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A brief introduction to the harmonica

A single good harmonica can cost as much as - or more than - an entire set of inexpensive harps. But a good harp is probably worth the price because it's simply a better product, made with better materials that give a better sound and will last longer. The old adage is true: you get what you pay for. But all things considered, overall harmonicas are a lot less expensive than guitars and ukuleles. That's probably why there are a lot more mediocre harmonica players like myself than there are good ones.

Unless you're a pro or have just won a lottery, you probably won't buy the full set of all 12 keys of the best harps, along with some extra minor and low key harps. And frankly you'll never use half the available keys when jamming. Besides, how do you decide what is the best make to buy before you invest in the entire range?

Understanding that I needed to spend some time (and money) exploring this, I cautiously started buying one to three good harps at a time, trying different makes, keys and models so I could compare them all at once. What a long trip that's been! And don't even start on how much I've spent on this trip...

Some harps were purchased online, others through the local store, Blue Mountain Music (always shop local when you can!). However, not all manufacturers have Canadian distribution, so I've had to go to online sources for them.

Keys you need

The keys you need to own are all major keys: A, D, C, G, F and Bb. The Bb is for playing with horns, so it can be the last you get. I'm talking cross harp style now - playing a fourth above the key the song is in (guitar players will find this five frets up from the root note). That's blues style. So an A harp is for playing cross harp when the song is in the key of E, D for A, C for G, F for C and Bb for F. Got that? Good, there's a test later...

After you have the Big Six, you can get the rest - E, B, and the flats. Frankly most of us will normally never play in these keys but if you get into a lot of jamming, especially with horns, you may need them if you get that good. And some of the 'jam-along' CDs and backing tracks have songs in the keys that they work with, so you may eventually want them all.

You should also consider getting some of the low keys. I started with a Bushman Low F, then got a Seydel Low A, Low D and finally an LLF (low-low F). These have both a different sound and require some changes in the way you play. The low notes are slower, but have a deep, rich sound almost like a bowed instrument. Keeping them in tune over the long term may, however, be a challenge, and really low keys require some adjustment to your playing technique.

Everything I read recommended novices start with a C harp, but I like A because it's lower. A also fits better with the blues I like to play. G is the lowest standard key, and there are new extra-low harps from some manufacturers (down to low-low F!). But if you want to play melodies and learn songs (especially if you follow along on teaching tapes or CDs), if you only get one harp, start with C because most of the basic songs are in C. It doesn't really matter later for most teaching methods - the key (pitch) may differ but the hole positions don't change - if you're learning a song, you blow or draw the same hole no matter what the key. But you may find starting with a higher key than C makes the song sound a bit too shrill. I've also found it a little harder to control the treble notes on the higher keys, but that's probably because I'm such an amateur.

Minor keys, Dorian tuning, augmented, diminished, melodic tuning, circular tuning, whole tone, tremolo, octave, spiral tuning... there are other alternatives to major keys available, although not from every manufacturer. Seydel seems to have the biggest list of alternatives. You're best to master the basic major diatonic tuning first... but if you're like me you will soon want to experiment with these other tunings and styles.

Harp construction

Harmonica construction material is very important. I'm not sure about wooden combs any more. Plastic can be lighter, more sanitary, won't warp or swell, and is easier to clean. I have a couple of older (20 or so years) Hohner Blues Harps that have swollen combs that catch the lips and tongue uncomfortably when playing. But they're still playable with some care.

From everything I've read online by far better harp players than I will ever be, the comb material doesn't make a lot of difference to the sound, although there are those who argue wood is more mellow, plastic and aluminum brighter (physics says these materials will reflect, rather than absorb, some of the higher overtones). The density of the comb material and the hole size and shape should have an effect, but I haven't read any serious study to indicate how much and why.

The covers (cases), however, do matter - material and design both play a part in the resulting sound and volume. Covers direct and reflect sound. Better harps have solid covers, with less air leakage. Air leakage is a big issue - air coming from around the reeds can affect or even distort the sound, and make it more difficult to bend notes. Heavy, thick covers also seem to make for better volume. There may also be a correlation between the distance between reed and case... but again I can't find any studies.

Harp ends

Here's a picture of the ends of a few harps, showing the openings and gaps in the cases. From the left: Hohner Big River, Hering Vintage 1923, Seydel Solist Pro 12, Bushman Delta Frost, Hohner Marine Band, Hohner Special 20. The openings are largest in the Marine Band and Hering, with smaller openings in the Big River and Delta Frost.

The Special 20 and Seydel have no deliberate openings like these, just gaps where the metal of the case folds over. How much these openings affect the sound is hard to say - I'd like to find a study on the nature of reed instruments and airflow that would explain whether such openings are beneficial or detrimental to the sound and volume and see the results of experiments with harmonicas to show what the results were.

Of course, the reeds make a big difference. Most companies use brass for their reeds, but Bushman Delta Frost and several Suzuki models use phosphor bronze (the same material used for some better, longer-lasting guitar stings). Bushman and Suzuki harps have a nice tone and are very responsive reeds, so I'd say their material choice works well. One company, Seydel, makes a harmonica with stainless steel reeds, the 1847 model, which I haven't tested yet, but the specs are impressive.

The size of the holes you blow into apparently affects volume; larger holes for a louder harp. But I've found that the comb spacing gets smaller with larger holes in some harps. For beginners, wider spacing (the width of the plastic support between the holes) seems to make it a bit easier when learning what hole to blow.

If you want to see an animation of how harmonicas work, look at Masaru Hashimoto's Flash page (explanations in Japanese but the charts are in English).

One of the first things you'll learn is that your own hands play a vital role in the sound. How you hold the harp, how you cup it, how and when you open your hands or fingers - these all affect the resulting sound. Case design and elements like end holes seem to work in conjunction with your hands. So you can't really define harps as just a combination of parts: it's a synergy of all its components and the player.

Other considerations

There seems to be a good selection of quality harmonicas in the $25-$40 range. In general I've found the higher the price the better the build quality and the better the sound. But that doesn't mean the harps will last a lot longer: you can easily wear out the reeds by simply playing too hard. And when you get wailing away, that's easy to do. I think I'll be learning to do my own harp repair and maintenance fairly soon... but fortunately many of the modern harmonicas are easy to disassemble, clean and tweak.

I've also written reviews of the Bottle o' Blues and the Egg Static harmonica mics I bought on eBay. Of course a microphone requires an amplifier, so I had to find one - something not too powerful, suitable for practice and maybe some jamming with friends. I borrowed and tested several small amps through Blue Mountain Music and finally decided on the Roland Cube 30X, which is also discussed below. I also have a Boss eBand, which is great for practice, since it has many loops to play along with, and can be used to play MP3s for practice. Plus I own a little Ibanez bass amp that is good for practice.

The best way to learn, in my mind, is to put on some blues CDs and play along. In fact, there are some dedicated 'play along' CDs or backing tracks (many available online for free) with instrumental tracks in various chords you can work with. The little paper inserts that come with many manufacturers' harps aren't a lot of help, but sometimes can give you some interesting background information on the companies.

There are some companies I haven't been able to sample because their products are not easily available in Canada - for example, I discovered a Brazilian harmonica company, Bends, with no North American distributor. I haven't been able to obtain samples for testing and reviewing yet, but I'll keep trying. Hering is also Brazilian, so perhaps there's a Renaissance in harmonicas going on down there (and I did manage to get some Hering harps). Others - like the Seydel 1847, Suzuki Pure and a few others are a bit pricey and I'm not sure I can justify spending that sort of money given my amateur level of play. But being an obsessive character, I will keep looking for new harps to add.

There are also some new models out since I first wrote these reviews, I have not yet obtained, but hope to test in the very near future. The Suzuki Mani is one of those, and I added it to my collection only recently.

And a final thought: my experience in buying online has been mixed and not always positive. Descriptions are not always accurate. Some manufacturers and distributors have been very fast to ship, but others have taken as many as four weeks to get items to me. I had a very bad experience with Harp Depot. eBay sellers have been average to good, but beware of excessive shipping charges (using shipping costs to help pad a low selling price). One eBay seller wanted $26 to ship a single $40 harp by mail to Canada, and another wanted $30.50 for a $10 harp! Another asked $20 for a similar harp, and a third $27.50 for a $20 harp. One online harmonica shop wanted $60 to ship two harps and a belt! Others asked a more reasonable $10-$12 to ship three or four harmonicas. On the other hand, Musician's Web Store offers free shipping on orders over $99. Always check shipping costs before committing to buy on eBay or an online seller.

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