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!



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.


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.


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.



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.


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.






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.


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



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







Hohner Special 20 Versus Rocket

Hohner Special 20 Versus Rocket

Hohner Special 20 Versus Rocket
Hohner Special 20 Versus Rocket

Hohner has a rather bewildering array of harmonicas in its range, many of which seem remarkably similar to each other. In this post we’re going to look at the Hohner Rocket, and the Special 20; both harmonicas that are ostensibly very similar and seem to occupy the same space in the market. So, what are the differences, and which one is better for you?


The Special 20 has been around for many years now, and was the first production diatonic harmonica with an ABS comb, obviating the problems associated with harmonicas like the Marine Band whose combs had an aversion to water similar to that of the Wicked Witch of the West.

The Special 20 occupied a rather awkward position in the Marine Band range for much of its life, given that its modern design had little in common with siblings like the 1896 Classic. Hohner eventually moved it to the Progressive range in 2014, alongside the new Rocket, Rocket Amp and Golden Melody lines, to much wailing from harmonica traditionalists who asserted that the new Progressive Special 20 was inferior to the old Marine Band model. In reality, the only change was the addition of a couple of screw holes to the reed plates in order to make them interchangeable with those of the Rocket (more on this later), but this simple truth hasn’t prevented many players perpetuating the myth that Progressive Series Special 20s are inferior to their predecessors in some obvious, but apparently unquantifiable ways. I suspect that the origin of this myth lies in a dip in build quality during early production runs of the Progressive Series Special 20s.

Differences and Similarities

Remove the Rocket from the confusingly-similar-to-a-Special 20 packaging and you’ll find a harmonica that shares the Special 20s external dimensions. The main differences are slightly larger holes in the comb, which are designed to create greater volume, a matte grey comb with rounded edges, which feels more expensive than the rather cheap looking shiny item on the Special 20, and a vent on the each side of the cover plates.

Open up the harp and there are fewer differences. The reed plates are fundamentally identical to those in the Special 20 (to the extent that Rocket reed plates will fit Special 20 harps); the only significant difference is the addition of extra holes on the Rocket reed plates, which are all utilised by the harp itself. The result is greater air tightness, as the Rocket is held together in a greater number of places.

Despite these small differences, the wholesale price of the Rocket reed plates is around 10% more than the Special 20 ones, which is reflected in the retail pricing. I’ve yet to ascertain the reasoning behind this, other than the fact that drilling the additional screw holes incurs some additional costs.

The comb itself has the same dimensions as the Special 20, but the rear cover plate support posts are beefier, to help mitigate against potential crushing.

The main effect of all of these changes is to produce a brighter sounding, and much louder, harmonica than the Special 20. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if acoustic volume is important to you, the Rocket should be at the top of your list of potential harmonicas.

In other respects it remains identical to the Special 20 – bends are easy (perhaps even easier for beginners, as the holes are slightly bigger and make hitting single notes a simpler affair when starting out) and the general tone is bright and clear.

Which One Should I Buy?

For most players the Rocket is the better choice. It’s only slightly more expensive than the Special 20, but has a nicer feel in the hands, is louder and a little more airtight and durable.

Of course, the Special 20 is still a great harmonica, and if you’re on a tight budget and want a complete set of harmonicas the savings over the Special 20 become more significant. It’s also worth noting that, unlike the Rocket, the Special 20 is available in country tunings, although the Rocket fights back by having low tuning options that are not available for the Special 20.

As ever, feel free to ask questions in the comments section below.

Jonathan Prestidge



Top 10 Diatonic Harmonicas

Top 10 Diatonic Harmonicas

10 hole diatonic harps are the most popular type of harmonica, and can be used to play a wide variety of musical genres, from jazz, through to folk and rock. Here, in no particular order, is our top 10:

1. Hohner Special 20

Hohner Special 20

This is the harmonica that I recommend to customers who ask me the question ‘What harmonica should I start off with?’ The reasons? – it’s easy to play, bends well, is durable, thanks to an ABS comb that doesn’t swell, and it’s good enough for professional use yet costs only £30. One of the best value to performance harmonicas on the market, and a great instrument for all levels of player.

2. Hohner Crossover

Hohner Marine Band Crossover Harmonica

Many players will make a case for the Marine Band Classic to be included in this list, but, for me, its flaws outweigh its undoubtedly great tone and playability. Instead, I’d recommend the Hohner Crossover, which comes from the Marine Band range and shares many of the older harp’s features, but has none of its disadvantages.

So, you get a bamboo comb, which gives a tone that’s very much classic Marine Band, but with none of the older harp’s swelling issues. The reeds are higher quality than the 1896 model, too, and the bolted construction ensures that it’s much easier to take care of, and change reed plates when the time comes to do so.

3. Seydel 1847 Lightning

Seydel 1847 Lightning Harmonica

The Lightning is a new harmonica from Seydel, but it is based on the successful 1847 design. The main difference between the Lightning and the other 1847 models is its stainless steel comb and hardware. This results in a bright and lively tone, with great expressiveness and with a bombproof feel in the hands; if you like a heavy and super durable harp, this should be at the top of your list.

4. Suzuki Manji

Suzuki Manji Diatonic Harp

Suzuki’s composite comb is the standout feature of the Manji. It provides the tone and feel of wood with the swell resistance and general durability of plastic or metal. Combined with phosphor bronze reeds and a tuning that is close to equal temperament this gives a long lasting and sweet sounding harmonica that easily stands up to comparison with Hohner‘s Crossover and Seydel’s 1847 range.

5. Brendan Power Powerbender

Alternate Tunings for Harmonicas

Alternative harmonica tunings have been around for decades now, but few work as well for general blues riffs and bending as Brendan’s Powerbender tuning. You can specify many of Seydel’s harps with this tuning, but a less expensive route in, for those who want to experiment with a Powerbender, is to buy one of Brendan’s own harps. These come in two designs, one built by Easttop and the other by Kongsheng, and both retail for under £30. Having played both models, I generally prefer the Kongsheng version, which resembles the love-child of a Special 20 and a Session Steel, and is surprisingly loud and easy to bend on.

6. Suzuki Pure Harp

Suzuki Pure Harp Diatonic Harmonica

Rosewood has been a common material for guitar fretboards for decades, but Suzuki is the only manufacturer to find a use for it in harmonicas. The result is an admittedly expensive harmonica that has a rich and full tone, thanks to its rosewood cover plates and comb.

Unfortunately, due to CITES restrictions on the international trade in rosewood, Pure Harps have recently switched to Hawaiian Koa, which has similar tonal properties, and is also an exotic wood, but is lighter in colour and not subject to restrictions. I’ve yet to play one of these new models, but I’m hopeful that they will be just as good as the original.

7. Lee Oskar Diatonic Range

Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Harmonica

Lee Oskar, in collaboration with Tombo of Japan, created the first modular diatonic range (aped later by Hohner with the MS line), and they remain some of the most popular harmonicas on the market. It’s easy to see why, too: a wide range of keys and tunings, relatively inexpensive replacement reed plates, durable plastic combs, interchangeability of parts between models, and an easy-playing, easy to bend personality.

Many players seem to view the Special 20 and Lee Oskar Major Diatonic as some sort of focal point for a culture war – you’re either a Special 20 or a Lee Oskar fan, never a fan of both! The truth is, though, that they’re remarkably similar; the Hohner has, perhaps, a little more longevity to its reeds, whilst the Lee Oskar is easier to bend and comes in a wider variety of keys and tunings. Our advice is to try both!

8. Seydel Session Steel

Seydel Session Steel Blues Mouth Organ

I have to declare an interest here, as this is the harp I most often play myself. It’s simple, has a clear tone with medium volume, lasts for ages, thanks to its stainless steel reeds and doesn’t catch the hairs on my beard like some harmonicas do. What more could you want?

9. Hohner Golden Melody

Hohner Golden Melody Harp

This is a somewhat overlooked harmonica, perhaps due to its 1950s ‘Streamliner’ aesthetic being at odds with its sound and feel. This is a shame, as underneath the retro exterior is a really nice harmonica, and, incidentally, the only current Hohner diatonic that’s tuned to equal temperament, making it great for melody lines. Try one and see what you’re missing!

10. Suzuki Promaster

Suzuki Promaster Harp MR-250
Suzuki Promaster Harp MR-250

The Promaster comes in a few forms, but it’s the standard model that offers the best value. In fact, it’s remarkably well priced for a harp with an alloy comb from a major manufacturer. If you like the clean, bright sound of this type of harp, the Promaster is easily the least expensive route in; equivalent Hohners and Seydels can cost nearly double!

Addendum – Why Isn’t X, Y and Z on this List?

Although this top 10 is somewhat subjective, I’ve played and sold enough harmonicas over the years to know what works well, what lasts and what offers the best performance at a given price point, so there is some objective reasoning here as well as personal preference. Most harps that didn’t make the cut were ones that had a close relative that edged them out in performance. A Pro Harp is a nice harmonica, for instance, but it’s slightly more money than a Special 20 and offers no perceivable advantages, unless you’re really fixated with the black and gold aesthetics.

As ever, let us know what you think in the comments.

Jonathan Prestidge


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.


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:


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.