What Key Harmonica Should I Buy? And What Kind?

OK, so you want to learn to play the harmonica! It is truly the instrument of the people and a great little instrument with amazing possibilities! You can play simple children's tunes, folk songs, amazing Blues and Jazz, Country, or even become a Classical musician on one! So you are confronted with a lot of choices! (I won't get into brands here, because I have another guide that discusses that. Please take a look at it, and my other guides, as well.)

So, what key harp to get? There are twelve keys to choose from! And what sort of harp? There are all these terms: Richter, Diatonic, Chromatic, Tremolo, Koch, Octave, Major, Minor, Straight Harp, Cross Harp, Solo Tuned --it makes your head whirl and spin like a top on a merry go round! OK, here is a simple guide to help you through this maze!

What Key Should I Get?

Well, if you are playing all by yourself that does not matter too much! With a 10 hole diatonic harmonica, such as the Seydel Soloist, Session, Favorite and 1847 models, Hohner Marine Band, Blues Harp, Special 20 and XB40, Lee Oskar Major Diatonic, Suzuki Bluesmaster, Promaster, Folkmaster, Hering Blues, Huang Star Performers, etc. you can learn your way around any key harmonica and then take that to another harp in a different key. Some keys like G, A, Ab, Bb, and B are lower and have a nice deep sound, and other keys like E, F, and F# are higher, but they all are laid out the same in Richter tuning.

The key of a harp becomes more relevant when you play along with records or with others. For learning the basics of the harmonica many books and most courses start with C harmonicas, so this is often the key of choice for the beginner. A C harp allows you to easily play folk songs in C in what is called first position or straight harp. It also is used for Blues in G in what is called second position or cross harp and it is also used for blues in D using what is called third position.

(If you are wondering why you play blues in a different key from the key of the harmonica, realize that blues scales use different notes than the standard major scale, hence a different pattern of holes is played to get blues scales. See: www.angelfire.com/tx/myquill/Positions.html for a terrific chart and more detail on harp positions!)

Keys beyond C are essential for the 10 hole diatonic harp player! Adam Gussow has some great Blues harmonica teaching videos on Youtube and he often uses an A or Bb for that. If you are getting started on harmonica and want to play with others, either blues or folk, you need to get at least these keys in addition to a C. The popularity rank of keys for harmonicas is C, A, G, D, E, F, Bb, and Eb, in that order. Eventually you will want to get all the keys!

Richter vs. Solo Tuned

Richter is the tuning used on standard 10 hole diatonics. It is mostly what Folk and Blues guys use. The bottom four holes are different from the holes that follow to allow for certain chords. If you want to play a major scale you need to start on hole 4 and go up.

Solo Tuned harps play the same note pattern all the way up the harp, just repeating the same pattern in different octaves. Some tremolos and some 12 holed harmonicas are solo tuned. You can start a major scale usually by blowing on the first hole, but sometimes this can vary according to the size of the harp. Chromatics are mostly solo tuned --unless they are Koch chromatics mentioned below-- and you start a major scale on the first hole blow for 10, 12 and 16 hole models. 14 hole models start on the third hole blow to play a major scale.

Other Harmonica Tunings

Now, to make matters more complicated, let's talk about a few other kinds of harmonicas and terms used. Some harmonicas are tuned differently. We now see 10 hole harps tuned in Harmonic Minor (great for Eastern European, Jewish and Gypsy music) and Natural Minor (great for minor Blues and Jazz). Country Tuned I have found less useful personally, but some like it for Bluegrass. (For more on this Google country tuned harmonica.) Seydel harmonicas have additional tunings and also offer the possibility of designing your own tunings.

Chromatic Harmonicas

Chromatic harmonicas are solo tuned and have a button that raises the pitch 1/2 step. Irish Tuned chromatics lower the pitch 1/2 step, which many Irish players prefer for trills and many blues players prefer because that button set up makes pushing the button similar to blues bends --a harmonica technique which lowers the pitch for that bluesy sound. If you want to play classical music on a harmonica you need a chromatic. Most use a C chromatic for classical music. Blues players use a variety of chromatics in different keys to play mostly in third position. See my guide to blues on a chromatic for more help on this. Now what about Koch chromatics? These are tuned like the 10 hole diatonics, which have different notes in the bottom four holes to make certain chords easier. A Koch chromatic allows a blues player or folk player who uses a 10 hole diatonic harp, to play like he usually does but also have extra notes as on a chromatic. Some 12 holed chromatics are specially tuned to be lower, like a C Tenor or C Baritone (same thing!) which play an octave lower than a regular C. There are also altered tunings for chromatics, such as diminished and bebop tunings. Seydel also offers custom tuned chromatics now. Let me know and I'll order one for you!

XB-40 and Valved Diatonics

If you are more advanced you can learn to play pretty close to chromatically on a valved 10 hole diatonic harmonica such as a Hohner XB40 or a Suzuki Valved Promaster, which are made to allow more bends than a usual harmonica. Be aware that valved harmonicas do not let you overblow, which is a technique that can get good players several additional notes, as well. If you are really advanced, like Howard Levy, you can play anything on a 10 hole harp using very advanced overblowing techniques, you are one of the elite group of harpists who can do it, and you don't need this guide!

Tremolo and Octave Harmonicas

A Tremolo harmonica has two reeds for one note and they are tuned slightly apart to give a vibrato or tremolo sound. some, like the Hohner Echo, are Richter tuned and others are Solo tuned.

Octave harmonicas are tremolos that have the two notes tuned an octave apart to give an organ sound. The Hohner Auto Valve and the Huang Cathedral Concert are two examples of this type of harmonica, and they have a nice sound for folk music or hymns.

Wood, Plastic or Metal Comb?

Do I want a wood comb, a plastic comb, or maybe even a metal comb? Some folks swear by wood combs. Tests have been done at harmonica conventions and no one can detect the difference in sound! Not even electronic equipment can tell the difference! Wood combs may swell with use unless they are sealed wood combs, and they can also crack. A harp with a metal comb can double as brass knuckles! It is largely a matter of taste and personal preference. There is no difference in sound according to tests that have been done, no matter what anyone claims!

Well, I hope this guide has helped you some. Contact me if you want something else added or explained and I'll update the guide.