General advice on buying a harp for beginners
If you’re a beginner – first time holding a harp, first time blowing into one – don’t break the bank on handcrafted harmonicas and German designs. Also, it may be in your best interest not to start with a chromatic harmonica. The beginner’s best friend will be a relatively cheap diatonic harp, first, for their more limited range of tones and options (ideal for the learning process), and second, for their structure, which lends itself to learning essential techniques of driving rhythms and tongue-blocked harmonies. Complete beginners should consider these three models above: the Fender Blues Deluxe 7-Pack (especially great for beginners because it has 7 harps, each with a different note), the Anwenk C 10H 20R, and the Seydel 1847 Silver C. These are all excellent quality diatonic harps, and the last two are even performance-worthy designs.
Specific features to look for in an ideal harmonica for beginners
Features, and the materials of their design, will make or break your choice of harmonica. For instance – handcrafted harmonicas tend to be wood designs with brass reeds, and these harps tend to offer more control over notes and airflow. In contrast, machined harmonicas (which often have fully metal designs) tend to deliver louder, more echoing (or vibrating) sounds – such as the noises of Jazz and Pop melodies.
In the end, the harp you buy should be very centered around the type of music you picture yourself playing. Odds are, if you’re more of a Southern Blues and Folk musician, then you’ll get something German and hand-crafted (typically a chromatic harp). The difference between chromatic and diatonic is in the number of holes and reeds (more on each of these features below).
There are three types of harmonicas: diatonic, chromatic, and tremolo. Most often you’ll only see diatonic and chromatic harps because they are very common. A tremolo harp, on the other hand, is distinct, as it’s designed with two reeds per note – one reed is slightly sharp, the other reed is slightly flat, and together they create the full note. These harps tend to have a wavering or warbling sound associated with Eastern music (parts of Europe and Asia), although sometimes they’re used in folk or classical music. The only tremolo harp in this list is the double-sided Hohner 56-C/G 48-H. Although beginners can easily play these types of harps, they tend to be custom made and more expensive than the diatonic or chromatic harps.
Diatonic harps have a bending sound which only they can make (created by drawing a breath and exhaling a note). ‘Bending’ is one of the easiest skills to learn with a diatonic harp, and lends itself to the most songs. The genres of music predominately played on the diatonic harmonica are blues, rock, country, folk, and classical. Because of the diatonic harp’s wide range and diverse nature, it’s most ideal for beginners. One of the best options for a new diatonic player is the echoic Seydel 1847 Silver C.
Chromatic harmonicas tend to have a button on the side which allows you to play the normal major scale and also the half-step notes in between. With a chromatic harp you can pretty much play any scale in any key, and switching between the two options will give you that bluesy sound which most harp players desire. These harps also tend to have more reeds and more holes, providing a larger scale for learning more complicated songs. An inexpensive model which looks great and sounds even better, especially fitting for blues music, is the Hohner Marine Band C.
A set of harmonicas in the keys of A, Bb, C, D, F and G will suit the majority of playing situations. However, most beginners and intermediate harp players tend to stick with the key of C, or use chromatic/tremolo harps to quickly change between keys. Mostly, the key you use will depend on the genre of music you play. For instance, the typical blues song is in the key of E, A, G, C or D. Having a harmonica which starts in the key of C and is long enough to hit all these other keys will be your best friend – if you play blues and don’t mind lengthy chromatic harps. However, if your preference is different (or you haven’t learned your preference yet) stick with diatonic harps to begin with.
Number of holes and reeds
Reeds are typically made out of brass. However, some harps with steel, aluminum, and plastic reeds can be found. When air passes through the reed cover, each reed (thin strips which are longer or shorter depending on the note) vibrates and creates sound (notes). Depending on the number of holes along a harp, you can vibrate more reeds (usually there are more reeds per each new hole) and play more notes. However, you can also press on with your fingers and lips, to suppress sound and control your music.
The reason learning on harmonicas with more holes is important, is that you’ll have a larger range of notes to play, and therefore a larger selection of music that you can learn. Chromatic harps are some of the most note-extensive harmonicas, and one of the best starter chromatic harps is the Hohner Marine Band C
One of the only full-metal designs on this list is the Seydel 1847 Silver C. Its all-metal materials cause the harp to give off more of a vibrato (metallic hum), which is most common in Jazz pieces and southern blues. This is just one example of how materials can have a major effect on sound. A harmonica which is handcrafted from wood components, like the maple wood Hohner 56-C/G 48-H, possesses a gentler quality of sound for folk, pop, and country music. An easier way to explain this is that wooden designs will mute your tones and give you more control, whereas full-metal designs will be louder, but with less control.
Ease of use
Smaller harmonicas are not necessarily ‘easier to use’, but they are easier to transport, hold, and learn on. These features might make them easier to use for a child or teenager. Additionally, getting a harmonica with a carrying case will make it so much simpler when you’re going to a practice or performance somewhere else. Cases also protect your harmonicas, whereas by keeping them in your pockets, you risk damaging them with lint, sweat, or even just by banging your pocket up against something. For beginners who want small harps, a large selection and a carrying case, you should consider getting the exceptional value Fender Blues Deluxe 7-Pack.
Final features which might help you decide between two or more models might be:
- If its hand-designed or not
- Whether the manufacturers make it in other notes
- If you can play sharps or flats on it
- If sharp metallic components will snag your beard