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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Best Choice for 1st Harmonica?
Best Choice for 1st Harmonica?
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1 post
Jun 22, 2019
12:01 PM
I'm a 52 year old guy located in the USA wanting to purchase my first "real" hamonica. I have a Hohner Junkland Jam, from last century I think, that seems to live up to its name (at least after sitting in a drawer and toy box for 20+ years).

Looking for a harmonica that: is diatonic, is in the key of C, has 10 holes, has a plastic comb*, will be easy to blow/draw so I can concentrate on learning the basics correctly, allows for reasonably easy bends (once I get to that point), is airtight, will more than likely come in tune from the factory, something that won't need any adjusting, will allow me to play all types of music, doesn't cost more than $50**, and is something I'll be happy with and proud to play!

*I'm not tied to the plastic comb but have read they are easier to start with and maintain; ** I know they make Fender harmonicas as cheap as $10 that get pretty good reviews but I'm not sure I want to start that cheap

In your opinion, what would be my best option for a harmonica meeting most of the criteria above?

Also: I know there are a lot of awesome videos for beginners here and on the internet, but are there any books you'd recommend?

Thank you for any help and advice you can send my way!


Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 23, 2019 7:01 AM
6023 posts
Jun 22, 2019
5:13 PM
If it was me, I know what I’d get.
In good faith but accepting no responsibility, I will say that a Hohner special 20 is hard to beat, not only as a first ‘proper’ harp but also as an ongoing preference.

Plenty of professional players have made careers using special 20s

The other Hohner you might consider is the Golden Melody. I’m not sure about the price though.

There really isn’t a whole lot wrong with the Hohner Pro Harp and Big River but I think the special 20 has the edge on them.

Your price limit rules out the Seydel steel reed harps I think. Maybe in USA you can get a Session Steel for $50; I’m not sure. I’m personally not a fan of those but there are plenty of players who swear by them.

The brass version of the Session can also be ok, if you like the design. I think there are reasons seydel decided to invest their future in steel reeds but the brass session might be a way of deciding what you think of the size, shape and feel before spending more for steel reeds. The steel reeds are available in replacement reedplates too, so that could be an option if you eventually broke a brass reed and wanted to continue with the model.

The famous Lee Oskar is maybe not as popular as it was in the 90s but it’s still a solid harp and viable option. They have a reputation as the most durable harp (despite the claims sometimes made for steel reeds), and people seem to like the fact you can buy replacement reed plates. Lee Oskar harps are made in Japan by the Tombo company. They are also available in alternative tunings. You could do a lot worse.

I think the Suzuki harpmaster/bluesmaster types are worth investigating too. A little cheaper than some others, and definitely have a group of fans.
Other Suzuki harps to consider are the Promaster, Manji and Olive. I’m not sure about the price of those.

For the last year or two, Easttop harps have been making waves, especially the model 008K. This is a marine band style harp, with an abs plastic comb. They’re cheap. I haven’t tried one. Many people make big claims about how good they are. Others claim they are junk. Some say they don’t last. Some say that the more expensive harps don’t last either. Some say they had bad experiences with tuning, playability. Others say they play great and better than *some other brand*.
But it has to be said, they are an option and the risk ratio consequence/likelihood equation is fairly low on the consequence side, if perhaps a bit higher on the likelihood side.

The big news lately has been the Kongsheng brand.
I’m just not sure of pricing for North America.
The Solist is the top of line model. Very good harp. Best features of Suzuki high end models, combined with some features of Seydel high end models. Covers and comb are reminiscent of Seydel 1847 Nobel, reedplates and size/shape like a Suzuki Manji.
The same reedplates are used on the Sunrise model, which has the same shape and size but a different comb material (not sure if it’s wooden or some composite resin) and different finish on the covers.
I believe the same reed plates are also used on the Bluebird model which is slightly cheaper and has a plastic comb, and full-length covers.
I think these are all available from Rockin’ Ron’s online business but if not, dealing with AliExpress is ok. Just a little wait to clear through customs.

I still think I’d buy a Special 20 to start.

If the bug gets you, you’ll likely go crazy with curiosity about all the different options. The only real cure for that is to acquire lots of different harps. It might take a while to settle on one type.

Every harp I’ve mentioned above has some merit. There are different design aspects which might draw you more to a particular type or away from some others. You won’t really know whether you like some things more than others until you try, and it’s hard to do that all at once even if money doesn’t matter. Experience takes time. It just takes time to appreciate why one concept might be better than another in your circumstances. In the meantime, the special 20 is a tried and true, middle of the road, easy maintenance option which is (almost) perfect for a beginner imho, especially if learning chording and rhythm work.
the Lee Oskar would be my other recommendation, just because the tuning temperament is a little more versatile for melody and that is often a major focus for beginners.
3 posts
Jun 23, 2019
7:40 AM

I truly appreciate you taking the time to respond with all of that incredible information!

The Hohner Special 20 must be really special...I saw it online for $32 about a week ago and just checked again and it has sold out from 4 or 5 different places at that price and is currently backordered until the end of July (at least at that price - readily available for around $45 US).

The Hohner Golden Melody is currently around $45 also. In the description it states the GM is diatonic with richter tuning, but it also says it's the only diatonic model tuned to Equal Temperament. What is this and is it something a newbie should start out on?

The Hohner Big Rivers seems to get excellent reviews and is around $32. The comment I seem to see a lot with it is that it's hard to bend. How important is being able to bend notes for someone just starting out?

Lee Oskar is actually a name/brand I had never heard of until I recently started looking at harmonicas. They do seem to get excellent reviews from various sites all over the internet. Lee Oskar doesn't seem to have a lot of different models (like Hohner does). Does that mean they don't feel the need for a bunch of different models because their harmonicas offer great variety in their playability of different styles?

At $45, would you say the Lee Oskar would be your second choice after the Hohner Special 20?

The Suzuki Hammond HA-20 is a beautiful harmonica at the $45 price range. Can't find a lot of info on the Suzuki harmonicas...I assume they are richter tuned.

As far as the plastic vs wooden comb, what are your thoughts as to which is best for someone new to the harmonica?

I ask because the Hohner Marine Band harmonica ($36US) is for some reason intriguing to me - as is it's bamboo comb more expensive brother the Hohner Marine Band Crossover.

Again, thank you for taking the time to respond and all the awesome information you gave me. As someone just starting out I'm thrilled that someone with all your knowledge would take the time to respond and help a newbie just starting out to find a harmonica they will be happy with!!!


Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 23, 2019 11:43 AM
361 posts
Jun 23, 2019
5:23 PM
Super Bee always has some great advice on this and the amain forum. I'd agree with everything he's advised in his first post. I'll tell you my own experience when I first started but first I would like to emphasize that in the US, Your best choice for purchasing harmonicas is Rockin Rons' (rockinronsmusicsd.com). He's also happy to talk with you and make recommendations. You can find harps cheaper sometimes, but you're sometimes at risk of getting a poor harp.

As a newbie, I don't think it matters whether tuning is ET or some other (like Marine Band or Special 20). Your ear probably won't notice the difference until you get better. I don't think SB mentioned either that most of the Suzuki harps have phosphor bronze reeds instead of brass. Lots of discussion about that too, but again starting off, not too relevant.

My suggestion would be not to go with a wooden comb. They're better sealed nowadays but beginners often get a lot of saliva in the harp initially and wood has the potential to swell.

Special 20 is an excellent choice.Plastic comb and. kinder on the lips than sandwich construction like marine band or Crossover.

Personal preference, avoid Golden Melody (they are rougher on the lips and Hohner may discontinue them, though that's not confirmed) and my experience with Big River, my first two harps, is they tend to get out of tune easily. Also they're a slightly larger harp.

I've had good results with Suzuki Harpmaster and Bluesmaster. They're basically the same instrument with different style cover plates.

The Suzuki Hammond I have is an excellent harp. If you can get under $65, that's a good deal. Most Suzuki harps are Richter/ET tuned except the Manji and some specialty harps.

I also have several Easttop harps. I like them and mine have stayed in tune.

I do have a couple of Seydel Blues Sessions with the brass reeds but the hole spacing is a little different than Hohner and Suzuki in the same price range.

I have not owned any Lee Oscars based on one friend's opinion.

Well, there you go. More opinions may be coming but you've got a good start here.
6026 posts
Jun 23, 2019
6:22 PM
Hi B3,
Equal Temperament (ET) is the system used for most chromatic instruments which allows them to be played equally well (or equally badly depending on your point of view!) in all keys.

Most standard 10 hole diatonic harps sold these days are either ET or some compromise between ET and Just Intonation (JI).

JI is very nice if you are playing chords, or if everyone in the band is also tuned that way, but if you are playing melody then some of your notes may sound a little flat and discordant especially compared with a piano

Almost everyone uses ET these days especially in popular music contexts.
It’s actually rather difficult to get a true JT harp
Compromise Intonation harps are very common, and they are fine. Unless you are really into pre-1960s blues, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you are interested, musical “temperament” is a good topic to read about. It will lead you into a few other musical concepts which are worth investigating.

A Golden Melody may be an excellent harp for a beginner I think, but it has some design features you may or may not love. I have only 1, and it’s in key of E, which is not a key I use much.

Lee Oskar is a very solid model. When I started playing they were very popular, but over the last decade there have been so many new harps introduced that the old LO might seem to have been left behind in the innovation stakes and they are not so fashionable these days. It’s still a very good harp and should serve you well for years. In your price bracket, I definitely think they are a strong contender.
I have just noticed ME HarpDoc has posted, and commented that he was warned off LO. I’m not totally surprised about that. The harp definitely has its share of detractors, and at one time I’d have been among them. Over the years though I’ve seen a lot more and met more people who use them. I now believe that I had judged them unfairly, and unrealistically.

Regarding the Big River. I do believe the current production is probably better than the stuff from 20 years ago, and I’ve also encountered numerous people who stand by them as good value, pointing out that they were good enough for Paul DeLay
I have only one, and it’s in Low D so the fact I find it really tough to play is quite likely more to do with the very low pitch than any inherent failing of the harp model.

On topic of wooden or plastic combs, I love the aesthetic qualities of wood but the ABS combs used in Sp20 and LO and some of the other harps are just much easier to deal with. I used to be very ‘loyal’ to wooden combs but since I’ve been working on harps I’ve really come around to appreciate ease of maintenance.

I’d say for a beginner the marine band 1896 aka classic is one of the more difficult choices. I love them but they are the most difficult prospect for maintenance.
The Deluxe version (aka the marine band 2005) and the Crossover (2009) are much better prospects but also more expensive.

If you are in the price bracket of the deluxe, I think the Rocket is certainly in play. Some people don’t see the value for money compared to the Sp20 and I get that too, but I think they are a great model.

I'm surprised the Hammond is that price. I thought they were more expensive. The Hammond is basically a Promaster with coated covers. They are ET. Some people really like them. To me they sound dull and rather lifeless. People really do value different qualities in harmonica. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste.
241 posts
Jun 23, 2019
10:56 PM
Just to add another opinion... I'd vote for the Special 20. The Lee Oskar is also a good choice. LO offers economical replacement reed plates and he offers a number of different tunings that you might want to explore at some point. The LO harps are also labeled with both 1st and 2nd position.

Each of these harps hold up well to rough playing. From my experience the Special 20 is slightly tighter, but the LO a bit more rugged and a better bargain.

Both of these harps are very mouth friendly as apposed to the exposed reed plates of Marine Band, Golden Melody... or the thicker front end of the Session.

I love my Marine Bands and the Golden Melody is a joy to hold. I'm a big fan of a wide variety of different makes and models. But the SP20 or LO get my vote for a 1st harp.

I have nothing bad to say about several other harps mentioned in this thread. I just don't believe they are as good for a 1st harp.

I honestly cant recommend an instructional book although I had a collection at one point. I recommend youtube, listening to the greats, and hitting the woodshed.

There are several great historical and inspirational books about the blues in general. I suggest starting with "Deep Blues" by Robert Palmer.

Congrats on deciding to upgrade to a quality harmonica. You are doing yourself a huge favor.

It's about time I got around to this.
6028 posts
Jun 24, 2019
1:22 AM
Dchurch, I can’t recall an occasion before now when I’ve seen the word ‘apposed’ used on this forum.
That has made my day.

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 24, 2019 3:36 PM
6030 posts
Jun 24, 2019
2:15 AM
Admittedly, it’s been a low-key day.
4 posts
Jun 24, 2019
3:52 AM
WOW...so much incredible information...I appreciate each of you responding to my questions (especially for not treating them like they are common knowledge everyone should know)!

From the information you've given me it looks like...

- Wooden comb harmonicas should be something I save until later in my harmonica journey. Got it.

- The Hohner Special 20 (currently $32 US) should definitely be near or at the top of my list.

- The Lee Oskar Major (currently $43 US) is a pretty good choice but it seems some people love it and others hate it.

- The Suzuki Bluesmaster MR-250 (currently $35 US) and the Suzuki Hammond HA-20-C (currently $47 US) are both good options.

- YouTube is a much better teacher than a book.

Again, thanks to each of you taking the time to respond and making sure learning the harmonica isn't frustrating because of an inferior harmonica!!!


Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 24, 2019 3:55 AM
242 posts
Jun 24, 2019
7:12 AM
@SB, Dang it, that was a typo. I meant to use juxtaposed. ;)

BCubed, I believe the Special 20 is the best buy on your list and again a great 1st harp. You should get the "C" but I honestly think an "A" harp is nicer to play. So maybe buy an A as your 2nd harp and make it a Marine Band. Everyone should have at least one.

It's about time I got around to this.
35 posts
Jun 24, 2019
8:44 AM
I'm a beginner on harp so take my info for what it's worth. My first harp was a Special 20 in C. When I purchased my second harp, I bought a Marine Band 1896 in G. I like both harps, but, prefer the Special 20.

I'm currently using the Harmonica Primer by Tom Wolf. It comes with a DVD and is easy to understand. I also have Charlie McCoy's Beginning Country Harp DVD, Harmonica For Dummies, and Blues Harmonica For Dummies. The dummies books are easy to understand and much more detailed than the others. I'm thinking about switching to Harmonica For Dummies for my lessons.

Last Edited by Pickn5 on Jun 24, 2019 8:54 AM
5 posts
Jun 24, 2019
9:59 AM
Just ordered a Hohner Special 20 in the Key of C.

Unfortunately they are out of stock and I won't receive it until around July 8th.

But that will give me time to check out all the video options for beginners, learn more about the different keys of harmonicas (and their purpose), maybe learn some music theory (that I've forgotten since playing the tenor sax 30 years ago), and read up on many of the great harmonica players of the past (and current).

Thanks for the advice on the Special 20 and Marine Band, as well as the books Pickn5. I'll check those books out!

Thanks to everyone for your guidance!

Now I need to go find some more music that features a lot of harmonica...currently wearing Four by Blues Traveler out.


Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 24, 2019 10:23 AM
6033 posts
Jun 24, 2019
3:39 PM
There’s a small coincidence. John Popper was using the Sp20 when he made that record.
6 posts
Jun 24, 2019
4:53 PM
If that's the case then it must be the harmonica I'm meant to have as my first!

Any other similar bands you would recommend that have a harmonica as a predominant instrument?

Again, I appreciate all your help and advice!!!

362 posts
Jun 25, 2019
12:03 PM
Popper plays fast licks often on the high end of the harp. Not easy to learn.

Blue and Lonesome by The Rolling Stones has several tracks with harmonica. A lot of people don’t think Mick plays harp very well but the licks are often simple chords and not too hard for a beginner to try.

You almost need to start another thread for this topic. In fact I think I’ll do that right now

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