“I want to start playing the harmonica!” This is the conclusion you get to after watching some videos on YouTube, getting inspiration from a friend who's playing it, or reading about some good reasons about how you'll benefit from adding it to your arsenal – whether if you are a beginner on the guitar or if you have been playing for years. And now the question is “what harmonica should I buy?”. In this article about the best beginner harmonica, I am going to focus on Hohner harmonicas for reasons I will talk about in a minute.
It's Shopping Time!
Which is always fun. So which harmonica should you buy if you are a beginner? Luckily it's not very complicated, and here are my 2 cents about the best beginner harmonicas.
Well, I bet you're going to love hearing that since harmonicas are very cheap instruments, including top of the line harmonicas! I am not even going to recommend about any “beginner” harmonicas. Save your own time and hassle from messing around with those 10-20$ harmonicas that are going to take away the fun, not feel responsive, and very soon will need replacement, and instead go straight for the best instruments since they are still very cheap (about 35-45$) and will last for a very long time.
After experiencing with a lot of brands and harmonicas, my definite favorites are Hohner harmonicas. They have that unbeatable German quality but they are still very affordable. Hohner was founded in Germany in 1857 and focuses on premium harmonicas, accordions, melodicas and such reed instruments. Suzuki and Lee Oscar are also considered very good and it will be pretty hard to go wrong as long with these brands as well when you stay in the 35-45$ range.
My two personal favorites from the upper range of the Hohner line are the Marine band 1896 and the Blues Harp. Both of them can be purchased for as little as 35-45$ – which is such a tiny bit of money for a legit music instrument when you think about it. Both of them are made only from metal and wood – that means without the plastic that is associated with the cheaper models and gives them a cheapo feeling of holding a toy and not a music instrument.
If you really are very short of money so there are some decent cheap ones as well but I recommend looking at a first harmonica as a long-term investment and add the few extra bucks to get a nice one that'll be fun and will last. The difference in price is minor anyway and you are more likely to stick to the harmonica if you have a good one that is fun to play.
The difference in price is minor anyway and you are more likely to stick to the harmonica if you have a good one that is fun to play.
With the Marine Band and the Blues Harp it's all about the fun – they work flawlessly for me even after 4 years of heavy use. The Marine Band is a bit smaller and lighter, it is super easy to play, incredibly fast to respond to your breathing (which is one of they key things in the actual fun factor of any harmonica) and has a great volume and sound. It's also a few dollars cheaper than the Blues harp.
The Blues Harp, on the other hand, is something I fell in love with from the first tune, it feels very robust, has an amazing, full sound and very easy to bend once you start getting into bending notes for the extra bluesy feel. Any of them should cover all your needs whether if you are more into blues, folk, rock or anything else.
Which Key Should I Get My First Harmonica in?
When you will go into any harmonica shopping page, you will notice that you're asked to pick a key, that means the key that the harmonica is in. for example a harmonica in the key of C will play the notes in the key of C major which are – C,D,E,F,G,A,B, (on 3 different octaves) these notes are also the notes of A minor (Am) scale which means it's like getting two harmonicas for the price of one since you'll be able to jam on songs that are in either key.
A harmonica in the key of A would play the notes of the A Major scale: A,B,C#,D,E,F#,G# which are also the notes for the F#m scale. This is the case with all diatonic harmonicas which should be what you'll be looking for.
If the paragraph above was a little daunting, don't worry. Music theory is not such a complicated thing, and a harmonica in the key of C will be your best choice on the way to get a good grasp of the theory. And honestly, I know many people who sound awesome on their harmonicas without knowing a bit of theory, but it definitely helps a lot when you do.
Well, since C and Am are the most popular keys in most music genres in the last few decades and definitely in rock and folk – so it's not even a question, get a harmonica in the key of C for the first one because it will be the most useful, and you will be able to jam with it on the biggest number of songs. Later, if you see that you like the harmonica and you want to continue, the second pair of most popular keys are G and Em which also share the same notes with one another.
You will be able to “unlock” all of their songs by getting a G harmonica which is what I recommend for the 2nd harmonica you get. An E harmonica is also a great choice if you're more into the blues since E is pretty much a standard key for blues tracks.
After the C and the G it's more of a personal matter – figure out which key is the 3rd most common key that you are using personally – for me it was F so I got an F harmonica. Also, remember that you can always easily transpose songs using a capo or using different chords so don't worry about it, a C harmonica will easily get you started.
A side note to enrich your knowledge: Chromatic harmonicas are very different beasts – they can play all the notes but they are for the more advanced harmonica players and have some major drawbacks – like almost not being able to play multiple notes at a time because some of them will almost always be off-key. They are great instruments, but they are very demanding in terms of music theory knowledge and musical thinking, not as much hands-on as the rest of the harmonicas are.
Oh, and they're at least 3X more expensive as well.
Another thing that you can consider buying now is a harmonica holder to hang the harmonica in front of your mouth while you're playing the guitar. Yes, just like Dylan did. I recommend getting one with your first harmonica and just nosedive into the world of simultaneous playing, It is surprisingly easy to pick up on and the holders are ranging from basic ones for about 10$ to very nice ones that cost 30-50$. Some of the nicer ones can be worth the investment for the added comfort, added padding and added adjustability if you have that cash.
BONUS – How To Figure Out A Key Of A Song:
Open up the songs chord sheets on Ultimate Guitar on the original key. (if there are a few versions, usually it will be the version with the most 5-star votes) For most kinds of music, in 95% of the times it's the chord that opens the song that resembles the key. C chord on the beginning means it's in the key of C and etc, which means a C harmonica will be able to jam perfectly to this song. If you tried it and the C harmonica does not sound “right” when playing along to the song, the key might be the chord that ends the song.
If it's still a no-go, play around with the guitar and find the chord that sounds like the “ending” chord – the one that solves all the tension. And then you found your key.
I hope you learned what you came for.
Peace and have fun on your harmonica journeys.
What is YOUR favorite harmonica? Please do tell us in the comments.