Categories : Harmonicas
Harmonicas come in different brands, shapes and sizes. The harmonicas featured here are divided into five groups: toy, budget, intermediate, premium and custom. We will highlight only a representative range of harmonica models. Players are usually passionate about their chosen brand (as they should be). Here we’ll just learn a few facts about harmonicas.
The Diatonic blues harp : The standard 10 hole harmonica that has been originally mostly used in blues (Little walter, Sonny boy williamson), country music (Charlie Mc coy), folk (bob dylan) has recently become more versatile thanks to the overblow technique that makes it chromatic and able to be used for other genres like celtic / irish music (Brendan Power), Jazz (Howard Levy) or any type of world music.
Chromatic harmonica : Invented later than the diatonic the chromatic naturally gives the player all the notes thanks to a slider. It made its way in classical music (Larry Adler), Jazz (Toots Thielemans, Gregoire Maret), and Pop music (Stevie wonder) but is also used a bit in blues (Carey Bell). The standard chromatic harmonica has 12 holes and 48 notes like the Hohner Chromonica 270, Hohner CX-12 black, Suzuki SCX48, Seydel Saxony, Harmo Angel 12. There are also some 14 hole models : Hohner Meisterklasse, Suzuki Sirius 56 and a good choice of 16 hole 64 notes full 4 octave models like the Hohner Chromonica 280, Hohner Super 64, Suzuki SCX64 and Sirius 64, Harmo Admiral 64, Harmo Angel 16 and the Seydel Symphony.
Traditional : The tremolo and octave harmonicas are those old timer harmonicas that double each note to produce a sweet tremolo or octave effect. They don’t have as many notes available as the diatonic or chromatic and are usually used for simple traditional melodies. Hohner echo harp and Suzuki SU-21H are some of the best models.
Like alluded to earlier, Harmonicas come in all shapes, sizes and brands; but the biggest brands are: the German Hohner, another German Seydel, the Japanese Suzuki, The Japanese brand Tombo (Lee Oskar) and the new American brand Harmo. Of these, Hohner is probably the most famous. However, if you want to become a serious player you have to try out a wide array of harmonicas from different brands, and in various keys to see which ones suit your playing style.
For diatonic we recommend Hohner Special 20 and Golden melody, Seydel Session Steel, Lee Oskar, Suzuki Bluesmaster and Harmo Polar Harmonica for beginners. Those 10 hole diatonic harmonica models in the key of C have a plastic comb of good sound quality that is easy to get a sound out of it with a good reed response. Reeds and reedplates are made of copper, phosphore bronze or stainless steel and are great for beginners. The metal covers on either side makes it very light. They usually come in a durable, hard shell carrying case or even better a zip pouch and they are very affordable.
We don’t recommend or sell toy Harmonicas like the Hohner Happy Color harmonica intended for children because the quality is very poor and you will most likely have to buy a better model just a few weeks after you got started. We recommend getting off the right foot with a good model that you will keep longer and that will play much better and allow you to learn all the harmonica techniques : plucking, tongue blocking, bending, overblows, hand effects …
For chromatic we recommend : Harmo angel 12, Suzuki SCX48, Seydel Chromatic De luxe, Hohner Chromonica 270, Hohner CX-12
First off we have to warn you that Overblows like bends have to be learned. They don’t come with the harmonica and it is a long process that requires a lot of practice. In the end it is all in the technique.
At this time (2018) the only model hand customized that comes with a full overblow and overdraw setup is the Harmo Torpedo. Each reed is manually adjusted, profiled and shaped to optimize airtightness and reed time response. The overblows can be obtained without effort and sustained without squeaking on the Torpedo.
The best harmonica for country music would be any 10-hole diatonic. They produce the sound you typically hear in country music. A standard tuned 10-hole diatonic is a fantastic place to start. In fact, that unique sound originated with some really inexpensive Hohner harmonicas.
The Special 20 model is particularly made with a special "country" tuning that alters the Richter tuning scale to include the ability to play a major (Ionian) scale from cross-harp (2nd) position.
Other good models for country : Suzuki Manji, Harmo Polar and Torpedo, Seydel Session Steel, Hohner Crossover, Suzuki Harpmaster and Firebreath
Our best chromatic models for Jazz are : Hohner Toots thielemans signature Mellow tone and Hard bopper, the signature model from the master himself ! Suzuki Gregoire Maret signature model. Hohner CX-12 Jazz an improved version of the CX-12 black.
The best harmonica for jazz includes the Diatonic Harmonica mastered by some top Jazz Masters like Howard Levy. Once you learn to master the overblows and the overdraws, the Diatonic Harmonica can really open up to Jazz. You can watch Jazz maestro Howard Levy play the Diatonic Harmonica on YouTube and be surprisingly warmed as he turns the harmonica into saxophone! Our top picks for Jazz and overblows are : Suzuki Olive, Hohner Crossover, Seydel 1847.
The only model actually adjusted for overblows is the Harmo Torpedo that is also very competitively priced
The Hohner Bob Dylan Signature model is probably the most obvious choice if you can afford it. It was made in collaboration with the king of folk himself ! That being said there are a lot of other stadnard models that you can use and will work great for Folk music : Suzuki Pure Harp (rosewood comb), Hohner Marine Band Deluxe, Seydel 1847 classic, Harmo Polar, Hohner Golden Melody
The Hohner Marine Band harmonica is probably the best known 10 hole harmonica for blues. However the instrument of choice for most players would be the Marine Band where majority of the classic blues harmonica performance were done on. The Hohner Marine Band deluxe is an enhanced version with a much better quality comb, easy to disassemble covers and reedplates (which is a total nightmare on the Marine Band classic). You should also consider Seydel 1847 classic used by grammy award harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite (Ben Harper) and James Cotton, Suzuki Manji, Harmo Torpedo and Harmo Polar, Suzuki Pure Harp and Firebreath … lots of good options.
If you play the chromatic harmonica a favorite among Blues harmonica masters is the Hohner Chromonica 280 aka Chromonica 64. You can try other models that fit the same profile like the Hohner Super 64 and Super 64X, the Suzuki Sirius 64 and SCX64, the Harmo Angel 16 and the Harmo Admiral 64 (heavy brass comb) and the new Seydel Symphony.
Classical music has originally been played with a chromatic harmonica. Larry adler used both a 12 and 16 hole chromatic. There are actually two very nice Hohner Larry Adler signature models the Larry Adler 12 and the Larry Adler 16 still available on the market today. There are a lot of other great options : The Hohner Meisterklasse offers a good compromise between the 12 and 16 holes with 14 holes (starts on a G) and is made out of quality aluminium it’s definitely one of the best chromatic harmonica on the market.
On the very high end you will find the Suzuki Fabulous 48 and 64 that are Silver plated and weighs much more than standard models and that will cost you at least $3,000 ! If you can’t break the bank the Harmo Admiral 64 will yields similar results thanks to its heavy Electro nickel plated brass comb not as well finished as the Fabulous but also 5 times cheaper …
The new Seydel symphony aluminium comes with a classy case, plays well and is very good looking.
If you’re looking for a 12 hole chromatic the Hohner Amadeus and the Suzuki Gregoire Maret stand out.
Few diatonic players play classical music and those who do (Howard Levy, David Herzhaft …) usually use overblow optimized harmonicas so in this case the Harmo Torpedo seems a very good choice.
Here is a shortlist that seasoned harmonica players use for diatonic :
Suzuki Firebreath, Suzuki HarpMaster, Suzuki Pure Harp, Suzuki Promaster, Suzuki Hammond, Hohner Marine Band, Hohner Blues Harp, Hohner Special 20, Hohner Golden Melody, Hohner Crossover, Hohner Marine band Deluxe Hohner Rocket, Suzuki BluesMaster, Seydel Blues Session steel, Seydel 1847 classic, Lee Oskar, Harmo Polar, Harmo Torpedo.
Chromatic : Hohner Chromonica 270, Hohner CX-12, Hohner Super 64X, Hohner Meisterklasse, Hohner Amadeus, Seydel Symphony, Harmo Angel 12 and Harmo Admiral, Suzuki Fabulous.
Custom Harmonicas are typically higher quality instruments but beware of customizers who put a very high price tag and make you pay for materials rather than handwork !
Customizers customarily start with stock components (combs, reed plates, cover plates), which are then fined tuned to improve performance. The top customizers apply a specific "profile" for each reed, and adjust the reed gaps very judiciously, a task that can take even a day for just one harmonica. The resulting instruments are usually much more expensive than stock harmonicas. However custom harmonicas can be much better than their stock counterparts when the job is done well. A new custom instrument is a long term musical investment. Harmo is currently the only brand to offer custom harmonicas in the same price range as out of the box ones.