With so many harmonicas to choose from, you may need some help selecting the right harmonica for you. This Beginner Harmonica Buyers Guide will make it easy to select your first harmonica.
Let’s begin with safety. Harmonicas are very intimate instruments played using by using your lips and tongue. That being said, unless you are going to pull apart and meticulously sanitize each piece of the unit, we suggest you don’t purchase a used instrument. The Sam Ash return policy is great, but excludes harmonicas for safety and sanitary reasons. Your purchase with us will be safe and the unit will be from the manufacturer.
What to look for in a Beginner Harmonica
A harmonica can range in price from $7 to upward of $500. The difference in pricing reflects the materials used; a plastic verses an aluminum comb, a bronze verses a brass reed, hand carved features verses machine manufactured, buttons, slides, etc… Also, the higher end units are built to last, withstanding the occasional fumble and are made for performances and recording. Your first harmonica should cost you less than 40 bucks and have as few features as possible, but there are a few other attributes you should consider aside from price.
You should first consider the type of music you want to play. A lot of “How To” literature you purchase may be geared toward a particular genre and will subsequently get you to the goal of your desired sound more quickly. Here is a general guide of common harmonica types and the playing styles they are most associated with:
- Chromatic Harmonicas: Most commonly used in Jazz, Classical and sometimes Blues
- Diatonic Harmonicas: More commonly used in Blues and also used in Rock, Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Celtic Reggae, Funk and Gospel music
- Tremolo Harmonicas: Used for Folk and Asian music
As a beginner, your focus should be on Chromatic and Diatonic. The catalogs of entry level harmonicas are mostly offered in these two types. Diatonic harmonicas usually start with 10 holes (this can vary) and play only the scale for which it is tuned. To play in the C major scale, you would use a diatonic harmonica in the Key of C. Chromatic harmonicas have a side button or slide enabling them to play the sharps and flats of the complete 12 tone scale. This lets the Chromatic Harmonic play in any key, but makes it more difficult to master. Tremolo harmonicas have 2 reeds for each note, one tuned slightly sharp and the other slightly flat. This produces a wavering or warbling effect known as tremolo.
The Key is The Key
Of all of the keys available for your first harmonica, as a beginner start with a harmonica in the key of C. Why C? Because most “How To” lit is for this key. It is known as the “Standard Key” and most songs can be played in C.
Understanding Harmonica Components: Cover Plates, Reeds and Combs
Your cover plates should also be considered. There are two types of plates and they aid in projecting sound. The traditional cover appears on beginner to moderate level units and deliver and clear tone due to its open back. The cover-all type is more common on high-end harmonicas and produces a warm, mellow, resonate tone. The “fat tone” it’s known to possess an acoustic quality that is desirable to Blues, Jazz and Classical players. Cover plates also come in a range of materials, the most traditional being metal. Metal covers are often described as producing a brighter sound while a plastic cover produces a rounder, softer sound.
Lastly, the comb and reed plate options contribute your ease of maintenance. The reed plates fixed on the inside of the comb's air chamber responds to blowing, while those on the outside respond to suction. They are usually made metal, and when bolted to the comb, can be replaced if they go out of tune.
The “Comb” or “main body” contains air chambers which cover the reed and can be made using different materials. You may find harmonicas with wood combs. These are perfectly safe for current models because they are usually glazed in food grade sealant however earlier models using this material were subject to swelling and splintering from the moisture caused in general play. Plastics or ABS are most commonly used due to their ease of maintenance and are also easy on the lips. More expensive models use plexiglass in lieu of plastics and metal alloys such as aluminum and steel. The metal units have screws and can be easily taken apart for upkeep.
There are many features which contribute to the build of a harmonica and how it will sound. For those just starting out, having an understanding of these features will help you to understand which harmonica is right for you. We also have an abundance of Harmonica Instructional Books to help get you started.