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 your 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.
Harmonica Reviews Update!
I updated this review because I recently ordered 7 Hohner Crossovers and 2 of them had faulty reeds with unpleasant buzzing sounds.
I also ordered a case of 12 Hohner Special 20s (one for each key), and I was surprised and disappointed to find that 4 of them were airy and were not as responsive (easy to play) on the bends as previous editions of Hohner Special 20. Hohner promises that their new “Progressive” models are the same technology as past editions of Special 20s, so I’m wondering if the downgrade in quality and consistency is due to their outsourcing from Germany to China. I honestly don’t have the time and inclination to find out what has happened to my favorite harmonica over the last 30 years but based on my recent experience I’m going to need to downgrade the ratings of the Crossover and the Special 20. If the quality comes back up, I will let you know. And if you know anything about what’s going on with Hohner and you would like to post and let our readers know that would be great.
I also just experienced a similar disappointment with the Suzuki Manji, it used to be an awesome harmonica, but the last one I got was not that impressive.
So here’s my synopsis with brand new recommendations and revised ratings:
Which harmonica do you recommend I buy?
For those who don’t want to read this entire article I have three simple recommendations:
LEE OSKAR IS #1 FOR BEGINNERS: Lee Oskar If you want a harmonica that makes learning to bend easy, then my #1 pick right now is Lee Oskar. I just tested 3 of them, and they were all highly responsive (easy to play) with a better than average tone.
SEYDEL 1847 IS #1 OVERALL: If you want to purchase the best-made harmonicas on the market then in my book the Seydel 1847 is hands down the winner (all of the various 1847 models are awesome). The 1847 is still made in Germany with a massive tone and FAR SUPERIOR craftsmanship. I’ve had a Seydel 1847 Silver for four years, and it’s still in tune and plays like a champ.
My only caveat is that the Seydel 1847 might be “too much harmonica” for you if you’re an absolute beginner. If you’re a beginner that wants an easy harmonica to learn to bend on, then you would be best to go with the Lee Oskar. But if you’re someone who wants the very best then get a customized Seydel 1847, and it will blow your mind. (I’ve heard Greg Jones is awesome and I will be getting some of his customized harmonicas in the next month. I will update this article to let you know what I think. In the meantime, if you want to try one of his harmonicas, then please let our readers know what you think. I recommend you go with Greg’s Overblow/Overdraw set up. You’ll find his customized harps at: http://www.1623customharmonicas.com/custom-harps
HOHNER BLUESBAND #1 FOR TESTING THE WATERS: 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 side button?
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 (diatonic) first and then you can progress to a chromatic harmonica if you choose.
(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:
- Seydel 1847 (all models) (10 out of 10)
- Lee Oskar (9) (Best for beginners who want to save a buck and are struggling to learn to bend)
- Hohner Special 20 (8)
- Hohner Crossover (8)
- Suzuki Manji(8)
- Bushman Delta Frost (9)
- Suzuki Harp Master (8)
- Hohner Golden Melody (8)
- 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
Economical harmonicas costing less than $10
(Only for absolute beginners looking to test the waters)
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, choosing a harmonica from the Professional Harmonica Ratings list above will be EXTREMELY helpful (bending is the technique that gives the harmonica that soulful “crying” sound).
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. I prefer the Hohner Blues Band which is why I include it in my Happy Harpin’ Harmonica Lessons.
When you are ready to learn how to bend to get that bluesy sound, I STRONGLY suggest you try a Lee Oskar or any of the professional harmonicas mentioned above.
If expense isn’t an issue and you’re NOT a beginner then the Seydel 1847 (any model) is a beast of a harmonica.
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.