The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson had an ongoing bit with celebrity guests, who could opt to play the harmonica or take an awkward pause to end their segment.
I was always intrigued by how the guests did and their difficulty playing the harmonica. Some did well; others did not.
It lead me to a question: What harmonica brands are available, and what do I need to know when buying one?
Below is a non-comprehensive list of companies making harmonicas, which can be purchased new. Whether you are looking for a blues harmonica or are a beginning harp player, you should be able to find a suitable instrument.
Note: The list does not contain every manufacture possible. (There are plenty of companies importing cheap harps from China and re-selling them on Amazon.) These are more well-known harmonica brands available at most music stores.
- Lee Oskar
Also, I came across a list of new and used companies that have (or still make) harmonicas, which is here.
Guide to buying a harmonica
When shopping for a professional harmonica for yourself or as a gift for someone else, here are some guidelines to follow that will make your selection process easier:
Is the instrument going to be played by some already skilled or by someone wanting to learn? This is important to know before you start shopping around and wasting time looking at products that don’t fit the skill level of the recipient.
The 10-hole major diatonic is the common instrument used for playing blues, rock, country and folk music
The chromatic is mainly used for jazz, classical and for melody playing.
There are other less common types like the tremolo, octave, minor tunings, bass and chord, but they are used only by skilled players for special purposes.
Diatonic vs chromatic
The diatonic doesn’t have easy access to all the possible notes like the chromatic instrument. However, many of the notes that are not naturally found on the diatonic can be acquired by utilizing breathing techniques called “bending.” This method of inhaling and exhaling notes produces the “bluesy” sound many people like.
The chromatic instrument has a button on one side that allows you to play both the normal major scale and, after depressing the button, all the half steps or notes in between. You can’t bend the notes like you can on a diatonic, but you can play any scale in any key with the chromatic.
Which key to buy?
Normally an instrument tuned in the key of “C” is the best first-key instrument. Other recommended keys after “C” include “A”, “D”, “F”, “G”, and “Bb.”
Another option is to can buy one with all six keys packaged together in one instrument. If you plan to play songs with other musicians, keep in mind you need to have the correct diatonic key the songs require. A six-key instrument allows you to join in on any song.
The old adage that your get what you pay for holds true in the musical instrument industry.
The price can range from $5 for a simple blues C instrument on Amazon up to several thousand dollars for a 12-hole Chromatic Cross Slide Alignment for professional play.
Cheap harmonicas may leak air and may be difficult for beginners to learn on. But, paying a higher price doesn’t guarantee you’ll be getting a better quality instrument that plays or sounds better.
Wood or plastic harmonica comb?
Combs, the internal part of the instrument with teeth that vibrate to produce the sound, come in either wood or plastic.
Plastic combs are known to play better and last longer when compared to wooden combs that have not been sealed. Today, most wood combs are sealed against moisture and will not expand or contract due to humidity. This is not true in older instruments made before 2010. Check the manufacturer’s date if possible before buying a wood-comb instrument.
In actuality, there is very little difference between the plastic and wood combs in terms of tone and quality. Most the overall tone quality is provided by the player’s technical ability, not the comb itself.
Metal combs are a third option. They will last forever and may be a bit brighter due to their density than wood or plastic. In the end, the sound generated is more about the talent of the player than the type of comb material used.
What makes a good harmonica?
Answering the “what harmonic should I buy” question is individual. But, two factors make for a good instrument with each individual player.
First, how does it feel in your hands? Your instrument should feel comfortable, and it should fit easily in your hands.
Secondly, it should produce the sound you like that fits the category of music you like to play.