What Brand Harp to Buy.
I say ‘buy a cheap harp’. Let’s face it, you started to play harp because you were too cheap to run out and buy an expensive guitar. Steve James, the slide guitarist, once told me that there should be a special price of around $700 for your first harmonica. After that they should be regular price. In this way there could be a limit on the number of new harmonica players. We get no respect!
I started out with a Hohner American Ace. I was lucky in that I got a good harp (I found it the other day and it’s still playable after all these years.) I can’t recommend that you go for the American Ace as most of the ones that I bought since are garbage. It’s the law that you can’t test a harp before you buy it. You have to go by brand to get a good harp.
After the Ace I bought Hohner Special 20’s. These are plastic harps that are easy to bend. They seem to be well made, but they tend to get too easy to bend with use. I used these while I was learning to bend and found that the thin reeds and tight construction helped me to bend. They sound good. Sugar Blue uses special 20s.
I also bought a few Lee Oskars. I find these very similar in construction and feel to the Special 20’s. Lee Oskars are a little harder to bend, but not much. They are both still relatively easy to bend harps. The Lee Oskars have a little better tone, but overall, special 20s and Lee Oscars are pretty much the same harps. The Lee Oskars have replaceable reeds, but the reeds cost about the same as a new harp, so I have never replaced the reeds.
Hohner Marine Bands are the classic blues harmonicas. After all, Little Walter used Marine Band Harmonicas. But, Little Walter didn’t have much choice, did he? There were a few competing brands around, but Hohner has had the best stuff for a long time.
I find the Marine Bands too loose, that is to say, they leak air. I find that it’s hard to keep them airtight. They are difficult to bend and the wood gets wet from saliva and swells up. The sound is just about perfect. You get a fat, loud, full sound with a Marine Band, but I find that they are too much trouble to keep around. If you can fiddle with the harps and keep them airtight and put up with having to “break-in” your harps, then the Marine Band is for you.
My harp is the Hohner Big River. It has everything that I am looking for in a harp. It’s large and heavy (I’m a big guy). Its reeds are harder to bend than the ones in a Special 20 or a Lee Oskar. It’s the cheapest good harp that you can buy. I play them out of the box without too much breaking in.
Hohner Golden Melody is for techies who like to tune their harps and play over-blows. It has an equal tuning that makes it sound reedy when playing blues.
Hohner Blues harp – This is a Marine Band with a different set of covers.
Hohner MeisterKlasse – This has a titanium body, but MS (big river) reeds. Sam Meyers of Anson Funderberg and the Rockets uses these. Way too expensive.
Hohner MS Blues Harp, Pro Harp, Cross Harp – all variations (for more money) on the Big River. Each has their own special appeal, but none good enough to me to pay the extra money. If you find one that you like, stick with it.
Huang and Suzuki – I have yet to find one I like. They have some cheap and playable harps, though.
12 and 14 hole Marine Bands – These are way cool! Get one of these and play way down low like Sonny Boy II in Bye-Bye Birdie.
Chromatic harps. You probably want to get the CX-12, you know the cool black one that looks like Darth Vader’s harmonica. If you are a beginner, don’t spend the money until you start learning third position.
Tombo Ultimo – This harp is not available in the US, but Tombo, the same people who make the Lee Oskars, makes it. The Ultimo seems to be the reeds of a Lee Oskar with a cool smooth cover that makes it really slick to play. It looks like the Silver Surfer would play an Ultimo if he played harp. (I am pretty sure that he does). They are too expensive in the US because there are no discount overseas harp stores and shipping would cost too much anyway. I have three and they’ve stood up pretty well over the years. I can’t justify paying $25 for an Ultimo when I pay half that for a Big River.
- Why Blues Harp? A philosophical discussion of why I play harp.
- What Brand Harmonica should you buy? How to tell which brand is good for you.
- What Harp Keys to Buy. This is what I carry around with me. Once in a blue moon the band wants to play something in another key, but I can usually talk them out of it.
- Key chart. You need this for the first month and then you should have it memorized. Handy to have, though, at three in the morning after you've started your second six-pack.
- The Care and Feeding of Harmonicas. Regular maintenance for your harp.
- Identifying the Key of a Song. An art, not a science.