Tips for Buying Your First Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

What do you need to know to buy your first harmonica? Your first harmonica doesn’t need to be gold-plated or encrusted with rubies, but it does need to be airtight, responsive to your breath, and in tune.

Pricing a harmonica

The cheaper the harp’s price, the more likely it will be leaky, unresponsive, and out of tune. But that doesn’t mean you have to take out a loan to buy a harp that plays well.

A decent harmonica costs about $30. Use that price as your guide for what to pay. You can pay a little more or a little less, but be aware of the following guidelines:

  • If you buy a harmonica that costs less than $8, you may get lucky and find a decent harp. But the odds aren’t good, and they get much worse as the price goes lower.

  • If you pay much more than $30, you’ll get a good harp, but it may be more than you need right now. New players often damage harps from breathing too hard, so you may as well start with something economical (as long as it’s airtight, responsive, and in tune).

Among the better-known manufacturers whose product lines include good-quality instruments are Hering, Hohner, Lee Oskar, Seydel, Suzuki, and Tombo. The following models are good-quality, reasonably priced starter harmonicas: Hohner Special 20, Lee Oskar Major Diatonic, Seydel Session Standard, and Suzuki Harpmaster.

Determining where to buy a harp

If you’re unsure of where to buy your first harmonica, remember that your local music store likely has some good harmonicas for sale. Its prices may be higher than you’d find online, but you’ll come to realize the following three advantages to buying locally:

  • You don’t have to wait. You can walk in and walk out with a new harmonica in a matter of minutes. And the more you and your fellow harp players buy locally, the more likely your local store will stock harmonicas and have them available when you need one.

  • You don’t pay shipping costs. Many online retailers charge for shipping, which can eat up any cost savings on the price of the harp.

  • You don’t have to guess at quality. By buying at a local store, you get to see a harmonica before you buy it. You can sound the notes using the store’s harmonica tester, which is a bellows that lets you sound out individual holes or several holes at once without actually playing the harp. (Your lips will be the first to actually touch your newly purchased harp.)

    You push the bellows for the blow notes and let it spring back for the draw notes. This test allows you to determine whether all the notes work. And if you sound several holes at once, you can tell whether the harp is in tune. If it sounds bad, it’s probably out of tune.

Even though you benefit from shopping at your local music store, remember that it may not stock all the models and keys you want. You may find a wider selection and lower prices from mail-order sellers online, especially the ones that specialize in harmonicas and related accessories. However, don’t forget that you may have to pay for shipping, wait for it to arrive, and then hope that it isn’t defective.

Always check out the reputation of an online or mail-order seller. You want to ensure that the seller has quick delivery without long delays, is accurate in sending what you ordered, provides good communication with customers, and has a willingness to solve problems when they occur. To check a seller’s reputation, go to some of the online harmonica discussion groups and ask around or read the group’s recent archived postings.