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Diatonic Harmonica Buying Guide

Your guide to buying a Diatonic Harmonica

The diatonic harmonica, or blues harmonica as it is commonly called, doesn't have easy access to all the possible notes like the chromatic harmonica, but many of the notes that are not naturally found can be acquired by "bending" certain draw (inhale) and blow (exhale) notes. It is the 'bending sound' of the diatonic harmonica which attracts most people to it. 

Blues harp, cross harp, gob iron and blues harmonica are all terms that different people may use when referring to diatonic harmonicas. The names may be different but the type of harmonica is the same.

The key of a diatonic harmonica will be printed on its side/end, also on some diatonic harmonicas the 2nd position is also printed on its side/end. Diatonic harmonicas are available in all major, minor keys. eg. a C diatonic harmonica will only have the notes of the key of C, a G diatonic harmonica will only have the notes of the key of G etc.

Here we’ve provided with you some Q&A’s to further assist your diatonic harmonica buying decision.

Q. I am new to the diatonic or blues harmonica,which one do I buy?

A: As both a Music Shop and long time players we have been through this decision ourselves.The most popular harmonica for a complete beginner is a 10 hole harmonica in the key of C. Most starter tuition books are accompanied by a CD in that same key (C) with tunes and instruction for you to play along to.

Q. I want to play the blues and bend notes. What should I buy?

A: We have a lot to chose from. You will hear notes being ‘bent’ when you listen in particular say to a blues player.

You can get that very expressive bluesy sound on all diatonic harmonicas. It’s a technique that can be applied to even the most basic entry level harmonica. Some of the better built harmonicas are easier to bend than others as they are more airtight therefore more responsive so take less effort to play.

Q. Should I buy a wooden combed harmonica or a man made comb?

A: The comb is the structure that the harmonica is built around. Traditionally it is made of wood but other materials are being used these days like plastic,metal and bamboo.The comb will make a difference to the sound, feel and weight of the harmonica.

Q. What are the most popular keys?

A: As a rough guide these are the most popular keys in this order….C A G D E F Bb Eb 
Standard diatonic harmonicas go from the lowest in pitch-G through to the highest in pitch-F#.

Q. What are ‘Low’ keys?

A: Low keyed harmonicas are usually keys that are lower than G. Eg Low C or Low F. Lower notes on a 10 hole diatonic are easier to play than higher ones. The low keyed harmonicas have a very warm and smooth sound that suits some music perfectly. They generally aren’t played too hard though as the reeds are longer and move slower.

Q. Does it make a difference what the reeds are made of?

A: Reeds are what produce the note/sound of a harmonica. Reeds are made from brass, bronze or stainless steel. Brass is the most common material for making reeds. Stainless steel reeds can be found on higher prices instruments. Brass is a soft material and produces a sweet tone. Bronze reeds produce a brighter tone than brass reeds.Stainless steel reeds are stronger than brass and bronze reeds and have a longer life span, harmonicas fitted with these reeds also tend to be more expensive due to their longer life. Reeds are ‘tuned’ at the time of manufacture and in some cases can be re-tuned.

Q. Should I buy a valved harmonica? What are windsavers?

A: A good question. In a nutshell they can make harmonicas easier to play. On harmonicas, ‘valves’ are flaps attached to the reed plate at the rivet over the slot opposite the reed. They are made out of a thin plastic strip, or pair of strips. They block the air stream during a draw from entering through the blow reeds (and vice versa for draw reeds) so less air is required overall to play a reed thus they save wind. Not all diatonic harmonicas are available with valves.

Q. I want to play traditional Irish or Scottish Dance music. What should I buy?

A: To play reels, jigs etc. it helps if you have an airtight, responsive, well-tuned harp. The best available ‘off-the-shelf’ models have either a plastic or metal comb (the bit in the middle!). Models we recommend are: Seydel, Cross Harp, Meisterclass, Golden Melody, Suzuki Pro Master, Lee Oskar by Tombo and Hering Blues & Black Blues.

Q. I want to play the harmonica whilst playing guitar/mandolin/ukulele etc. How do I do that?

A: You will need a neck brace. They sit around your neck, are adjustable and clamp the harmonica so you can play them ‘hands free’ leaving you to play your other instrument. There are several different styles from different manufacturers. Not all harmonicas will fit in all neck braces. We stock models like the professional quality Hohner flexirack and the K&M deluxe neck braces which are amongst the most popular. Please call to check for further advice. Neck braces are not normally used for chromatic harmonicas but can be used on tremolo harmonicas

Q. Can I buy a new set of reed-plates?

A: Yes. We carry a range of replacement reed-plates for most harmonicas. If you are fairly ‘handy’ it is something that can be done. Bear in mind you may affect any warranty if you make any modifications to a harmonica.

Q I have a beard. Does that affect my choice of buying harmonicas?

A: It is a valid question. Some harmonicas are considered beard friendly. Whiskers can sometimes catch in the area between the cover plates and the body causing a little discomfort!! The more ergonomic and tight fitting the harmonica the smoother the outside playing surface is.

Q. I want to play through an amplifier, what do I need?

A: There are some dedicated ‘electric’ harmonicas on the market but it is more common to play into a microphone and connect to a amplifier. Eagle Music Shop offers various solutions in amplification. The Micro Vox system is widely used for harmonica and also check out dedicated harmonica microphones like the Hohner Blues-Blaster.

Q. I play the diatonic and want to try the chromatic. Which one do I go for?

A: We stock lots of chromatic harmonicas for the amateur to the professional. The most popular choice is the 12 hole chromatic in C. Alternatively you can try a solo tuned diatonic like the Seydel Orchestra. These are like a mini chromatic harmonicas.

Whilst the techniques are very similar in playing most harmonicas the note layout is slightly different. The Chromatic harmonicas has more range than the diatonic and is bigger in size. Chromatics vary in price quite a lot depending on quality. A good quality starter chromatic can range from £50 upwards. 

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