The harmonica is a familiar instrument from childhood. This reed wind instrument with its characteristic rumbling metallic sound is popular in blues, jazz, rock, country and folk music. Harmonica largely shaped the sound of these genres at the beginning of the 20th century. It is not surprising that the instrument has received a large number of admirers around the world.
There are many varieties of harmonicas – chromatic and diatonic, tremolo and octave, bass, orchestral, toy, with metal reeds and brass. How not to get lost in all this diversity and choose your first instrument?
Types of harmonicas
Professional musicians performing complex compositions on harmonica do not recommend any instrument as their very first. The point here is not so much in the quality of the harmonic itself, but in its type. Below we will analyze the main types of harmonicas and consider their differences.
Orchestral harmonica is perhaps the rarest instrument of all the types presented here. Orchestral harmonicas include bass harmonics, chord harmonics, instruments that have several manuals. Due to its complexity and rarity, this subtype is not suitable for initial training.
These accordions have the same classic sound, but they have one interesting characteristic – the presence of all the sounds of the scale, as, for example, the piano. That is, in addition to the main tones, there are semitones here, which are activated by valves using a special button on the body. The chromatic harmonica has a sophisticated design and can be played in all keys of the chromatic scale. It can be easily distinguished from others by the presence of a dedicated valve switch button.
Such instruments are most often used in jazz, orchestral and classical music, and they are not recommended for acquaintance with the harmonica due to their increased complexity. If you want to learn how to play the chromatic harmonica, gain experience with a simpler (diatonic) instrument, master all the techniques of sound production, and only then try to master this instrument.
By and large, these instruments are diatonic, which we will discuss below. The only difference is that, in this subtype of harmonics, for each sound hole there is an additional one tuned with the main one in an octave.
This means that a musician, when playing one note, hears it in two ranges at once – bass and upper register. It expands, enriches the sound, gives it a special charm, but the octave harmonica is not suitable for beginners.
As in the previous subtype of accordions, these also have two holes per note. The difference is that now the holes are tuned not in octave between themselves, but almost in unison, with a slight detuning. This gives a characteristic ripple when playing, the effect of vibration, the sound is very rich and textured.
Of course, you can try to start with a thermolo harmonica, but experienced musicians do not recommend this, because excesses in sound can confuse a beginner, for whom it is important to learn how to cleanly and correctly extract the basic harmonica sounds.
This subtype of harmonicas is considered the most popular. Blues and rock are played on such instruments, popular and classical musicians love them. Perhaps, speaking of the harmonica, they mean this very instrument. The diatonic harmonica, in the classic version, has 10 holes, tuned without semitones in a specific tuning. For example, a harmonica in the “C” tuning will have all the sounds of one octave of the white piano keys – C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
Diatonic harmonica differs in tuning – there are major and minor, tuned in the key of a certain note – C, REM, F and others. The structure of such a harmonica is indicated by a Latin letter corresponding to its tonality. For example, an accordion in the “C” tuning will have the Latin letter “C” on the body or packaging.
Harmonica for beginners
As you have seen, the simplest type of instrument is the diatonic harmonica and it is with it that you should start learning. Diatonic harmonics are considered the best option for beginners – their functionality is enough to learn how to perform all the basic techniques of the game, such as blowing, blocking the valve, vibrato, articulation with the palms and others. In addition, most harmonica textbooks concentrate on the study of the diatonic instrument.
When choosing an accordion, you should also give preference to well-known brands. For example, such a popular brand as Hohner has been producing harmonicas for over 150 years. Its product line is so wide that it allows you to choose a high quality harmonica for every taste. An experienced salesperson will always give advice on the key and type of instrument.
How to choose the right harmonica tuning
Most educators and professionals alike agree that the key for the first instrument is C (C). This key has the most basic sound; most self-instruction manuals, video tutorials and other materials on teaching the harmonica have been written to it.
The moment you master all the basic techniques of playing, you will be able to play harmonica of any key, in accordance with your idea, personal sympathy, or the key in which your band plays. Professionals do not strive to choose a universal type of harmonica – they simply do not exist, but they have in their arsenal several types of harmonicas of different tonality.
How to choose a harmonica
We have collected all the recommendations for choosing harmonicas in one list:
- It is better to choose a diatonic harmonica as the first harmonica;
- When in doubt about which tuning to buy a harmonica, use the C tuning (C);
- Experienced musicians advise to choose a harmonica made by a well-known brand. The best harmonics are made by Hohner, Suzuki, Lee Oskar. They are not very expensive, but they can serve you a huge amount of time;
- Don’t buy cheap toy harmonica or baby harmonica. As a rule, they do not keep in tune and are unable to reproduce many of the techniques of the game. If you are looking for a serious musical instrument, go for tried and tested models. Musicians advise, at first, not to spend fabulous money on custom-made harmonica. Although they are very good, they may not be suitable for a beginner – they require a special technique of execution;
- Wood in the body material is a reason to think. Despite the fact that wood has been used in harmonica since the day of its invention, it can cause a number of inconveniences that will discourage the desire to play. Of course, the wooden body adds warmth to the sound and feels good on the lips. But these positive aspects instantly disappear when the tree begins to soften. When delaminating, wood fibers create splinters that can cause discomfort when playing and degrade the sound;
- When purchasing, be sure to listen to each mouth organ opening, inhaling and exhaling. For this, the seller has special furs, or you will be allowed to blow the accordion yourself. You should not hear any extraneous crackling, clanging, or wheezing. All notes should be played easily and cleanly.