What harmonica should I buy, and where? You wouldn't believe how many people ask me this question.
If you're in the market for a harmonica or two and don't have a good local music store nearby, I'd encourage you to order from one of the following suppliers. As I note on the FAQs page, I've been using the plain old Hohner 1896/20 Marine Band harmonica for more than 30 years and still think it's the best sounding and most reasonably priced stock instrument on the market. I played 13 of the 14 tracks on my recent album, Kick and Stomp, on stock Marine Bands. You do NOT need to spend $100-200 on a customized harp in order to get a terrific sound! (To be fair, not everbody agrees with me on this last point; an increasing number of players are venturing into the world of custom harps, and if you're interested in exploring that growth-industry, I offer one specific endorsement towards the bottom of this page. I would urge beginners, however, to delay that exploration until they've been playing for at least a year.)
Here's a quick link if you'd like to start with the exact same harp that I started with and still use today (Please CLICK ON THE PHOTOS BELOW and you'll be taken to product pages at Musician's Friend):
The Marine Band Crossover has the same distinctive Marine Band sound, but it's a little easier to play, a little quicker, and the overblows come easier. After more than three decades as a hard-core Marine Band player, I can honestly say: THIS IS A GREAT HARP! It's a perfect next step for players of ANY level who can't justify the cost of a custom harp ($120-300) but want a taste of the top-shelf. Click on the icon for a quick link:
Much as I like Marine Bands, I would encourage you to try several different makes and models and see which feels and sounds best to you. Lots of professional harp players use the Hohner Special 20 and Golden Melody, for example:
If you're going to invest in more than a handful of harmonicas, then at some point you'll want to take the plunge into a carrying case. For many years, my carrying case was a Jansport daypack. Once I decided to professionalize, I bought a heavy-duty camera bag, the sort that professional photographers use. That worked well for many years. Recently, though, I decided to join the club and upgrade. Here's what I use now. It has two trays' worth of space for your precious cargo and it makes a statement when you enter the room. I love it.
If you'd like a slightly more modest case that is already stocked with some harps, then the following item is for you: a five-pack of gleaming new Hohner Marine Band harmonicas in the keys of G, A, C, D, and E. This makes a perfect gift for the sort-of beginner in your life who has been scraping by with one beat-up old harp--or for you, if you're in a mood to treat yourself to a major upgrade:
Most serious blues harmonica players arm themselves not just with 10-hole diatonic harps, but with a somewhat bigger CHROMATIC HARMONICA--the grand piano of the harmonica family. Players from the Chicago and West Coast traditions such as Little Walter, William Clarke, Rod Piazza, and Dennis Gruenling make notably powerful use of the chromatic harp. Stevie Wonder uses one on "Fingertips." If you're going to take the plunge, then I'd encourage you to REALLY take the plunge and buy the model I use: the Hohner Super 64 Chromonica. Here's a video in which I'm playing this model:
If you'd like to explore the full range of available harmonicas, you'll find links to three reputable suppliers just below--one in the US, three overseas. Click on the icons and you'll be taken to the websites;
After accumulating a handful of harps, most harp players mark them in some way to highlight the key: A, C, D, and so forth. Although Magic Marker is popular, a much more convenient option is the little stick-on "Harp Markers" created by Greg Ludlum:
If you're in the market for a custom harp, there are many fine models to choose from. When I finally broke down and decided to spend some bucks for my first custom harp after 34 years of out-of-the-box harps, what did I go for? A Joe Spiers model customized (Stage I) Hohner Marine Band. I spent my own money on it. I love it. (And no: I don't make a cent for offering this testimonial.) That should tell you all you need to know. It's a fantastic harp. I used it on my recent album, Kick And Stomp, to play "The Entertainer": a first-position workout that demanded seamless overblow arpeggios:
My good friend of 25 years, Deak Harp, is not only a powerful and original player but a skilled customizer. In 2013 he relocated from central Illinois to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he is one of the few pro harp players--maybe the only one?--to own his own harp-centered brick-and-mortar store. Please check out his offerings online and, if you're ever in Clarksdale, make his store a stop on your Delta blues itinerary. (It's just around the corner from Cathead and just down the block from Ground Zero.)