Harmonicas are popular for a reason. These amazing instruments have been around for ages because they are very versatile and practical musical instruments. They are easy to play, portable (they fit in your pocket), and affordable. They are used in a huge list of different musical genres and can produce a wide range of timbres to fit those musical styles. With the right harmonica in your hands, you can achieve a lot musically! That's why it's not quite that hard to want to have one. The problem is, there are a lot of types, styles, and forms of harmonica out there, it might be hard to find the right harp for yourself. Below, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the top harmonicas in 2021, to help you attain a harp that’ll sing true for you! Let's get started.
It’s hard to beat a harmonica when it comes to playability, affordability, and portability. This musical instrument has been around for some time now and despite its modest size and cost, is very capable of creating amazing tones and timbres that are suitable for a lot of music genres.
This mighty little mouth harp usually features in genres such as blues, country, rock, jazz, and classical music with various types that are each more suited to different genres. The very human-like timbre of harmonica easily fits into these genres and as a result, stays in demand and keeps appearing on the list of instruments that musicians want to have and play!
In this guide, we’ll examine the many types of harmonicas that are available and pinpoint those factors you’ll need to consider before making a purchase.
What Are The Different Types Of Harmonicas?
There are a number of types of harmonicas out there but generally, you'll only need to bother yourself about three of them. These three most common varieties of mouth harps are categorized based on how they are tuned as this reflects on their general playability and timbre of the sound. They are; diatonic, chromatic, and tremolo harmonicas. Let's examine.
Diatonic harmonicas are the most commonly used harmonicas. You’ll come across them in blues, folk, and sometimes pop music. These harps are designed to play in a specific key and are quite easy to learn to play as a result. Experienced and veteran players have over the years come up with different and specific “overblowing” techniques that enable them to play diatonic harmonicas in unofficial keys. It is a great and worthwhile technique known as playing chromatically on a 10-key diatonic harp.
Generally, music teachers will advise you to get a diatonic (10-key) harmonica in key C, as your first harmonica. This is because these harps are a lot easier to learn than chromatic harmonicas, even if you have little-to-no experience with playing music before.
Chromatic harmonicas are less popular than their diatonic counterparts. They use a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed plate. With this harp’s featured ‘gear shift’, you can play nearly any scale or mode, this makes it more adaptable to certain genres and players than diatonic harmonica.
Also, chromatic harmonicas are a lot harder to bend and overblow in comparison to the diatonic due to their larger reeds. These mouth harps usually come in the key of C or G; however, you can learn to play nearly anything as long as it's in the standard 12-tone scale.
Tremolo harmonicas are quite special. They feature two reeds per note, with one slightly sharp and the other slightly flat to create a unique warbling sound. This unique sound has found its way into a number of genres where it's constantly featured. The diatonic version of this harmonica is commonly featured in folk music whilst the chromatic counterpart is usually found in Asian pop and rock music.
What Things Should You Consider When Buying A Harmonica?
To get the right harp that suits your requirement and gives you the sound you require, you have to consider a few points and features.
The comb of a harmonica is arguably the most important part of the instrument. It contains the air chambers covering the reeds and is laid out rather like a comb – hence the name. Usually, when you are in the market for a decent harmonica for your music pieces, you’ll find that there are three options with regard to combs that you need to consider. They are:
Harmonicas with wooden combs usually produce a warmer sound than any other material. The wooden comb is favored by some musicians because of its natural feel. They're great but are naturally sensitive to water and may swell and warp when wet. Nevertheless, some companies have designed their way around this with special sealed wood that prevents the entire ordeal!
Metal combs for harmonicas are usually made of aluminum or stainless steel. However, metal is an expensive material for a comb. It is also a durable material and does not experience wear easily, but is prone to corrosion.
Plastic is the most popular material used for a comb in harmonicas. Plastic harmonica combs are easy to maintain and also quite “friendly” to the lips but tend to crack after some time.
This is another crucial part of the harmonica. The cover plate in a harmonica is where the sound resonates and where the acoustic sound is produced. Usually, there are two types to choose from here; the traditional open cover design and the closed cover-all design. The traditional open cover design is usually made of stamped metal or plastic. These covers are screwed or nailed into place and tend to be featured more frequently in the low to medium-priced harmonicas. The Closed or Cover-All Design on the other hand allows a louder tone and gives a more premium playing experience.
Music Genres and Experience
As mentioned earlier, most beginner harmonica players tend to find the diatonic harmonica easier, to begin with, rather than the chromatic or tremolo. Each of these types of mouth harps has its strengths according to the type of music you want to play. Diatonic harmonicas are widely used in blues, country, gospel, and folk music. Chromatic harmonicas tend to fit more into the jazz and classical music niche. The tremolo harp is used more commonly for Asian folk dances. There are other types but they are not really as common as the three above and are reserved for professionals mostly.
Harmonicas are available in all twelve musical keys. Usually, a learner will start with a 10-hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C but as they progress and grow, eventually need to get harmonicas tuned to each of the keys.
Ergonomics and design
As much as it is important that you get a harmonica that has the right tone and timbre, you also need to be able to comfortably play your mouth harp without any discomfort. By considering how easy your instrument will be to hold, you’ll be able to avoid getting one that is bulky and rather fits nicely into your hands.
Best Harmonica FAQ
Q: Which harmonica key should I buy?
A: Typically, the key of ‘C’ is the best first key for diatonic harmonicas. If you have a particular song in mind that you want to play along with, then you would need the correct diatonic key for that song. Other keys that are usually recommended for diatonic keys after the key of ‘C’ include: ‘A’, ‘D’, ‘F’, ‘G’, and ‘Bb’.
In the case of chromatic harmonicas, however, “C” is usually most appropriate. With proper practice and knowledge of the scales on the instrument, you’ll learn to play your ‘C’ chromatic harmonica in any key you choose.
Q: What do I need to know before buying a harmonica?
A: When buying any musical instrument, it pays to always choose a quality model. The same goes with harmonicas, it’s always best to go for one with good raw materials for its replaceable parts. Avoid second-hand harmonicas. Second harmonicas are unhygienic and are unsuitable to use because they’ve already been in someone else's mouth.
Q: Which harmonica comb is best for me; Wood, plastic, or metal harmonica comb?
A: This totally depends on what you are going for. There is very little difference in tonal quality between the plastic and wood combs. Plastic combs play better and last longer than wooden combed harmonicas (that have not been sealed). Fortunately, for diatonic harmonicas, a lot of wood combs are now sealed and therefore will not expand and contract with moisture. This innovation is fairly recent and has bridged the gap between the two types of combs.
Metal combs last longer than both of them and tend to be a bit brighter than plastic or wood combs due to their density.
Derek is a professional musician who specializes in percussion and works with the independent WGI group Cap City Percussion. With a Bachelors of Music from Capital University, specializing in Music Industry studies, he consistently finds himself playing and teaching percussion to anyone who has the will to learn. Derek is also a former member of DCI groups Legends (2014-15) and Colts (2016-18); he is also the percussion technician and instructor of the drum line at Olentangy High School. You may find him playing a gig throughout the greater Columbus, Ohio area.