Diatonic Harps

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Frequently Asked Questions...

Which type of harmonica should I buy?

I’m a beginner at playing harmonica, and I’m currently using a $5 plastic piece o’ crap from Pier 1. It’s already leaking air and terribly out of tune. I looked into buying a new one; there are SO many different kinds, and I don’t even know where to begin. I’m thinking a diatonic harp in the key of C (most likely a Hohner). This still leaves me with buttloads of options, like Special 20, Old Standby, Marine Band, Bluesband, Blues Harp, Golden Melody, and so much more. Which would be best for someone who’s not too serious about harmonica? I’d like to be able to bend notes and have a nice tone, but I’m not ready to pay an arm and leg for the instrument. Ideally, I’d like it to cost no more than $25.

Best Answer...


If you're wanting to play blues style then you really don't have all the options it appears you do. Many of these are the same but with various minor differences.

We can put the diatonics into five different groups or quality classes just like Hohner does in their catalog:

Marine Band: This is the Marine Band (1896) along with a couple variations such as the 364, 365, and 364s; Special 20; Thunderbird (extra low); and Crossover. They're the classic and traditional. They are what most Hohner players who play professionally use.

MS System: This is user tweaking friendly intended to compete with the Lee Oskar. They have user serviceable parts and are easy to work on and customize. Blues Harp and Big River are in this group. Big River is probably the least costly of these two upper levels of harp.

Hohner brand: This is for the instruments that are not exactly the same as the others. The Golden Melody goes in here - it's not tuned the same as a standard harmonica and is intended for playing melodies and not wailing the blues. The Duece-and-a-Half is in this group too.

Standard Line: Bottom of the line cost-savers. Most are under or around $10. Blues Band, American Ace, GLH, Pocket Pal, Hot Metal, Old Standby, Official Scout, Fuego Azul, Piedmont Blues. They're for youngsters to learn on or for folks who just want a harmonica to piddle with occasionally. They work ok but you'll not be getting too great on one. They don't last as ell as a Marine Band or MS either. Might as well buy the next group - it works as well and costs much less. Most of these only come in C unless you're buying a set.

Childrens: Happy Colors is about $2 and they work. You won't be getting a lot of tone, good seals, and solid bends but it works as well as the Standard Line and it's CHEAP. They work WAY better than anything from a department or dollar store.

Now, assuming you're not after a children's instrument then that leaves the Hohner, MS, and Marine Band lines. The Hohner line are specialty instruments so then we're left with the Marine Band or MS line.

The MS is really for folks who plan to service and tweak their own harp. If that's not you then no need to spend extra for one. But, the Blues Harp is a pretty decent harp and is comparable to the MB harps for blues playing purposes.

Which leaves the Marine Band line and the two most common sellers there are the Marine Band (1896) and the Marine Band Special 20. The difference between the two is the comb material. 1896 is wood, S-20 is plastic. Some people like the sound of wood, some prefer the easy maintance of plastic. Wood swells when wet, plastic doesn't. Either way, good harps to learn on and they cost about $30 depending on where you find them.

http://hohnerusa.com/upload/links/l_00000798_HOHNER_Harmonicas_2011.pdf is the whole Hohner catalog if you're interested.

Musicians Friend has the Special 20 for about $35 and the Marine Band 1896 for the same. The Blues Harp is $2 more and a Golden Melody is $40.

The Big River, a good compromise between the "cheap" and "better" harps, is $25. Which happens to be your preferred price point. Personally I'd go the extra $10 like Miles suggests and get the Marine Band or Special 20.