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Choosing A Harmonica

This guide explains the different types of harmonica, and answers answer some more common questions.  Feel free to contact us if you need any further advice!

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What's the best harmonica for a beginner?

Most beginners start with a standard "diatonic" (or "blues harp") harmonica in the key of C.  This is the most popular type of harmonica, and probably the easiest one to learn to play.

How much should I spend?

It's possible to buy a working diatonic harmonica such as the Hohner Silver Star for just over £5.  However, for around £20, you can buy a professional quality harmonica which will sound better, last longer and will leak less air, making it easier to play.

Two models that we recommend are the Lee Oskar Blues Harp and the Hohner Pro Harp.

Why C?

Virtually all harmonica tutor books are written in the key of C, which is an easy key to understand as it doesn't have any sharps or flats.  Also, a C harmonica is used for playing blues in the key of G, one of the most popular keys for blues music (see "choosing the right key for blues harmonica" below).

Other Keys

Once you've mastered the basics, if you want to play with other musicians, you will probably want to buy harmonicas in several different keys, depending on the songs you're playing.  Most gigging musicians carry a range of harmonicas around with them, with C and the other "Guitar-friendly" keys of G, A and D being the most popular choices.

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Lee Oskar Major Diatonic HarmonicaAbout Diatonic Harmonicas (Blues Harps)

Of the different types of harmonicas available, the standard diatonic "blues harp" type is by far the most popular.  Beginners will generally start with one of these harmonicas, usually in the key of C - two popular models that we recommend are the Lee Oskar Blues Harp or the Hohner Pro Harp.

The word "Diatonic" means that the harmonica plays in a standard major (or minor) scale.  So a diatonic harmonica in the key of C plays only the notes of the C major scale - C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (these are the same as the white notes on a piano).  An E harmonica plays only the notes of the E major scale, and so on.

Usually, diatonic harmonicas have 10 holes, with the notes arranged in a pattern known as the "Richter Tuning".

Richter tuning for a 10-hole harmonica in C
Richter Tuning in the key of C: black = blow notes, red = draw notes

Although other tunings, such as natural minor, harmonic minor, and Lee Oskar's "melody maker" tuning are available (see "different tunings" below), the vast majority of harmonicas - and players - tend to use the Richter Tuning.

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Choosing the right key for blues harmonica

If you want to play a simple melody such as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" in the key of G, you need a harmonica in the key of G.  However, if you want to play blues in the key of G, you need a harmonica in the key of C.

Why? there are two main reasons for this:

  • The seventh note of the major scale - called the "major seventh" - sounds too nice for the blues!  Instead, a note called the "Dominant Seventh" is used, which isn't in the standard major scale.  A C major harmonica has almost the same notes as a G major scale, but with the major seventh note (F# in this case) replaced by the dominant seventh (F).
  • Note Bending - this technique, which involves bending the pitch of the "draw" notes (the notes played by sucking rather than blowing), is used extensively by blues players.  On a C harmonica, the draw notes for the first 5 holes - D, G, B, D, F - are the notes of a G major chord (plus the dominant 7th), and they can all be bent in pitch.  On a G harmonica, the G chord is played on the blow notes, which can't be bent.

Playing C harmonica with blues in the key of G is known as the "Cross Harp" * or 2nd position.  It's easy to find the right blues harmonica for other keys if you know about the "cycle of fifths", which looks like this:

The Cycle of 5ths

To find the right harmonica for any blues song, find the key of the song on the chart above and go one step anti-clockwise around the cycle.  For example:

  • Blues in G  ->  C harmonica
  • Blues in D  ->  G harmonica
  • Blues in A  ->  D harmonica
  • Blues in E  ->  A harmonica

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* "Cross Harp" is also the name of a model of harmonica made by Hohner, but it's possible to play the cross harp position on any standard 10-hole diatonic harmonica.  So don't get confused!

Intonation and Temperament

This section talks about the differences in fine tuning between different makes and models of harmonica.  It's worth pointing out that these differences are quite subtle and many beginners probably won't even notice!  However, for more experienced players, intonation can be an important issue.

A little background

When two notes are played together on a sustained sound (such as a harmonica), they sound best when the differences between their frequencies is a perfect mathematical ratio.  For example, if notes of 300Hz and 200Hz are played together, their frequencies are in the ratio 3:2 (this particular ratio is known as a perfect fifth) and they make a sound that's quite pleasing to the ear.

A long time ago, many instruments were tuned so that the intervals between the notes were perfect mathematical ratios. Unfortunately, this system causes problems if you want to change to a different key - for example, if you tune the note E a perfect fifth above the note A, it sounds fine in the keys of E and A, but it'll sound out of tune in most other keys...

To get around this, a system called 12 tone equal temperament (or 12TET for short) was invented.  Instead of using ratios to work out the frequencies of the notes, this system uses a logarithmic scale, which means the notes can be tuned the same for every key.  Although the intervals between notes don't sound as perfect as they do using the original system, in most cases they're close enough to the perfect intervals that it's hard to tell the difference.

Most modern western music uses 12TET, and modern instruments such as guitars, keyboards and pianos are based around this system.  Lee Oskar harmonicas and the Hohner Golden Melody harmonica are also tuned to 12TET.

Acoustic guitars (such as this Martin DM) use the 12TET tuning system
Most modern instruments, such as this Martin DM acoustic guitar, use the 12 tone equal temperament (12TET) system

Other Hohner harmonicas, such as the Pro Harp, Blues Harp and Marine Band models, are not tuned to 12TET - instead, they use a custom intonation system, where the intervals between the notes are closer to the original perfect ratios.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Opinion is divided as to which tuning system is best - with Hohner's custom intonation system, because the intervals between the notes are closer to perfect mathematical ratios, chords played on the harmonica sound slightly cleaner and less "wobbly".  Also, this tuning is very similar to the harmonicas used on old blues recordings, so it's arguably more authentic.

The disadvantage of Hohner's custom system is that certain notes are slightly out of tune with other instruments - although the difference is small, it can be noticable to a trained ear.  On the other hand, if you play any note on a 12TET-tuned harmonica, and play the same note on the keyboard or guitar, they should be exactly in tune with one another.  Because of this, some players argue that 12TET tuning is better for more playing more melodic styles of music such as Jazz and Folk.

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Different Tunings...

The following tunings cover the full range of diatonic "blues harp" style harmonicas that we sell at Sheehans:

Richter
Tuning
Ricter tuning for a diatonic harmonica in C
Natural
Minor
Natural Minor tuning for a diatonic harmonica in the key of C minor
Harmonic
Minor
Harmonic Minor tuning for a diatonic harmonica in the key of C minor
Melody
MakerTM
Lee Oskar's Melody Maker tuning for a diatonic harmonica in the key of C

Richter Tuning

This is by far the most popular tuning for the 10 hole diatonic harmonica, and the tuning that's used on pretty much all old blues recordings. In the Richter tuning, holes 1-4 play the two main major chords of the scale (eg in the key of C, the blow notes play a chord of C major, and the draw notes play a chord of G major). Holes 4-7 play a complete octave of major scale, and holes 7-10 play an almost complete octave above this.

Richter tuning
Richter tuning for the key of C

Richter tuning is often used in the cross harp position for playing blues and rock (see our section on "choosing the right key for blues").

Natural Minor Tuning

A good choice for songs in a minor key - holes 1-4 play the two main minor chords of the scale, with holes 4-10 giving almost 2 full octaves of minor scale.

Natural minor tuning
Natural Minor tuning for the key of C minor (Hohner) or G minor (Lee oskar)

Natural Minor harmonicas are designed to be played in the cross harp position. Lee Oskar Natural Minor harmonicas are labelled in their cross harp key - so if you're playing a song in A minor, you will need a Lee Oskar harmonica in A minor.

Hohner Natural Minor harmonicas are labelled in the standard key - so if you are playing a song in A minor, you will need a Hohner harmonica in D minor.  With Hohner Natural Minor harmonicas, you can find the right key of harmonica for any song using the "cycle of fifths":

The Cycle of 5ths

Find the key of the song on the chart, and go one step anti-clockwise around the cycle to find the right natural minor harmonica eg.

  • Song in A minor ->  D minor harmonica
  • Song in E minor ->  A minor harmonica

Harmonic Minor Tuning

The harmonic minor scale is popular in East European, Middle-Eastern and Far-Eastern music.  It's also been used by some modern rock bands who want to achieve a more Eastern, dissonant sound.

Harmonic minor tuning
Harmonic Minor tuning for the key of C minor

Melody MakerTM Tuning

This tuning was designed by Lee Oskar to be better for playing melodies in the cross harp position, where it has a sweeter sound than the standard Richter tuning.   There's an extra note in the lower octave, and the 5th hole draw note is a semitone higher, which makes it easier to bend.

Melody Maker tuning
Lee Oskar's Melody Maker Tuning in the key of G

Melody Maker harmonicas are labelled in their cross harp key. This makes it easy to choose the right key - if you're playing a song in G, you will need a G Melody Maker minor.

Melody Maker tuning is also a popular choice for playing melodies in a minor key.  To find the right Melody MakerTM harmonica for songs in a minor key, find the key of the song and pick a melody maker that's 3 steps anti-clockwise on the "cycle of fifths" (this is known as the relative major key):

The Cycle of 5ths

  • e.g. Song in A minor ->  C melody maker harmonica
  •       Song in E minor ->  G melody maker harmonica

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About Chromatic Harmonicas

Chromatic harmonicas have a button (or "slide") on the side which raises the key by one semitone (eg from C to C#) when it's pushed in.

This enables the player to play 'accidentals' - extra notes that aren't in the key of the song - which are an important part of Jazz, Classical and other related styles of music. It also means that it's possible to play melodies in every possible key using just one harmonica.

Chromatic harmonicas are available in a range of keys and sizes.  For a first instrument, we recommend the Hohner Chromonica, or the Hohner Chrometta for those on a tighter budget - both of these models are available in a 12-hole version in the key of C, which has a full 3 octave range.

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Solo Tuning

All of the chromatic harmonicas we sell use the same tuning, known as "solo tuning".  This tuning uses the same pattern in each octave, so it's easy to get used to.

With the slide out, the layout of the notes for a 12-hole harmonica in C is:

Solo tuning (with the slide out) on a chromatic harmonica

Pushing the side in raises all the notes by a semitone:

Solo tuning (with the slide in) on a chromatic harmonica

(black -> blow notes, red -> draw notes).

In total there are four notes for each hole, giving a total of 48 notes (although some of these notes are repeated).  The other sizes of chromatic harmonica are basically shorter or longer versions of this layout:

No. of Holes No. of Notes Range
8 32 2 octaves
10 40 2½ octaves
12 48 3 octaves
16 64 4 octaves

Hohner Chrominca 64
This 16 hole Hohner Chromonica plays a greater range of notes than most guitars!

All models of chromatic harmonicas are available in the key of C - many are also available in G, and a few such as the Hohner Chromonica 48 and Hohner CX12 are available in other keys, including D, A, F and Bb.

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About Tremolo & Octave Tuned Harmonicas

Tremolo and octave harmonicas are easily recognised as they have two rows of holes instead of the usual one.

Tremolo harmonicas such as the Hohner Echo have 2 sets of reeds for each note, with one tuned slightly higher than the other - when these reeds are played together they give an unmistakable swirling tremolo sound.

Because of the way the notes are laid out, it's impossible to bend the notes on a tremolo harmonica - for most styles of contemporary music, especially blues, you'll be much better off with a standard diatonic "blues harp" style harmonica. On the other hand, if you're after that authentic "folk harmonica" sound (like the early Bob Dylan records), then a tremolo harmonica is what you need!

Hohner Echo harmonica
Tremolo harmonicas such as this Hohner Echo have two reeds for each note.

Octave-Tuned Tremolo Harmonicas also have two reeds for each note, but tuned an octave apart - this gives the impression of two instruments playing together in different octaves - the harmonica equivalent of a 12-string guitar!

Again, octave harmonicas are quite a specialised instrument - most beginners will tend to start on a standard diatonic "blues harp" style harmonica.  On the other hand, they have a very unique sound that will certainly appeal to some players.

Hohner Comet series harmonica
Hohner's Comet series harmonicas are octave-tuned.

 

 
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