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What kinds of harmonica are there? And how are they different ?

There are several "classes" of harmonica - three, for the most part, if you exclude the more rarely used bass and chord harmonicas : diatonic harmonicas (also called "Short Harp" or "Blues Harp"), chromatic harmonicas and tremolo harmonicas. The principle behind all three is the following : in each chamber, there are two reeds, one designed to vibrate when you blow into the chamber and the other designed to vibrate when you draw on the chamber. Depending upon the weight and thickness of the reeds, they vibrate at different frequencies, producing different notes. Accordions, incidentally, function in essentially the same way except that the air stream is produced by a bellows.

diatonic_exemple.gif (10119 octets)The Diatonic

Diatonic harmonicas are the oldest historically. They were developed in the 1850’s by the watchmaker, Mathias Hohner, in Trossingen, Germany. He wanted to make a small, portable instrument to accompany musicians playing German folk music. And the diatonic harmonica’s "unusual" tuning is directly attributable to the fact that it was designed for Bavarian folk music. The diatonic has 10 holes each of which allows you to produce two different notes by blowing and drawing. The following is a schematic representation of the tuning for a diatonic harmonica in C: :

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Today, the diatonic is used in all sorts of pop, jazz, blues, rock and folk music throughout the world. By using a technique called "bending", you can hit the notes located between the blow and draw notes. You can also produce the few remaining notes by using another technique called "overblowing". So, for today’s accomplished musician, the diatonic harmonica can be considered a fully chromatic instrument (which is to say that all the notes are available). However, before these techniques were developed, only a limited number of things could be played on the diatonic ; hence the invention of the chromatic.


chromatic_exemple.gif (9356 octets)The Chromatic

Towards the end of the 19th century, in order to make up for the missing notes on the diatonic, Hohner conceived of a harmonica with a slide-mechanism operating on the same principle as the diatonic but slightly more complex. The chromatic is geared to a tuning similar to that of the middle octave of the diatonic, i.e. :

1 2 3 4

which repeats two, three or four times ( 8, 12 or 16-hole chromatic).

That said, the chromatic is also a "two-in-one harmonica" since you need only press the slide-button to play the same tuning but a semi-tone higher, i.e. :

1 < 2 < 3 < 4 <
S C# F Ab C#
A Eb F# Bb C

In so doing, the instrument is fully chromatic and even has notes that are doubled (called "enharmonic"). Still, the inventor was aware that, due to the greater complexity of the mechanism, a lot of air was lost both in blowing and drawing—making the instrument leaky. Then, someone thought of adding a thin leather valve to the top of the reed opposite the one that vibrates. The valve would prevent air from escaping and would channel it towards the vibrating reed. Today, the valves are made of plastic and make bending relatively impossible on chromatics.

The chromatic is also used in all kinds of music but especially in classical.


tremolo_exemple.gif (9986 octets)The Tremolo

The tremolo is essentially a diatonic whose holes are doubled vertically and horizontally (so there are, theoretically, 40 holes on a standard tremolo). The vertical doubling creates the tremolo effect: the two holes located in the same "column" are tuned to the same note but a few hundredths of a tone apart. So, when you play both simultaneously, it creates a "cycle"—the tremolo effect, which sounds a little like an accordion. The horizontal doubling is due to the fact that there are already two reed plates in each vertical "hole"; so, the blow and draw reed plates are in two separate "columns". Theoretically, the tremolo can be bent but it’s very difficult since you have to blow or draw on just one of four holes.

The tremolo is used, for the most part, in folk music - Cajun, French musette, African music - although a few very impressive players, especially in Asia, are pushing the perceived limits of the instrument.



Which harmonica should I use ?

That’s a tough question for which there is only one right answer : "That depends entirely upon what you want to do." In essence, it depends upon the sound you’re looking for and so, upon the kind of music you’re looking to play. 

Speaking very generally, if you want to play the blues, country or rock, the diatonic is the best choice. If you want to play folk, the diatonic or the tremolo are probably the best choices. If you want to play classical, the chromatic is probably the best choice. And, finally, if you want to play jazz, the diatonic and the chromatic are both good choices.

Obviously, there are differences in tone and technique between diatonics, chromatics and tremolos. Learning to recognize these differences will allow you to better chose the sound you want.

Again, this is a very general reply to the question. There are some who play blues, rock and country on the chromatic ; there are others who play classical on the diatonic. Don’t be afraid to abandon received wisdom, if you’re so inclined!



Which brand and model to choose ?

Again, a difficult question, a difficult answer: it is entirely a question of satisfying your tastes and goals.  

Among the leading makers of harmonicas, and the countless models that they offer, it is sometimes difficult for a beginner to know what to buy. In the end, the only way to know for sure is by playing them. But there are a few criteria for choosing and distinguishing among the various offerings.

The comb

Three materials are commonly used in the combs of diatonic harmonicas: wood, plastic and metal. They all have their advantages and disadvantages.

  • Wood: this is the "traditional" material and, as far as I know, only Hohner and Hering presently manufacture harmonicas with wooden combs. Though it is disputed by certain professional players, wood is often thought to produce a warmer sound than the other comb materials. The principal disadvantage of wood is its porous, warping nature. Prices are in the average range.
  • Plastic: this is the material most commonly used today to manufacture harmonicas, and all makers offer plastic-combed harmonicas. Their principal advantage is their non-porous nature, matched by their potentially low cost. Some suggest that they are too cold but, once again, this point is subject to debate.
  • Metal: metal-combed harmonicas are generally the top-of-the-line harmonicas - manufactured principally by Hohner and Suzuki. They are expensive (Suzuki), even very expensive (Hohner) but their qualities are several : volume, clarity, feel. Overall, overblows are easiest to perform on these. The only disadvantage : their forbidding price!


To my knowledge, there are six principle brands of which only two are widely distributed in Europe: Hohner and Lee Oskar. The four other are less widely available: Suzuki, Huang, Tombo and Hering.

Hohner : the old war-horse. Hohner has the widest selection of models, but the pros say that Hohner has stopped listening to its customers. They are rarely the source of innovation. In the United States, Hohner seems to have considerable independence and is much more dynamic than in Europe. Hohner’s new Modular System (MS) allows all parts on all MS models to be interchanged and replaced. The MS Marine Band and the MS Blues Harp are wooden combed models; the Meisterklasse is a metal-combed model; all the others are plastic-combed (namely, the MS Special 20, the MS Big River, the MS Cross-Harp, the MS Pro-Harp and the Golden Melody). Hohner also offers "handmade" 1896 Marine Bands and Special 20’s.

And Hohner offers a large number of chromatic and tremolo model harmonicas, as well as bass and chord harmonicas. For more information, visit their web-site: http://www.hohnerusa.com or http://www.hohner.de

Hohnerlogo.gif (2815 octets)

Lee Oskar : Hohner’s principal competitor. Lee Oskar is an exceptionally talented player who joined Tombo to produce harmonicas designed for harmonica players. He is more sensitive to the demands of the market and offers harmonicas in a variety of tunings (Melody Maker, Natural Minor and Harmonic Minor) as well as accessories (replacement reed plates, repair tools, etc.) Lee Oskar only sells diatonics. For more information, visit his web-site: http://www.leeoskar.com

LeeOskarLogo.gif (5400 octets)

Huang : Huang is the bargain discount harmonica. Their models look very much like Hohners but at a price that is generally half that of the latter. They are not distributed in Europe and you can only get them by mail order. Its two main models are the Silvertone, which resembles a Lee Oskar only squarer, and the Star Performer, which is a veritable clone of the Golden Melody.

hlogo.gif (3692 octets)

Suzuki : Suzuki offers several models, including some inexpensive plastic models - the Folk Master and the ProMaster - and a metal-combed model similar in quality to the Meisterklasse but half as expensive ! They also offer several chromatics of which the chief example is the Leghorn.

Suzukilogo.gif (711 octets)

Tombo : Tombo harmonicas have been distributed in France for several years now. Their principal line of diatonics consists of the Tombo Ultimo and the Tombo Folk Blues (very similar to the Lee Oskar). They also have an entire line of chromatics, tremolos, basses, etc.

LogoTombo.gif (4683 octets)

Hering : as the youngest of the manufacturers, this Brazilian company scored big on the American market by offering a complete line of finely constructed diatonics and chromatics at very attractive prices. To my knowledge, they are not distributed in France, but you can get them from England or the United States. For more information, visit their web-site :  http://www.heringharp.com/

HeringLogo.gif (5789 octets)

Criteria for Choosing

So, what are the criteria for choosing one harp over another, beyond mere personal taste? What should I be looking for? –For the most part: air-tightness, mouthpiece, and sound.

  • Air-tightness is an absolute criterion. It is the amount of air that escapes from a place other than the hole into which you are blowing or drawing. Generally speaking, plastic-combed harmonicas are more airtight than wooden combed harmonicas and metal-combed harmonicas are more airtight than plastic-combed harmonicas. On the other hand, the finished quality, the gapping of the reeds with respect to the reed plates, etc. also influence air-tightness. This criterion is very important for bending at low volume or for obtaining double and triple bends on the harmonica with the greatest ease. Obviously, it is even more critical for obtaining overblows.
  • The quality of the mouthpiece is also an absolute criterion, although tastes are held more in common. For me, it is important that the mouthpiece of the harmonica allow me to slide the instrument comfortably along my mouth and not cut my lips. Covers that fall directly onto, or a little back from, the mouthpiece, can also make themselves felt; and so can reed plates that project beyond the cover (as is the case for the Marine Band) or not (as is the case for the Lee Oskar)
  • Sound, on the other hand, is an entirely relative criterion. Some people have preferences that others cannot hear; it is actually a matter of taste. On the other hand, the quality of the harmonica and its design may have an effect on its projection, the power of its sound. 

So, what do I choose ?

IThere is no one answer to this question. A good way of understanding the problem is as follows: if you are a beginner and you’re not entirely sure whether you want to devote yourself to the harmonica or not, buy the least expensive. I would suggest the Hohner Big River. But if you’ve already decided to take it up, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a Lee Oskar. They are nice to play, have holes a little larger than most Hohner’s, and, above all, have thin reed plates - which makes it easier to bend. For learning purposes, they are among the best. Then, as you buy harmonicas in other keys, you can try playing other models.



Why do diatonic harmonicas come in more than one key ?

In the beginning, the diatonic harmonica was tuned to facilitate the accompaniment of Bavarian folk songs : Bavaria being its region of origin. Its design was essentially based on cords in the lower octave (holes 1-3) and melodies in the middle one (holes 4-7). As a result, a certain number of notes are missing on the diatonic harmonica (whence its name). It was conceived to be played in a single key - the one stamped on the cover. Consequently, if the band was playing in C and the harmonica player had a C harp, no problem. But if the band was playing in D or E, the harmonica player was in real trouble ! In short, harmonicas were made in a certain number of keys so that harmonica players could be somewhat more versatile.

Then, at the start of the 20th century, the harmonica spread throughout the African-American community, among others, because it was the most affordable instrument. The African-Americans didn’t know how the harmonica was "supposed" to be played. So they learned to play in keys other than that stamped on the harmonica. They realized, in particular, that, by playing a fifth below the key of the harmonica, they could easily play blues phrases with the notes that were available. It’s what they came to call "cross-harp".

Any harmonica in any given key can be played in more than that one key. In theory, by using good playing techniques (bends and overblows), you can achieve all the notes missing on the harmonica and so turn it into a perfectly chromatic instrument. At this level of mastery, a C harp would be enough to play everything. Such perfect mastery is rare, however. In short, many players prefer to carry harps in several different keys.



Do you have to have a diatonic in all twelve keys?

Not necessarily.

A certain number of keys are easy to play on a C harp. C, of course, but also G (one fifth below C) ; D (two fifths below C, i.e., two semi-tones above); A (three fifths below C, i.e., 3 semi-tones below); E (four fifths below C, i.e., 4 semi-tones above); and B (five fifths below C, i.e., 1 semi-tone below). That said, certain scales are more accessible than others, due to the different layout of the notes for each key ; and so much so that playing in A on a C harp, for example, will tend to favor a strong minor-scale sound. The judicious use of bends and overblows, as well as a good mastery of the scales, will allow you to compensate for this effect if that’s what you want. It requires a lot of work and effort ; but this same work and effort will also enable you to play the six remaining keys on the same harmonica (i.e., F#, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb and F)

On the other hand, suppose that I'm playing a particular riff in G on a C harp. The arrangement changes key - changes to A. I can still play the riff in A on my C harp, but it won’t sound the same. Due to the layout of the notes, the blows and draws won’t occur in the same sequence, and then there are the notes that you’ll no longer be able to bend, and so on.

So, in short, harmonica players often prefer to use several harmonicas in different keys. In general, your reference point is the fifth below the key of the harmonica, and you can be assume that 90% of the time, a harmonica player who is playing in G is playing on a C harp. Consequently, if you want to play in G, A and D, you should have harmonicas in C, D and G.

That said, harmonica players often fall prey to a certain laziness, the result being that they never attempt to go beyond playing a fifth below the key of the instrument. This is what many call ‘second position’ or ‘crossharp’. That’s unfortunate because not only are they passing up the chance to use the various sounds that are obtained by playing other keys, but they also have greater difficulty in improvising on complex structures like those found in jazz and that often modulate - i.e., undergo radical key changes during the piece.

In short, you don’t have to buy all twelve keys, unless you think you might have the opportunity to jam with musicians who play in a variety of keys, etc. In any case, it is always recommended that you a carry certain number of keys suited to the style of music that you play.



Which keys should I buy first?

You’ll be looking at different keys, depending on the style of music that you want to tackle. If you follow the thinking of most harmonica players, you’ll need harmonicas in keys a fifth below the most commonly encountered keys in your chosen style of music. Oversimplifying somewhat, we could say that, in order of priority:

For Blues, Rock, and Country, the most commonly used keys are: C, A, E, G, D, B and F. To work in these keys by playing a fifth below the key of the harmonica, you’ll need harmonicas in F, D, A, C, G, E and Bb.

For Jazz, the most popular keys are the horn keys : F, Eb, Bb, Ab and Db. To work in these keys by playing a fifth below the key of the harmonica, you’ll need harmonicas in Bb, Ab, Eb, Db and F#.

You’ll notice that a harmonica in the key of B doesn’t appear on this list. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use it - only that the keys that can be played most easily on it are not common in modern music.



Qu'est-ce qu'une altération ?


Comment fait-on une altération ?


Comment fait-on une altération aigüe ?


Peut-on altérer sur un chromatique ? Sur un tremolo ?


Pouvez-vous m'expliquer le principe des positions ?


A quoi servent les positions ?


Qu'est-ce qu'un overblow ?


Comment faire un overblow ?


Comment faire un overdraw ?


Comment travailler lorsque l'on débute ?


Quelles méthodes recommendez-vous ?


Quels sont les styles largement représentés à l'harmonica ?


Quels sont les musiciens qui ont marqué l'instrument ?