The 8 Best Harmonicas
You don't have to be an inmate cooped up in a cell or a hobo riding the rails to enjoy the beautiful sounds that come from a good harmonica. They make for a great introduction to music that, with a couple of exceptions provided for professional musicians, won't break the bank. We've rated the best of them here by tonal quality, playing ease, and durability. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best harmonica on Amazon.
Which Type Of Harmonica Is Best?
Its big design can be a bit intimidating, and the extra notes can boggle the mind of an untrained musician.
The tremolo harmonica has limited applications, and is therefore the least popular of the three types.
There are three basic types of harmonica: diatonic, chromatic, and tremolo. The diatonic harmonica is the most common of the three types. It is responsible for the soulful tones of most blues, R&B, jazz, and rock and roll artists. Diatonic harmonicas are simple, relatively easy to learn, and most commonly have 10 holes. They are usually tuned to match the key of one of the 12 notes on the musical scale, but beginners are often recommended to start with a harmonica in the key of C.
The chromatic harmonica traditionally comes with 12 holes, but may come with 8, 10, 14, or 16 holes, as well. The standard chromatic harmonica is also available in any of the 12 keys, but C is most commonly used by professionals and amateurs alike. The button on the side of a chromatic harmonica is used to produce various tones and semitones, and allows players to play every note in many octaves. With 3 octave ranges and 48 tones, the standard chromatic harmonica can produce notes of which a diatonic player could only dream.
The 16-hole variation of the chromatic harmonica produces an even broader range of notes, and because of this, it can take a while to get used to. Its big design can be a bit intimidating, and the extra notes can boggle the mind of an untrained musician. The 8-holed chromatic harmonica provides the exact opposite problem. These harmonicas are great for travel, but their limited range and small size can be a detriment to their being fully engaging for many chromatic players.
The third basic variety of harmonicas is the tremolo harmonica. These harmonicas produce a trembling effect in their sound. They accomplish this by using two reeds per hole, one tuned slightly flat and the other slightly sharp. The result is a wobbling, organ-like note which gives these harmonicas their name. The tremolo harmonica has limited applications, and is therefore the least popular of the three types.
The Invention Of The Harmonica
The invention of the harmonica is credited to Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann, who created it in 1821. There is some uncertainty around this credit, however, as many inventors around the world were simultaneously working on similar instruments in the same year. Free reed instruments controlled with the mouth were created in South America, the United States, and various areas of Europe at roughly the same time.
This led to some of the first harmonica manufacturing companies in Europe.
When the first harmonica appeared in Vienna in 1824, it took many by surprise. Many of these harmonicas were purchased, broken down, and duplicated by their purchasers, so their friends and family might enjoy them, as well. This led to some of the first harmonica manufacturing companies in Europe. One man began making harmonicas and shipping them to relatives and friends who had emigrated to the United States, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive. That man was Matthias Hohner.
Due to their wild popularity in the United States, Hohner saw the opportunity to mass produce harmonicas and seized it. By 1858, his company was supplying much of the United States. Harmonicas were enjoyed by soldiers from both sides of the American Civil War. They were also supposedly favored by President Abraham Lincoln and the western rebel Billy the Kid. The popularity of these instruments made them take on a standardized shape as early as 1920, which only helped to increase the number of players.
Most often associated with blues and American folk music, the diatonic harmonica was actually invented to accompany German and European folk music. Unlike many instruments, the harmonica was a success from the very start of production, with a reach extending to multiple continents just a few short years after its invention.
The Harmonica Finds Its Soul
The first harmonicas may have been invented in Europe, but the harmonica found its soul in the United States, particularly in the hands of African American blues musicians. Artists like Sonny Boy Williamson II, Big Walter Horton, and Big Mama Thorton took the simple instrument to expressive new heights through techniques like note bending and vibrato; creating notes from harmonicas that were otherwise unheard of.
This contribution would revolutionize the style of play and expand the arsenal of skills available to harmonica players.
Harmonicas were used by these early singers to create solos in between verses of contemplative lyrics, often on the subject of various causes of strife in the artist's life. The relatable problems and gripping lyrical style of blues music spread like wildfire through the country, influencing every form of music that has come since.
Further possibilities were explored by a young player named Marion Jacobs, known as Little Walker. In order to cut through the sound of guitar amplifiers of the day, Little Walker picked up a radio microphone and, cupping his hands around it and the harmonica, blew his way into history. This contribution would revolutionize the style of play and expand the arsenal of skills available to harmonica players. The sounds created from harmonica microphones can largely determine the sound of the harmonica itself, with many creating distorted sounds that can resemble an electric guitar.
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