Last updated: 04/30/2020

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The earliest evidence of the harmonica dates back to 3,000 BC, when the Chinese Empress Nyn-Kwa had her maids play a reed instrument known as the sheng (“sublime voice” in Mandarin). However, it was not until 1830 that the instrument adopted the form that we know today. Since then, this instrument hasn’t stopped growing in popularity, in part due to its affordability and small size.

The harmonica offers countless advantages. This instrument allows you to create or perform unforgettable melodies on its own, but it is also a fantastic accompanying instrument. If you’re looking to become the next Sony Terry, you have come to the right place – we will tell you everything you need to know about harmonicas in the following guide!

Key Facts

  • The harmonica is a handy wind instrument to accompany other instruments, but also to blues or folk solos.
  • Wooden combs require more maintenance than plastic ones. The latter aren’t necessarily worse, but they are ideal for beginners because of their increased resistance.
  • If you want to play in a particular pitch, you will have to search for a corresponding harmonica. Nowadays, you can even find custom-tuned instruments!

Our Selection: The Best Harmonicas on the U.S. Market

With the revival of folk of the 1960s, the harmonica saw its popularity increase dramatically. Until then, only virtuosos like Slim Harpo and Little Harper dared to tame it. However, the emergence of Bob Dylan led to the harmonica being used as an accompanying instrument. In the following section, we will introduce you to the best models currently on the market:

Best Harmonica Overall

Fender is a household name in the music industry, so it is no surprise that its Blue Deluxe harmonica is Amazon’s Choice in the category. Available in 7 different keys, this model is extremely versatile. It features brass reeds and a PVC comb that will last you years. Its classic, timeless design is every harmonica player’s dream, and the instrument comes in a hard-plastic case so you can travel with it in complete peace of mind.

Best Hohner Harmonica

Hohner is known for creating some of the greatest harmonicas in the world, and the Special 20 model is a professional-grade instrument for more advanced players. It is available in 12 different keys so you can choose the most appropriate for your style of play. This diatonic harmonica integrates 20 reeds and stainless-steel cover plates. It also comes with one month of online lessons to perfect your technique.

Best Harmonica for Beginners

Are you looking to develop your artistic skills by playing the harmonica? Then Small Fish’s beginner model is exactly what you need. Whether you want to play rock classics, pop songs, or blues solos, this versatile instrument does it all. In fact, it is also ideal for children who want to learn to play. So if you want to start jamming along with your kids, get a couple of these harmonicas, and you’ll be filling your home with joy in no time.

Best Harmonica for Blues Lovers

The last instrument of our selection is another Hohner model, and it is specifically designed for blues players. This harmonica is great for beginners and advanced musicians alike, and it is also the most affordable one on our list. Available in keys of A, C, and G, this blues band instrument also comes with 30 days of free online lessons.

Shopping Guide: Everything You Should Know About Harmonicas

If it weren’t for Bob Dylan, deeply influenced by the charismatic and dreamy Woody Guthrie, the harmonica would probably not be as popular as it is today. This is why we totally understand that you want one of the best harmonicas out there. You will never go another day without having this emotionally-charged instrument. In the section below, we will tell you everything you need to know about the harmonica.

Harmonicas for beginners are very affordable; you can buy one for less than 10 dollars.
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What is a harmonica exactly?

This small wind instrument presents a design usually based on plastic, metal, or wood. It has individual reeds for each musical note. Those same reeds must vibrate to make the instrument sound. This is achieved by sucking or blowing in one or several holes of the harmonica.

It is so small that it can usually fit in the palm of your hand and is very easy to carry around. Combined with the folk music revival of the 1960s, this has contributed – and still contributes – to its unwavering popularity. The appearance of harmonica stands has made it even more useful, as you can now play it at the same time as other instruments.

What are the advantages of harmonicas?

If you play the guitar, a harmonica might just be what you’ve been waiting for to continue to grow as a musician. Throughout the history of this art, there are countless examples of guitarists who played or still play the harmonica. We have already mentioned Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, with other famous musicians such as Neil Young and Tom Petty following in their footsteps. These instruments offer a series of advantages that we have listed below for you:

Advantages
  • Affordable
  • Handy and compact
  • Easy to start playing
  • Options for all genres
  • Easy to carry anywhere
  • You can play it with another instrument
  • It helps to exercise memory and discipline
  • It adds a touch of magic to your songs
Disadvantages
  • You have to take good care of it
  • You need a different harmonica for each tone

What keys does a harmonica have?

Before we get into the types of harmonica available on the market, let’s talk about their pitch. While the most common harmonicas come in C major, there are many more:

  • Harmonicas in low octave, double octave, or high octave: these harmonicas have octaves below or above the standard octave and are used to achieve a higher or lower timbre. They are generally labeled as L or low, LL or low, and H or high.
  • Sharps and flats: While this key is also available in major and, as we will see below, minor tones, it is best to rank it separately. This is because many people mistakenly believe that there are no harmonicas in sharps or flats. This isn’t true at all, and Lee Oskar instruments are a perfect example of this.
  • Minor keys and custom tunings: You can find a wide range of harmonicas in minor keys, but the most common remain those of natural minor scale or key. Once again, the Lee Oskar instruments are famous for this. As we briefly mentioned earlier, you can also purchase models with custom tunings.

The Hohner brand is one of the most reliable in the industry. They offer everything you need, from low-end to high-end options.
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What kind of harmonicas are there?

Now that you know the keys that these instruments can offer, let’s have a look at the different types available. We can identify four main kinds of harmonicas:

Diatonic Chromatic Double reed Specials
Holes 6, 12, 13, and 14 Usually 10 Generally 24 It depends, the spectrum is very broad.
Characteristics They require bendings and overbendings for flats and sharps. They have a side lever that allows you to change from one set of reed plates to another. Each note or chord is produced by the simultaneous vibration of two reeds. They generally focus on reproducing chords or are specifically designed for basses.
Size Small Small Medium Small to large
Musical genre They are very versatile and suitable for virtually any musical genre, although some are tailored to specific styles. Pop, jazz, classical music, orchestral bands, among other genres. They are very useful when played in third position in blues, by focusing on certain cells that vary the natural key of the instrument. Ethnic music and traditional folklore, especially if it comes from regions such as Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America, or Asia. Typical of musical genres like pop or jazz, but they are also perfect for classical pieces or orchestra music.

How should I clean my harmonica?

These instruments need continuous care to stay in tune and good condition. This is even more important if they are made of wood, as saliva can deteriorate the material relatively quickly. In order to extend the life of your harmonica, you are recommended to brush your teeth before playing and to avoid sharing it with others. In addition, you have to clean it thoroughly from time to time:

  • It is best to dismantle the instrument for optimal cleaning. All you will need for this is a screwdriver.
  • Make sure you treat each part with care to prevent damage. Have a place to put the different parts during cleaning so you don’t lose them.
  • Clean the comb or central mechanism with a brush. Try using a knife or any other sharp tool to remove any remaining dirt.
  • Brush it again. You can put alcohol on the brush for better results. For the metal parts or reeds, add a spoonful of baking soda to a blend of water and vinegar.
  • Clean the harmonica with water. Before you put the instrument back together, make sure to let it dry thoroughly. Otherwise, all your cleaning work will be in vain.

Taking care of a harmonica is necessary to keep it in tune and extend its life.
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How can I tune my harmonica?

Keep in mind to your instrument needs to be clean to stay in tune. That being said, the reeds tend to go out of tune with time anyway. You can correct this with soft sandpaper whenever possible by reducing the size of the affected reed until it goes back to the desired key. Place something thin between the comb and the reed to avoid over-tuning.

You will have to be extremely careful when carrying out this process. In addition, you must constantly check whether or not you have reached the key you’re looking for. Keep in mind that this is helpful if you are trying to lower the pitch. You can try to manipulate the reed if you need to go higher, but you will most likely have to buy new reeds. Luckily for you, they are relatively inexpensive.

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Did you know that the harmonica was the first instrument to go to space? In 1965, Walter Schirra took his harmonica with him on a mission.

Buyer’s Guide

Now that you know just virtually everything that matters regarding harmonicas, we’re confident that you want to get your own. It’s a fantastic investment if you already play the guitar since it will give a whole new dimension to your performances. You can also play blues solos or some cheerful tunes with your friends and family. In the following section, we will delve into some key shopping criteria to help you pick the right harmonica:

Learning Level

Professional or high-quality instruments can be costly, and it doesn’t make much sense for you to spend more than 30 dollars on your very first harmonica. Start small and work your way up. The time will come for you to buy a top-of-the-line Hohner. In the meantime, quality affordable harmonicas won’t set you back more than 15 dollars.

Harmonicas are very versatile instruments, but some models are designed for very specific music genres.
(Source: Jhusemannde: 641425/ Pixabay.com)

Music Genre

This might not be the most important factor when you’re starting out. It’s all about learning, and you can always adapt your harmonica to the style you want to play. However, you will have to shop around for the right key once you start progressing with your instrument. The possibilities are almost endless, but we have designed the following table to give you a head start:

If you want to You should use
Play blues A chromatic or a Blues Harp diatonic harmonica.
Play along pop or rock songs A diatonic harmonica like Pro Harp or Lee Oskar.
Play jazz A chromatic harmonica like Kmise.
Playing American folk music or music from your region A double-reed or a diatonic harmonica. The Marine Band is very typical of this style.
Play in an orchestra or classical music A special or a chromatic harmonica.

Type of Harmonica

This factor is directly linked to the two mentioned above. The harmonica you choose will depend on the genre you want to play. However, there are various types for each style, so you should also consider your skill level. If you want to play blues, for instance, you can do so with a chromatic harmonica – especially in the third position. Note that this requires a slightly more advanced technique.

Materials

The materials directly influence the sound of the harmonica and its playability. Wood produces a warmer tone, typically found in blues. Plastic offers greater versatility but reduces the personality of each key. Wood will require more protection against humidity while plastic doesn’t, making it ideal for beginners.

Thanks to harmonica stands, you can now play it at the same time as other instruments.
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Key

In case you are going to use it as an accompanying instrument, do keep in mind that the same harmonica isn’t necessarily suitable for any song – even if it fits into the right genre. A harmonica in C major can generally only be used in that key. You may be able to widen its spectrum if you are experienced and know how to play in different positions, but it certainly isn’t easy.

As we mentioned earlier, most harmonicas are in C major. If you know how to change positions, such as to the second position, you can use your instrument for songs in G major as well. Luckily for us, the best harmonics on the market are available in all kinds of keys. Remember that harmonicas in C major are a great option for performing solo pieces.

Summary

You can play the harmonica on its own, but it also offers a unique touch to your songs as an accompanying instrument. Its melancholic, sweet, and even strident sound provokes all kinds of conflicting emotions in those who listen to it. Regardless of your skills as a musician, the harmonica is always a useful and entertaining instrument to master.

However, it is important that you are familiar with it in order to choose the most suited to your needs. As you now know, the genre you want to play will determine the type of harmonica you should invest in. Keep in mind that each variation requires a specific technique. You should also pay close attention to the manufacturing material of the instrument, as well as its key.

Did you find our shopping guide on harmonicas helpful and informative? If that’s the case, feel free to leave us a comment in the section below. You can also share this article with your friends and family on your social media!

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Why you can trust me?

Thibault Perinet Freelance Writer & World Traveler
As a literature and translation licensee and avid traveler, language has always been at the heart of my daily life. A freelance writer since 2014, I love to delve into a variety of topics that contribute to my professional and personal development. My favorite things in life? Maté in the morning, soccer with friends, and old school hip hop.