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

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

 

 

 

 

 

CategoriesHarmonica

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?

History

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