can be good for playing with a rack and another instrument. Also, since it uses bending a lot, it can be a good approximation to trumpets and saxophones, which often used to produce the wailing sounds that's needed in blues and jazz.
For chromatics, always get at least 12 holes (3 octaves). The price goes from $89.00 for Hohner's Chrometta 12, to $138.00 for Hohner Chromonica 270, and $192.00 for Hohner CX-12. When you buy a chromatic, you will have to decide if you prefer a straight-tuned or cross-tuned slide:
- Straight-tuned: having smaller holes, thus less air get through, making notes playing difficult due to air restriction. However the slide travels a shorter distant.
- cross-tuned: having bigger holes, thus more air goes through; especially helpful for lower octaves. However, the slides travel a longer distance; and thus, the slide sticks out from the body a bit more. This in turn makes the slide more susceptible to damage.
In the end, it depends on your playing style. Many professional players may prefer straight-tuned, but even when they have to use the cross-tuned harps, (usually 16 holes, as most larger brands use cross-tuning now for the 16-holes) their virtuosities are rarely hindered.
- Hering 7148 Special 48: This is a great chromatic for Jazz and Blues. Formerly known as the "Charlie Musselwhite."
- Hering 5148: Hering's standard 48 is a great all around chromatic with a bolted assembly and an ABS comb.
- Hering 1148 Velvet Voice: This is similar to the 5148 but features an unusual cover design and a mellower tone. It is very reasonably priced.
- Seydel Chromatic Deluxe: German made alternative to the Hohner 270 that is tighter. It is very similar in design to the 270 but bolted together. It comes in both wood and acrylic combs.
- Seydel Saxony: The Saxony features stainless steel reeds and is the only chromatic that does. The comb is aluminum and the reed covers come in stainless steel or brushed chrome. this is a top chromatic and the price reflects that as well.
- Huang 1248: The Huangs were Hohner designers. This is a good quality chromatic for a low price and similar to the Suzuki SCX series in design.
- Hohner Chrometta 12: Not recommended unless you are on a budget, or looking for a cheap chromatic with plastic comb; its mouth piece is thick, and only good for playing with pucker, and while it does have a plastic comb, it is nailed on, not screwed, making it very difficult to clean and repair.
- Hohner 270 (Super Chromonica): The 270 has the disadvantage of a wooden comb and using nails, and thus making repairing extremely difficult. However, it has a straight-tuned slide, and it's mouthpiece is thin, making lip-blocking easy. Some also swear by the sound of the wooden comb, but in reality it makes very little difference in sound. Many old pro players use this model and still buy this model after their old one breaks down. It is also cheaper. If one really enjoys or prefers the lower octave's sound, but wants to cup the entire harmonica, get a 12-hole in Tenor C.
- To address these issues, Hohner released the Chromonica 270 Deluxe, which uses the screw only assembly, as well as allow slides to change for both right and left hand player. Speculation is that it's cost is just a little bit more expensive than the old version but still cheaper than CX-12. It still retains the straight tune, making it a good choice. The only problem, of course, is the environment sensitive wooden comb.
- Hohner CX-12: This has the advantage of a plastic comb, and very easy to disassemble: no screwdriver needed to disassemble it into the slide, the cover-mouth piece, the backplate, and the comb with screwed on reedplates, making cleaning easy. Its crosstuning does not have much disadvantage, since its new version of spring create an equally fast response as a straight tuned comb, and the slide button covered the exposed part, protecting it. However, its mouthpiece is thick, making octaves almost impossible and tongue-block difficult. Additionally, its tension based parts (especially backplate-spring, which holds the comb in place) easily create more wear and tear. It's also more expensive; in Vancouver, it is just five bucks cheaper than a Super 64.
- Hohner 280, Super 64, or Super 64X (4 octaves): Assuming you had played a diatonic, and realise harmonica is the right instrument for you, then perhaps you may want to jump straight to the 16 holes, since it gives to much versatility in playing music. While the prices for both are about twice the amount cost of 270, it was about the same price of CX-12, (or even less for 280). In exchange for the ease of disassembly, both 16 holes allow the player to play on on octave lower, and when used in conjunction with special tongue-block techniques, it allows the harmonicist to utilize certain techniques and play songs unavailable on a 12-holes' range. However, do keep in mind that it is more difficult to play the bottom octaves regardless of slide tuning (though straight-tuned harp are harder to play than cross-tuned harp), and it's more difficult to cup the larger harmonica. The 280 comes in a traditional cover, and the Super 64 and Super 64X comes in an overall cover (although, the 64X's cover is easily cracked and hard to repair).
- Suzuki SCX models (48, 56, 64): In East Asia, Suzuki's model is easier to buy. Most players who play in North America stated that the SCX model has lots of air-leakage, while many in Asia found that the Hohner model has more air-leakage. In my region (Vancouver, B.C.), the SCX is much more expensive then its Hohner counterpart for a similar product, so I recommend Hohner's chromatic for those also in the Lower Mainland. Instead of using the just intonation tuning of Hohner, Suzuki use equal temperament tuning. For me, I do not hear a significant difference. Its overall performance is comparable to Hohner, however, the SCX-12 is the only 12-hole chromatic that has the coverall cover (aside from CX-12), which enhances the tonal and volume of the sound.
- Hering 5164, 6164, 7164 (4 octaves): Brazilian made 16 holers favored by many chromatic players.
- Renaissance: Probably one of the best chromatics, now made by Seydel. Its slider arrangement allow holes that are even larger than cross-tuned chromatics, but have the same short distance movement of a straight-tune harp. Also, due to a different reed plate arrangement, it does not air-leak as much as other chromatics, and thus it does not have any windsavers — no buzzes any more! The default model has 12 holes, but as it is a custom job it could come with 16 holes variety. It is expensive, but well worth it if you are dedicated to playing chromatics.
Though it may sometimes be hard to find Seydel, Hering, Suzuki or Huang chromatics in a normal music store, they can be found online and on ebay. They are of high quality and they rarely have any air-leak problems while having straight-tuned slides (unless you prefer cross-tuned slides).
So ultimately, it depends on the price and ease of maintenance.
If you live in Asia, chances are your first diatonic would be a tremolo harmonica, since there are more materials for those. In that case, only get a Tremolo made in East Asia (such as Tombo and Suzuki), since most materials in East Asia are designed for the Tremolo with the "missing" notes added back (Fa and La in lower octave, Ti for upper octave), which are taken out in the European designs for ease of chord construction. You do not need to spend the extra money to buy your C# harmonica yet, unless you got a special deal. In Taiwan, Harmonica Heaven and Yellow Stone are a few good places to start.
Once you have learned your tremolo skill, if you want to progress; getting a chromatic would be a good idea.
When my uncle gave me my harmonica, he also gave me some learning material. I gave up within one month. While the harmonica is good (it's actually a Suzuki ProMaster, a very good quality harmonica) the material, with many errors and so little help, told me nothing and I gave it up for two years. It was only when I had gone out and bought my own instruction book did I actually find the harmonica is not a bad instrument.
Obviously, this textbook is convenient; but let's say you are giving a gift and you believe giving them a physical book will be better.
So what is required?
- Appropriate materials - While it is debatable whether one should start with chromatic, diatonic or tremolo (again, it depends on the teacher and region), make sure the material matches the type of harmonica given, especially beginner books. The best book will be able to cover two types (usually diatonic and chromatic). Furthermore, to play well, you will have to learn more than tabs, which can only tell you which notes to play but do not teach you HOW to play them. You will have to learn standard music notation (sheet music).
- Tabulature - Harmonica tabulature, or simply tab, is much better for a beginner to learn from, as it shows them the breath direction and hole to play at, and it is much simpler than sheet music. The tab should be clear, and moderately spaced, such that it is very similar between the spacing used in traditional music notation. Also, see if you can understand the tab notation without looking at any other references.
- Traditional music notation - A player will never excel until they can also read traditional music notation since it teaches them to read music as well as showing the rhythm, accidentals, etc. Furthermore, there are many things that can only be shown through traditional format. I personally find playing directly from traditional notation is easier, but this comes with practice.
- Techniques - Obviously, the more techniques that are taught, the better. However, the buyer should see if it touches upon bending. Unless the book is for Tremolo or Chromatic, this is required for a harmonica player. If the instruction on bending is not clear enough, do not buy it!
- Basic Music theory - In order to truly establish the fact that it is more than a noise maker, some musical theory is required. This is not as hard as some may think, but it is akin to learning a second language. (Stretch those brain cells!)
- Structure of Blues. A good way to pique their interest is to show that Blues is actually the foundation of modern music and then show them how to construct the 12-bar blues, chord progression, etc.
- CD - Some CDs actually contain verbal lessons from the author while some have special software in it. However, even just some song samples and backing tracks are good.
When you buy material, do not just look at the author; actually read through the content. Some may be good players but horrid writers. It can also be hard to judge what is the "appropriate level", even if both players are novices on the same kind of harp. For example, a book of introduction to playing blues on the chromatic can be easy for one beginner but too advanced for another. While a tab-only book can produce an opposite situation. Some may not even have any of the above, but for an advanced player they are all invaluable, as they provide many insights into playing. Conversely, it is possible that some books are overly beginner-orientated for an advanced player.
Once your ear training gets better, it can be very beneficial to try learning songs only by ear. Find recordings of songs that you think you can play and then try and dissect them into each note and rhythm. This takes practice and is a skill in itself, however, it can be very rewarding.
As an alternative to this Wikibook, one should also consider purchasing any of the following:
- Harmonica For Dummies: A comprehensive guide that starts at the beginning but includes material progressing to the intermediate level. Clearly written in the step-by-step, modular style that is the hallmark of the Dummies approach, the book includes an audio CD with all the musical examples and exercises in the book. In addition to progressive playing instruction in several styles, the book also offers information on choosing an instrument, care and maintenance, forming a band, choosing repertoire, amplification, and performing for audiences. However, the book focuses on the diatonic harmonica, with minimal discussion of other types of harmonica.
- Details: By Winslow Yerxa, published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to: Playing the Harmonica: A very comprehensive book, with easy-to-follow instructions. It should be noted that this book is orientated towards absolute beginners and thus, does not cover more advanced techniques, such as overblowing. It also focuses primarily on the diatonic harmonica, leaving out all of the other types.
- Details: By William Melton and Randy Weinstein, published by Alpha Publications. ISBN: 0-02-864241-4.
- The Harp Handbook: Written by Steve Baker, a famous harmonica player. This is arguably one of the best harmonica guide-books as it covers not only the basic techniques, but also the more advanced techniques. It also teaches two types of harmonica - the diatonic and the chromatic.
- Details: By Steve Baker, published by Wise Publications.
- The Encyclopedia of the Harmonica: A very informative book.
- Details: Written by Peter Krampert, published by Tatanka Publishing.
Videos and CDs
As informative as this Wikibook or any of the other books which are listed are, nothing compares to a DVD or play-along CD; watching and hearing someone play the harmonica will help you to play it better. Recommended CDs and DVDs:
- Harmonica Masterclass: This is one of the best harmonica DVDs. It is a multibook and DVD series, covering absolute beginners and those at more advanced levels. Highly recommended.
- Details: By David Barret, published by Mel Bay Publications.
- Harmonica Power: Norton Buffalo's Bag of Tricks: A very informative DVD, easy to follow.
- Details: By Norton Buffalo, published by Homespun Video.
- New Directions for Harmonica - Expanding Your Technique: For those at more advanced levels, not recommended for beginners.
- Details: By Howard Levy, published by Homespun Video.
- Blues Harmonica Playalongs: Made by the famous harmonicist, Steve Baker. Excellent for beginners and also those at more advanced levels.
- Details: By Steve Baker, published by Mel Bay Publications
- Harmonica Jam Trax: Also great for beginners, but it may bore some advanced players.
- Details: By Ralph Agresta, published by Amsco Music.
|Getting started: Why should I Play Harmonica? | Types of harmonica | Anatomy of a Harmonica | Harmonica Purchasing guide|
|Playing the harmonica: Basic Holding and Playing a Harmonica | Tablature | Basic Chords | Bending|
|Additional techniques: Advance Chords | Advance techniques | Self accompaniment|
|General harmonica theory: Chromatic Harmonica | Positions | Tremelo | Ensemble Playing | Music Style | Learning Songs | Improvising | Recording | Playing with Amp|
|Cleaning and maintainence: Basic Maintainence and Care | Advance Maintainence |Harmonica Modifications |Tuning|
|Appendices: Harmonica Layouts and Alternate Tunings| Harmonica Positions Chart | Blues | Writing Songs|