Adam holds a Bachelor's and a Master's degree in Linguistics, and creative writing has always been his greatest passion. For more than 25 years he's been working for several well-known automobile and travel magazines as an editor and expert consultant, but when Adam started his writing path here, at WisePick, it turned out that he's capable of writing practically anything about everything.
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Last updated: May 11, 2021
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Nothing beats a harmonica when it comes to portability, affordability, and playability. Size and cost notwithstanding, harmonicas are known to produce a breathtaking range of tones and their versatility is evident from the music genres that they take part in. From the most common country, blues, rock, and to the astonishing categories such as classical music and jazz, harmonicas fit in flawlessly with their often human-like voices.
Harmonicas come in different styles, including diatonic and chromatic ones. In this review, we will focus on how to choose the best chromatic harmonica, which is more versatile and complex. We say complex because chromatic harmonicas are more difficult to play than diatonic ones. Harmonica experts usually recommend beginners to start with the basic 10-hole diatonic harp tuned in to the key of C before graduating to the challenging chromatic that uses the standard 12-tone scale. Diatonic harmonicas are majorly used for blues, rock, and folk, but if you want to play on any scale, on any key, the chromatic harp is the best option. Chromatic harmonicas are mostly used for jazz, pop, and classical music. Some of the best-known chromatic harmonica players include Stevie Wonder, Larry Adler and Toots Thielemans.
That said, you ought to be an advanced player to use a chromatic harmonica. We spent over 60 hours researching for the top-rated chromatic harmonicas, which we present in our reviews section. We found that key, number of holes and reeds, materials and size were all important in determining the best chromatic harmonica. Take a glimpse on the products comparison table below so you know how each of them fares. Next up, you will find in-depth chromatic harmonica reviews and a buying guide further down. Shall we?
The Suzuki SCX-64C Chromatix Series Harmonica is arguably the most luxurious harmonica on the market. This mighty little mouth harp is so comfortable to hold fully airtight, making it a pleasure to play.
It does look striking as well in its chrome-plated covers plus Phosphor Bronze reed plates. The material is a blend of tin and phosphorous, whereby the tin increases corrosion resistance and strength, while phosphorous increases stiffness and wear resistance. The comb is made of ABS material, which has a good reputation for durability
This device has been hand-crafted by Suzuki’s skilled workers, and it’s specially designed for professionals who want nothing but smooth tone production. Quick response is another attribute of this harmonica, which allows you to advance your playing to the next level. You will love the ergonomically designed mouthpiece in the way it’ll promote smooth sliding of your lips without grabbiness.
Worth mentioning is that this model is only offered in the key of C and it has 64 reeds and 16 holes. The wide range of this 16-hole harmonica will let you shift the tune higher or lower for that wonderful dramatic impact. You can literally hit any note with this chromatic harmonica. In addition, the harmonica weighs only 8 ounces, making it easy to use even for extended periods of play. Last but not least, this impressive instrument comes with a handy carry case with velvet-like lining.
What makes it special?
Comfortable and fully airtight
Ergonomically designed mouthpiece for smooth use
Smooth tone production and fast response
Durable construction with ABS comb, phosphor bronze reed plates and chrome-plated covers
The Suzuki SCX-48 C 12H is the little brother to our best pick above. They share major similarities except the fact that the SCX-48 has 12 holes compared to the 16-hole SCX-64C model. It means the SCX-48 may compromise on mid-range/bass octave, however, it makes up for a more compact and probably lighter instrument than the SCX-64C. Don’t be fooled, however, as the sound quality is still top notch.
The body of this instrument has been crafted to last for years thanks to the use of durable materials all around. From the hardwearing ABS comb, Phosphor Bronze reed plates, and chrome-plated covers, you can trust the build of this mouth harp. Looking at the overall build, you can tell that Suzuki designers paid attention to detail to make this harp one of the most airtight chromatics on the market.
Another impressive feature of this instrument is its ergonomic mouthpiece. Lips no longer have to feel irritated when sliding along the mouthpiece, plus the slide mechanism is smooth and precise. This instrument is additionally characterized by fine tone production and quick response, something that professional harmonica players love. This instrument also comes with a deluxe, soft-line carry case which is handy for storage and transportation. Its compact dimensions ensure it will sneak into your pocket easily. All things considered, this chromatic makes an excellent alternative to our best pick.
What makes it special?
Superb tone production and quick response
Durable ABS comb
Phosphor bronze reed plates and chrome-plated covers
If you are looking for a starter harmonica for beginners and hobbyists, the Hohner 754BX-C 48R is an ideal choice. Not only because it’s a 12-hole harmonica, which is easy to play, but also because it will let you play pretty much anything with sharps and flats in the Key of C.
This instrument benefits from German engineering with a robust ABS body that guarantees absolute performance in any climatic conditions. The reed plates are made of brass, which is corrosion-resistant, while stainless steel covers ensure excellent production of tones. The mouthpiece is made of plastic instead of metal, and that provides a groove for the slide. In fact, the slide action is flawless due to the two-part slide assembly done on the instrument. You will also benefit from quick response thanks to optimized channel openings plus enhanced airtightness. The product’s compact dimensions of 10.5 x 5.2 x 1.8 inches plus its weight of just 8 ounces make it easy to hold and play. You won’t feel that you are carrying the instrument except for its warm, mellow sound that will captivate you and the listener alike.
Instrument maintenance is an easy task because the device can be dismantled quickly for the same. The harp is simple but incorporates important design elements at an affordable price. Form, weight, and sound are the finest features of this instrument from Hohner.
What stands out?
Reliable operation in any climatic zones thanks to robust ABS body
Satisfying haptic through ergonomically designed covers
Quick response due to improved airtightness and easy slide action
The SWAN SW 1664 C 16H 64R is aт instrument for beginners with 16 holes and 64 tones good for playing different kinds of music. Actually, the instrument was named 1664 because it has 16 holes, each producing four notes, thus making a total of 64 notes. The result is a 4-octave chromatic harmonica.
The construction is excellent with an ergonomically designed comb that feels comfortable in hand, thanks to rounded edges and sides. If you take apart the comb, which is really simple with a Philips mini screwdriver, you will find red colored windsavers and sturdy cylindrical studs. The reed plates are fitted to the comb with Philips head screws that thread to the reverse plate. The ability to disassemble the instrument allows easy maintenance when needed.
When it comes to playability, we found that the mouth harp is difficult to play out of the box, especially on the first and fourth octave. You need a lot of wind on the first, while the fourth produces somewhat faint sound. A little tweaking is needed to get a powerful, dynamic sound. The slide mechanism is smooth and quiet, though, and it goes back and forth easily.
The item is supplied with a neoprene carry case, which allows moisture to escape while keeping dust out. With its elegant design, this makes a great gift for a friend. This chromatic harmonica is not a top of the line model, but it makes a valuable option for starters.
What makes it stand out?
Suitable for different styles of music
Ergonomically designed comb for absolute comfort
Comes with sturdy carry case
Easy to disassemble and maintain
Which disadvantages must you keep in mind?
Not for pro players
May need a few tweaks
Things to Consider
Choosing the best chromatic harmonica is not an easy task. For one, you can’t try them out like you would do with a piano or guitar. You can’t pick this instrument at the retail store and put it to your lips – they won’t allow you to do so. Second, most top of the range harmonicas – the ones you will really love – will rarely be found in local retail stores. Most retailers have limited inventories for you to pick from. That means you can only order from online stores and fortunately or unfortunately, rely on reviewers like us to advice you on which is which. We promise to do our best on that note and here we go.
What are the benefits of having a chromatic harmonica?
Chromatic harmonicas are designed with many different keys, which sounds somehow strange. A chromatic harmonica makes it possible to play a tune in any key because it has all the 12 notes of the Western scale in each octave.
Some players specialize playing everything in the key of C. When they want to play a tune in another key, they rarely go for a different key of harmonica. Obviously, that means one has to have 12 distinct chromatic harmonicas so as to cover all the 12 keys, and it will be an expensive thing to do. Not to mention the bulk one has to carry around with them.
That said, a chromatic harmonica with its variety of keys has some major benefits. For instance, it’s unthinkable to play an E and an A simultaneously on a harmonica, but it’s pretty much possible with a chromatic harmonica in G or A. An Fm chord is not playable in a C chromatic but there won’t be a problem in a D or Eb chromatic. Perhaps you want to play a tune that was initially written for violin that uses higher notes that are unavailable on a 12-hole chromatic. Well, the G 12-hole chromatic covers they typical range of violin tunes. A 14 or 16-hole chrome can do the same too.
So a chromatic harmonica is quite versatile and will let you play on any scale and any key.
What to look for in an ideal chromatic harmonica?
Just like shopping for any other product, there are a few things that can help you pick the right product for your needs. Or, at least, help you in differentiating the best harmonicas from mediocre products.
Beginners are always advised to start with a harmonica in the key of C before advancing to complex keys. In fact, everyone needs a harmonica in the key of C because most instruction booklets will assume you have one. A C harmonica will, therefore, enable you to follow the majority of novice level harmonica levels.
When you start playing with other musicians, however, you will need a set of different key harmonicas to play to their tunes. For instance, if you join guitar players, then harmonicas in the key of C, D, F, G, and A can cover most situations.
Number of holes and reeds, and why it matters
Chromatic harmonicas are available in 8, 10, 12, 14, or 16 holes. The 12-hole chromatic is available in any of the 12 keys of the Western scale but C is the most preferred by pros. A 12-key chromatic harmonica in the key of C is also the most recommended for those seeking their first chromatic. It comes with three octave ranges of 48 tones and it’s quite easy to play.
While a 12-hole is adequate for most styles of music, a 14 or 16-hole takes things to the next level. These get down into viola, violin, trumpet, and clarinet and sax range. Note that very high or very low number of holes can have both physical and acoustic problems. Higher reeds are difficult to regulate so they speak freely, while it’s hard to get longer reeds to move. That’s why the 12-hole chromatic with 48 reeds is an ideal choice for many players.
Speaking of reeds, a 14-hole chrome has 56 reeds and the 16-hole has 64 reeds. Generally, the more holes a chromatic has, the larger the range of different sounds it can produce. Note that a 16-hole chromatic such as SWAN SW 1664 C 16H 64R in the reviews above will demand a lot of practice before becoming familiar with its full range of tones.
Harmonicas are comprised of five parts: comb, reed-plate, cover plate, windsavers, and mouthpiece. These parts are usually made of different materials for various reasons.
Harmonica combs are made of ABS (plastic) or metal but traditionally they used to be made of wood. The advantage of a particular material over the other is usually its durability, though some argue that the material may have an effect on tone. Go for plastic or metal in this case because wooden combs can absorb moisture and become uncomfortable to play over time. The reeds and cover plates are usually made of hard-wearing brass, while the windsavers may be extremely thin strips of plastic, leather, or knit paper.
We recommend you go through a few customer reviews to know about the durability of the product you’d like to buy. The Suzuki SCX-64C 64R 16H model would be a good choice.
Ease of use
We have already mentioned that a 12-hole chromatic harmonica is a good starting point because it’s easy to use. However, things such as size and weight do matter to some extent.
You want an instrument that is ergonomic and feels nice in hand. Pay attention to the sides and edges. Are they smooth and easy to grab? What about the slide mechanism? Is it easy to work? These are the little things that determine how easy it will be to use the instrument. Most importantly, your lips need to pleasantly slide along the mouthpiece. Some harmonicas may be irritating on the lips, so check out a few reviews to know more.
A carry case is also a useful addition to take if the harmonica has one.
At the very basic, a 10-hole chromatic harmonica will suffice. However, a 12-hole chromatic gives you 3 octaves and will enable you to play most music. We recommend the Suzuki SCX-48 C 12H because it’s easy to play, lightweight, and has durable phosphor bronze reeds. Furthermore, it comes in the key of C, which is the most recommended key for beginner harmonica lessons.
Harmonicas are easy to take apart and clean, then reassemble again. The SWAN SW 1664 C 16H 64R is a good example. The act of playing harmonica leads to deterioration of reeds, cover plates and the comb. That’s because breath carries contaminants with it that build up on those parts. Proper cleaning at regular intervals can help prevent corrosion and extend the life of your harmonica. Frequent cleaning of the comb will maintain its aesthetic appeal. Use alcohol to clean the reeds and carefully wipe them dry. Always do the same with the cover plates. Make sure to reassemble the instrument when every component has dried. Cleaning your harmonica is all about getting it right the first time and your instruction manual should help.
Well, that depends on what you want to achieve in your music career. If you are a jazz enthusiast, then you may consider adding drums, guitar, bass, keyword, trumpet, sax, and trombone to your collection. For the most part, there’s not a much better fit than an acoustic guitar. It really comes down to the sort of music you’re playing.
Harmonicas have been around for centuries and they are likely to go nowhere for ages to come. The best chromatic harmonica is the one that suits your needs best, whether you are a beginner or pro, and not forgetting your budget. From our four choices above, we are confident to say that the Suzuki SCX-64C 64R 16H scored the most marks in major departments. With 16 holes, ABS comb, and lightweight construction, this model is the real deal for most pros.
We also recommend the Suzuki SCX-48 C 12H for those looking for a standard harmonica. We liked its ergonomic mouthpiece and long-lasting chrome-plated cover plates. The best budget pick and especially for absolute beginners is the Swan SW 1664 C 16H 64R. You will be amazed by the range of music this instrument can play – ballads, gospel, folk, and reggae.
With the heap of all the information above, we hope you can now shop with confidence.
Do you know of other good chromatic harmonicas that we forgot to mention? Let us engage in our comments section.