An harmonica is an instrument that everyone knows but few people play It’s really a bit strange when you think about how important it has been in the history of music, and how cheap and easy it is to transport.Harmonicas on Amazon
It is a fantastic instrument that can be used in a variety of ways. It is a robust instrument and is excellent in all kinds of genres; everything from rock, blues, jazz and to something entirely different. Read my harmonica buying guide below to see the winners of my test.
Top 5 Best Harmonicas
Below you can see our 5 test winners. We have both diatonic harmonicas (suitable for beginners and used for blues, rock, country, people) and chromatic harmonicas (which have a cleaner sound and are suitable for classical and jazz music). There are harmonicas for beginners as well for experienced players.
Best harmonica for beginners
Best harmonica for intermediate players
Best blues harmonica
Best chromatic harmonica
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Many may not think there is a great prestige associated with the harmonica, but its sound and expression is not to be underestimated. Just think of the character “Harmonica” from the movie Once Upon A Time In The West and the mood and mood that goes through your body when the melancholy harmonic theme breaks through the speakers or how the harmonica is played in one of the greatest hits of all time in time in The Beatles’ “Love Me Do”. Last but not least, let’s not forget how Bob Dylan sings so honestly that we have no doubt that it is his personal thoughts and words we hear, after which his harmonica reproduces his feelings and hits us just where we feel it most. I think this instrument deserves a renaissance – more people should take it up! The potential and the infinite possibilities are, without a doubt, present and you have a unique opportunity to stand out from most other musicians. It is also a fantastic instrument that you can carry in your pocket. Just think of bonfires and summer; we often find here a guitar and a few that can play on it, but rarely can they play on harmonica. How cool could it be to have a guitar and harmonica jam around the fire accompanied by an ice cold draft beer and a barbecue, instead of just playing guitar and singing campfire songs as you have done so many times before?
The harmonica was invented early in the 19th century. In Asia, instruments such as the Sheng were already widespread and as they were brought to Europe and, in the 1820s, they began to develop instruments inspired by these existing instruments. The invention of the harmonica is credited to Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann in 1821. He is credited as the inventor despite the fact that several instrument builders at the same time made similar versions of the instrument. From here, the harmonica was widespread, almost immediately, throughout Europe, the United States and South America. The harmonica was developed to play classical music but soon it also found a special role in folk music, especially in the USA. The first sold harmonica was sold in Vienna. Before the turn of the century, harmonicas were suddenly in mass production, and it suddenly became an instrument that was easily accessible and relatively inexpensive. For this reason, the harmonica became incredibly popular and widespread – people had harmonicas everywhere. This was because of the light weight of the harmonica and the fact that it was very easy to carry around. New designs of the harmonica followed suit in the 20th century and in 1921 the chromatic harmonica was invented and sold by Hohner, an instrument that still exists today. The chromatic harmonica was special as it not only played a scale but also all the semitones/individual notes (think both the white and black keys on a piano) and this meant that you were now no longer forced to only keep a song in a particular key. There was also ample opportunity to transpose the song either in advance or in the middle of the number.
With this development, the harmonica suddenly made its entry on the jazz scene, where the songs almost always change the key during the song at least once, if not more! Also, other types such as bass harmonicas and chord harmonicas also came into being. A bass harmonica could play much deeper than the normal harmonica and a chord harmonica could, as the name suggests, play at least 3 different tones at the same time (a chord). Today, you can find and buy harmonicas all over the world, and production is still top notch. Several of the original factories and companies still produce the same harmonicas as they did a hundred years ago, and they are still popular, especially in the United States, despite the fact that they unfortunately have lost a lot of popularity in Europe.back to menu ↑
Harmonica parts and construction
A classic harmonica consists of five different parts. At the top we find the top cover and at the bottom we find the bottom cover. These two have no musical function, apart from keeping the other parts in place. It is in the other three parts that magic happens. In the middle of it all we have what is called the ‘comb’ which got its name from its appearance. It typically consists of wood, metal or plastic and has 10 cuts that make it look like a comb. It is in these cut out holes where the air that musicians breathe into/out of the instrument can penetrate through to the other two parts of the harmonica. Between the top cover and the comb we have what is, in English, called the blow reed plate and between the bottom cover and the comb we have what is called draw reed plate.
Every single tone that a harmonica can produce is made using a small and thin piece of brass that vibrates when the air from the musician hits it. One end of the thin piece is tightly secured to the blade plate, whereas the other end is not tightened. Alternatively, on the other end, there is a small hole beneath the thin piece of plating, which results in the ‘blade’ (the thin piece of plating) moving back and forth as the air hits it – it vibrates and creates sound.
The blade sits slightly higher than the hole itself and, when the air hits the blade, it shoots itself into the hole and then jumps back into place. This cycle is called a vibration. Each tone you hear is then vibration from the blade that hits the hole hundreds of times, even up to thousands of times depending on the power of the musician’s breath. This sound as described here occurs in the upper reed plate, where the holes for the blade sit inside. On the other hand, when you suck in the air from the harmonica, it is a slightly different mechanism that is initiated. The basic principle is the same but here the air holes are outside and on the bottom reed plate. This means that when you suck, you suck the leaves into their hole. The mechanism is basically the same, the only difference is whether you breathe out (air away from your mouth and thereby holes inside) or if you suck in (air towards your mouth and thereby holes outside).
If you look at the different leaves found inside the harmonica, you will see that they have different sizes and lengths. They are screwed together as different loops and thicknesses of the leaves create different tones. If each one was equal, then you would play the same tone no matter in which position you played (which hole on the comb you placed his mouth).back to menu ↑
Learn how to play a harmonica
When playing a harmonica there is a fixed system. Typically, you will start on a diatonic (scale) harmonica, where the system is always the same. If you play on a C harmonica, in hole 4 on the comb you will always find your root note, which in this case is the note C. This is if you breathe out into the instrument. If you stay on the same hole but rather suck the air in, you will find the next tone in the scale, the tone d.
This system is always the same, and this makes it easy to switch to a harmonica in another key. If, instead of playing on a C major, you play on an F major, then, when you breathe, in the fourth hole you will find the note F and then the note G when you inhale. Here you can see the system in C. major:
When you have managed to control this and feel comfortable, you may consider switching to a chromatic harmonica. This is, of course, harder, as there are several holes to keep track of, but, on the other hand, you are not dependent on the key being correct, and you can therefore move more freely. It requires training as with everything else, but it is important to give it a good try, as it opens up many doors, especially for your creativity. Diatonic harmonicas are simpler to play on as it is impossible to play a note that sounds wrong (a note outside of the key) if you have a harmonica in the same key as the song. You can, however, if you use a chromatic harmonica as there are 5 tones that will sound particularly good in any key. Therefore, it takes a lot of practice to become skilled at a chromatic harmonica, as one cannot just “play in the blind”, but always have an idea of where to go and what tones are “good” to play.
Keep in mind that these are just rules of thumb. Notes outside of the key can easily sound good as you often hear in jazz. As Miles Davis said, a mistake is not a mistake as long as you make it extremely compelling and with integrity!back to menu ↑
Different types of harmonicas
Overall, one distinguishes between two different types of harmonicas: diatonic harmonicas and chromatic harmonicas. In addition, the diatonic harmonica is also called a blues harmonica.
A chromatic harmonica can play all 12 notes of the chromatic scale and is therefore very versatile. The chromatic scale contains all the 12 common notes used in music from the West. A chromatic harmonica has a button on the side, making it possible to switch between halftones and full tones. You therefore have the opportunity to play all scales in any key. One major drawback, however, is that it is difficult to “bend” the tones. Therefore, you do not get an equally blues-like sound as you do when playing a diatonic harmonica.
The diatonic harmonica has some limitations on how many tones it can play. A diatonic harmonica is characterized by not having all 12 tones from the chromatic scale. However, it is possible to “tune” the tones so that you can get the tones you want. The vast majority of professionals actually use a diatonic harmonica because it has a really fat sound compared to the chromatic, which is more “pure” in sound.
The diatonic harmonica is also called a blues harmonica. Simply because you almost always use a diatonic harp to play the blues.back to menu ↑
Harmonica buying guide
When choosing your first harmonica, it is first and foremost important to find out what you need and what your goal is. If you just want to play folk songs, blues and pop music, then diatonic harmonicas (harmonicas that are attached to a scale and are not chromatic) are well suited and can probably do the job. If, on the other hand, you want to be more experimental and/or play music that often changes your key, then you should probably go for a chromatic. From here it is a lot about preferences in relation to sound. All instruments sound very different and it makes a big difference to the sound if the comb is made of metal, wood or plastic, for example. The more expensive a harmonica is, the finer the material it is made of, generally, as with all other instruments. Therefore, it is a great idea to go down to your local music store and hear more about what it is made of and what it does well. Some have a sharp sound that can be really bold for jazz, while others have a softer sound that fits well with folk songs. Here it is about being critical and trying them out – even if you have never played harmonicas before. Breathe and suck in some pieces and pay special attention to how the sound it gives off affects you. Is it comfortable? Would you wish it was different? If you think it is perfect, then you should probably buy it, head home and play the whole day long! Be aware that, although most harmonicas are mass-produced, even the smallest things have an impact on the sound. This could be how far the blade is from the hole or how thick the holes are cut. Even the smallest difference is of great importance, so it is therefore not recommended to buy blindly on the Internet but to come out and try it for yourself. Harmonicas can also be bought used and you usually get a really good price. However, many have a problem with the idea that it has touched another person’s mouth before, which is quite understandable, but a harmonic can be cleaned thoroughly and quite easily. If you are not fazed by this then there is a lot of money you can save on a good harmonica by buying used. This said, you have to be careful about buying used and making sure that the harmonica is exactly how the seller says it is. It may be a good idea to do your research and compare, or maybe even see the original papers that came with it. As long as it’s okay, buying is certainly an option!back to menu ↑
If you would like to play another instrument (e.g. guitar) while playing harmonica, you can buy a harmonica holder. This acts as a headrest and holds the harmonica close to the mouth. It can be adjusted to fit you comfortably.