Which Harp Should I Get?


Note on this section.. when I was first starting out, I bought and tried many many different kinds of harps.  However, after I got my custom Filisko's, there was no longer a need to try different things.  So, I haven't kept up with many of the recent models.  The prices I mention are as of October 2012.

There are a zillion different diatonic harp models to choose from, some of which are shown above.  So how do you decide which to get?  There are two basic classes of diatonic harmonica: ones that basically work okay, and ones that don't.  Here's the main thing--look for harp models that come in all keys, and not just one or two (typically C, or C and G).

Cost is not the only determining factor, but expect to pay somewhere around $35 to $65 mail order.  This is just a rule-of-thumb range.. the point is, you usually won't get a good harp for $10.00, and you don't need to pay hundreds, though you can.  Pro's play everything from Huang's that can be had  for less than $20, to custom Filisko models, now made by James Gordon and Ricard Sleigh that cost about $300-400 and require a long wait.  I just saw some top of the line Suzuki models that range from around $150 to almost $300.  I wish I had the money to try them all out!

The most popular models used by pro's are:

Other good harps include Suzuki and Seydel.  I got the fairly new Hohner Marine Band called the "Crossover", which is fairly expensive at about $70.  However, it is a very nice harmonica that eliminates some of the common objections to the classic Marine Band, and overblows out of the box.  (I made a few minor adjustments to the reed gaps and now it overblows very well indeed.)


One distinction in harmonic types is the material out of which the comb is made.  Comb materials come in: Some people believe certain tonal characteristics are associated with different comb materials, but there is little or no objective evidence to support that belief.  I have heard Big River harps made out of everything from light foam to lead to concrete to balsa wood to titanium, and any difference in tone due to the comb material is minimal at best.  My advice is not to select a harmonica based on comb material with the idea that the material will have a "warm" or "mellow" or "bright" sound.

The purpose of the comb is to hold the reed plates and direct the air over the reeds,  The most important characteristics are stability and geometric integrity--in other words, they need to be able to be manufactured accurately so that there are minimal air leaks between the comb and the reed plates.  Plastic works fine for this.  So does metal.  Wood is more iffy in that there is much moisture involved in breathing through the harp, and wood can swell, crack or split.  That aside, the wood comb Marine Band is the most popular harmonica out there, and often chosen for that classic Chicago Blues sound.  The Marine Band has slots in its covers, which contributes to its characteristic sound.  Probably many people attribute the sound to the wood rather than the design of the covers.  Plastic body harps with Marine Band reed plates and covers also exhibit the same characteristic sound--but are only available by harmonica customizers.  The Hohner Big River harp has slots in the covers similar to but smaller than those in the Marine Band.

One of the main factors that determine whether a harmonica's tone is characterized as warm or bright is the tuning used.  Equal temperament tunings, such as used on Lee Oskar harps, are typically described as brighter sounding than more justified tunings such as used on most Hohner harps.  For more information about tunings and temperaments than you knew could exist, see Pat Missin's tunings page at http://www.patmissin.com/tunings/tunings.html

I recommend starting with a plastic body harp.  Wood combs can swell and be rough on the lips, and tend to be less air tight and more difficult to play than plastic or metal comb harps.  Metal harps are good, but they cost more and if you're just starting out you may want to play average-priced harps.  Here are my top 5 recommendations, in no particular order:

Eventually you'll probably want to try many of the different models to decide which you prefer.  One approach is to buy different models for different keys, but remember that different keys have their own individual characteristics, so not all differences you notice may be attributable to the harp.

Also remember, all harps can be (are!) less-than-perfect out of the box, and all will sometimes break reeds (where they go flat), especially for beginners learning bends, or more advanced players learning overblows.  Many people find that Lee Oskars last longer than just about any other model, and I've personally never had one go bad.  Many people prefer the sound of Hohner harmonicas, however, so you'll have to figure it out for yourself!  In my opinion, the better the player the less difference there is in the sound of the model of the harp.  I don't know anyone who can listen to a CD and accurately tell you what model harp is being played based on its sound.

Which Key Should I Get?

The correct answer is, of course, it depends on what music you want to play and what position you want to play in.  For blues, rock, and country you'll usually be playing with guitar players, who prefer sharp keys.  Most of the time 2nd position (cross harp) will the be position of choice.  Guitar players often play in the keys of G, E, A, and D, so for playing along in 2nd position
the harp keys to get first are: After that, keys Bb and F are used pretty often. The last keys to get are Ab, Eb, Db, E, B, and F#/Gb.  You should get all 12 keys so you can have the flexibility to play with any song, regardless of key, using whatever position works best.  If you want to play horn parts, or play mostly with keyboard players, you'll be playing in flat keys more often, so you might want to get F, Bb, and Eb before A and D. The Harp Reference: Which Harp Should I Get?