Popular in Harmonicas
The harmonica is a perfect instrument for musicians just starting out. It's a very versatile instrument as well, on which you can endlessly refine and upgrade your repertoire and playing skills. Well-known brands are Hohner and Lee Oskar. The most common type of harmonica is the diatonic Richter, also known as the blues harp for blues, rock, pop and country. With it, you can create the widest range of effects. The chromatic harmonica, which is perfect for jazz and classical music, uses a sliding bar that allows you to easily play all twelve tones without having to overblow or bend.
The tremolo and octave harmonicas are characterised by their double row of holes where each tone has two reeds. The tremolo produces a unique full, wavering sound caused by a small difference in tuning between the two reeds. The octave harmonica creates a rich sound and has reeds that differ in pitch by a complete octave, resulting in a basic tone and a higher pitched, octaved tone. Both types of harmonica have a diatonic tuning. Inhaling when playing the harmonica will produce a different sound than when you exhale. Most harmonicas are available in multiple keys.
In our selection of other harmonica models, you will find special versions of this instrument such as miniature harmonicas. Holders, cases, belts and maintenance sets can be found in the accessories department. You might also want to check out our special harmonica microphones.
What’s the Best Harmonica for Me?
Harmonicas come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and each example has a different target audience, purpose and price tag. To help you choose the right harmonica, we’ve answered a number of frequently asked questions that you can find below.
► Basically everyone, from kids to adults, will start out on a standard diatonic harmonica, also called a blues harp, in C major, which is suited for a wide range of styles.
► In general, a bigger budget buys nicer, cleaner tones, a long lifespan and an easy-to-play instrument, all of which naturally boost playing joy and motivation.
► Even beginner models have the standard amount of notes (10 holes) and span three octaves, meaning they can be used in combination with harmonica lesson books without any problems.
► If you’re a more ambitious beginner but you’re not yet ready to spend a lot of money, classic models like the Hohner Marine Band Classic, Hohner Special 20, Suzuki Promaster and various from Lee Oskar are a safe bet.
The harmonica is a wind instrument that produces sound when air is blown through one or more holes. Behind each hole sits a free reed made of metal, which moves when air passes through, resulting in vibrations that are then heard as sound. Harmonicas can not only be used to play melodies but chords, and are often bisonoric, which means that blowing and drawing air through the harmonica creates different notes (e.g. a C when you blow, and a D when you draw air).
A diatonic harmonica is a harmonica that in principle, can only produce notes from a specific major or minor scale. As such, models tuned in C-major can only be used to make melodies and chords with the C, D, E, F, G, A and B notes. Usually, these notes can be varied in pitch across multiple octaves. Veteran players often own the same harmonica in different keys (see question #7), even though there are ways to play more notes on a single harmonica (see question #3).
Diatonic harmonicas can be roughly divided into three types: the blues harmonica, which is basically the standard diatonic harmonica, and the octave and tremolo harmonica.
The blues harp, or richter-tuned harmonica, is the most popular variant of the diatonic harmonicas. It’s usually recognised by its relatively simple and compact design and its 10 holes (three octaves). Contrary to what the name suggests, the blues harp can be used for more than just blues and is actually the model most players start out with. Great models from well-known makers aren’t necessarily expensive, and include the Hohner Special 20 and Lee Oskar Major.
By using ‘bending’ techniques, advanced players are able to play notes outside of the seven of the scale. (Keep in mind that these techniques are less customary when it comes to the models discussed below). Despite the possibility to play other notes, it’s normal to use a different harmonica to play in a different key. More on choosing the right key in question #7.
A tremolo harmonica is a diatonic harmonica with two rows of holes (a double-reed harmonica), where the upper and lower row produce almost exactly the same notes. This way, notes are played too high and too low at the same time, resulting in a beautifully resonant effect. This has given the tremolo harmonica its ‘echo harmonica’ nickname. Capable of a mild, warm sound, tremolo harmonicas are especially suited as backing instruments.
Just like the tremolo version, octave harmonicas are diatonic and feature two rows of holes (double-reed). While they look similar, the sound is very different. The upper and lower rows produce the same notes, but these tuned an octave apart. So, playing a C results in a high C and a low C at the same time, shaping a rich, broad overall sound.
Chromatic harmonicas have a button on the side that’s used to move a sliding bar inside the harmonica to raise the pitch by a semitone. This way gives you access to the twelve notes that all Western music is built on, without having to master special techniques. This is also the biggest difference compared to the diatonic harmonica and, in addition, the reeds used in chromatic models are generally sturdier for a richer sound. Chromatic harmonicas are part of a higher price range, and due to their relatively complex nature, come recommended for more experienced players. Famous players include Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder.
For beginners, it’s recommended to start with C major, regardless of the type of harmonica. This key covers a wide range of styles, including lots of pop music. Special editions and premium models with 16 holes are often only available in the key of C, other popularly used keys are G major and F major.
Blues and rock musicians looking to play in the key C will generally go for an F-model, while a G-model is needed to play in D, and so on. Take a look at the image on the side. This cross-harp system is used because the notes of the pentatonic scale (often used for blues and rock, are easier to play in the key of C on an F-model.
Do you like to play Irish music? Go for a B-major model. If you want to play any music written for a Bb clarinet or saxophone, go for an Eb-major or Bb-major harmonica.
Harmonica holders are great for musicians who want to keep their hands free to play guitar or piano. These sit comfortably around the neck, with the harmonica properly secured. Just make sure that the holder you’re looking to get fits your specific make and model. To keep your harmonica in good condition, there are special maintenance kits available that include lube, cleaners and tuning tools and, since you’re never too old to learn, there are lesson and song books to expand your repertoire. See question #9 and #10 for more information about amplifying a harmonica.
If possible, you can simply decide to use your band’s PA system. A dynamic vocal microphone makes for a great solution.
If you want a punchier sound with a ton of mid-range presence, you’re best off with a special harmonica microphone. These microphones are smaller, can be shielded by hand, and often come with a volume knob to counter any unwanted feedback.
If you’re going for that typical blues sound with a blues harp, it’s customary to amplify the sound of the microphone with an electric guitar amp, preferably a small tube combo. These speaker-amplifier combinations not only offer a harmonic-rich type of distortion but are effortlessly portable. Professionals that use amplifiers equipped with 12AX7 preamp tubes have the option to swap these out for less powerful 12AY7 or 12AU7 tubes to counter feedback.
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