CategoriesNews

Harmonica Positions Explained

Second Position on the Harmonica Explained

If you’re new to the harmonica there’s a good chance you’ve started by purchasing a harp in the key of C, and have tried to play along with something bluesy in that key. The results have probably been a little disappointing; you’re trying to sound like Little Walter, but the sound coming out of your harmonica is more akin to that made by little Johnny and his recorder from next door . Don’t worry, though – this is perfectly normal, and, in this article I’ll show you how using what is known as second position on the harp can make a big difference to your sound.

Prerequisites

First, though, it’s important to be able to do two things in order to make the most of altered positions: play single notes cleanly, and bend notes. Both skills are linked, as it’s very difficult to bend notes properly if you’re sounding more than one note at the same time. We won’t go into detail about how to do this here, but there are plenty of great videos available online, such as this one from Ben Hewlett:

Positions

So, what do I mean by second position (or third or fourth position for that matter)? Let’s look at how a harp is tuned first to help us understand what these terms mean.

Traditional 10 hole harps are diatonic. This means that they are tuned as standard to play only the notes of the designated key (leaving aside bent notes, for now). The easiest way to visualise this is to picture a piano keyboard; on a C harp, for instance, only the white notes are available if the harmonica is played without any bending being used. In comparison, a chomatic harmonica has access, as standard, to all of the white notes and all of the black notes.

Now, it is possible to access those black notes on a diatonic harmonica in C by bending one of the white notes down (ie lowering the pitch). It’s worth noting, though, that the standard draw bending technique will only work on holes 1 – 6; bends higher up require the slightly more tricky blow bends. Let’s have a look at what bends we have available when playing as standard (which is known as first position).

For the major blues scale in C, the only note we need from outside of the C major scale is Eb. For the minor blues scale, though, we also need Bb and Gb (or F# as we may also call it). Now, it’s possible to access all of the notes you need for both blues scales in first position with 1/2 step bends. The problem, though, is that these notes aren’t really in the places you need them to be for fluent playing; Gb and Bb are draw bends on holes two and three, but Eb is all the way up on hole eight as a blow bend. Not ideal.

For the major blues scale in C, the only note we need from outside of the C major scale is Eb. For the minor blues scale, though, we also need Bb and Gb (or F# as we may also call it). Now, it’s possible to access all of the notes you need for both blues scales in first position with 1/2 step bends. The problem, though, is that these notes aren’t really in the places you need them to be for fluent playing; Gb and Bb are draw bends on holes two and three, but Eb is all the way up on hole eight as a blow bend. Not ideal.

The solution is second position. This is where you play the same harmonica in a key that is seven semitones (a perfect fifth) up from its designated key. So a C harmonica would be played in G (G is exactly seven notes, both black and white above C on a piano keyboard).

Because the keys of C and G are closely related harmonically, they share most of the same notes. The only differences are the use of an F# in G rather than an F, and the fact that G is the tonic (the focal point of the key) rather than C.

For the major and minor blues scales in G, we need one or all, respectively, of the following notes from outside the G major scale: Bb, Db and F. Take a look at the chart above and you’ll see that these notes are now easily accessible on a C harp between holes 1 and 5, making it much easier to play blues licks fluidly.

The easiest way to truly understand 2nd position is just to play with it! Find a piece of music that you know is in G (Google is your friend for identifying the key signatures of songs quickly) and which doesn’t stray too far from its tonic, and just play along with a few draw bends on holes two and three. You’ll soon find that your playing sounds quite different to when you were using straight harp (first position).

There are, of course, further positions – third, fourth, fifth and beyond are generally less frequently used, but open up new avenues of harmonic possibility. Third position, for instance, which is a further seven semitones up from second position, would give the key of D on a C harp, and is more minor in feel than first or second position.

Ultimately, the key is practice and experimentation. Keep these up and you’ll soon be getting some more interesting sounds from your harp.

JP

CategoriesHarmonicaNews

Hohner Harmonicas – Choosing the Right Model

To help you choose the best harmonica for your needs, we’ve put together a series of buyers’ guides. As it’s the biggest and arguably best knowm harp maker, we’re starting with Hohner.

Hohner – The Brand

There are some brands whose names become so synonymous with the products they manufacture that the brand itself becomes the generic noun used to describe all similar items. Hoover is an oft-quoted example of this, but there are others, including, incredibly, ‘Bubblewrap’ and ‘Ping Pong’. Whilst the brand ‘Hohner’ might not be quite so interchangeable with the word ‘harmonica’, it’s safe to say that it would probably be the first company the average person would think of if asked to name a manufacturer of the instrument.

A Little History First

Founded in Trossingen in the south west of Germay in 1857 by watchmaker, Matthias Hohner, the company can lay claim to being one of the oldest extant harmonica producers in the world (the honour of oldest actually goes to compatriots and rivals, Seydel, who were established ten years earlier).

Trossingen at the time was the centre of a watchmaking industry, and it was, perhaps, the availability of craftsmen familiar with working with relatively small parts that led to it becoming a hub for harmonica production.

Christian Messner, a former watchmaker from the region, was the first to establish a workshop manufacturing harmonicas in Trossingen in 1827. His instruments were produced by hand, by a single craftsman in the artisan tradition, and, although laborious to make, were relatively crude instruments.

Matthias Hohner, however, beginning his operations 30 years later, was able to see the benefits of production methods and technologies that had begun to appear in the latter part of the industrial revolution. He replaced humans with machines where the latter could be more accurate than the former, instituted division of labour and adopted innovations such as using brass for the reed plates instead of moulded lead. This, together with the company’s adoption of protective covers for the harmonicas resulted in an instrument that was of the highest quality available at the time, but at a price point that was competitive.

Early Harmonica Design
Hohner harmonica design from the 1860s.

Hohner’s Expansion Internationally

Demand for harmonicas grew throughout the following decades, with export trade to America being particularly high. By 1879 Hohner was producing around 72,000 harmonicas a year and employing over 200 workers.

At the start of the 20th century, Matthias handed over the business to his five sons, who continued to develop export markets and refine the company’s manufacturing processes. By 1930, Hohner had acquired a number of its competitors and had become the largest musical instrument company in the world, employing around 4,000 people.

Hohner Factory in the 1920s
Hohner Factory in the 1920s

The pre-WW2 period was, perhaps the golden age for Hohner harmonica production, with numerous popular musicians from the blues, folk and western genres utilising its distinctive sound in their recordings.

Despite the interruption of the Second World War, and the enlisting of the company by the Nazis to produce detonators for the war effort, Hohner continued to flourish in the 1950s, with large numbers of its harmonicas finding their way to export markets.

 The Downturn

The rise of rock’n’roll, however, with its focus on the triumvirate of guitar, bass and drums, led to a precipitous drop in sales of Hohner’s harmonicas in the early 1960s. Even the use of the instrument by the two biggest acts of the decade – The Rolling Stones and The Beatles – couldn’t seem to reinvigorate the market.

1960s Hohner Advert

The 1970s and 1980s saw diversification into electronic instruments, and disastrous financial results, culminating in a takeover by Kunz Holding, a subsidiary of the Taiwanese musical instrument company, KHS, in 1987.

 Takeover and Return to Profitability

This takeover, and the subsequent drive for profitability led to entry level models being produced in the far east and significant workforce reductions, with the company employing only around 600 people by 1997

This all eventually reaped rewards, though, when in 2001 the company posted its first profit in 20 years.

Choosing a Hohner Harmonica

Today Hohner produces a wide range of harmonicas, and the number of models can sometimes be a little bewildering. Let’s take a look at the various ranges and explain the key differences.

Diatonic Harmonicas

 This type of harmonica is the most ubiquitous and usually features 10 holes, each with one blow and draw note. Because they are tuned to a particular key, if you want to play songs in several different keys (either with a band or to a recording) then you’ll need more than one harmonica. (The caveat here is that it is possible to play cross harp, allowing more than one key to be played on a single diatonic harp, but we’ll leave this for now.)

Marine Band

Hohner Marine Band 1896 Classic - Open Case
Hohner Marine Band 1896 Classic – Open Case

 This is, perhaps, the most famous name in the lineup. First produced at the end of the 19th century, it was later adopted as the instrument of choice by blues, folk and pop artists, from Jimmy Reed to John Lennon. All models are made in Germany.

Today there are a number of variations:

Classic: the original Marine Band with a pearwood lacquered comb and brass reedplates.

Deluxe: improved comb design for greater volume, triple lacquering for longevity and an Ultraglide coating for comfort.

Crossover: triple lacquer bamboo comb for a brighter sound, Modern Compromise Tuning.

Thunderbird: bamboo comb, tuned an octave lower than standard.

364/24: 12 hole version of the traditional Marine Band.

364/24 Soloist: 12 hole version with solo tuning.

365/28: Upper register is expanded to two more holes over the 364/24.

Progressive Series

Hohner Rocket Diatonic Harp
Hohner Rocket Diatonic Harp

These are more modern looking harps, with ABS mouthpiece surfaces and combs, arguably providing better comfort and less chance of swelling than wood. All Progressive Series models are made in Germany.

The Rocket: designed to be loud and comfortable to play, with a comb that features rounded sides and edges.

Rocket Low: similar design to The Rocket, but available in the keys of LC, LD, LEb, LE and LF.

Rocket Amp: features the same construction as The Rocket, but has covers without side vents to facilitate playing with a microphone.

Special 20: this was the first Hohner harmonica to be manufactured with a plastic comb, potentially making it more airtight and less prone to swelling than wooden combed harps. Many modern harmonicas from other manufacturers are based on the Special 20.

Golden Melody: this is a retro-inspired model with rounded edges. Because it’s tuned to equal temperament it’s most suitable for single note playing.

MS Series

Hohner Big River Harp Pro Pack
Hohner Big River Harp Pro Pack

 This line of harps features modular construction, enabling covers, reed plates and combs to be swapped between harmonicas. All MS Series models are made in Germany.

Blues Harp: features a doussie comb and mouthpiece surface and stainless steel covers.

Big River Harp: this model has a plastic comb and streamlined covers with side vents.

Pro Harp: black ABS comb and black coated mouthpiece surface. Particularly popular amongst rock musicians.

The Meisterklasse: features full length cover plates, an aluminium comb and slightly larger nickel-coated reed plates.

Enthusiast Series

These are entry level harmonicas, made in China, that are competitively priced and are designed primarily for beginners.

Blues Bender PAC: Patented Acoustic Covers are designed to facilitate note bending. Plastic comb and mouthpiece surface.

Pocket Pal:  plastic comb and mouthpiece surface, screw assembly for easy maintenance.

Blues Band: features a plastic comb and mouthpiece surface.

Hot Metal Harp: similar to the other models in the Enthusiast Series, but with a sound more orientated towards hard rock.

Silver Star: a robust beginners’ model with a plastic comb and mouthpiece surface.

Chromatic Harmonicas

Chromatic harmonicas consist, effectively, of two harps, tuned a semitone apart and separated from each other by a slide, which is operated by a button at the side of the instrument.

So, in the case of a chromatic harp tuned to C, when the button is not activated, the harmonica will have the notes of the scale of C major available. Conversely, when the button is depressed, the notes of C# major are available, meaning that a chromatic harp can play in any standard Western key. This is particularly useful in jazz and classical music, where the chromatic has seen the most use.

Like the diatonic harps, Hohner groups its chromatic models into a number of lines:

Chrometta Line

Hohner Chrometta 12 Harmonica
Hohner Chrometta 12 Harmonica

 These are entry level chromatic harps available with various ranges, from 2 to 3.5 octaves, indicated by the number in the model name (ie Chrometta 8 has two octaves, Chrometta 10 has 2.5, etc).

CX12 Line

Hohner CX12 Black Harmonica
Hohner CX12 Black Harmonica

 The CX12 Series models are made in Germany and feature a single unit integrating the mouthpiece and covers, which can be disassembled without using any tools.

CX12 Black: injection moulded plastic comb, 1.05mm brass reed plates and a plastic mouthpiece surface.

CX12 Jazz: narrower mouthpiece and a red/gold finish.

CX12 Gold: thicker reed plates for a louder acoustic sound. Gold anodized casing. Particularly suited to classical pieces, and other instances where volume is required without amplification.

Chromonica Line

chromonica-270-48-deluxe
chromonica-270-48-deluxe

The Chromonica models share common design features with the original chromatic harmonica first manufactured by Hohner in 1912. Chromonicas are all made in Germany.

Discovery 48: entry level model in the Chromonica range, featuring 48, 1.2mm brass reeds, a straight slide and an ABS comb.

Toots Mellow Tone: thinner reed plates (1.05mm) and a pearwood comb, give this harp a warm sound. The mouthpiece surface is chrome, rather than ABS and the reed plates are nickel coated.

Toots Hard Bopper: similar to the Mellow Tone but with thicker reed plates (1.2mm) for a more powerful sound.

Chromonica 40: classic Chromonica model, with a 2.5 octave range, pearwood comb and 1.05mm brass reed plates.

Super Chromonica (AKA Chromonica 48): similar to the 40, but with a full 3 octave range.

Chromonica 48 Gold: special edition of the 48 with gold cover, reed plate and mouthpiece surfaces.

Super Chromonica Deluxe: similar to the standard 48, but with thicker (1.2mm) reed plates for greater volume and response.

Chromonica 64full 4 octave range and an ABS comb. Extra octave is in the lower range.

Performance Line

Hohner Silver Concerto Chromatic Harmonica
Hohner Silver Concerto Chromatic Harmonica

 These are the top end Hohner chromatic harmonicas and are designed for the needs of expert and professional players.

ACE: this very modern looking harmonica features Acoustic Coupling Elements, enabling the user to modify tonal colour, and a VarioSpring system, which allows easy adjustment of spring pressure.

Silver Concerto: Hohner’s most exclusive harmonica is built to order and features a sterling silver comb and silver plated mouthpiece surface.

Amadeus: 3 octave range, gold plated mouthpiece surface and a CNC milled transparent acrylic comb.

Meisterklasse: designed specifically for classical players, this harp has a 3.5 octave range from G – C, an aluminium comb and 1.2mm brass reeds.

Super 64: 4 octave chromatic harmonica, used by Stevie Wonder on many of his hits. ABS comb and silver plated mouthpiece surface with round holes.

Super 64X: similar to the standard Super 64, but with a transparent polycarbonate comb and double thickness reed plates in the bottom two octaves.

Tremolo Harmonicas

Hohner Golden Melody Tremolo Harmonica
Hohner Golden Melody Tremolo Harmonica

These types of harp have two reeds per note – one tuned slightly sharp, the other slightly flat – which gives a distinctive warbling note, particularly suited to traditional folk music.

Echo 2×32: features a maple comb, and is double-sided, giving the keys of C and G in one instrument.

Echo 2×48: similar to the 32, but with 2 x 48 reed plates, giving a greater range.

Echo 32 Tremolo: standard 32 hole tremolo harmonica featuring a maple comb and mouthpiece surface.

Echo 48 Tremolo: similar to the 32, but with 48 reed plates for a larger range.

Golden Melody Tremolo: 40 hole model with a plastic, rather than wooden, comb, to eliminate swelling.

Kreuzwender: six separate tremolo harmonicas in different keys, joined together by metal stars at the end. Each harmonica can be chosen by rotating the instrument.

Ocean Star 48: 48 hole tremolo harmonica tuned to give a slow tremolo effect.

Big Valley 48: 48 hole tremolo harmonica with a particularly bright sound. ABS comb and mouthpiece surface.

Octave Harmonicas

Hohner Comet 40 Octave Harmonica
Hohner Comet 40 Octave Harmonica

Octave harmonicas, like tremolo harps, have two reeds per note, but instead of being tuned slightly sharp and flat they are tuned an octave apart, giving a very powerful sound. Like tremolos, octaves are most widely used in folk music.

Comet 40: 40 brass reeds, injection moulded plastic comb and 0.9mm reed plates.

Unsere Lieblinge 32: traditional 32 reed octave harmonica with a maple comb.

Unsere Lieblinge 48: 48 hole version of the 32.

Orchestral Harmonicas

Hohner Double Bass 58 Orchestral Harmonica
Hohner Bass 58 Orchestral Harmonica

 These are designed primarily for ensemble playing and are produced in melody and chord versions.

Chord 48: 384 reeds, enabling 48 different chords to be played.

Bass 58: 29 hole, 58 reed instrument, with reeds tuned an octave apart for a deep, rich sound.

Bass 78: 78 reed version of the Bass 58.

Other Models

Hohner also produces signature models, such as the Ozzy Osborne and Bob Dylan harps, which are based on the instruments used by the artists, but customized to give them a unique look and feel.

Hohner Bob Dylan Signature Harmonica
Hohner Bob Dylan Signature Harmonica

Questions?

Hopefully this will have helped you to determine the correct Hohner harmonica for your needs and playing style, but please drop us a line by phone (01373 469777) or email ([email protected]) if you have any questions.

CategoriesHarmonica

How Much is My Harmonica Worth?

Around once a week on average, I receive an email from a customer who has been dealing with a late relative’s estate and has found a collection of what appear to be vintage harmonicas. If they aren’t enquiring about whether we would be interested in buying them (we’re not – for reasons I’ll explain later) they’re usually concerned with the value of the instruments. My answer is always disappointing, as it can be summarised with the words ‘not’, ‘a’ and ‘lot’. One day I may be surprised by being shown a particularly rare and sought after harmonica, but that day has not yet arrived. Let’s look at why this is, and whether there are any harmonicas that have significant value.

There’s an old joke in the cycling world that goes something like this: my greatest fear is that after I die my wife sells my collection of bikes for what I told her I paid for them! Whilst I have had customers who have surreptitiously purchased sets of relatively expensive harps, the same joke can’t really be used in the world of harmonicas; they’re an inexpensive instrument (with a few notable exceptions), whose value is unlikely ever to be more than £100 on the used market.

The reasons for this are numerous. First, harmonicas have been made in their millions over the years, so supply is never likely to be particularly limited. Second, they’re an instrument with a finite lifespan, which doesn’t lend itself to being left unused for long periods of time. Third, and most importantly, the nature of how the harmonica is played brings with it a whole host of hygiene issues when buying a used instrument.

If we compare harmonicas to electric guitars, where certain models such as original ’59 Les Pauls and pre-CBS Fenders can command five and even six figure values, we can see how the different nature of these instruments and their production has influenced their value. Even at its early 1960s peak, Fender would have produced far fewer guitars than a brand like Hohner; I’d say the ratio of Hohner harmonicas to Fender guitars manufactured in a given year in the 1960s would have been at least 100:1. Ergo, no lack of harmonica supply. Guitars, if stored correctly, show no detrimental effects from being left unplayed, and many musicians even feel that an older instrument acquires a superior tone with age. This is not the same for harmonicas, where an unplayed diatonics or chromatic is likely to be rusty, swollen and good for nothing if left in a draw for a few decades. Lastly, and most obviously, there are no hygiene issues with playing a guitar that previously belonged to someone else.

All of this adds up to mean that vintage harps (and newer used ones) have very little desirability, and, therefore, value. There are exceptions, however, so let’s look at typical prices for different types of harmonica.

Nearly New Diatonics and Chromatics

CategoriesHarmonica

The Definitive History of the Hohner Special 20 Harmonica

Hohner may not lay claim to being the oldest extant manufacturer of harmonicas (that honour goes to its compatriot, Seydel, which is a few years more senior), but it can legitimately attest to being one of the most influential brands within the world of harps. Many of its innovations have changed the direction of the harmonica industry and have been widely copied by others. One of the most important of these was the creation of the world’s first diatonic harmonica with a plastic comb and recessed reed plates – the Hohner Special 20. Let’s have a look at the history of this harp and see why its design has been aped by so many other manufacturers since its launch.

Hohner in the 1970s

The 1970s were initially something of a fallow period for the German company, as they were for many businesses across the world. Energy prices had increased considerably, labour relations in factories were generally poor and the folk music boom created by artists such as Bob Dylan, and which drove significant harmonica sales, was starting to wane.  Hohner’s model range was also somewhat dated, with the venerable Marine Band – little changed since its creation in the Victorian era! – still being one of its most popular harmonicas. (There is, of course the side note that pre-1980s 7-limit Just Intonation Marine Bands are now very desirable, but that’s a story for another day!)

Hohner needed something new to reinvigorate sales, and the answer lay in creating a harmonica that solved some of the fundamental issues of harps with wooden combs – swelling and comb roughness – whilst also being cost effective to manufacture. That harmonica was the Hohner Special 20.

Hohner Marine Band Special 20

Pearwood and other similar woods had been the staple material for harmonica combs since the invention of the instrument in the 1800s. They were relatively easy to manipulate into the shapes needed both for diatonic and chromatic harps, and provided the harmonicas with a distinctive tone, which could be manipulated subtly through the exact choice of wood type.

The major downside of wood in this application, however, is its tendency to swell over time when exposed to moisture. As combs are a part of the harmonica that comes into direct contact with the player’s mouth, and, no matter how careful a player is with their drying out routine, some moisture will come into contact with the comb, comb swelling and roughness over time is the almost inevitable result. Sealing liquids applied to the comb can partially mitigate both issues, as can careful choice of wood type, but these are not foolproof.

So, enter the post-War wonder material – plastic, which can be shaped into almost any form that’s needed, is inexpensive, smooth to play and completely resistant to swelling. It also had the added advantage that it could be manipulated in such a way that the reed plates could be completely recessed behind the comb. This made for a much smoother experience for a player’s mouth when doing fast runs on the harp, and also allowed musicians with nickel allergies to play the harmonica for the first time.

Of course, there was some initial scepticism – harmonica players, like guitarists, tend to be traditionalists – and plastic didn’t have a great reputation in terms of tone on other instruments, such as guitars, which has experimented with the material. However, a large number of players were won over when they heard the Special 20 in action, and discovered that the tone was only marginally different to the Marine Band, and didn’t sound thin and artificial, as they, perhaps, had expected. Even famous blues harpists, like Sonny Terry, began to add Special 20s to their collection, especially for live use, where their durability and easy bending made them perfectly suited to live on the road.

It didn’t hurt that the Special 20 was based on the Marine Band, in terms of aesthetics and size; had they made it truly radical, like, say a modern Yonberg harmonica, the results may have been different. It was even called a ‘Marine Band Special 20’ for many years, which became slightly confusing when all of the other Marine Band range models used a wood comb.

Original Special 20s shipped with a rather fetching leather case. This was later updated to the plastic case that still comes with the Special 20 today.

Marine Band Special 20 with Leather Case
Marine Band Special 20 with Leather Case

Imitators of the Hohner Special 20

By the 1980s, other manufacturers had caught on to the idea of a plastic comb, and the Special 20 had more competition from the likes of Tombo, via the Lee Oskar range of harps, and, towards the end of the century, Seydel, which had reappeared after a period of neglect during its time behind the Iron Curtain. Suzuki in Japan had also begun to make diatonic harps that drew on the Special 20’s main design features, and the marketplace for harmonicas with plastic combs was looking much more competitive.

Suzuki Bluesmaster Diatonic Harmonica
Suzuki Bluesmaster Diatonic Harmonica

Hohner responded with the misjudged MS range, which imitated the modular design of Lee Oskar harps. Unfortunately, initial harps in this range were blighted by Hohner’s move to a computer controlled production line that led to numerous tuning and longevity issues, and which was later abandoned. MS harps such as the Pro Harp, are popular today, but as they have to ensure cross compatibility with wood combs (which feature on the MS Blues Harp), they don’t have recessed reed plates, and, in my opinion, don’t play as well as the Special 20.

Progressive Series Special 20 Versus Marine Band Special 20

The only major change to the Special 20 in its 50 year history was when Hohner moved it to be part of the Progressive range of harmonicas, which also features the Rocket and Golden Melody harps. This made sense, as the Special 20 has far more in common with the modern design of the Progressive range harps, which all feature ABS combs, than the traditional, wood comb Marine Band models. Unfortunately, this move coincided with a dip in quality, leading many players to claim a New Coke/Classic Coke situation, and search, often in vain, for new old stock of the ‘Classic’ Special 20.

The reality was that quality soon improved, and any difference between the two versions was either cosmetic (‘Progressive’ printed on the cover plates in place of ‘Marine Band’) or so small as to make no discernible difference (extra screws in the reed plates to allow Rocket and Special 20 reed plates to be interchangeable). Today, the Special 20 is as good as it’s every been and is an excellent choice for any level of player.

Should I Buy a Special 20, then?

The Special 20 offers easy bending, great durability and a dark tone that many players love. However, it is not without its flaws. The comb itself is quite a basic design, with square edges, and it’s no longer considered a high volume harmonica, if that’s your thing(!)

Hohner Rocket Harmonica
Hohner Rocket Harmonica

Personally, I prefer the Rocket, which is the same basic design as the Special 20 (their reed plates are identical, for one thing) but has a much nicer comb, with softer edges and chambers designed to increase volume. It’s a little more expensive than the Special 20, but the difference is marginal for the more luxurious feel it imparts. This said, if you want country tunings and a full range of keys, the Special 20 is still the harp to buy.

CategoriesHarmonica

432Hz Tuning – What’s all the Fuss?

432Hz Tuning – What’s all the Fuss?

The eagle-eyed of you may have noticed a slightly strange new harmonica on our website  – the Seydel Classic in 432Hz tuning. So, what does this rather long-winded title mean, and should you buy one? Read on and I’ll explain.

What’s a Frequency and Why Does it Matter in Music?

Put simply, a frequency, such as 432Hz is merely the rate at which a sound vibrates through a medium –  in most cases with music, a gas, unless you have a predilection for underwater listening! The Hz figure describes how many cycles the sound produces in the space of a second, so, for instance, a 432hz hum would be vibrating at 432 cycles per second. Western music divides the audible frequency range up into semitones, tones and octaves, usually by starting with a frequency, doubling it to create octaves, then evenly distributing the 11 remaining semitones throughout this octave range. This is known as equal temperament, and is not the only way to create a range of musical notes, but is the basis of tuning for many instruments, including pianos and some harmonicas. There are many other tuning systems, such as compromised (often used on harmonicas) and Pythagorean (rare these days, but more on this later), but they all have one thing in common – the need to define a starting frequency before they can create a stack of notes.

The note used in modern Western music to define the starting frequency has long been A4. This is the A note found on a a piano keyboard immediately above middle C. It is not entirely clear why A4 was chosen for this purpose (and older tuning systems, such as the Pythagorean, use alternative starting points, such as D4), but it may relate to the fact that A is a common open string on orchestral stringed instruments, making tuning to this note easier.

Thus, tuning systems will be described in terms of the frequency given to the note A4, and all other notes will be created by using a system, such as equal temperament, to ascertain their frequencies in relation to this starting point. But who defines the starting point?

A=440Hz

Between the two world wars, a group of influential musicians and physicists decided that the frequency at which orchestras were tuned needed to be standardised. Up until this point there was a whole range of different tuning standards used by various countries. France, for instance, used A4=435hz for much of the 19th Century, whilst other countries went as high as A4=450hz. Eventually, in 1950, the International Organization for Standardisation deemed A4 = 440 as “concert pitch” and this has largely been adhered to since. However, there are many players and musicians who prefer the lower tuning of A=432hz. Let’s examine why this is.

Why do some Musicians Prefer A4=432hz?

There a number of different reasons why some musicians prefer the 432hz tuning standard, ranging from the mystical to the mathematical. It’s worth noting that the origins of both of these schools of thought can be traced back to a single influence – Pythagoras.

Known to most people through his eponymous theorem, Pythagoras’s influence actually extends far beyond geometry; his school of philosophy had a fundamental influence on Christian theology, and he is credited with a system of temperament that is based on D4 =288hz (although the exact origins of this are debatable). It’s interesting to note that the Pythagoran system creates its notes via a system of pure fifths, based on what was seen as a ‘perfect’ ratio – 3/2. Now, the Pythagoreans were obsessed with the notion of the ‘perfect’ world they observed in maths, and the disparities they witnessed between the imperfections of the natural world and the perfections of geometric proofs, for instance, gave rise to the idealism of Plato and his disciples.  A perfect fifth from D4=288hz gives us A=432hz, and a quasi-mystical, quasi-mathematical origin for the A=432hz tuning standard – the Pythagoreans used it! However, it should also be noted that the Pythagorean temperament does not produce many of the intervals used in modern music, such as major and minor thirds and major and minor sixths, so its influence today is, perhaps, overstated.

Another Mathematical Justification

A further maths – based justification for the superiority of A=432hz is related to the Schumann resonance – basically a measure of the spectrum peaks in an extremely low frequency portion of the Earth’s electromagnetic field – known informally as the ‘Earth’s heartbeat’. When you calculate the fundamental frequency of these waves, you reach a figure of 7.83hz, which, when rounded up to 8Hz, can be multiplied exactly into 432Hz, thus endowing the 432Hz tuning system with a vibration that is naturally in tune with the earth’s.

It may not have escaped your notice that this is a somewhat hokey bit of confirmation bias and selective rounding. You may also have noticed that 440hz, which is modern concert pitch, is also divisible exactly by 8Hz!

Other quasi-mathematicalTh justifications centre on numerology (prime number summation and the like) or relationships between the number 432 and the dimensions of celestial objects. Needless to say, cherry picking, coincidence and confirmation bias also play a significant role here, making one wonder if there really is any justification for 432Hz being superior to concert pitch, or, for that matter, any other system of tuning. However, these is one area where academic studies seem to suggest that there might be something in this 432hz business – unlikely as it seems: healing properties!

Does 432Hz Have Healing Properties?

Three studies published in peer reviewed journals, including this paper on the effects of 432Hz on anxiety show statistically significant effects of the tuning on various measures of health and wellbeing of test subjects, both human and animal. Of course, the datasets used in these studies are relatively small, and further research is necessary to fully confirm the findings and determine a causal mechanism, but these initial results do seem to suggest that justifications for 432hz are not wholly without foundation.

Can I Play With Other Musicians in 432Hz Tuning?

The short answer to this question is yes! However, there are a few complexities that mean you may not be thanked by your bandmates if you turn up to a gig with a 432Hz harmonica. Chief among these is that the band will all need to re-tune. 432Hz may not be much lower than the 440Hz that most players typically tune to, but it is enough for you to sound awful if one of you is in the lower tuning and the rest in the higher one. Try using the following online tone generator to produce notes at 440hz then at 432hz – there is a significant difference when switching between the two – something akin to a very flat or sharp vocalist performing a song! Whilst it is relatively easy for instruments such as guitars and basses to tune to 432Hz using a chromatic tuner, pianos and fixed tuning instruments, such as harmonicas, are not so easy to change.

For the same reason, you won’t be able easily to play along to songs or backing tracks apart from in the very unlikely event that the artist to whom you are listening is also utilising a 432Hz tuned instrument. Of course, you can use software applications, such as Audacity, to pitch shift existing music down to 432Hz, but this does introduce a significant new layer of complexity. How much of an issue this is to you is dependent on how much you intend to play along to existing recordings, or to what extent you are willing to play around with music production apps.

What Harmonicas are Available In 432Hz Tuning?

Standard harmonicas are tuned out of the box to somewhere between 440Hz and 443Hz. The higher of these two figures is to allow for a slight decrease in frequency when blowing or drawing hard. Pretty much any harmonica can be tuned down to 432Hz, but this is a fiddly and time consuming job that is best left to professional fettlers.

For out of the box harmonicas, Seydel is the only company to provide 432hz tuning (and, in fact, any tuning from 450Hz down to 432Hz) as an option. This is available on most of its diatonic harmonicas as a custom option, with a slight increase in price to cover the additional work required to produce the harp in 432Hz. The only harps from its current range that do not have 432Hz as an option are the entry level models with brass reeds, such as the Solist Pro and Session Standard.

We currently offer the 1847 Classic on our website, as this tends to be the most popular model from the Seydel range for this tuning. However, should you wish to order any of the available Seydel range in 432Hz, please get in touch – lead time is usually 7 working days, as these would be made to order by Seydel in Germany, and the cost will usually be around £10 – £15 more than the standard model.

 

CategoriesHarmonica

Hohner Special 20 Marine Band and Progressive Series Reed Plate Compatibility

Hohner Special 20 Marine Band and Progressive Series Reed Plate Compatibility

As I mentioned in a previous post, there exist two versions of the Hohner Special 20 – the older Marine Band series harp and the Progressive series model. This can make things slightly confusing when purchasing replacement reed plates, as there are differences that hinder compatibility.

How do I Know Which Special 20 I Own?

This question is pretty easy to answer – if it has ‘Marine Band’ embossed on the top cover plate, as in the picture below, it’s the older style Marine Band Special 20.

marine band special 20

If it has “Progressive’ embossed on the top cover plates then it’s the newer – you guessed it! – Progressive Series model.

What’s the Big Difference?

The Special 20 was moved to the Progressive Series in 2015, and this did make sense; other Marine Band models featured wooden combs, whilst the Special 20 was always an outlier with its recessed reed plates and ABS comb. The only major revision to the harp that wasn’t purely cosmetic was the addition of extra holes to accommodate the Rocket with which it shares a reed plate design. Tone wise, you’d be hard pressed to tell the older and newer harmonicas apart.

Replacing Reed Plates

If you have the older model you can still use the new reed plates (in fact Hohner no longer manufactures Marine Band Special 20 reed plates) you just need the TM99200 screws, which you can order by dropping us an email.

Installation should be no harder than with any other reed plates and you’ll soon have your Marine Band Special 20 back to playing at its best!

JP

CategoriesHarmonica

Hohner Progressive Series Harmonicas – Which One Should I Buy?

Hohner Progressive Series Harmonicas – Which One Should I Buy?

Like many large companies, Hohner sometimes lets its marketing department get a little carried away. Witness the creation of the MS Series, which was a direct reaction to the modular nature of the Lee Oskar range, yet which now includes so much product overlap that it has become bewildering to most customers. I have yet to ascertain, for example, why Hohner created the Juke Harp within this range, when it already has two existing MS models that are virtually identical in construction, and which utilise the same comb and reed plates (namely the Big River and Pro Harp).

Thankfully, the Progressive Series is a little more logical in its range of models. Let’s take a look at them and explain the main differences between the five constituent harmonicas.

Special 20

Hohner Special 20

Originally part of the Marine Band Series, the Special 20 became a Progressive Series harmonica in 2015. Contrary to popular opinion, there were no major changes to the harmonica itself as part of this move; the updates were related only to aesthetics and the position of the screw holes for the reed plates. However, as mentioned in a previous blog post on here, there did seem to be something of a dip in quality across Hohner harmonicas around this time, which may account for people thinking that the Progressive Series changes were responsible for the Special 20 playing and sounding slightly worse.

The good news is that this harp is now back to its best quality wise, and it is now my number one recommendation for players looking for a durable, great sounding harp that is good enough for professional use, but is still remarkably affordable.

One thing to note is that the Special 20 is also available in country tuning – indicated by the letters ‘ct’ engraved on the top cover plate, and a ‘country’ sticker on the box. Country tuning is a modification of Richter, with the 5th draw reed raised a semitone. This is useful for country music, but most players should choose the standard Richter tuned version, which is more suitable for blues and folk styles.

Buy if… You want an inexpensive, durable, German-made harmonica that sounds great for most musical styles.

Don’t buy if… You like the feel and tone of a wood comb; you need minor tunings.

Rocket

Hohner Rocket Harmonica

If you happened to read Hohner’s original marketing material at the launch of the Rocket (no pun intended!) you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hohner had cured cancer and simultaneously brought about wold peace, such was the level of hyperbole. The reality was (and still is) that the Rocket is merely a much nicer, louder version of the Special 20.

The main improvements over the Special 20 are a comb with rounded edges, which is much more pleasant to hold, bigger slots for increased volume, and greater airtightness from the use of additional screws attaching the reed plates to the comb. The latter is, perhaps, the most important feature, making the Rocket more responsive than the Special 20, facilitating bends and overblows.

Buy if… You like the sound and feel of the Special 20, but want a bit more volume and responsiveness.

Don’t buy if… You’re particularly parsimonious, as it costs a little bit more than its stablemate.

Rocket Amp

Hohner Rocket Amp Harmonica

Designed specifically for amplified use, the Rocket Amp shares reed plates, comb design and its basic shape with the standard Rocket; the only differences are the colour of the comb (green) and the lack of side vents, meaning that all of the sound is projected out of the front of the harp. For some reason known only to Hohner, it costs significantly more than the standard Rocket, despite being virtually identical. I guess the guy who makes the non vented cover plates must just be on a higher salary than the one who makes the vented plates!

Buy if… You like the Rocket but play mainly amped up

Don’t buy if… You never use a mic

Rocket Low

Hohner Rocket Low Harmonica

The Rocket Low continues Hohner’s policy of charging a premium for low tuned harmonicas (witness the price difference between the Crossover and Thunderbird, for example). Looks and feel are pretty much identical to the standard Rocket, but everything is an octave or so lower. Unlike Hohner’s Thunderbird, you don’t get fancy asymmetric cover plates to allow more space for the lowest reed plates to vibrate without touching metal, but then again, the Rocket Low isn’t offered in the lowest of keys – just Low C to Low F.

Like all low tuned harmonicas, this is not a harp that will bend easily in the lower range, but that’s not it’s raison d’etre. What you do get is a nice, clear, loud tone that’s far less squeaky at the top end than standard tuned harmonicas.

Buy if… You like deep, bassy harp sounds and don’t need a wide range of keys.

Don’t buy if… You like bending notes all over the place

Golden Melody

Hohner Golden Melody Harp
Hohner Golden Melody Harp

Finally we arrive at the odd one out in the Progressive Series – a strange, 50s Americana- inspired harmonica, which is also the only Hohner diatonic that’s tuned to equal temperament (read more about this here). Many players love this harp, especially for single note playing, but it’s safe to say that its looks have always been a little divisive.

This perhaps explains why Hohner has recently discontinued the Golden Melody, and is due to launch a replacement model with the same name (and temperament), in 2023. Initial expectations are that it will more closely resemble the aesthetics of the other harps in the Progressive range, which should help to improve its popularity.

Buy if… You like playing single note melodies

Don’t buy if… You focus on chords; you dislike the ‘Streamliner’ aesthetic.

CategoriesHarmonica

What is the Best Blues Harmonica?

What is the Best Blues Harmonica?

What is the best blues harmonica?

Harmonicas come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s possible to play some semblance of the blues on virtually any type of harp. However, when most people think of a ‘blues harmonica’ they are generally picturing a ten hole diatonic, usually with a wooden comb, that will closely resemble something like Hohner’s Marine Band. It doesn’t have to be exactly like this, though, and in this article we’ll look at different approaches to the design of a diatonic harp, and how this determines which individual models are more or less suitable for the blues genre.

The first thing to get out of the way is tradition. Just because most of the famous blues harmonica players from the 1950s onwards used versions of the Hohner Marine Band with 7 limit just intonation and unsealed wood combs, it doesn’t mean that this is the ultimate harmonica for playing the blues. Aside from the fact that there are very few extant and still playable harmonicas of this kind, the exact choice of this harmonica by these players was more a case of expediency rather than the instruments themselves having some sort of mystical qualities. There really wasn’t much choice in the harmonica world in the 1950s and 1960s, so players generally played what was readily available.

This said, the Marine Band range is still an excellent starting point for those looking for a blues harmonica. Although it’s tempting to pick the traditional 1896 model from this range, I feel that this particular harmonica does tend to suffer from warping in the long run, making it uncomfortable to play (unless, of course, you’re a very ‘dry’ player, or are meticulous with your cleaning and drying routine). Instead, I would opt for the more expensive, but extremely expressive and similarly styled Crossover. This features a silky smooth and swell-free bamboo comb, but has the same traditional proportions and styling as the original Marine Band.

As mentioned earlier, though, it’s not obligatory to use a wood comb traditional style harmonica for the blues; many more modern designs have ABS or metal combs and still sound great. Examples of these are Hohner’s Special 20, with its plastic comb, and alloy comb varieties like  Seydels’ 1847 Noble and Suzuki’s Promaster. Contrary to popular opinion, comb material makes relatively little difference to tone, and many of the metal comb harps’ tones have been described as ‘warm’ when we’ve completed blind tests. Similarly, whilst many traditionalists favour the sound of brass reeds for blues playing, this hasn’t been borne out when we’ve conducted back to back tests, such as in this video comparing Suzuki models with brass and bronze reeds.

For a raspy and loud harp that lends itself well to blues playing, especially when amplified, I would recommend the Hohner Rocket Amp. This features the same reed plates as the Special 20, but a nicer shaped comb with holes that are designed to produce more volume. The Amp version dispenses with the side vents of the standard Rocket, which means all the sound goes into the mic, helping to overdrive a nice tube amp and giving that classic distorted blues sound.

If you’re willing to shun tradition, and the Richter tuning system entirely, there are several harmonicas that feature alternate tunings that make playing blues licks more intuitive. Hohner’s recent Pentaharp model provides easy access to the pentatonic scale in a way that will make it feel particularly familiar to guitarists. Brendan Power’s PowerBender and PowerDraw tunings (available on his own models and on some Seydel harmonicas) gives easier access to notes that you typically bend in the blues. In a similar vein, Seydel’s Wilde Rock tuning makes guitar-style blues licks much easier to achieve on the harmonica. Whilst some traditionalists will turn their noses up at such tunings, it’s worth remembering that the Richter tuning itself was never designed for blues – it was created originally to facilitate the playing of German ‘oom-pah’ music – and it has some shortcomings, not least of which is that access to full chromaticism via bending isn’t possible without mastering the difficult technique of overblowing.

There are some harmonicas, though, that just won’t be suitable for the blues. Generally, anything with ‘octave’ or ‘tremolo’ in the title will mean that the harp features an extra set of reed plates, tuned an octave lower or slightly higher than the standard reed plates, respectively. This makes bending problematic, even before the different tuning schemes are taken into account, and consequently renders them unsuitable for most blues playing.

As ever, though, the best blues harp is really the one with which you, personally, feel most comfortable when playing the blues.

JP

CategoriesHarmonica

What is the Best Brand of Harmonica?

What is the Best Brand of Harmonica?

Hohner Special 20 Versus Rocket

In almost all sports, areas of interest or hobbies, the question of who or what is the best or greatest is both perennial and ubiquitous. Who’s the greatest Formula 1 driver/footballer/athlete/guitarist? What is the best car? Who’s the best songwriter? These questions can be found on many forums and social media sites, cropping up with surprising regularity and sometimes causing feuds between those of differing opinions that deteriorate into laughably vitriolic arguments over what are ultimately subjective opinions.

The world of harmonicas is no different in this respect, so the question, ‘what is the best brand of harmonica?’ is largely meaningless given the inherent subjectiveness of desirable qualities such as tone and feel. However, it is possible to apply some objective criteria, such as tuning, tuning stability and durability, to this question, and pick out the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

In terms of country of manufacture, Germany and Japan are still, in my opinion, the best. China has some manufacturers, such as Easttop and Kongsheng, that are capable of producing extremely well made harmonicas, but the quality control is not always 100%. There are other Chinese manufacturers, such as Swan, that make harmonicas that every now and again a customer will rave about being exceptionally good for the money, but this opinion will always be balanced by other customers who’ve bought the same harmonica and have been seriously unimpressed.

Brendan Power Paddy Richter

To summarise: Chinese manufacturers have improved dramatically in the last 10 years, but, unlike other areas of Chinese manufacturing, they are still lagging behind the Germans and Japanese.

Looking at the main manufacturers, then, we are left with Hohner, Seydel, Suzuki and Tombo (manufacturer of Lee Oskar) – all of which are based in either Japan or Germany. Some may wish to add Brazilian manufacturer Hering to this list, but both quality and supply have been patchy of late, making it difficult to recommend them.

Seydel 1847 LE170 Harmonica

Choosing a ‘best brand’ from these manufacturers is somewhat akin to deciding whether Gibson or Fender make the better guitars; it is largely a result of personal preference. However, some characteristics do stand out: Suzuki chromatics are outstandingly well made, and represent exceptional value for money; Hohner excels with popular 10 hole diatonics such as the Crossover and Special 20, as does Tombo with its Lee Oskar range; and, lastly, Seydel make exceptionally durable diatonics and chromatics that will sound great for years.

One other thing to note is that Japanese made harps tend to be tuned to equal temperament, whereas German harmonicas are more likely to be in a compromised tuning. This means that those who play mainly single note melodies rather than chords are more likely to favour the purer sound of Japanese harmonica. Conversely, if you prefer to mix chords and single notes, a German made compromise tuning harmonica will provide better results.

All this being said, however, I do have a personal favourite brand. It is a completely subjective opinion, but if I had to choose one brand of harmonica to use for the rest of my life, Suzuki would narrowly edge it, ahead of Seydel and Hohner.

As ever, any questions or comments, please drop us a line in the comments section below.

JP

CategoriesHarmonica Players

What Harmonica Does Bob Dylan Play?

What Harmonica Does Bob Dylan Play?

If you asked the average person in the street to name a famous harmonica player, chances are you’d get one of three answers: Stevie Wonder would probably score highly; older people, especially in the US, might say ‘Junior Wells’; but the most ubiquitous name mentioned would almost certainly be Bob Dylan. The interesting thing about this, of course, is that Dylan is not regarded by many musicians as being a particularly good harmonica player. In some circles, indeed, he’s even regarded as being a terrible harmonica player. So why is is name so inextricably linked with the instrument and what type of harmonica does he actually play?

The link with the harmonica is a fairly obvious one: listen to any of Dylan’s early singles and the instrument forms a prominent part of them – from Mixed Up Confusion through to Subterranean Homesick Blues. It’s not show-off virtuoso solos, but the harmonica complements the songwriting perfectly and forms an integral part of each song – just imagine The Times They Are a Changin’ without the (admittedly simple) harmonica hooks. Conversely, something bluesy and complicated shoehorned in would not add anything; it would only detract from the song.

As for harmonicas, you’ll find for sale various official Bob Dylan Signature Edition harps made by Hohner over the years, but it’s unlikely that you’ll hear these exact instruments on any of Dylan’s recorded material. Rather, almost all of his harmonica work until more recent years will have been done on a Hohner Marine Band. Some enthusiasts take this to mean that the Marine Bands from the 1960s are some sort of mythically great instruments, especially since they were used by almost all of the great harmonica players of the 20th Century, but the truth is much more prosaic; players chose the Marine Band because it was well made, cheap and easily available. There really wasn’t much choice back in those days!

Hohner Bob Dylan Signature Harmonica
Hohner Bob Dylan Signature Harmonica

Later in his career, Dylan also used the Hohner Special 20, but it is the Hohner Blues Harp that he is generally associated with now (and which the latest Signature Edition models are based on). The differences between this model and the Marine Band are extremely minimal – they both share the same thickness of reeds (they’re not thinner on the Blues Harps , as some players erroneously believe) and comb material, and it’s only really the shape of the cover plates that differentiates them. I challenge anyone to successfully differentiate their tone in a blind test.

Hohner Blues Harp MS Harmonica
Hohner Blues Harp MS Harmonica

So, if you want to replicate Dylan’s sound, look for a Marine Band or Blues Harp from Hohner. If you’re happy to spend a bit more than these two harps, the Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover offer similar tone and feel, but with more swell-resistant combs. For Dylan songs that require the use of harmonic and natural minor harps, your only real choice is the Marine Band, as most other harmonicas in these tunings feature plastic rather than pearwood combs, which give a slightly different tone.

 

 

 

 

CategoriesHarmonica

Harmonica Construction and its Effects on Sound and Feel

Harmonica Construction and its Effects on Sound and Feel

The harmonica isn’t a particularly complicated instrument, especially in diatonic form: essentially it’s not much more than two sets of vibrating reeds, a comb and a pair of metal cover plates. This apparent simplicity does, however, belie a wealth of differences between specific models and manufacturers. Let’s take a look at some of these differences and their effects on the sound and feel of the instrument.

Recessed or Sandwiched Comb

Take a look at Hohner’s current Marine Band 1896 Classic and compare it to a Marine Band from 50 or 75 years ago. They don’t look very different, do they? Sure, there are small variations in the the type of wood used for the comb (peachwood was eventually replaced with pearwood) and the cover plate material (nickel plated mild steel versus stainless steel), but the overall design, with two reed plates sandwiching a wood comb, with the edges of the plates exposed, is essentially identical. And this is the way all diatonic harmonicas were constructed for many years. Then, along came the Hohner Special 20, and everything changed.

The main innovation featured on the Special 20 is the injection moulded comb. This makes it completely swell resistant, but, perhaps more importantly, allows for greater manipulation of the shape of the comb than can be achieved with wood. This opened up the possibility of recessing the reed plates into the comb itself, resulting in a much smoother mouthpiece than traditional sandwich style harmonicas. In practical terms, this makes it easier to move quickly around the harmonica, with less irritation of the lips and, as a beneficial side effect, allows the harmonica to be more beard-friendly.

Of course, some players dispute the validity of these benefits; a quick search on any of the main harmonica forums will yield plenty of comments from players extolling the virtues of sandwich harps, and decrying those who claim that they’re harder or less comfortable to play. From a personal point of view, I do find the smooth surface of a Special 20 or Session Steel to be much quicker than, say, a Marine Band, but this can be partially obviated by disassembly of the harp, followed by careful positioning of the reed plates so that they are more flush with the comb. As ever, you pay your money and…you know the rest.

Vents or no Vents

Side vents on the cover plates are a feature of many harmonicas, including the Hohner Marine Band and Big River and the Suzuki Manji. In theory, they should allow more acoustic volume, but this is somewhat debatable; a quick, and wholly unscientific test with a Fender Blues Deville, a noise meter and some tape to block the side vents, revealed that there was very little difference in volume with them blocked or open. However, it does appear to have a small influence on tone: with the vents open the harmonica was brighter; with closed the vents it had a more muted, darker tone.

Of course, it’s possible to block and unblock the vents with your hands whilst playing, which you could argue makes a vented harmonica more appealing, as it provides the player with more potential to add colour to their performance. However, some players – especially those with smaller hands – may find this technique difficult or impossible. My advice is to try both types and see whether you have a preference.

Comb Material

I’ve already covered comb material in a previous post, which you can find here, but it’s worth summarising some of the findings from that article. In short, alloy combs are brighter, unsealed pearwood combs have what many players would describe as the ‘best’ sound, albeit with the attendant disadvantages of the wood swelling, and plastic sits somewhere in the middle.

Ultimately, comb material has a fairly small influence on overall tone; the reeds, and, most significantly, the player, will have a far greater effect on the final sound than whether it is fitted with a wood, alloy or plastic comb.

Reeds

Unlike combs and cover plates, there’s a fairly small range of materials that are suitable for producing reeds with. Most manufacturers use brass, although Suzuki, and some of the more expensive harps from Chinese manufacturers such as Easttop, use phosphor bronze, and Seydel uses stainless steel for all but a small number of its harmonicas.

There is plenty of (often conflicting) anecdotal evidence about the relative advantages and disadvantages of specific reed materials, but few hard facts. In my experience, having sold thousands of harmonicas from all of the major players, phosphor bronze and stainless steel reeds usually last longer than brass reeds. I say ‘usually’, because there will always be a story on the harp forums of one player who blew out a stainless steel or phosphor bronze reed in the first two minutes of using their new harp. The moral here, is that some players just ask too much of their instrument too quickly, and no currently available material will be a panacea for that sort of abuse.

Tone differences are less debatable; stainless steel reeds are usually brighter sounding than brass, with phosphor bronze sitting somewhere in the middle.

As ever, try a few harps out and see which ones best fit your own personal preferences.

Jonathan Prestidge

 

CategoriesHarmonica

Top 5 Chromatic Harmonicas

Top 5 Chromatic Harmonicas

Chromatic harmonicas may not be as popular as their diatonic siblings, but there’s still a large variety of makes and models available. In this article we choose our top 5 chromatic harmoncias, across a range of price points.

1. Hohner CX12

Hohner CX12 Black Harmonica
Hohner CX12 Black Harmonica

The CX12’s looks may not be to everyone’s tastes – harmonica players are often traditionalists when it comes to aesthetics, after all – but there are no doubts about its ergonomics or tone. The plastic casing is lip-friendly and is designed to enable tool-free removal of the reed plate/comb module for cleaning and general maintenance.

Skeptics may point to the extensive use of ABS in the CX12’s construction as a sign that the tone would be inferior to a wood/metal harmonica, but a quick play soon dispels any of these reservations. The CX12 has a smooth, clear and deep sound that belies its appearance.

2. Seydel Symphony 64

Seydel Symphony ACRYL Grand Chromatic Harmonica
Seydel Symphony ACRYL Grand Chromatic Harmonica

The Symphony 64 is Seydel’s top line chromatic harmonica and has a number of features that really make it stand out from the crowd. Two versions are available – ACRYL and ALU – which differ in their comb material (acrylic and alloy, respectively) and mouthpiece profile. Both are supplied with a heatable hard case, which is designed to ensure that the Symphony is at the ideal temperature for playing immediately prior to use.

In common with the majority of Seydel’s harmonicas, the Symphony 64 features German silver reed plates with stainless steel reeds. These provide a clear and bright tone and are exceptionally durable.

It may be fairly expensive, but the Symphony 64 outperforms some very high end harmonicas that are almost double its price.

3. Suzuki SCX-48

Suzuki Chromatix SCX-48 Harmonica
Suzuki Chromatix SCX-48 Harmonica

Suzuki’s SCX-48 is one of the first harmonicas to which we direct customers who are seeking a professional level chromatic without wishing to break the bank. Build quality is second to none and the phopshor bronze reeds combine exceptional responsiveness with a sweet tone and superb durability. An absolute bargain in all of its iterations (12, 14 and 16 holes, denoted by the 48, 56 and 64 suffixes, respectively).

4. Hohner Discovery 48

Hohner Discovery 48 Harmonica
Hohner Discovery 48 Harmonica

Although the £100 price point will get you a very high end diatonic, chromatics are more complex, and thus, more expensive, beasts, meaning that this is really the entry point for a quality German or Japanese made instrument. Thankfully, Hohner’s Discovery 48 is a real bargain, coming in at just under three figures. Reed plates are shared with the long-running Chromonica 48, but the Discovery differs in that it utilises a plastic comb and bolted, rather than nailed construction. These differences, in our eyes at least, make the Discovery the better harmonica, despite its being considerably cheaper than the Chromonica. Changing reed plates and general cleaning is much easier without having to deal with nails, and the plastic comb is completely swell resistant.

Several customers have bought Discoveries as spares to be used when they have problems with their main, far more expensive chromatics, but have found that they actually love the sound and feel of this moderately priced harp.

5. Hohner Amadeus

Hohner Amadeus Harmonica
Hohner Amadeus Harmonica

The Amadeus is the most expensive harmonica on this list, at close to four figures, but it is widely regarded as one of the world’s best chromatic harmonicas, and the equal of instruments like the uber-pricy Silver concerto, which are many times its price.

Browse the internet and harmonica forums for reviews of harps and you’ll often find a range of opinions. Some harmonicas will be described as amazing and awful by two different players. The Amadeus is, perhaps, unique in that there are no dissenters; all reviews are unanimous in their praise for this instrument.

Jonathan Prestidge