Folk & Traditional Instruments

How to Buy the Best Harmonica

Harmonica Playing

Having played many different harmonicas over the years I have found that some stand up to abuse better than others and that some have the minute you take them out of the box. Harmonicas (often called harps, especially by blues players) can be a disposable medium due to their inexpensiveness, but having a quality instrument that will last a long time is invaluable to a musician.

The Seydel Blues Nobel 1847, however, is like moving from a Fender Squire to a Fender Strat. For reasons you can read more on below, this is our top pick harmonica (link to view on Amazon). You can feel the quality as soon as you put it in your hands and it will continue to blow you away months and even years down the road.

seydel-blues-nobel-1847
Top Pick: Seydel Blues Nobel 1847
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With incredible craftsmanship and attention to detail, and the Nobel is unbeaten in our experience. Seydel took their Silver 1847 and improved upon nearly everything to create one of the best experiences you will have with a harmonica.

A Little About the Author

I’ve been playing harmonica for over 7 years, both learning myself and playing with others. I have spent hours scouring through customer reviews, forum boards, and manufacturers websites along with my own experience with harmonicas to determine not just the best buys for the money, but the instruments that will last the longest and sound the best.

I’ll be focusing on diatonic harmonicas in this article as they are the most popular both for beginners and pros. Tremolo and Chromatic harmonicas are also available from most of these companies but tend to be more specialized and in some cases, much more expensive.

Selecting Your Harp

Choosing a harmonica is often a subjective decision. While there are poorly made harps out there, quality crafted instruments will vary in the sound produced, tuning, ease of use, and whether they are fitted to the particular style or genre you play.

Harmonicas are available in many different musical keys. Your harp will be marked, usually with it’s first position or blow note. If you are just beginning your best bet is start with a C harp and move on from there depending on what keys fit the style of music you are playing or the specific song you are looking to learn.

Traditionally German made harmonicas are considered superior to those made elsewhere, though there are plenty of well-made harmonicas made in China and Japan. Suzuki makes their harmonicas in Japan, and Hohner, a German company, has begun to make some of their harps in China. (Admittedly, though, there is some debate about the Hohner China made harps I will touch upon a little later.)

What Makes a Great Harp?

Here are some handy terms for those unfamiliar with harmonicas:

Cover plates –These are the metal “casings” which house the component of the Harmonica. The shape and construction will determine durability and sound.
Comb – Usually made from wood or plastic, this seats the reedplates and air passages.
Reedplates –The reedplates (often used interchangeably with reeds) vibrate as you pass air through the comb, creating the different pitches of the instrument.

Every part of the harmonica is functional and determines the sound and quality of the instrument. The coverplate and its relation to the comb will affect how airtight the instrument is. The construction of the reeds, along with how you play, will have the most bearing on how long your harmonica continues to operate.

There is much debate over what effect the comb material will have on the sound of the harmonica. The traditional stance has been that wood combs produce a warm, classic tone while plastic and metal will produce something brighter.

Many harpists agree that the comb material itself has little to no effect on tone, citing the shape of air passages, coverplates, and differences in reeds defining the overall sound.

Whichever side of the fence you land on my advice is to choose comb construction based on the durability and whether or not it affects your lips (and your mustache, I have had a few hairs pulled out by different harps.) A well-reasoned discussion on this controversy can be found here.

For our purposes, we will stick with facts and leave controversy. Wood combs are cheaper and tend to swell or shrink with moisture. Plastic or ABS resin combs are more durable and easier on the lips. Metal combs have these qualities but will cost more and add a little extra weight to your harp.

The materials used for reeds are either phosphor bronze, brass, or stainless steel. Each type will, along with other construction factors, affect how your harp sounds, and also how long it will last. Many companies use stainless steel reeds in their harps and raise the price accordingly but steel does not seem to last any longer than bronze or brass, and it usually comes down to how hard you play and how often rather than being solely down to the materials used.

Most harmonicas are sold with cases. Usually, these are plastic clam-shell types or hard zippered types. Other cases are available for purchase but if you feel a case will be necessary, make sure that the harmonica you are buying comes with one before your purchase.

How Does it Feel?

The most important factor in choosing a harmonica is how it feels to you. This can be a frustrating task as it may take a couple of purchases before you find one that’s just right. On the bright side, there is a large selection of harmonicas available between the $20 to $40 range that are wonderful products and indicative of higher end models of the same brand.

So if you buy a Marine Band Deluxe, for instance, and you like how it feels and plays, the Marine Band Crossover may be something to look at in the higher end of price and construction.

A Note on Where You Purchase Your Harmonica

The internet can be a great resource for someone looking to buy a harp, but since this is the type of instrument that is not easily returned (you put your mouth on it) it may be more advantageous to buy from a brick and mortar store.

Most music stores will have a small machine that can pass air back and forth through the harp so you can be sure there are no dead holes or leaks. The downside to this is that your selection may be limited. While many stores will order items they do not keep in stock, you run the risk of upsetting the store clerk if you decline the purchase of a specialty item.

However you decide to proceed, here are some harmonicas that will help keep you from buyers remorse.

The Competition

After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.

InstrumentRatingCurrent Pricing
Seydel Blues Nobel 1847
coverplates are matted stainless steel with side vents, optimizing projection of sound and airflow$109.95
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic
phenomenal sound projection$41.99
Hohner Special 20
solid construction and allows for easy bends even if you are just beginning to learn the technique
Suzuki Manji
resin comb, laser reeds tuned phosphor bronze, cover plates are sculpted for sound projection and quality$44.40
Bluesband
Perfectly fine for beginners looking to spend as little as possible
Suzuki Harpmaster
responsive, laser tuned brass reeds provide a mellow tone$28.90
Suzuki Promaster Valved
Allows bending on blow notes, really opening up playing possibilities$59.90
Marine Band
wooden comb may swell or shrink, curve on the cover plate and slightly smaller size might make it feel strange to some
Fender Blues Deluxe
More economical choice, still sounds good and is easy to play$9.99
Melody Maker
plastic comb makes it easier on your lips, recessed bed secures the reedplate and prevent air leakage$41.99
Hohner 542 Golden Melody
one of the loudest harps on the market

Our Top Pick: Seydel Blues Nobel 1847

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Most harmonica players will tell you when asked that when you buy harmonicas, you should always buy German made. While this may be less true now than 30 or 40 years ago, the Seydel company makes some of the best harmonicas on the market. Founded over 160 years ago a brush with insolvency in 2004 almost put the company out of business. An investor was found, however, and the company continues to thrive today.

The 1847 line of harmonicas are renowned for their incredible craftsmanship and attention to detail, and the Nobel is the absolute best of these products. Seydel took their Silver 1847 and improved upon nearly everything to create one of the best experiences you will have with a harmonica.

The coverplates are matted stainless steel with side vents optimizing the projection of sound and airflow. Draw notes are usually tricky, especially on holes 1 and 2 which tend to get used the most, but Seydel has you covered. They have minimized the reed rattling one might find in other harps, even if played hard, which is great for those who blow hard.

The comb is milled from aluminum, so it will stand the test of time and use. The reedplates are made of German silver fixed with stainless steel screws with close tolerances between the slot and reeds for extreme responsiveness and control. To top it off this is the only harp I’ve come across that is 100% waterproof!

A Seydel in the 1847 series will run you anywhere from $90 to $130 depending on the store. While the price may be prohibitive for some, the sustainability of this instrument is well worth the investment. Reeds will blow out with constant use, and not all harmonica companies offer replacement reeds for their harps. Seydel does offer replacement reeds, but it will be a long time before you need to buy one.

Oh, and then there’s the sound. Harmonicas are often seen as toys or niche instruments, but this harmonica would change anyone’s mind. The tone is vibrant, warm, and full and puts just about every other harmonica to shame. This is an instrument in the sense that a saxophone or a piano is an instrument.

For those who have been playing for a while and haven’t tried Seydel, you owe it to yourself to try this harp out, and if you are just beginning, you will not have to buy another harp until you need another key.

Runner Up: Lee Oskar Major Diatonic

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If the price of a Seydel is just not feasible, then get a Lee Oskar. I played Special 20’s for years before I heard a Lee Oskar and was immediately sold. Oskar is a household name among harmonica players, and his line of harps was born out of his experience performing both on the road and in the studio.

The Oskar Major Diatonic feels a little bigger in your hands will not most other harmonicas. The holes are nice and wide for a full, bright tone, bends are relatively easy, and it sounds great amplified. have This harp is airtight, and the sound projection is phenomenal.

Oskar’s come with a black clamshell plastic case clearly marked with the key. The best part of the Lee Oskar is that it is customizable, and Oskar also has a tool kit available designed specifically for harmonicas. The major diatonic models usually start around $38 to $45 most places.

The Competition: Other Harmonicas to Consider

Hohner Special 20

Credit: HOHNER

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Without a doubt, the special 20 is one of the most balanced harmonicas on the market. The construction is solid and allows for easy bends even if you are just beginning to learn the technique. A classic for many years, the special 20 is great for just about any style of music.

A full, bright sound and sturdy, this harp is the preferred harp for a large number of harmonica players. A word of warning on purchasing this instrument: while many people stand by the Special 20, there are two different models available each with considerable difference in overall quality.

When purchasing, try and make sure you are getting the “classic” model (560-BX-C) and not the “progressive” model, which is considered inferior.

Here is an extremely useful video to help you hear and understand the difference.

I have both used both models and can tell a slight difference in quality, but I play them less then other types of Harps. You can expect to spend around $40 for a Special 20, but many places have them as low as $30.

Suzuki Manji

The Manji is named after the Suzuki company’s founder and is a mainstay for many harmonica players. The comb is resin, the reeds are laser tuned phosphor bronze, and the cover plates are sculpted for optimal sound projection and quality. There are some different models available in the $60 to $80 range.

Reedplate replacements are available, extending the lifetime of the instrument. The Manji is also available in much keys, specifically C and D, which open up greater possibilities for lead players.

Bluesband

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The Bluesband harp is the ultimate low budget beginners harp. You can often find these packaged with a song book a cardboard case as a $5 deal in music stores, though I’ve seen them as little as $2 and as high as $10 around the internet.

While perfectly fine for beginners looking to spend as little as possible, you won’t get the full sound out of this harp you would from one costing a little more. This is a great buy if you want to try out the instrument without spending a whole lot, but if you’ve been playing for a while, it’s probably best to skip this one for something a little better constructed.

Suzuki Harpmaster

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This modestly priced harp is a great middle of the road. Easy to pick up for beginners, the price means it’s great for musicians on a budget as well. The Harpmaster is responsive, and the laser tuned brass reeds provide a mellow tone that can stand up to many higher priced models. This harp comes with a hard shell case and sits in the $30 to $40 range.

Suzuki Promaster Valved

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This valved harmonica allows bending on blow notes which can really open up the possibilities while playing. The plastic comb, brass reeds and airtight construction provide a rich sound with warm tones.

This harp can take a little extra breaking in to be able to get all the bending capabilities, but the wider range of notes available is well worth the effort. Prices for the valved Promaster range from $50 to $60 in most cases.

Marine Band

Credit: HOHNER

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The Marine Band harmonica is the original blues harmonica. Played by musicians as varied as Little Walter, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon among many others. It has a wooden comb, which may swell or shrink, and the curve on the cover plate and slightly smaller size might make it feel strange to some.

All of this is made up for by the sound that comes out of this harp. Warm and rich, full and responsive, it is hard to beat the Marine Band when you want that authentic blues sound. The biggest drawback to this harp is that it is a little overpriced for the materials used, name recognition is a factor in selling this harp.

I have seen these as low as $35, but you will probably be looking at around $40 or $45 for this classic instrument.

Fender Blues Deluxe

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While Fender is known for it is electric guitars, they have branched out into many other musical instruments with varying degrees of success. As far as this harmonica goes, the price is right. At just under $10 you will be hard pressed to find a more economical choice that still sounds good and is easy to play.

Bending notes is a bit harder than with a Special 20. The comb is molded PVC plastic and the reeds are brass giving it a classic warm tone. The cover plate design may create a little too much airflow for established players, though, making this great for beginners on a budget but just a back up for players who have been harping for a while.

Melody Maker

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Lee Oskar’s Melody Maker is a wonderful instrument for playing single note melodies(who would have thought?). This is due to the tuning creating a complete two-octave scale as opposed to a more traditional tuning which doesn’t allow for a complete lower octave. Having two full octaves available means you can play songs that would be impossible on other harmonicas.

This harp has a plastic comb making it easier on your lips and a recessed bed to secure the reedplate and prevent air leakage. Replacement parts are also available, so you will not have to buy a new one once you wear yours out.

Due to the tweaks made to this harp to promote single note melodies it may take a little time to get used to playing on this model. Be warned when purchasing this product; The stated key is the harmonica’s cross harp (second) position, NOT it is first position. These are usually priced consistent with the major diatonic model, around $35 to $45 in most stores.

Hohner 542 Golden Melody

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This is my favorite looking harp due to its retro design. The rounded edges and extended length make it super comfortable to hold and play. It is Richter tuned, which is standard for diatonics and slightly different than the Lee Oskar Melody Maker.

This harp is traditionally used for Gospel music but can hold it’s own playing blues or rock. The Golden Melody is also one of the loudest harps on the market, so it can stand against the church choir or your band buddies who just won’t turn down the volume to let your harp be heard.

The comb is plastic (and red for some reason) so it is durable and the reeds are placed closed to the mouthpiece meaning this is an incredibly responsive harp, even at low volumes. Expect to spend about $40 to $50 for this stylish instrument.

Sources

Missin, P.(2002-2015) Does a Wood Bodied Harp Sound Better Than a Plastic Bodied Harp. Retrieved from http://www.patmissin.com/ffaq/q6.html
Seydel, C.A. (2011) The Comeback. Retrieved from http://www.seydel1847.de/epages/Seydel1847.sf/sec883a5ad4bd/?Locale=en_US&ViewObjectID=18624&Currency=EUR
[OneHarp]. (2015, January 12). Comparison of the “Progressive” Special 20 vs. the “Classic” Special 20 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SAZxMMgdFE

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