Harmonicas are generally classified in three basic types: Diatonic, Chromatic and Tremolo. At first, you may find it confusing to decide which harmonica is best for you. However, the answer is quite simple: Unless you’re already a kick-butt musician, you probably will be happiest with a diatonic harmonica.
1. Diatonic Harmonica
The diatonic harmonica is the most common harmonica. It’s the one you will most likely find lying around someone’s home just waiting to “rip the roof off the house”. That bluesy, soulful tone makes it both powerful and extremely popular.
The diatonic harmonica is awesome for every style of music including country, blues, rock, gospel, hymns, spirituals, folk and even classical music. That said, the chromatic harmonica is often considered best for jazz and complex classical music.
So, it is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED you start your harmonica journey with a diatonic, which is way easier to learn than the chromatic harmonica. Many harmonica teachers, JP Allen included, focus on teaching the basic 10-hole diatonic harmonica to help ensure students’ success.
Diatonic harmonicas are compact, simple, and most commonly have 10 holes . There are 12 basic keys in music. The diatonic, though capable of playing in multiple keys, focuses on playing in one key – one of the reasons they’re so easy to play. You can buy diatonic harmonicas tuned to each of those 12 keys, but beginners are often recommended to start with a harmonica in the key of C.
Hohner produces the majority of diatonic harmonicas on the market. These include:
- BluesBand (best for beginners)
- Special 20
- Golden Melody
- Marine Brand
- Blues Harp
BluesBand, Special 20 and Golden Melody models come with plastic combs – a comb is the main part of the instrument, containing the air chambers covering the reeds. The Marine Brand and Blues Harp have wooden combs.
2. Chromatic Harmonica
Chromatic harmonicas traditionally come with 8, 10, 12, 14 or 16 holes. The 12-hole chromatic is available in any of the 12 keys, but C is the most common key used by professionals. Chromatic harmonicas, which have a side button for producing semitones, are designed so that, like a piano, they can play every tone in every octave.
For those seeking their first chromatic harmonica, a 12-hole in the key of C is highly recommended. This is the most common, with 3 octave ranges of 48 tones. This harmonica comes in different keys and is relatively easy to grasp and play.
There is a wide range of chromatic harmonicas from different makers, such as:
- (Hohner) Chrometta 12
- (Hohner) Super Chromonica 270 (available in all popular keys)
- Hering 5148, 1148, 7148
- Huang # 1248,
- Suzuki Leghorn SC-48
- Suzuki SCX-48
Bigger than the 12-hole chromatic, this has an extra octave below middle C and demands a lot of practice before you can gain familiarity with its full range. Models include:
- Hohner: Chromonica 64, (with classic covers) Super 64
- Super 64x (gold plated)
- Hering 5164, 6164
- Suzuki: SC64, SCX64
A 10-hole chromatic has 2 ½ octave range. It is short and very portable, and the same as the 12-hole chromatic but the note layout ends at different points as a result of the incomplete octave at the top.
Hohner Chromonica 260 is one of the few models available in the market, in the keys of C and G.
Hohner’s Chrometta 8 model HH25DC, has only two octave range C4 to C6.
This is between the size of a 12 and 16 hole chromatic, with a range of 3 ½ octaves. Again, the larger size requires more time for practice and familiarity. Some examples:
- Hohner Meisterklasse (expensive metal comb 14-hole chromatic in the key of C.
- Hohner Chrometta 14 (lower priced with plastic comb and covers)
- Suzuki SC-56 (moderately priced)
- China’s SCX-56 (cheaper model)
Tremolo harmonicas produce a distinctive “trembling” sound effect, made possible by vertical double holes each with two reeds, one a little sharp and the other a little flat. Tremolo harmonicas have a cool sound like an organ but they are much less common in use. They are also limited in many ways that the diatonic and the chromatic types are not.
Examples of tremolo harmonicas include:
- Hohner Echo 32 Tremolo Harmonica in C (wooden comb)
- Hohner Echo 28 Tremolo Harmonica (especially suited to ballads and folk music)
- Hohner Echo 48 Tremolo Harmonica
- Hohner Big Valley Beginner Tremolo (good for folk music)
- Suzuki Winner 20 Tremolo Harmonica in C
- Suzuki Winner 16 Tremolo Harmonica in C
That’s a quick summary of harmonica choices. Hands down, the diatonic is the best type for beginners. But, whichever harmonica you choose, have fun!