Great Harmonicas To Start Your Collection
Easy to play, the harmonica is one of the most versatile instruments out there. It can be found in many styles of music, from blues to pop, to rock, to folk. Each style gives a fantastic, unique take on a traditional instrument that’s seen many changes throughout the years, since 1821 when the mouth harp was first seen in the workshops of Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann. Nowadays, there’s a plethora of options available to help you take the first steps of your musical journey – and at Millers, we have a wide range perfectly catered to your needs.
What is a harmonica?
A harmonica (or mouth organ, mouth harp) is a small rectangular wind instrument with a row of metal reeds along its length, held against the lips and moved from side to side to produce different notes by blowing or sucking. There are two main categories of harmonicas: Diatonic – which only contains the notes of a specific scale and are mainly used in Blues, Rock, Country and Pop music, and Chromatic – which can play all notes in the chromatic scale and are mainly used in Jazz and Classical music. Most harmonicists will carry a variety of harps for the purpose of playing a wider repertoire, however, a specialist may use only one or two!
There’s lots of ways to learn harmonica, and many people teach themselves. There are fantastic tutorials on the web as well as some great tutor books that are both easily accessible and affordable. If you’ve sung in the past, or already played a woodwind instrument, you may have an easier time with techniques such as breath control, however these fundamentals can be easily trained with consistent practise. If this is your first instrument or you need a refresher, do check out our blog which goes through some awesome tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your practise!
There are many varieties of mouth organ, and the fundamental difference comes in the materials they are made of. The different parts of the anatomy can be made with either reinforced plastic, wood or metal, and this greatly affects the tone – especially since the harmonica is made traditionally using steel. If this is changed, it can dramatically make the tone more mellow or bright. Check out this diagram of the anatomy of the mouth organ!
Different materials are used for the reeds – this can affect the sound that’s created, which can be more or less useful for a certain genre of music. It can also be more naturally fitting with a key – a more mellow tone may fit better with a minor key due to the bittersweet nature of the music played in this key.
So which ones should I be looking at?
For a beginner harp, it’s usually recommended to spend between £20-40 for a worthwhile instrument that will last you. At Millers, we highly recommend either the Hohner MS Series or the Lee Oskar series of harmonicas. These instruments are perfect for the enthusiast looking for a good quality instrument for an inexpensive price tag. The MS Series are all made in Hohner’s Germany factories – MS stands for Modular System. There are 4 varying pre-built models to choose from depending on the type of music you like to play, and from there, you can customise to build the perfect tone that you need, as all the components are both interchangeable and compatible. https://www.hohner.de/en/instruments/harmonicas/diatonic/ms-series
The Lee Oskar harmonica is a similar series named after the man himself – Lee Oskar is a well-known harmonicist that has performed with groups such as War (the writers of Low Rider), with different models being more suitable for different genres. The individual models have altered tuning, which means they are tuned to specific keys – perfect for building a collection! The models are also conveniently colour-coded, so if you’re performing, you can change easily in between pieces during a set.
For someone looking for a longer term investment, it may be worth checking out Hohner’s Limited Edition Series. These are models created in homage to great artists of the instrument, an example of which would be the John Lennon Signature. They are made with more detail in the design, and greater quality components that give both durability and tonal quality.
The other thing that needs to be considered while choosing a harp is the key the instrument is in. This only applies to diatonic harmonicas, as chromatic harmonicas feature the notes of every key. Whilst this makes them more arguably versatile, the advantage of the diatonic is the flip side – they’re easy to play and are perfect for beginners as improvisation is super easy, with no chance of hitting a note that doesn’t fit! For a clearly laid out explanation of this in further detail, do check out our key chart page.
For all these harmonicas, you must be wondering how they’re kept in order! Well, our good friends at Hohner and Lee Oskar have come up with the perfect accessory to keep things organised. Their multi-harp cases are protective and stylish, and with room for multiple instruments are incredibly convenient. These should come with cleaning cloths that will help keep your harps in tip top shape. A holder is also a great accessory to have. This piece of kit hangs round the neck and is a great support for those wanting to perform both voice and harp together.
In terms of outlets to play, there are many teachers looking for new students who have both amateur and professional contacts and groups to play with in a fun, creative atmosphere. Whether you’re local to us in Cambridge or further afield, there are always people searching for like-minded others to share their love of music with.