10-Hole Diatonic Harmonica
Generally speaking, I’d recommend any 10-hole diatonic harmonica that costs at least $30. That’s the pocket-sized, basic blues harmonica. I prefer harps with a plastic comb and removable screws, not nails. These features will make it infinitely easier to clean and maintain, and often they also reduce air leakage, which will make the harp more responsive and easier to play. Here are some harps with those features.
$35 – $45:
Hohner Special 20
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic
Seydel Blues Session
$50 – $60
Seydel Session Steel
Why Spend More Than ____ for a Harmonica?
Any harmonica is better than no harmonica. However, super cheap harps are harder to play and don’t sound as good. A better harp will be easier to play and sound better. Get the best you can afford within your budget, keeping in mind that you’ll probably end up getting harps in several different keys, over time.
What’s the Cheapest Harp That Works?
Depends on how you define “works.” The $5 Hohner Blues Band is the best budget harmonica I’ve played, and it’s no problem to replace if lost. However, it’s leaky and not always very well tuned. The cheapest harp that won’t slow down your progress will probably cost $30+.
What Keys To Get?
Start with a C, and when you’re ready to expand your collection, get an A, D, and G. The key of A is good for jamming with blues guitar player friends, and it’s pitched lower than the C, so any melodies you play up on the high notes will be easier to play and more mellow-sounding. The D gives you experience playing a slightly higher harp, and provides the second most common blues key, and G is just about the most common key for non-blues guitar strummers. G also has the distinction of being the lowest-pitched harmonica widely available, and you’ll enjoy it as a contrast to your higher harps.
A number of manufacturers make sets of 7 or more inexpensive harmonicas in a variety of keys, often in a handy travel box. The Hohner Piedmont is one such kit. If you’re starting to jam with more people and are learning songs in lots of keys, a kit is a good option which will quickly open a lot of doors. You can replace them with better harps gradually, as you get around to it. Just remember, you get what you pay for, and cheaper, leaky harmonicas are harder to play.
Hohner, Lee Oskar, Suzuki, and Seydel are probably the biggest names in the US. Bushman and Hering are also out there, but less available. Most US stores carry Hohner and Lee Oskar only, if they carry harmonicas at all. You’ll probably end up buying online if you buy a lot of harps. I like to shop local, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
Intermediate-level are $35-50. Professional-level instruments start around $60, but beginners won’t be able to tell the difference. Even more refined models are available for $70 to $150 and up, if you want to treat yourself. That might seem a lot, but $100 is actually reasonable for a really good musical instrument. In my opinion, a $100 harp is the same value and quality as a $1,000 guitar. Just remember, you’ll eventually want harmonicas in all 12 keys!
Because I’m mostly a single-note melody player and improvisor, I mostly play Hohner Golden Melodies, which are tuned to Equal Temperament, which favors melody notes. My Special 20s have a compromise tuning that sounds a LOT better than the GMs when I chug on chords. Lately I’ve also been learning about doing reedwork to improve performance, and that’s helped a lot with developing my bending and overblow technique.
I played a Suzuki Firebreath in C for about three years, learning overblows, but I’ve since replaced it with my own customized Hohners.
For Irish fiddle tunes, I have two Suzuki Promasters in D and G set up by Brendan Power. They’re half-valved and in Paddy Richter tuning. Valves allow more bending possibilities and made the tone reedier, more like a sax or uillean pipes (great for Celtic). They don’t allow overblowing, but I do like how responsive they are. Paddy Richter tuning is the same as standard harp tuning, with the three blow tuned up a whole step to avoid having to bend when playing fast.
Other altered tunings I mess around with: Spiral, Dorian, and Natural Minor, plus a bagpipe drone tuning I learned from James Conway.
There are a handful of technicians who modify stock harps professionally for high-end players. In the US, the biggest names are Filisko, Sleigh, Spiers, and Gordon. Additional techs are out there who do this work as well. Good luck placing an order with the top 4 customizers, since they usually have long waiting lists, but I’ve heard their harps are worth it if you have the time and money, especially if you’re serious about the overblow technique.
My advice: learn on a good stock harp and learn to do a bit of reedwork yourself as it becomes necessary.