Last updated: August 15, 2021

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This time we want to share information about one of the most versatile wind instruments: the harmonica. It produces sounds with pitch variations through inhalation and exhalation. It is a relatively complex instrument, both in its manufacture and performance.

The harmonica is generally used to play the blues, but it is also present in jazz, folk and classical music, country and rock n' roll. As such a versatile musical instrument, there is a wide range on the market, and its use has been popularised by the beautiful, melancholic sounds it produces.

If you have decided to buy one, the second step is to think about its purpose: whether it is to introduce you to music or for recreational purposes. The most common types of harmonica for standard use are diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. Here we will explain what each one is for, how to choose the best one and other details you should know.




Summary

  • The harmonica is an air-powered, free-reed musical instrument composed mainly of plastic and metal. It was created in the 19th century to play classical music but throughout the 20th and 21st century it has been used in multiple genres, which has made it very popular among those who want to get started in music.
  • Although there is a wide variety of harmonicas to be played in specific genres or to create special effects, they have a general classification that you should take into account to make the best choice: diatonic, used mostly in blues, rock, folk and country; chromatic, used in jazz; and special.
  • When you plan to buy a harmonica, there are details you should think about first to make a good decision. First, the purpose you intend to use the instrument for: musical project or recreational. And second, the genre you would like to play or the effects you want to achieve. Don't worry, we'll tell you more about this later.

The best Harmonicas: Our Picks

Buying guide: What you need to know about harmonicas

By now you may have noticed that buying a harmonica is not as simple as it seems. To help you in your decision, we want you to know about this instrument, so that your choice will exceed your expectations. That's why we tell you about the harmonica, as well as the approximate budget and the places where you can get a good variety.

The harmonica is a fun instrument, ideal for sharing at parties with friends. (Photo: serezniy / 123rf.com)

What is a harmonica?

The harmonica is an air-powered, free-reed musical instrument made mainly of plastic and metal, although older models included wood in their design. Its origins date back to the 19th century in Europe, and it was not until the 20th century that it began to be used in a variety of musical genres as opposed to its beginnings in classical music.

This instrument has a common design in all its types: comb (main body containing the air chambers), plate blades (grouping of the reeds), mouthpieces (holes through which air enters and exits), reed (spring that allows the production of sound) and valves (parts that prevent air leaks).

What are the advantages of a harmonica?

The main attraction of the harmonica is its incredible versatility, as a huge variety of sounds can be created from it. Although primarily used to play blues and jazz, the harmonica can also be part of genres such as rock, folk, country, pop and experimental music.

It is also a small, portable instrument that is inexpensive to maintain. It is undeniable that its sounds offer a wide variety of tones, but, as with all instruments, it will present advantages or disadvantages depending on the intended use.

Advantages
  • Good for improving your memory
  • Requires a lot of discipline
  • Helps you express emotions
  • Fun to share at gatherings and parties with friends
  • Practical and compact
  • Low cost
Disadvantages
  • Must be cleaned constantly
  • Can cause mouth injuries
  • May need to invest in music theory classes
  • Takes years of practice
  • Initially requires rehearsal in pairs or groups

Diatonic, chromatic or special harmonica - what should you pay attention to?

Blues, jazz, rock, folk and many more. This instrument, which has been used by great musicians throughout history, has gained a lot of popularity because of how it manages to stand out. However, you should take into account that not all harmonicas sound the same, nor are they suitable for all musical genres.

What kind of music would you like to play with the harmonica? With this in mind, we would like to tell you that although there is a common design, diatonic, chromatic and special harmonicas differ in small and important details that make them ideal for some genres and unfortunate for others.

Diatonic. Their sound depends on the key in which they are tuned. These are subdivided into: Tremolo diatonics (folk) and 10-cell diatonics (blues and rock). If you imagine that the harmonica is a piano, when it is in key C (the most common), it is as if we only have the white keys in front of us.

Chromatics. With these harmonicas we can play in any key we want and they are ideal for jazz, classical music, bossanova, pop and tango. Going back to the example of the piano, it differs from the diatonic because it has a button that, when activated, it is as if the black keys were there as well as the white keys.

Special harmonics. In this group are those harmonics that do not fall into the diatonic or chromatic classification. In these, we have: octave harmonicas (they produce tones with more body), chord harmonicas (the largest and most complex to play) and bass harmonicas (they fulfil the role of bass in the harmonic bands).

Diatonic Diatonic Chromatic Special
Budget Very Low-Medium Low-High Medium-High Medium-High
Size Small Small Small Small-Large
Musical Genre Folk, Rock, Blues and Country Jazz, Classical, Bossanova, Tango and Pop Special Genres and Sounds -
Complexity Low-Medium Medium-Low High -

How much does a harmonica cost?

Harmonicas are one of the most affordable instruments on the music market. You can get simple, budget-friendly designs for beginners and more detailed and expensive designs for professionals. In other words, the wide range of offerings will make the buying process easier for you, as there are options for everyone.

Basically, diatonic harmonicas are the best sellers on the market, as they can be played in an infinite number of musical genres, followed by chromatics which are mostly used for jazz accompaniment. While special harmonicas need a medium-high budget, depending on how specific and complex their characteristics are.

The harmonica is perfect to accompany other instruments, such as the guitar, piano or bass. (Photo: Alessandro de Leo / 123rf.com)

Purchasing criteria

The harmonica is so wonderful that it can accompany many musical instruments, one of its great benefits is the versatility it offers to the user. But acquiring one does not depend on good taste, but on having the right criteria.

To help you make the best possible purchase we at ReviewBox tell you about all the things you should look out for when buying a harmonica. We also tell you about several accessories that could refine your purchase and make it exceed all your expectations.

Cases and covers

In most cases, people who are new to the instrument end up investing in more harmonicas to continue experimenting with the sounds. But there are also very important aspects to invest in, such as the protection of your tool. For this purpose, cases and covers have been developed to protect harmonicas.

Cases. These are always recommended, as they offer complete protection. These consist of padded cases, which have a framed space inside for you to store your harmonica safely. They are shockproof and drop-proof, so they will make your life easier when you want to move them around or simply store them.

Pouch. These are simple bags made of fabric, sized to fit your harmonica inside and close it. They are not too elaborate, nor do they protect the harmonicas from falls and hard knocks, but they will help keep it scratch-free and are cheaper than cases.

Stand

One of the main features of harmonicas is that they function as the ideal accompaniment for many instruments. So musicians who play harmonica often don't stop there, but integrate other instruments into their compositions. Combining the sound of the harmonica with guitar and percussion is amazing.

However, when doing it on your own you will need an accessory to hold the harmonica while you play the second instrument with your hands.

That is why a stand has been developed in which you can place your harmonica and at the same time put it around your neck. With this accessory you can play the harmonica without using your hands.

Brand

Musical instruments in general are delicate to build, and poor workmanship can represent a malfunction. That's why one of the most important aspects to check is the brand of the product you buy. But do not forget that the prestige of the brand can considerably increase your budget

If you are looking for simple harmonicas, either because it is just a hobby or because you are learning, the brand may not be essential. But if you are a professional musician you should make sure that all sounds are impeccable.
For the latter, we recommend aiming high and looking for a Hohner or a

Lee Oskar as a first choice. The extra costs are reflected in the durability of the instrument and the quality of the sound it produces. Huang, Seydel and Suzuki are brands with a slightly lower standard, but still offer an excellent instrument.

Harmonicas are instruments that offer an enormous versatility of sound, which is why they are used by professional musicians as accompanists. (Photo: Xanya69 / 123rf.com)

Beginner or professional

Musical instruments come in many variations, and the difference between beginner and professional models is abysmal. That's why it is important to find an instrument that is specialised for your playing level and suitable for your intentions, so that it can meet your needs.

Beginner. If you are just starting out, it may not be best to buy a complex harmonica. Look for simple, low-cost harmonicas, with about 10 holes, lightweight and easy to clean. Brands like Honer or Lee Oskar have specialised lines of models for beginners, you can check their offers.

Professional. The profile of a professional harmonica is based on the quality of its sound and the wide sound range it offers. Professional musicians looking for harmonicas opt for very robust models, and some even look for a custom-made instrument. As a professional you should consider your acoustic needs.

(Featured image source: Дмитрий Прайзель/ 123rf.com)

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