The intention of this article is to support you in determining if you have the best harmonica – or “harp” – for your needs at this time.
My recommendations are the culmination of my personal experience of teaching for over 20 years. I encourage you to check out the recommendations of other harmonica teachers as well, and ultimately make you own decision about the best harmonica for you. If you don’t already own a harmonica – or you’re ready to upgrade – this article will help you make an informed decision.
If I’m a beginner, which harmonica do you recommend I buy?
For those who don’t want to read this entire article I have two simple recommendations:
1. Higher dollar (professional): My #1 pick is the Hohner Special 20.
2. Economical choice: Hohner Blues Band: If you’re a beginner who would rather “test the waters” (i.e., make sure you’re serious about sticking with harmonica before you invest), the Hohner Blues Band will get you off to a great start.
Why should beginners start with a harmonica in the key of C?
I recommend you start with a harmonica in the key of C for several reasons. Most importantly, a C harmonica will enable you to be in tune with the majority of beginning level harmonica lessons.
Why don’t you recommend a harmonica with the button on the side?
If you are a beginner or a non-musician, I don’t recommend a harmonica with a button on the side (chromatic) because it’s a much more challenging instrument. I recommend you get off to a great start with the standard 10-hole harmonica first and then you can progress to a chromatic harmonica if you choose.
Economical harmonicas costing less than $10 (Fine for beginners)
Hohner Blues Band (my personal preference)
Then, in no order of preference:
- Hohner Old Standby
- Hohner Hot Metal
- Hohner Official Scout
- Hohner Great Little Harp
- Hohner American Ace
- Hohner Fuego Azul
- Hohner Pocket Pal
- Blues Bayou Harmonicas
- Piedmont Blues Harmonicas
- Johnson Blues King Harmonicas Set
- Kay Chicago Blues Harmonica
- Jambone Harmonica
NOTE: If your harmonica is not on the above list, and it is a 10-hole harmonica with the word “Blues” in its name, it is very likely to be sufficient for you (if you’re a beginner).
IMPORTANT: Once you are ready to learn how to bend, which I consider an intermediate to advanced level technique, a professional harmonica from the list below will be EXTREMELY helpful (bending is the technique that gives the harmonica that soulful “crying” sound).
Professional Harmonicas (ranging in cost from $20 to $100)
I consider every harmonica on the below list to be a solid professional instrument. I have rated the harmonicas on the basis of how hard it will be for an intermediate level harmonica player to learn to bend the first six draw notes. This will be important when you’re ready to play with a bluesy sound.
From easiest to hardest to learn how to bend:
- Hohner Special 20 (Rated 10! BEST BANG FOR BUCK)
- Hohner Crossover (Rated 10)
- Suzuki Manji(9.5)
- Bushman Delta Frost (9)
- Suzuki Harp Master (9)
- Lee Oscar (8.75)
- Hohner Golden Melody (8.5)
- Bushman (The Original Soul’s Voice) (8)
- Suzuki Promaster (8)
- Hering Harmonica (8)
- Huang SilverTone (7.5)
- Hohner Pro Harp (7)
- Hohner Big River (7)
- Hohner Marine Band (7)
- Hohner Steve Baker Special (7) – (one of my personal favorites, but not the easiest to learn on)
- Hohner Blues Harp (7)
- Hohner Cross Harp (7)
- Hohner Meisterclaus (7)
Harmonicas I don’t recommend for most beginners.
- All the mini harmonicas (keychain, Puck, Double Puck)
- All of Hohner’s Echo, Octave, Auto Valve, and the Tremolo Tuned harps
- Hohner Trumpet Call
- Hohner Weekender
What makes a great harmonica?
For me, the thing that determines a great harmonica is a combination of two things:
- The “purity” and quality of the sound.
- The responsiveness of the reeds (how quickly the reeds react to the movements of my mouth and tongue to produce the desired effect).
What is a diatonic harmonica?
“Diatonic” refers to a harp that commonly has 10 holes and plays the scale to which it is tuned (diatonic harmonicas DO NOT have a button on the side). For example, a C diatonic harmonica is tuned to the key of C, which will enable you to easily play the C Major scale. All the economical and professional harmonicas in the above two lists are diatonic.
“Chromatic” harmonicas DO have the side button, enabling them to play all 12 keys. They are considerably more difficult to master. They’re not usually the first choice for professional harp players who want to play Blues, Folk, Country, Rock, Reggae, and Funk.
So, what’s the best harmonica if I want to jam along with your lessons, JP?
In summing up, if you are a beginner who would rather save money right now, any economical 10-hole harmonica in the key of C will be fine to start with. When you are ready to learn how to bend, I STRONGLY suggest you try a Hohner Special 20 or any of the professional harmonicas mentioned above.
I hope this article has offered you a ground-work for exploring all the wonderful options that are now available to us harmonica players. Remember, “The Best Harmonica” is ultimately a personal preference.