Let’s say you’re walking down a busy street to get some lunch at your favorite restaurant. Suddenly, you realize you spent your last dollar on a new hat and there’s no way you’re going to be able to afford the meal.
The sharp thinker you are, you toss your cap in front of you and whip out your harmonica. You decide to play some blues and catch the attention of some passers-by. They like your performance and throw some green paper into your headwear.
The next thing you know, you’re going out to lunch with harmonica stars Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II even though they both died over half a century ago.
Okay, maybe my anecdote was a little silly, but even you can’t deny that, of all the instruments to keep in your pocket, the harmonica takes the ice cream. A harmonica is small and simple and can be played by any level of musician.
If you’re anything like me, then you may find all the different types of harmonicas a little confusing. There’s diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, and many others, all of which have their own quirks. In this guide, I will be going over the different types of harmonicas and some of the best harmonicas in each variation.
The Harmonica Types
I’m going to start by clearing up what some of the different types of harmonicas are and what they do. The two most common are diatonic and chromatic, but there are also bass, chord, echo, and tremolo harmonicas. I will mostly be covering the first two as they are the most popular kinds of harmonicas in the west.
These harmonicas come in certain keys, such as C or G. Harmonicas in the key of C major will only be able to play the notes of the C major scale, which is the same as all of the white notes on a piano. Diatonic harmonicas are great for beginners and many people recommend starting out with one in the key of C, but the keys of G or F are also just fine.
Diatonic harmonicas are popular mostly due to its bluesy “bending” sound, which is when you lower the sound of the notes by changing the configuration of your mouth. These types of harmonicas are used mostly for blues, folk, and rock music.
The trouble with diatonic harmonicas comes when they’re going to be played with other instruments. If you have a harmonica in the key of G, but your band is playing in the key of F#, then you’re out of luck.
If you’re serious about playing the harmonica, then you’ll have to get a harmonica in all twelve keys. That means you’ll have twelve harmonicas to keep track of and that’s not exactly the most convenient thing in the world.
However, if you’re like me, then you’re a one man band and can do without the extra eleven harmonicas. I’d still recommend getting one in the key of C in case you decide to take lessons, most of which are oriented around the key of C.
So, if you’re just testing the waters about this whole harmonica thing, then get yourself a diatonic. They go as cheap as ten bucks, but anything less than thirty will definitely be a compromise in the quality department.
If you’re looking to get a harmonica to read sheet music with, then you’ll definitely want to get a chromatic. Unlike their diatonic counterparts, chromatic harmonicas hit all the notes within their specific ranges. If it was a piano, then you could hit all the notes whether they were black or white.
What makes the chromatic part of this harmonica possible is the existence of slide button, which blocks and unblocks parts of the holes. Pushing the slide button in will raise every note half a step, except for the very highest note. So, the note that was C would become C#.
A typical chromatic harmonica will default in the key of C and hits all the same notes as its diatonic counterpart. Take those C notes and add the ones a half step above them and you’ve got yourself a chromatic.
What makes a chromatic problematic is the fact that they’re usually really big, which is no good for carrying around. Luckily, there exist chromatic harmonicas the size of diatonic harmonicas, but they just have a smaller range of notes. One such example is the Ten-Hole Swan Harmonica.
Compared to diatonic harmonicas, chromatics are a lot more delicate, especially because of the slide button. Because of this, you may consider putting one in a case before keeping it in your pocket.
If you don’t mind skimping out on the authentic bluesy sound of a diatonic and want easy access to the full range of notes, then be sure to give the chromatic harmonica a try.
Other Types of Harmonicas
The tremolo harmonica is the most popular harmonica outside of the west, mostly in China and Japan. It features two holes for each note, which are tuned slightly apart, giving it a wavering sound or, as the name implies, a tremolo sound. Like the diatonic harmonica, the tremolo harmonica is only tuned to one key. They’re also a lot bigger than diatonic harmonicas, making them a lot less pocket-friendly.
These harmonicas are very similar to their tremolo counterparts in its range and build. The biggest difference is that the two holes of a note are tuned an octave away from each other. The sound is a lot more full-bodied, but it lacks a tremolo effect.
Bass harmonicas are huge. They typically look like two harmonicas stacked on top of each other with the lower holes tuned to the natural notes and the upper holes tuned to all of the sharps and flats. Bass harmonicas can reach as low as the lowest note on a bass guitar and are mostly manufactured by the companies Hohner and Huang.
Here Are Some Good Options
Now that you’ve been educated on the different types of harmonicas, I’m going to go over some of the best options in different price ranges.
The Best Diatonic Harmonicas
Fender Blues Deluxe Harmonica, Key of C
Here’s a nice option for beginners. It’s very affordable and is quite easy to play. As far as budget harmonicas go, you probably won’t find a better option than this. Give this one a shot if you’re just looking to test the waters.
Lee Oskar Harmonica, Key of C
If you’re looking to get a harmonica for its authentic bluesy sound, look no further than the Lee Oskar harmonica. With its signature tone-bending capabilities, you’ll be rocking your next musical performance in no time. This is a great option for those who want to dive right in.
Seydel 1847 Silver Harmonica, Key of C
This harmonica isn’t easy on the wallet, but is definitely worth it. This harmonica cuts no corners, except for those on the harmonica itself, which makes playing it all the better. Its stainless steel reeds make for very responsive, rich tones. If you’re not afraid to splurge a bit, then this one is for you.
The Best Chromatic Harmonicas
SWAN Harmonica, Key of C
Here’s one of the only pocket-sized chromatic harmonicas that’s affordable and doesn’t sound like a dying cow. It may not be the best chromatic out there, but its small size and price tag puts this one at the top of my list. It even covers more than three octaves, which is impressive for only ten holes. If you’re looking to play sheet music with your harmonica, then this would be a good start.
Suzuki SCX-48 Harmonica, Key of C
A little bigger than a ten-hole chromatic, this harmonica is sure to deliver on quality and will still fit in your pocket. Because it has twelve holes, it just hits the four-octave range, which is a great amount of elbow room. This harmonica may be quite spendy, but it’s definitely an investment worth making.
Itty Bitty Harmonicas
Hohner 39 Little Lady
This adorable thing is surprisingly potent with a whole eight notes. At 1 3/8”, you could hide it in your fist. If you’re really pocket-conscious, then you may find this harmonica a delight. The price may seem a bit steep for how small it is, but you’re really paying for quality. The only concern would be that the comb is made of wood, which is really good at absorbing moisture. If you don’t want to keep this one in your pocket, then try wearing it as a necklace or putting on your backpack.
Hohner108 Mini Harmonica
Don’t expect to get much sound out of this one; it’s pretty much all novelty. Then again, it’s just a keychain, so what did you expect? If you want to give your keyring something interesting and also technically make it a musical instrument, then definitely pick this one up.
Easttop Mini Bass Harmonica
This bass harmonica is almost the size of a typical harmonica, but that’s really impressive for a bass. At just under six inches long, this thing can produce authentic tuba-sounding notes with gusto. Despite its size, however, the price is a bit steep. If the price is a hurdle you can surmount, then this bass harmonica will make a fabulous addition to your pocket.
Here Are a Few Extra Tips
The Diatonic’s “Hidden” Notes
I just want to clarify that diatonic harmonicas can technically hit notes outside of its designated key by doing something called “bending.” Bending is an advanced technique that lowers the pitch of a note by changing the configuration of your mouth.
I didn’t elaborate on this because hitting those extra notes consistently is something few people have mastered. If you want to play every note within a certain range, then I recommend a chromatic harmonica.
Method of Purchase
Buying harmonicas or any other type of instrument online has some downsides. First of all, you can’t test the instrument to ensure that it’s a good fit, and second, the shipping process may damage the instrument.
To prevent getting an instrument you aren’t happy with, just make sure you read up on it and that the quality of the instrument is something you can live with. A good thing to keep in mind with instruments is that you get what you pay for.
As for the shipping, that’s a chance you’ll have to take (albeit a small one). If you’re getting a diatonic harmonica then you should be fine, but chromatic harmonicas are a lot more fragile due to the extra moving parts. If you don’t want to take the chance with an online purchase, then go check out your local music store.
Consider Yourself Educated
Now that you’re an expert on all things harmonica, you’ll be able to make your next musical acquisition with confidence. With your instrument handy, you’ll be the life of the party in no time—and, maybe, just maybe, you might become the greatest harmonica player in the world!
I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to leave a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as possible.