What kind of harmonica do you need?
So, you want to learn how to play the blues but you are not entirely sure what type of harmonica you need. You might have had a little look already and discovered that there are all sorts of different kinds. Even when you do know what type you want you then need to select a key. Fear not, I will help you on this journey.
Different types of harmonica
• Diatonic (CHOOSE THIS ONE)
This is the type of harmonica that you need. You will see that it has 10 holes as against some of the other varieties which can have a lot more.
Diatonic simply means that it is tuned to play in a specific key. There are 12 keys in music so theoretically if you wanted to play all of them you would need to purchase 12 harmonicas. In reality you only need one to start with and even when you do start getting into it you will find that most of the music you want to play (especially in blues) will only require 5 or 6 keys.
The key that you need to get started with is the key of C. The reason we start with C is because it is the simplest key in music it just features the following notes without any sharps or flats; C, D, E, F, G , A,B
If you are not entirely sure what a key or sharps and flats are, do not fret, you do not need to know that now and I will be covering it later on.
For now just know you need to get;
A 10 hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C
What kind to buy and where to buy?
The most important thing to make sure you do when you buy your first harmonica is don’t by the cheapest one you can find. Instead, you can get a very good quality harmonica for a relatively low price which will be easy to play, in tune and durable.
You might be tempted by buying a full set of harmonicas for around $50 but please don’t for 2 reasons. These harmonicas are usually hard to play and out of tune. The second reason is once you start playing harmonica I recommend that you buy a different model for the next key so you get the chance to try different styles of instrument. But first things first, here are some harmonicas that I recommend to my students to start with;
– Suzuki Bluesmaster MR–250
– Lee Oskar
– Hohner Big River
You can buy them on Amazon.com by clicking below and I will get a commission (thank you very much!)
Suzuki Bluesmaster Harmonica C
Lee Oskar Harmonica, Key of C, Major Diatonic
Hohner 590 Big River Harp MS Diatonic Harmonica – Key of C
Anatomy of the harmonica
The diatonic harmonica is one of the simplest instrument in the world and is often referred to as the “tin sandwich” because it is just made up of 3 main parts;
The cover plates
The cover plate is usually made of metal and they are the “bread” of sandwich. They protect the reeds and their design can have quite a big impact on the sound of the harmonica. For example, covers with side vents are louder acoustically such as a Manji but are harder to shape the sound of than cover plates that are closed at the sides.
The cover plate also usually has numbers from 1 to 10 on the top. When you are playing you want to make sure that all number 1 is at the left. This means your low notes will be on the left-hand side and your high notes will be on the right hand side.
The reed plates
There are two reed plates each holding 10 reeds. The reed is the part that vibrates when you blow or inhale the harmonica to make a sound. The top reed plate contains all of the blow reads while the bottom reed plate contains all of the draw reads.
Reed plates come in a variety of materials but traditionally are made out of brass. Some more modern harmonicas have reed plates made out of stainless steel or phosphor bronze alloys. The stainless steel and phosphor bronze alloys are supposed to last longer than the softer brass but quite often have a longer “play-in” time and are a little bit harder to modify.
The comb is the body of the harmonica; the middle of the sandwich. (Insert image of comb) and gives the harmonica a structure as well as separating the reeds from each other so that you have 10 holes with a blow reed and a draw reed in each of them.
Combs come in a variety of materials which have an effect on the playability of the instrument. Originally, combs were made out of wood but this can be problematic if the wood isn’t properly sealed because it gets moist when playing (yes, playing harmonica is a little bit gross) and then shrinks when it dries out. This affects the playability of the harmonica as it becomes less airtight and in turn means that when you play one hole some of the air is escaping rather than only going through the reed. If, you get a properly sealed wooden comb they can be really easy to play and look great especially if you get exotic woods.
If you have looked at any of the harmonicas that I recommended for you to start with you will see that they all with plastic combs. There is a reason for this. When you fst start playing harmonica, one of the common issues you will face is too much saliva. I hope that doesn’t put you off but just make sure that you don’t share harmonicas with your friends! A plastic comb will not absorb the excess saliva and is also easier to clean.
Other fun materials; brass, aluminium, paper (yes these exist and they are great), acrylic and corian.
More expensive harmonicas and customs
You can spend a lot more money on one harmonica and usually the result will be a harmonica that is more airtight. This might sound like it will be easier to play but if you’re just starting out it might be quite offputting as more airtight means more sensitive which means that if your technique isn’t very refined, the harmonica will not respond as you were expecting it to.
However, if you are a more experienced player and are looking to explore more advanced techniques such as overblows and overdraws then one of these more expensive harmonicas will be great for you and enable you to progress to the next level.
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