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.



Alternate Tunings for Harmonicas – Why You Should Give Them a Try

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut as a musician. Guitarists often find themselves noodling around the minor pentatonic scale, pianists sometimes find it difficult to move away from their classical training, and drummers frequently bang out the same rhythm again and again (although not always at the same tempo (forgive me for the obvious drummer joke!)).

Harmonica players are no different. In fact, given the limitations of a 10 hole Richter-tuned harp, the average harpist often struggles to venture beyond standard blues licks.

It doesn’t have to be like this, though. There is a wide range of alternate tuning harps out there that can transform your playing from middle of the road to Middle East, and everything in between. Let’s look at a few options.

Minor Tunings

Minor tunings are available in some popular diatonics – the Marine Band and Lee Oskar harps being the most obvious choices. Slightly confusingly, there are two main types of minor tuning – harmonic minor and natural minor (we’ll leave the melodic minor for another day, as it’s not particularly relevant to harp players).

The natural minor tuning is the one that sounds most familiar to Western ears (although anyone who has been classically trained as a pianist will, through learning scales, probably be more familiar with the harmonic minor).

Natural minor keys share exactly the same notes as their relative major. A simple example is the key of C major , which, on a piano, is all of the white notes, and whose relative natural minor – A natural minor – is also (you guessed it) all of the white notes. The only difference is that the tonic (in simple terms, the first note of the scale of the key) is different. For C major the tonic is C, while for A natural minor the tonic is A.

What does this mean for your harp playing, though? Well, for one thing, natural minor tunings provide easy access to the notes you want when playing songs written in minor keys. You may think at this point, “Why don’t I just use my C major harp to play in A natural minor, if all of the notes are the same?” You’d be correct in thinking you’d have access to all of the notes, but the fact that you’d be playing in 4th position to achieve this means that many of the bends you’d probably need wouldn’t be available.

The close relative of the natural minor is the harmonic minor. Most of the notes are shared in both keys, but the harmonic minor raises the 7th scale degree by one semitone. Let’s look at an example:

A natural minor: A, B, C, D, E, F, G

A harmonic minor: A, B, C, D, E, F, G#

This raised 7th has quite a dramatic effect on the feel of your playing, giving it a marked Eastern feel.

Bend Facilitators

There are a number of tunings that I categorise as ‘bend facilitators’, as they don’t have any influence on the fundamental key of the harmonica, but instead rearrange the note pattern to provide access to the notes that you want to bend in places where you are physically able to bend them.

The two most popular tunings of this kind are Powerbender and Powerdraw; both tunings developed by Brendan Power, but available on harps from a Seydel, as well as Brendan’s own models.

Powerbender tuning places the notes that you really need to bend in places where you can easily bend them on the draw. As you can see from the note patterns below, holes 1-4 are the same as Richter, but from 5-10 there are considerable differences, enabling useful draw bends throughout the harp’s range.

You’ll also notice that the available standard notes are the same in both tunings – Powerbender doesn’t alter the key, only the pattern of notes.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 -----------------------------
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | -----------------------------

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 -----------------------------
blow: |C |E |G |C |D |F |A |C |E |A |
draw: |D |G |B |D |E |G |B |D |G |C | -----------------------------

Powerdraw is something of an amalgam of Richter and Powerbender, maintaining the note pattern of the former for holes 1-6, but using the Powerbender layout for holes 7-10. This gives a more traditional feel in the lower range of the harmonica whilst providing access to more useful draw bends in the upper range.

Melody Maker and Paddy Richter Tuning

These tunings, like Powerbender and Powerdraw, rearrange the note pattern on the harmonica rather than fundamentally changing the key. Unlike Powerbender and Powerdraw, though, they do this not to facilitate bends, but to allow certain types of melodies to be played more easily.

As the name implies, Paddy Richter is designed to facilitate the playing of traditional Irish music. Melody Maker, in comparison, is more suited to Standards and other single note melodies that don’t require blues style bending.

Country Tuning

Country tuning is a variation of Richter, but with the 5th hole draw reed raised a semitone. This provides easy access to the Major 7th scale, which is often used in traditional country music.

Wilde Rock

Designed by Will Wilde to enable the harmonica to play rock-style guitar licks, this tuning is currently only available on Seydel harmonicas. Holes 1-5 are the same as Richter, whilst holes 6-10 are significantly modified in order to give access to a different note pattern on the draw bends.

What Harmonicas are Available in Alternate Tunings?

Here’s a list of all of the harmonicas that we are able to supply in alternate tunings:

Powerbender: Brendan Power Lucky 13, Brendan Power Powerbender, Seydel Session Steel

Powerdraw: Brendan Power Lucky 13, Brendan Power Powerdraw, Seydel Session Steel

Harmonic Minor: Hohner Marine Band, Seydel Session Steel, Lee Oskar

Natural Minor: Hohner Marine Band, Seydel Session Steel, Lee Oskar, Suzuki Manji

Melody Maker: Lee Oskar, Seydel Session Steel

Paddy Richter: Brendan Power Lucky 13, Seydel Session Steel

Country: Hohner Special 20, Seydel Session Steel

Wilde Rock: Seydel Session Steel

Seydel are able to custom tune most of their range of harmonicas to any tuning that you want. If this is of interest to you, please get in contact with us to discuss your requirements.

As ever, any questions or comments, just drop me a line, or post on this blog.




How Much Difference do Comb Materials Make to the Sound of your Harmonica?

How Much Difference do Comb Materials Make to the Sound of your Harmonica?

Musicians are often obsessed with the materials used in their instruments and how they affect tone. For years I was convinced that the high density of the wood used for my Telecaster’s body was the key to its sustain. That was until I played some very light Fender Custom Shop guitars that reside at our sister company, Coffeehouse Guitars, and realised that this hypothesis was entirely incorrect.

In a similar vein, much has been written about the materials used in harmonica combs, and how these influence tone and feel. Conventional wisdom posits that wood has the warmest sound, and metal the brightest. In recent years, however, many harmonica players have suggested that differences in tone between harps are more a consequence of their overall design than comb material. Pat Missin has written an interesting article on the subject here.

The truth, however, seems to lie somewhere in the middle. Let me explain: We’ve been offering the Andrew Zajac custom combs for some time now. They’re very flat combs, made from a wood/resin composite that is extremely durable, water resistant and purports to have a tone that is similar to unsealed pearwood. Many customers use them to replace swollen Marine Band combs, but they’re available for a wide range of other harmonicas, including Hohner’s MS Series harps.

As an experiment, we thought we’d try replacing the alloy comb on a Meisterklasse diatonic (Hohner’s top end MS Series harp), with a Zajac comb. The Meisterklasse is known to have a very bright tone, with average volume levels. We reasoned that if comb material made a substantial difference then we would be able to notice a change in tone immediately.

The results were marked, and in some ways unexpected. First, it was considerably louder with the Zajac comb installed. Andrew’s combs are known to be the flattest in the business, so air tightness may be one of the reasons for this. That said, though, the standard Meisterklasse comb is an exquisite piece of detailed machining, and I’d expect it to be as air tight as any production harmonica comb.

Perhaps of more interest was the tone. It now sounded more like a Marine Band, or perhaps a Crossover, but with better response and a bit more volume. Given that these are advertised as giving the sound of unsealed pearwood, this, is perhaps, unsurprising. What was surprising, though, was the degree of difference in tone between the two combs, when all else remained equal.

Of course, there are some caveats here. This wasn’t a blind test, and there may be an element of confirmation bias creeping in. The possible improved flatness of the Zajac comb may also have had an influence on the volume and responsiveness of the harp. Ultimately, though, to my ears there was an appreciable change in tone.

As ever, drop me a line or post a comment if you have any thoughts or questions.



Harmonica Tunings Explained – Low Tunings and Range

Harmonica Tunings Explained – Low Tunings and Range

We’ve examined keys, tunings and playing positions in previous posts, but it recently occurred to me that some players, especially beginners, can be confused by specific pitch designations when buying a harmonica. Questions like ‘is a G harp lower than a C harp?’ or what’s a “Low Low F?’ crop up with surprising regularity in my job, so perhaps it’s time to look at the key naming conventions and try to achieve some clarity.

Let’s look first at a 10 hole Richter-tuned diatonic in C. The first hole blow note will be C4. To put this into a more easily visualised context, C4 is also known as middle C, and is found very close to the middle of most piano keyboards. The 10th hole blow note will also be a C, but it will be 3 octaves higher, making it a C7. It’s interesting to note that C7 is considerably above the upper range of a soprano, so we’re talking about a fairly high note here!

Taking C as our starting point, we can then visualise the relative positions of all of the standard keys: Db, D, Eb, E, F and F# are all higher than C (ie, with their lowest note to the right of middle C on a piano keyboard), whilst G, Ab, A, Bb and B are all lower than C (ie to the left of middle C on a piano keyboard).

Now we know the relative pitches of the standard keys, we can examine the high and low keys that fit on the extremities. High G is the only high key typically encountered, and this occupies a slightly squeaky place one semitone above standard F#. The low keys start with Low F#, which, given that F# is close to the highest standard tuning, and Low F# is an octave below this, means that it’s not strikingly low in pitch, being around half an octave lower than standard C. This explains, perhaps, why Low Low F, which is a further octave lower in pitch, is available in many low tuned harmonicas.

So, in order of pitch, from highest to lowest, the keys look like this: Low F#, Low F, Low Eb, Low D, Low Db, Low C, Low B, Low Bb, Low A, Low Ab, Low G, Low Low F.

It’s worth noting that the lower the pitch of the harmonica, the harder it is to bend notes effectively. The reasons for this are quite complex and relate both to the greater mass of the lower tuned reeds and to some complicated physics theory involving resonance, which is somewhat beyond the scope of this article! Just be aware, though, that you’re unlikely to be able to do the same sort of bending on a Low Low F harp as you can easily achieve on one tuned to standard C.


So, why would you want a low tuned harmonica if they make bending harder? The reasons are multiple, but perhaps the most common use for a low tuning harp is for playing along with a guitar, either in a band or a solo situation. E is a popular key for guitar-based pieces, but a standard E harp is rather on the high side when accompanying in first position. Low E, in comparison, has a deeper, richer sound, and is not so low as to make bending off limits.

Similarly, many bands detune a semitone or a tone in order to suit the vocal range of the singer. This is where Low F# and Low F harps come in, for the reasons listed above.

Of course, some players just like the sound and depth of a low tuned harp, or want to occupy a lower frequency range in the mix than traditional tunings.

Makes and Models

Now we’ve got an understanding of the relative pitches and uses of low tuned harps, it’s time to examine our options in terms of manufacturers and models. Seydel, Suzuki, Hohner and Lee Oskar all make low tuned harmonicas, although the range does vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Seydel has, perhaps the largest range, with low tunings being available for most of its 10 hole diatonic harmonicas. The least expensive is the Session Standard, which is a great entry point for any player looking to dip their toes into the waters of low tunings. At the top end are the 1847 harps, which share the same construction and great tone as their standard tuned counterparts, but are available in a complete range of low tunings.

Our pick of the bunch, though, due to its offering the most bang for the buck, is the Session Steel, which features extremely durable stainless steel reed plates and is available in all of the popular low keys.

Hohner’s low tuning range is restricted to two main harmonicas; the Rocket Low and the Thunderbird. The Rocket Low is part of the Progressive Series (which also features the Special 20) and is essentially a low tuned version of the standard Rocket – basically a louder Special 20. The Thunderbird, in comparison, is a low tuned Crossover, so shares its bamboo comb and is positioned at a similarly premium pricepoint. Both are great sounding and playing harmonicas, so your choice is really a question of personal preference and budget.

Suzuki offers low F as a key for many of its harmonicas, but it is only the Manji that is available in a full range of low tunings. This has a wood/resin hybrid comb, which is perfect for players who like the sound and feel of a wooden comb, but want the durability and swell resistance of plastic.

Lee Oskar has recently introduced a full range of low keys in its major diatonic range. It’s worth noting that he new low tuning reed plates are compatible with any of the Lee Oskar harps, so if you have an old Lee Oskar harmonica sitting in a drawer you can upgrade to a low tuning one just by purchasing a set of reed plates.

What if you want to be able to play very low notes, but not sacrifice the upper range, though? Luckily there is a harp for you in the form of the Brendan Power Lucky 13. These feature a standard tuning pattern (Richter, Paddy Richter, Powerdraw or Powerbender) on holes 4-13, with a low tuned octave on the additional holes 1-3. They sound great and are decent value considering you’re effectively getting two harps for the price of one!

As ever, let us know if you have any questions.



Some Musical Theory – Temperament and Why it Matters

Some Musical Theory – Temperament and Why it Matters

If you’ve been playing for a while, chances are that you’ll have come across the terms ‘equal temperament’ or ‘just intonation’. Those of you of with classical training in one instrument or another may even dimly recall what these terms mean. Others may be rapidly moving towards the back button on their browsers, but please bear with me – you may find some of what I’m about to write useful!

So, What on Earth is Temperament?

The human ear (and that of many other mammals) perceives notes played exactly an octave apart (ie where one note has double the frequency of the other) as being essentially the same, except for one being higher or lower  in pitch than the other. When we divide octaves into smaller intervals we encounter an issue, however. If we use the circle of pure fifths to create our intervals – that is to say, we define a gap of five notes as having a 3/2 frequency relationship with the preceding note, then create the next note by moving a pure fifth from there, and so on, we don’t, at the end of our cycle, reach a higher pitch version of the first note with which we started. The note we actually reach at the expected end of our cycle will, in fact, be slightly out of tune with the first note with which we started. This is called the spiral of fifths, and taken to its ultimate conclusion (albeit one that veers towards reductio ad absurdum) would result in an infinite number of different notes/frequencies.

So, if we started on C, we would eventually end up, 12 steps later, at B#, which in tempered tunings would coincide with C (more on this later) but in this case doesn’t, due to the mathematical impossibility of fitting a stack of 3:2 intervals (pure fifths) exactly within a stack of 2:1 intervals (octaves). In fact, it is around a quarter of a semitone higher. The compromise made by the first major tuning system – Pythagorean tuning  – was to use eleven pure fifths and one slightly lower fifth, known, strangely, as the ‘wolf’ interval.

Pythagorean – Isn’t That All About Triangles?

The Pythagoreans were an ancient Greek school of philosophy that had an obsession with maths and its relationship to the world around them. This obsession led them to investigate the relationship between musical intervals and mathematical ratios, as well as a whole host of other areas relating to geometry. This is where we get the two ratios of an octave (2:1) and a pure fifth (3:2) from; ratios that fitted perfectly with the notion of harmony, which was central to the Pythagorean’s view of the world. Unfortunately, these ratios also conspired to cause the musical issues outlined above.

It’s interesting to note, at this point, that the pure fifth is the most consonant note, other than the octave, when sounded with the root note. The keys a pure fifth apart also have the strongest relationships with each other in terms of notes used (C Major and G Major, for example, share all but F# and F, respectively).

Because of the wolf interval in Pythagorean tuning, whilst keys that avoid this interval sound fine, keys that include it sound pretty terrible. It’s also worth pointing out that the thirds created by the Pythagorean circle of pure fifths are significantly higher than we are used to today. In fact, they are quite dissonant, which explains why they were used sparingly in music of the medieval period, when the Pythagorean system was the status quo.

The Birth of Thirds

Despite these difficulties, the Pythagorean tuning system laboured on all the way from classical civilisation, through the Dark Ages, to the early 16th Century. Around this time harmony began to be more important in music, which meant that the compromises of the old tuning system, especially in respect of thirds, needed to be addressed.

The answer, for a short while, at least, was the mean tone system, which constructed its intervals around the pure third, resulting in that interval being pleasingly harmonious, albeit at the expense of the fifth, which was now noticeably smaller than a pure fifth. The other downside was the continued existence of wolf intervals.

‘Just’ a Minute

Which brings us to the first tuning system, albeit in modified form, that you might have encountered in the harmonica world – ‘just intonation’ (apologies for the terrible pun in the sub heading!)

Just intonation creates pure thirds and fifths, then fits the remaining notes in by making the ratios between frequencies of the higher notes in the series progressively smaller. The result is that just intonation is not suitable for modulation between keys on instruments where small adjustments to the tuning on the fly cannot be made. So, the human voice can easily accommodate just intonation; the piano can’t.

The diatonic harmonica, by its nature, is tuned to a specific key, be it C, F#, A, etc. This could lead you to think that just intonation might be feasible in this context. However, this doesn’t take account of the use of positions other than first, or the need to modulate.

Many modern harmonicas, including the current Special 20 and Marine Band, use a modified version of just, called ‘compromised just’. This, as the name suggests, is a compromise tuning that attempts to reconcile the purity of chords provided by just intonation, with the ability to play in different keys and with equal tempered instruments (for example, the piano).

Marine Band and Progressive models utilise a compromise tuning that is slightly closer to pure just intonation than the compromise tuning used by MS Series harps, which veer slightly closer to equal temperament. The differences, however, are relatively small. The 10 hole Golden Melody, in comparison, is the only current German made Hohner diatonic harp to be tuned to equal temperament, making it more suited to melody lines than chords. Interestingly, most Japanese diatonic harmonicas, including those from Suzuki and Tombo/Lee Oskar, are also tuned to equal temperament. Seydels, in comparison, use a compromised just tuning that is similar to MS Series harps.

Equal What?

Equal temperament simplifies things by making the octave the only pure pure interval. It is then divided into twelve equally spaced half steps, making a major third slightly larger than a pure major third and a major fifth slightly smaller than a pure major fifth. The resultant small differences in intervals relative to pure ones means that, although chords are not ‘pure’ in the same way as they can be in other systems, there are no glaring wolf intervals, and modulation between any key is possible without dissonance.

The downside, of course, is that there is a widespread low level of dissonance throughout most of our notes. This would probably sound terrible to pre-18th Century listeners, but to modern day ears the effect has been deadened significantly by equal temperament having been the dominant tuning system for at least the last 150 years; we simply have no point of comparison, and have become used to the tuning.

Equal temperament should not be confused with the various well tempered systems that were popular in the 18th Century. When Bach wrote his collection of pieces entitled The Well Tempered Clavier, he was not referring to an equal tempered instrument. Well temperaments were designed to make every key usable on a single instrument by staying as close to pure intervals as possible without creating any significant wolf intervals. This does not, however, mean that a well tempered harpsichord, for example, will have equal sounding keys; whilst a piece played on all keys on a well tempered instrument will sound pleasing in each one, it will not sound exactly the same.

You may have heard the more pretentious variety of musician talk about ‘bright’ keys, like C Major, or ‘triumphant’ ones like D Major. In the 18th Century musicians composed long lists of the supposed attributes of each key, but this was primarily because each key did sound different in a well tempered system. With equal temperament it is hard to envision how a simple relative change in pitch of the key could have any effect on feel of the piece of music, given that the intervals between notes are identical irrespective of the key. When we talk about key colour or feel, we are really just holding on to the legacy of a tuning system that has long been marginalised.

The main thing to take home from this post is that small differences in tuning can have an impact on your playing. For most uses, compromised just tuning will allow you to play chords and melodies with no striking issues. If, however, you only ever play single note lines, an equal tempered harmonica, such as the Golden Melody or Lee Oskar, may suit your needs best, especially in band situations.

As ever, let us have any questions or comments.

Jonathan Prestidge










How Difficult is it to Learn the Harmonica? – Part 2

How Difficult is it to Learn the Harmonica?  – Part 2

Musical instruments are hard to play well. This applies to almost any instrument beyond the most basic percussive devices. Whilst this may not be a particularly motivational sentiment for an article on the difficulty of learning the harmonica, please bear with me – I promise things will get more encouraging further on!

Learning Curve

One of the initial issues when starting to play any instrument is that the learning curve is usually much steeper than expected. This is, I think, partly a consequence of seeing the apparent ease with which a competent musician will play their instrument; replicating this as a beginner appears simple until you actually try to do it, which can become demotivating. As a result, many beginners struggle on for a few weeks, find that they aren’t progressing as rapidly as they expect to, then consign the instrument to the drawer/garage/bin, assuming that they don’t have the natural skill ever to reach the level that they desire.

The fact is, though, that every musician has been through this stage. No one has ever sat down at the piano and been able to play Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E major after a few weeks’ practice. Similarly, I don’t believe that anyone has picked up a 10 hole diatonic harmonica and been able to bend notes perfectly straight away. Unlike simpler skills, like learning to play a new video game, musical instruments require a more disciplined and rigorous approach if you are to progress beyond the basics.

Let’s look, then, at how we acquire new skills, and investigate the best ways to approach learning an instrument.

Learning to Fail

There are thousands of free resources out there for harmonica players – YouTube, websites, blogs, etc, and these can all be very useful, especially in the early days of learning an instrument. However, guides and tutorials neglect an important aspect of skills development: problem solving. Learning to play a piece of music by working it out for yourself will teach you useful information, through trial and error, about the structure of music and your own playing technique; information that you wouldn’t have learnt had you just followed a tab or watched a video tutorial. You might fail to play the music accurately, but this failure can open up new ideas and lead you to better solutions to similar problems in the future. Psychologists call this productive failure.

Little and Often

Cramming will be familiar to most people who’ve sat exams. The notion that a large quantity of information can be memorised and digested in a single sitting has long been seen from a pedagogical viewpoint as fundamentally flawed, yet many people still apply this learning style to their instrument playing.

As an alternative, consider using distributed practice, where you break down your playing time into small chunks of, say, 15 minutes, and spread them out over a time period. So, instead of an hour of focused practice in a day, try doing four 15 minute sessions. Your attention focus will be much higher for a longer period overall than trying to maintain that level constantly for one hour.

Be Aware of the Plateaus

It is tempting to visualise the acquisition of new skills as a fairly linear graph, with time on one axis and ability level on the other. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very accurate representation of reality: the actual graph would appear more as a series of steps, where sudden leaps in skill level are achieved, followed by corresponding plateaus where little progress appears to be made.

A large proportion of people who take up an instrument – especially those who are learning to play an instrument for the first time – will give up at the first or second plateau. This is where nothing seems to be working, and their playing is either extremely rudimentary, or they are unable to play anything remotely musical. It is critical to understand that these plateaus exist, and the only way to progress is to persist. Do this and you will find that your playing will make sudden leaps forward that you thought were unlikely or impossible just a few days or weeks before.

Practise, Practise, Practise

In his 2009 book, Outliers – The Story of Success, US writer and intellectual, Malcolm Gladwell, investigates natural ability and its role in success in a variety of disciplines. Whilst he doesn’t discount natural talent as having an influence on outcomes in skills-based activities, he does question the extent to which we give it primacy. Mozart is a perfect example of this: whilst he was undoubtedly a child prodigy, his remarkable skills didn’t appear overnight – it is estimated that he’d racked up around 10,000 hours of focused practice by the time he was 8 years old. His natural aptitude initially gave him probably only a small advantage over other similar aged children when he started playing, but this was amplified enormously by the sheer amount of practice that he committed to.

I often receive phone calls and emails from people who want help with choosing harmonicas, and who preface their email with the phrase ‘I’m not very musical, but I’d like to buy a harmonica…’. It seems that we’re ingrained to think of ourselves as either naturally gifted with playing or not. The truth, though, is that this is just not the case. Some people will start with an advantage – maybe better fine motor skills, or general coordination – but the ultimate differentiator will be focused practice. Of course, if your natural aptitude makes the initial stages easier, it is more likely that you are going to enjoy playing and, consequently, practise more, thereby creating a virtuous cycle.


I hope that this has given you some things to think about with your playing. As ever, we’re always interested to hear your comments. Keep Playing!









What Harmonica Should I Buy as a Beginner?

What Harmonica Should I Buy as a Beginner?

There are a number of questions that regularly arise in the day to day life of a harmonica business. Some of the most common are “What should I buy that will make me sound like [insert artist’s name]?” and “How do I learn to bend?”. The question that appears most frequently, though, is “What harmonica should I buy as a beginner?” The lazy answer is ‘a Hohner Special 20’, and 70% of the time this is probably correct; most people asking the question want a relatively inexpensive, but durable harp that is easy to bend and won’t hold them back as they progress, or be a pricey folly if they give up. The reality, however, is somewhat more complex, so let’s examine the options in more detail.

Chromatic or Diatonic?

This is the first question to ask. There are, of course, other variants of the harmonica, such as Octave and Tremolo, but these are fairly niche instruments that we’ll discuss at a later date. Most of the time customers who are looking to start playing the harmonica are not considering a chromatic, perhaps because it is seen as being harder to master, and maybe an instrument to learn after becoming proficient with the diatonic (I don’t necessarily subscribe to this view, but it is prevalent).

Let’s examine the diatonic options first, then.

Diatonic Harmonicas

These are what most people visualise when they hear the word ‘harmonica’. Typically having 10 holes and with the capability to bend notes, diatonic harmonicas by their very nature are quite limited in the range of notes that they can produce. These limitations can be bypassed to some extent by player technique – bends and overblows – mean that notes that aren’t naturally available can be produced – but the overall range is still fairly narrow. This is why serious diatonic players usually own a number of harmonicas in different keys.

So, if you want to play the blues or Bob Dylan style folk, a diatonic is the way to go. Just remember that you’ll need more than one if you intend to play songs in different keys.

Let’s look at the options for beginners from the main manufacturers:


Hohner is the most well known harmonica manufacturer, and produces a wide range of models. These are my top picks for beginners (priced under £35):

Blues Band: This is one of Hohner’s most inexpensive models, and plays relatively well considering the price. Unlike other similar entry level harmonicas that are made in China, the quality control is fairly decent, and the sound is clean if not particularly loud. Bending is relatively easy and the plastic comb means its easy to keep clean.

Special 20: This would be my first choice for beginners (and anyone wanting a great sounding blues harp with a plastic comb that doesn’t break the bank). Its significantly louder than the Chinese made Hohners (Special 20s are made in Germany) and bending is much easier and more fluid. Probably the best value harmonica on the market.

Marine Band Classic: In my opinion, this is one of the best sounding harmonicas in Hohner’s range. It’s easy to bend and comes in under £30 in most keys. The only downsides are the wooden comb, which has only cursory sealing and is therefore vulnerable to swelling, and the traditional construction, which makes it harder to replace reed plates than bolted together harps. The Deluxe and Crossover address these issues, but are significantly over our imaginary £35 budget.


Unlike Hohner, Seydel produces all of its harmonicas in Germany. Therefore, there are only two models that fall within our budget:

Session Standard: This is quite similar to Hohner’s Special 20. It has a plastic comb and durable brass reeds. Build quality is good and it produces a nice clean sound, with bends being available, albeit with slightly less ease than on the Special 20. If you can squeeze a bit more out of your budget, the Session Steel, which is around £13 more, has the same basic design, but its stainless steel reeds provide a brighter, clearer sound and significantly enhanced longevity.

Solist Pro: This has a wooden comb, like the Marine Band, but has much better sealing, so is less vulnerable to moisture. An overlooked harp that should be more popular than it is.


Suzuki has a long history of producing harmonicas for educational purposes, primarily as a consequence of it being a mainstay of music teaching in Japanese schools since the 1960s. The Airwave, in particular, is a great instrument for children to take their first steps with the harmonica. For our purposes, however, we’ll stick with the adult harps:

Harpmaster: This is the entry point for Suzuki harmonicas that are made in Japan, and features a plastic comb and Suzuki’s signature phosphor bronze reeds. It features a traditional cover plate design, and the sound is akin to a Special 20, albeit slightly quieter and a little bit less bluesy.

Bluesmaster: This has the same basic materials as the Harpmaster, but has a more modern design that gives it a look and feel very much like a Special 20. Another overlooked harp.

Other Japanese made Suzukis fall outside of our imaginary budget, but if you can stretch to the £50 mark, the Manji would be my pick. It’s got a composite comb which provides the sound and response of wood, but with none of the drawbacks. This is a really great harp that’s easily comparable to Hohner’s Crossover.

Lee Oskar

Unlike the other manufacturers featured here, Lee Oskar produces only a single type of harmonica – a 10 hole diatonic that is available in a number of different tunings. We’ll ignore the alternative tunings at this point, as most beginners will want to start with a standard Richter tuned major key harmonica:

Major Diatonic: This is a 10 hole diatonic that is available in a wide range of keys. It is interchangeable with all of the Lee Oskar range, meaning that if you want to convert it to a harmonic minor, natural minor, or Melody Maker tuning, you need only change the reed plates. Made by Japanese harmonica specialists, Tombo, it is easy to bend and sounds great on blues riff in particular.

There are, of course, a number of other manufacturers out there making great harmonicas, but these four brands should generally be your starting point for diatonics.

Chromatic Harmonicas

Chromatic harmonicas are generally bigger, more complex and more expensive than diatonics. They typically work by having two sets of reed plates stacked on top of each other, tuned a semi-tone apart. In most cases a spring loaded slide is used to direct the flow of air to the upper or lower holes, thereby enabling full chromaticism, and, to some extent, negating the need to buy multiple harmonicas in different keys (some chromatics are available in a range of keys, but this is related to their melodic range rather than their ability to play in specific keys).

For the purposes of this article, we’ll set an imaginary budget of £140, and concentrate on the most popular 12 hole size of chromatic:

Hohner Chrometta: These are relatively inexpensive Chinese made chromatics, and can be found in a range of sizes, from 8 to 16 holes. They’re a good introduction to chromatic playing, but they do feel a little lightweight and don’t have the tone of the more expensive harps.

Hohner Discovery 48: This is the entry point for German made Hohner chromatics and features an ABS comb. As such, it’s probably the pick of Hohner’s range for beginner chromatic players, being both durable and resistant to moisture.

Hohner Chromonica 48: This is a great sounding chromatic that is made in Germany and features traditional construction, with a pearwood comb and . Think of it as a Marine Band Classic in chromatic form and you’ll be near the mark

Hohner CX12: The CX12 is an acquired taste in aesthetic terms, but from a playability and maintenance viewpoint it should be high on most players’ lists. It’s extremely easy to disassemble for cleaning, and the moulded plastic mouthpiece/cover is durable and easy on the lips. Its tone is clear, even in the upper registers, and it’s available in a range of keys.

Seydel Deluxe Chromatic: This is the only Seydel chromatic that falls within our budget. It is similar in feel to a Hohner Chromonica 48, but features an ABS comb, making it more suitable for players for whom moisture is an issue. Seydel also offer a similar model with longer lasting stainless steel reeds (the Deluxe Steel Chromatic) but this is significantly more expensive.


So, there you have it – a choice of chromatics and diatonics that will work well for most beginners. As ever, any comments or questions please feel free to contact us.



Delay Pedals Versus Reverb Pedals

Delay Pedals Versus Reverb Pedals

In this post we’ll look at delay pedals versus reverb pedals, outline some of the differences, and help you to choose the best pedal for your needs.

Why Do I Need a Pedal?

This isn’t a question that you’ll hear coming from many guitarists’ lips, as the foot pedal, in its many different forms, has become a ubiquitous part of most guitarists’ setups. Harmonica players are different, though; some never play through an amp, and others just like the pure tone of the harp itself. If you’re this sort of player then the answer is no – you don’t need a pedal. However, if you’re playing through an amp, or recording your playing, and want to add a new dimension to your sound, then a pedal can really help. In this article, we’ll focus on reverb and delay pedals, but we’ll cover overdrive/distortion and other effects in future posts.

What’s the Difference, Then?

A delay pedal, in basic terms, produces a copy of the input signal, then reproduces it at a point in time after the original input. You might describe this, in simple terms, as an echo. Most delay  pedals let you control the time (the amount of time between the original input and the echo), the mix (how loud the echo is compared to the original input) and the feedback (how long the echo continues).

Reverb is also a time-based effect, but instead of attempting to replicate a simple echo, like a delay pedal does, a reverb pedal replicates the reverberation effect that happens when a sound is produced in an enclosed space, where multiple short echoes from the various hard surfaces at different angles to each other combine to provide a full sound. An example of natural reverb would be the sound achieved when speaking loudly or singing in a cathedral or large church. Reverb, then, is generally a more subtle effect than delay.

There are several types of reverb, some of which refer to natural settings (room, hall, large hall, etc) and some which refer to manufactured types (spring, plate, etc). Although some amps have traditional spring reverbs, created by sending the signal down a spring and capturing the consequent reverb effect, the reverb effects created by pedals are all done through digital processing. The Xvive MaxReverb Pedal, for example, is able to switch between a number of different reverb types, including spring, plate and hall, all of which sound incredibly authentic.

Why Should I Use Them?

Reverb can provide a fuller sound to your recorded playing. In live situations, particularly in fairly dead sounding venues, it can also add depth. Think of how much better a good singer sounds in a large hall with natural reverb than on, say a street corner, and this will give you an idea of how reverb can be used to improve your sound. Just ensure that you don’t overdo it – most live venues will generate more natural reverb than your bedroom, or practice room, so dial it back a bit when doing a sound check.

Delay pedals are popular with guitarists often for solos, where they cover a myriad of sins and make it sound like you’re playing much faster than you actually are. However, they’re also useful for fattening out your sound by using a ‘slapback effect’ whereby the time control is dialled right back, the feedback reduced to the minimum and the mix set to about 50%. This is something that you can experiment with on the harmonica, especially if you need to fill space in the mix at a particular point in a song.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you experimenting with more extreme settings – psychedelic sounds can be achieved quite easily by playing with large reverbs or long delays.

So, Should I Buy a Reverb or a Delay Pedal?

If you just want a fuller sound for recording and live purposes, and your amp doesn’t feature reverb (or has a poor quality one, which is quite common), then the reverb pedal is your best bet. If, however, you want to be more experimental, or just want to make your solos sound cool, then go for the delay pedal.

As ever, any questions or comments, contact us or use the comments section.


How to Make Your Harmonica Better

How to Make Your Harmonica Better

Being a guitarist before picking up the harmonica, I find it interesting to note the differences between approaches that players take to their respective instruments. When you buy a guitar, irrespective of how expensive it is, you assume that a certain amount of fettling will be necessary to ensure that it fulfills its potential in terms of playability and sound. Even the Custom Shop Fenders that we have upstairs in our coffee shop have had work performed on them to improve the action or feel, and these are guitars that have RRPs in the thousands of Pounds. Most harmonica players, in contrast, generally seem content with their instruments out of the box. Perhaps this is a consequence of the relatively low price of most harps, or the fact that they are an instrument with a finite lifespan. However, with a few fairly minor adjustments, you can really make a difference to the tone and ease of playing of your harp. Below we will cover how to make your harmonica better in four easy steps.


The first thing to understand about a harmonica is that it is a mass produced instrument – even the most costly diatonic from one of the big manufacturers is not going to receive the care and attention to make it play at its absolute optimum.

Gapping is a way to set the resting point of each reed. How high you set it depends on how hard you play, and whether you want to use techniques such as overblowing (which requires the reeds to be set fairly low). The most important thing is consistency – reed gaps that are vastly different across the range of your harp will result in a poor sounding and feeling harmonica. Aim to set your reed at the point that produces the best tone for your own playing style.

A great guide to gapping using a relatively simple technique is here:

Make it Air Tight

Not all harmonicas will be completely air tight from the factory: screws can loosen, combs can be less than perfectly flat, and, occasionally, there can be small errors in assembly. Harmonicas that don’t have optimum air tightness can be hard to play, and can often sound squealy.

The first step is to disassemble your harmonica carefully, then reassemble it, making sure that you tighten the screws gradually, and avoid over-tightening. Harmonicas with rivets, such as the Marine Band Classic, are best left alone, unless you’re confident that you can accurately reassemble them and/or replace the rivets with a bolted setup, like that found on the Marine Band Deluxe.

It is also possible to flatten the comb if there are any irregularities in it. This guide provides a detailed description of how to do this:


Tuning is something very familiar to anyone who plays a stringed instrument, where temperature, humidity and the act of playing all conspire to make small changes to string tension. Many harmonica players don’t consider tuning, though – if the harp is not playing in, say, C, properly, it gets sent back.

Most harps, however, won’t be perfectly in tune straight from the factory. They may be sufficiently close to being in tune for the average player never to notice, but they can usually be improved, which will make audible differences to their tone.

Unfortunately, unlike a guitar, where tuning is a simple matter of turning a tuner whilst looking at a dial on a chromatic tuner, changing the tuning on a harmonica involves removing material from the reed itself – from the tip to raise the pitch and from the base to lower it. A detailed article on how to do this is available here:


The rather arcane term- embossing – refers to the process of narrowing the gap between the reed and the slot. When done correctly, this reduces the amount of air that escapes between the reed and the slot, allowing the reed to function more efficiently, thereby increasing volume and improving response.

We now have embossing tools from Andrew Zajazc available here:

Andrew Zajac Embossing Tool  if you want the perfect implement for the task.

A guide showing how to perform embossing can be found here:


Final Thoughts

So, there you have it – how to make your harmonica better using four different methods. If you’re in any doubt as to your technical ability with any of these techniques don’t attempt them on a good harmonica; practise on one that is already faulty or old first.

As ever, drop us a line if you have any questions or comments..