Harmonica Gear or More Practice?

If you are anything like me I guess you are a harmonica gear head, most harmonica players are. Part of the fun of any hobby is to have a reason to buy new gear. No harm in that at all. There is however harm when buying harmonica gear becomes the main reason for the hobby. It is also a problem when we start blaming our faults as harmonica players on our gear. In this article I give my thoughts on what is essential gear and what improvements come best from practice (with or without harmonica). Not all our shortcommings can be fixed with gear, very few actually I would say. I will not mention custom and semi-custom harmonicas here, they deserve their own discussion.

Essential harmonica gear

First, a look at what I consider essential harmonica gear. These are things that help you become a better harmonica player and help you practice. Maybe some people will see this list as very boring and maybe it is. However essentials are rarely very exciting.


The metronome is what keeps us honest when we practice, it is very hard to ignore being off the beat when the metronome is running. It is also a very good tool for practicing in the extremes, either really slowly or faster than we normally can handle. You can either use a stand alone device or a smart phone app.

Portable recording device

Critical listening while we play is extremely hard. Chances are that you are not hearing your mistakes, unless they are big, while you play. The ability to record and review afterwards is essential to pinpointing what you need to work on. I have been using Zoom Q3, which also records video, since a couple of years ago. I don’t think it is available anymore but I have heard god things about the Tascam DR-40 and Zoom H1 looks like a good option. If you have a smart phone it can likely work just as well.

Harmonica gear zoom Q3

My Zoom Q3

Jam tracks

Maybe not so much gear but jam tracks in different grooves, tempos, intstrumentations, etc is a great way to prepare for playing with other musicians. There are actually two ways to go about getting jam tracks. You can either buy individual or collections of jam tracks or you can invest in a computer program like “Band in a box” that can generate whatever kind of music you need. It can even create solos in the styles of famous artists. Quite an interesting tool, also useful for songwriters and home studio geeks.

Tounge block trainer

Learning the tounge block embouchure can be quite challenging due to the fact that we cannot see what goes on inside our mouths. The tounge block trainer created by Joe Filisko allows us to see what we are doing with our tounge and that really makes things a lot easier. You find the TBT here, where there also are instructions for how you make one yourself.

Service tools

A small set of tools with screwdrivers and tools for simple harmonica maintenance is quite handy. It is a good thing to know how to maintain your harmonicas yourself. Hohner has a nice set of tools with maybe more tools than you need at first. I have written about harmonica maintenance for cleaning in an earlier post.

Harmonica gear that can wait

Unfortunately this is probably the category most people are most interest in. A lot of the gear I got first definately comes from this category so, do what I say not what I do.


Unless you play regularly on stage you probable don’t need an amplifier. However if you do you a small 5W tube amplifier is probably what you need. It will be loud enough for rehersals and it can be amplified through the PA for larger venues. The amp will both be a way of being heard and a way of shaping your amplified sound. Before buying one you need to figure out what you need and what kind of sound you want. There is a big market for vintage amplifiers on eBay which can cost quite a lot. There are also a bunch of modern brands that specialise in harmonica amplifiers. Sonny Jr and Lone Wolf are two well known companies. I have a Gibson Kalamazoo Amp from the 60’s which I am very happy with but it did need some attention before being playable.

One thing that you should consider before spending a lot of money on an amp is that it will make everything you play louder. If what you put into the amp sounds band, what comes out will also sound bad, only louder.

Harmonica Gear - Kalamazoo Amp

My Kalamazoo.

Bullet microphone

If you buy an amp you will also need a microphone and the bullet style is the prefered style for many players. The same goes for mics as for amps, either you buy a vintage mic or a modern version from somebody who builds new mics often from vintage parts. BlowsMeAway Productions has both modern versions and custom wooden mics with vintage cartridges. I have the Bulletinin which I am very happy with.

Effect pedals

Effect pedals is a category I am not very interested in myslef actually. I have never come to grips with them. I would suggest that you hold off buying pedals until you know what you want from them. They can be great additions if you are looking for a specific sound that you are unable to create otherwise. I would also consider pedals icing on the cake and not something that will help your overall playing, if you don’t sound good acoustically pedals are not likely going to help you. Lone Wolf has a bunch of different pedals you can check out. To me delay and reverb pedals seem like a good place to start looking if you are experimenting with your sound.

The benefits of practice over harmonica gear

If you look back at the gear I list as essential you may notice that with the exception of the tool kit everything are practicing tools. The reason I think that practice is so much more valuable is that you will always take it with you. Sometimes you will not have access to your gear and sometimes you may want to play 100% acoustically. Even at those times when you have access to all your harmonica gear and all the best equipment in the world, what you have practiced will still shine through. There is no tool in a live situation that will fix bad timing or bad tone. They are such corner stones in every great players arsenal that they deserve to be put first at al times.

If you ever have to choose between new gear and more practice, I urge you to go for more practice. Hold off with the harmonica gear until you really need it. You will be glad you did. I am curious to hear any thoughts on this.

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Recommendations for Buying Harmonicas

Before you start playing it is pretty obvious that you need a harmonica. Typically what you need if you play blues is a diatonic harmonica. This is the 10-hole version that is quite common in blues, rock and among troubadoures. Some people think this instrument is a toy but nothing could be further from the truth. Diatonic harmonicas from serious brands are serious instruments but suprisingly cheap compared to other instruments. There are a few things you need to know before shopping around for your harp. This article aims to give you a good start.

First of some basic stuff, what you are looking for is a Richter tuned, major diatonic harmonica. Most often you can leave out the “Richter tuned” part when you search for a harp but you want to be sure it is a major diatonic. Most diatonics are major diatonic. Some brands offer other version such as melodic minor and harmonic minor variants. These are more suitable for playing folk music and melodies than blues.

Choosing the key

OK, so now you know the type of harmonica you need, another thing to decide is what key to choose. The key of the harmonica is which scale the harmonica is tuned to. A C-major diatonic harmonica is tuned to the C-major scale. It is basically a small piano with the black keys removed (and a few of the white keys as well). So what key to pick then? First off, it doesn’t matter what key you use when you play by yourself and learn to play. All keys work the same way. However if you play with other people you need to be in the right key.

Recommended key

If you choose a harmonica that is tuned to a very low key it can be more challenging to play at first. Very high pitched harmonicas can also be challenging to control. What you want in the beginning is key somewhere in the middle of the range. Traditionally G is the lowest key and F (or possibly F#) is the highest key. Nowadays many brands offer keys outside this range such as low F, or even down to low low F. I would recommend a C-major harmonica to start with. This puts you in the middle giving you a very workable harmonica without “extra” challenges. Also a C-major harmonica when played in 2nd position is in the key of G which works reasonably well for most guitar players. 2nd position is what you normally learn first.

Additional keys

If you choose to buy more than one harmonica I would recommend an A-major harmonica as well. This plays in the key of E in 2nd position and is also a nice key when you play by yourself. In fact if you get the following keys you are pretty much set for most situations: C, A, G, Bb, low F and D.

Choosing the brand

So, now you know what type of harmonica and the key to buy so now we have to choose a brand. There are a lot of brands out there and in the end it comes down to what you like and what suits your playing style. I make these recommendations based on my own preferences and what I use and have used. If you ask somebody else you may get other recommendations. One thing though, you basically get what you pay for. A cheaper harmonica tends to be less durable and in some cases not as well set up out of the box.

The list below is in order of preference from my point of view.

Hohner harmonicas

Generally speaking I recommend Hohner, their harmonicas have been the standard for many blues players for a long time. This is no accident, other brands may have gained ground at Hohner’s expence during the last few years but for me Hohner is still my choice.

Hohner Special 20

Hohner Special 20 is a plastic comb version of the popular Marine Band harmonica. It is a great beginner harp as it plays well out of the box and is very maintanable. The plastic comb makes it easy to clean and does not swell when getting wet. Many people who start playing these never change to more expensive models. If you are looking for an affordable, durable, maintanable, well setup harmonica with an OK tuning, this is the harmonica for you.

Hohner Marine Band Deluxe

The Marine Band Deluxe was the Hohner flag ship product for a number of years, it is an updated version of the classic Marine Band with a better sealed comb and reed plates that are screwed on rather than nailed. They play very well out of the box and also lend themselves well for repair work and custimization. The tuning of this harp works very well for blues and the chords are beautiful.

Hohner Marine Band Crossover

The Crossover is an updated version of the Marine Band Deluxe with even higher precision and bamboo composite comb that does stands up very well against moisture. As with the delux it is very maintainable and plays lamost perfectly out of the bos. The tuning is slightly different so the chords are not as smooth compared to the delux but it works over a wider range of keys and may therefore be a better choice if you not only play 2nd position blues but other styles and positions as well.

Hohner Marine Band Classic

Before Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover this was the go-to-harmonica for many blues players. An often copied harmonica and for good reason. It works very well out-of-the-box. It has a partially sealed pear wood comb. You may experience som swelling of the comb with this model which is a draw-back. It is not too bad though. The reed plates are nailed to the comb which makes maintenance of this model a bit more cumbersome.

Other harmonicas

The three harmonicas above are far from the only options but reallt what I prefer. Here are some other options to consider if you either don’t like these three, prefer platic combs or can’t get hold of them for some reason.

Hohner Golden Melody is a nice harmonica that is a bit thicker, it plays very well but is tuned to equal tuning which works better for melody playing so chord heavy music is not its strong point. Hohner Pro Harp is a plastic comb harmonica quite close to the Marine Band Classic but very maintainable as it is part of the Hohner MS system. Lee Oskar is a very custimizable and maintainable harmonica with lots of spare part options. They work better for melody heavy music due to their tuning. C.A Seydel & Söhne 1847 Classic is a really good harmonica that feels semi-custom to begin with. The only draw-back is that it is a bit pricey.

There are other brands out there and advanced players sometimes opt for custom harmonicas but that is a topic of its own.