The 10 Best Chromatic Harmonicas
This wiki has been updated 16 times since it was first published in June of 2018. Capable of playing a 12-note scale -- as opposed to the 7-note one of its diatonic counterpart -- the chromatic harmonica makes a great addition to all kinds of jazz, classical, and pop music ensembles. But finding one that's right for your purposes can be tough, so we've put together a selection of some of the top models out there, ranging from the affordable to the professional quality. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
December 04, 2020:
We have found that this list stands as strong as the instruments listed on it. The Hohner Super 64 Performance Series is the company's most recent update of their classic 64 and, though pricey, its durability and warmth ensure that it remains the best available option for serious players.
Remaining at a close second, the Swan 10 Holes is incredibly affordable for such a bright and versatile instrument. It suits professionals very well while still remaining accessible to the more casual players.
For beginners, the Hohner 255 Chrometta 12 and the East Top 12 are fantastic entry-level selections. The Chrometta's wide openings allow new players to play individual notes in order to learn how they ultimately work together. The East Top looks and sounds like its more advanced counterparts yet is not quite as well made.
The most unique selection here is the Hohner CX-12 in that it forgoes the traditional construction in favor of plastic without sacrificing its rich sound.
This list features strong choices for players of all calibers. Since its last update, there just haven't been any better options released.
If you enjoyed this list and are looking for something maybe a bit more percussive, be sure to check out our list of best drum sets.
June 26, 2019:
For such a small instrument, you might be surprised by what some of the higher-quality harmonicas on the market cost. Depending on how long you've been playing, you've likely heard about the Hohner CX-12 (#3) and the Suzuki SCX-64C (#2), which are both similarly priced and of comparable quality. These two have beat out more-expensive models on our list for the sheer tonal beauty they are capable of producing at their price-point. They're priced so that even a novice might not feel too indulgent by pulling the trigger on either of them.
Then, at #1, you've got the Hohner Super 64 from the company's Performance Series. Lauded by professionals as, again, a veritable David that conquers others Goliaths of the harmonica industry, this one truly stands out for its durability and ease-of-use in that it can be easily adjusted and customized.
We've included a very inexpensive model at #4, the Swan 10 Holes, because it makes for an ideal beginner's learning instrument. At the price it's sold, it's practically free, and it'll last you a long time — plenty long enough to save up for a model that's of a higher quality. Other models that a beginner with a bit more money to spend could consider are the East Top 12 (#9) and the Hohner 255 Chrometta 12 (#10).
Hohner Amadeus Superb doesn't begin to describe the symphony-quality Amadeus. If you're willing to dish out what it costs to buy one, you're likely already heard plenty about this one's merits — like its ergonomically modeled, gold-plated mouthpiece, its novel plexiglas body, and its chrome-plated brass covers, all of which culminate in a mouth harp that's both tonally exquisite and comfortable to play. hohner.de
A Brief History Of The Chromatic Harmonica
But musicians and inventors knew that they could create an instrument offering more.
As is often true of new ideas, the invention of the harmonica is attributed to one individual, but many versions were being independently developed around the same time. This so-called first harmonica, made by Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann in 1821, was not an entirely new concept, either. A free-reed instrument already existed: the sheng, hailing from China.
Around the mid-19th century, this (somewhat) new instrument began to take the shape we're familiar with today, thanks in large part to the efforts of a Bohemian called Joseph Richter. He is credited with producing the tuning system that bears his name, which is used for diatonic harmonicas to this day. With one of these mouth harps, players have at their disposal the notes of a given key, although by using advanced techniques, experienced players can extend this range. But musicians and inventors knew that they could create an instrument offering more.
Enter the chromatic harmonica, which uses a sliding bar to produce the full Western chromatic scale. Although first advertised by the Hohner company, one of the most recognizable harmonica brands in the world, it’s likely that various minds were working on it around the same time, the beginning of the 20th century. (Interestingly, some sources note that even though Matthias Hohner was key in promoting and producing harmonicas, this was due to his business prowess rather than any particular skill on the instrument.)
Although the harmonica was popular from its introduction, both in Europe and America, the chromatic harmonica has never been as prominent as the diatonic version (sometimes called the blues harp). It remains a favorite among the harmonica-playing population, however, thanks to its versatility. It's used in both classical and jazz music, as well as in harmonica bands, where it often plays the lead part.
Harder Or Just Different?
New harmonica players are usually told that they should start with the diatonic harmonica because it’s easier. After all, it offers fewer notes to contend with, being in one key, so you don’t need advanced musical knowledge to noodle around on it. On the other hand, you need to understand at least a little about scales and keys to improvise well on a chromatic harmonica, which may be tough for absolute musical newbies. Plus, there are tons of songs you can play on a diatonic with just an afternoon’s practice, from “On Top of Old Smokey” to “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” (We didn’t say they were great songs.)
There’s little to prevent you from trying both and deciding for yourself which is more difficult and/or more enjoyable.
But diatonic players quickly need to start adding tools to their arsenal, or they may find themselves just a bit stuck. That small number of notes? It’s a boon in the beginning, but can quickly become an annoying restriction. And the techniques to circumvent this constraint, such as bending and overblowing, can take a long time to master. But it’s not necessary to produce notes that aren’t there with the chromatic harmonica, since steps and half-steps are built right in. Because of this, many players find it slightly harder to play initially, but easier in the long run.
Of course, preference is also important. If you want to play classical music, you’ll probably set your sights on the “chromo,” whereas if you want a gritty, bluesy sound, then you should start with a diatonic. Your experience is also a big factor. Those who already play an instrument or two have transferrable skills, so the easier/harder discussion doesn’t carry as much weight for them.
And keep in mind that many harmonica players, casual or professional, play both. Unlike, say, guitars, which take up space and are usually pricey, harmonicas are small and can be inexpensive. There’s little to prevent you from trying both and deciding for yourself which is more difficult and/or more enjoyable.
Some Notes On The Greats
If you’re going to become good at the chromatic harmonica, you’ll need an ear for the sound, which you can develop by studying respected players. We can’t say listening to these musicians will suddenly make you a prodigy, but thoughtful listening can inspire you, introduce you to new techniques, and more. We’ve found a few players to get your musical journey started.
We’ve found a few players to get your musical journey started.
At the top of this list is Larry Adler, who passed away in 2001. It’s easy to throw around terms like “virtuoso,” but in Adler’s case, the designation is absolutely appropriate. He’s known for raising the status of the harmonica, bringing it into serious concert halls and performing the works of some of the most respected composers, including George Gershwin and Darius Milhaud. His career even included collaborations with world-renowned musical stars: Elton John, Elvis Costello, Sting, and more.
If you aren’t into classical music, you might consider Stevie Wonder. You surely already know the name, but you may not know that it is, indeed, the chromatic harmonica he favors, even though the diatonic tends to be more popular for rock, pop, or funk songs. Avalanches of words have been written about his playing, which can be lively and bright or pensive and soulful, but it’s tough to capture the true spirit of his music — you just have to feel it.
For those who prefer jazz, there’s Toots Thielemans, who was not only a harmonica legend but also a gifted guitar player and whistler. Even if you've never heard his name, you’ve likely heard Thielemans play, as it's his harmonica on the original Sesame Street theme. Hailing from Belgium, Thielemans toured with jazz legend Benny Goodman’s band, penned a number of jazz standards, and was featured on several notable movie soundtracks, including 1969’s Midnight Cowboy.
Finally, we’ll encourage you to listen to someone not on this list: you. Sometimes musicians are in a rush to imitate the greats or too shy about their sound to stop and really hear themselves, which can make progress unnecessarily slow. Grab a tape recorder or your smartphone and have a listen from time to time. What you hear might just surprise you.