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The blues harmonica, better known as the blues harp, is integral to the classic driving sounds of soul-ripping blues and urban blues. It is even responsible for the beginnings of acid rock. Icons throughout the last 125 years have made the blues harp synonymous with soul, grit, and inspiration.
The blues harp greats like Little Walter and Paul Butterfield became godfathers of the blues genre through their unique mastery of this powerful little instrument. It can be picked up and learned by anyone, but mastery only comes with hours of daily practice. This guide will cover great blues harp options for beginners and experienced harmonicists alike.
Hohner Marine Band Harmonica – Best Overall
We are going to start this list of the best blues harmonicas off with the classic Hohner Marine Band Harmonica. This is the harmonica that was played by Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, John Lennon, and Bruce Springsteen, just to name a few. If it is good enough for Little Walter, then it is good enough for any blues player anywhere.
This is the classic brass reed, wood comb, diatonic, 10-hole harmonica that started the entire genre of blues harp music. Available in 12 keys, it sports the original Marine Band detailing that would have been on the harmonicas played by the blues giants. Using this harmonica is like jumping into a place in history. This harmonica, well played, delivers the same sounds that inspired decades of blues musicians, bands, and fans.
This harmonica has been overshadowed in later years by harmonicas that are made and marketed as blues harps or blues harmonicas, but this is the original, and many argue, the best. Today this harmonica is viewed as a perfect instrument for beginners and intermediate players.
- It has 20 brass reeds with a pearwood comb.
- Undivided air channels allow blues players to bend the reeds, creating the signature soulful wailing quality that is synonymous with blues harps.
- Add to that the rich, fat sound and depth of character that is unique to the Marine Band.
It is no wonder that this is a perennial must-have even for those who branch out into other harmonica brands and models.
The wooden comb is one part of the design that gives the Marine Band its loud, heavy, and rich sound. It is also one complaint that beginners have. The wooden comb is not as kind to new lips. Those who stick with it will have an incredible skill on the very best blues harp there has ever been.
The Marine Band harmonica has vented sides, which is the original design. This design delivers maximum volume, but it also means that players have to cover the vents to get more mellow and muted sounds from the instrument. It also requires a little more coordination to achieve certain hand effects. While that was not a negative for Paul Butterfield, each player has their own sound preferences.
Hohner 532 Blues Harp MS-Series Harmonica
The Hohner 532 Blues Harp MS-Series Harmonica is a follow-up to the Marine Band Harmonica that riffs on the blues style that was born from the older Hohner series. This 50-year-old series has a more mellow sound built into it by design. It has brass reeds, 10 holes, and a sweet, soulful sound. It is a diatonic blues harp that is available in 12 keys.
This design needs slightly more aggression to play than the Marine Band model, but it also achieves a more gritty, dirty blues sound than the Marine Band model. The sounds that come from the closed side vents help the player to deliver consistent notes at a consistent volume.
This series is advertised as being the iconic sound of “whiskey bars, juke joints, and good times.” That is a great description of the gritty and iconic sound that wails from these blues harps. This is the type of blues harp that can be made to talk to the soul.
Players find them easier to bend and achieve hand effects due to the closed vents. However, higher notes tend to lose their sparkle and ring because of the lack of venting. What some call sparkle, others call sharp and irritating, so it is a matter of preference. It really does give an overall different sound than the original Marine Band, and most blues players like different models for different venues.
A great selling point of the MS series harmonicas by Hohner is that they have interchangeable combs, reeds, and plates to suit many different styles of playing. So those who are more adventurous can experiment with swapping out various components to achieve a new sound that is all their own. That is just how Butterfield would do it too.
The final benefit of a closed vent model is for concert venues. This model works better when using a pickup. The harmonica can be tricky to amplify, especially for those high open-vented notes. The closed vent models are easier to amplify because they naturally deliver a more rich, mellow tone that is amp-friendly.
Fender Blues Deluxe Harmonica – Budget Choice
The Fender Blues Deluxe Harmonica is a great choice, especially for beginners. This is an entry-level harmonica that is easy on the wallet. Entry-level does not mean that it skimps on sound or ease of play. This is a great blues harp to learn on, and it will offer nice sounds through intermediate skill levels.
This harmonica is designed by Fender, a well-known and much-loved guitar and amp company. It is natural for Fender to branch out into manufacturing other instruments that will be used in blues, jazz, and rock bands.
This harmonica is made with brass reeds and an ABS plastic comb. The ABS delivers a sound that is richer than some might think, but it is not as rich as a wood comb. This harmonica gives a much brighter sound, which is preferable for many, especially in group jam settings where mellower sounds are drowned in the noise.
The upside of ABS is that it will keep its tuning and dry out fully in-between sessions. It comes with a vented storage case to help it dry. The all-around durability of a Fender Blues Deluxe Harmonica is unarguable. With stainless steel, brass, and ABS components, this little blues harp will play a lot of music and last a long time.
It is a 10-hole diatonic harmonica with brass reeds that is available in 7 keys including C, G, A, D, F, E, and B-flat. Most beginner to intermediate players will find this to be an ample selection for their repertoire.
The Fender Blues Deluxe harmonicas are also available in 3-packs that include harmonicas tuned to the keys of C, G, and A. They are also available in a seven-pack that includes all available keys. Both packs include a special case to hold all of the blues harmonicas in one place.
Fender Blues DeVille Harmonica
The Fender Blues DeVille Harmonica is a beautiful upgrade on the Fender Blues Deluxe model. It features the same ABS plastic comb, but the reeds are made from phosphor bronze reeds. This material makes the reeds durable but slightly more elastic so that it is easy to attain rich, mellow notes and practice bending.
The cover is black chromed metal with etched decorations. This satiny black with gold accents makes this harmonica draw a look, and then another look. The best part is it sounds as good as it looks.
The specs on the Fender Blues DeVille Harmonica:
- 10 holes
- 20 phosphor bronze reeds
- ABS plastic comb
- Chromed metal cover
This harmonica is designed to play on-key for a very long time and look good doing it. It includes a vented case to help the harmonica dry out faster, even in its protective case.
The Fender Blues DeVille Harmonica comes in seven different keys including C, G, A, D, F, E, and B-flat. Fender also sells a seven-harmonica kit. This bundle includes one harmonica in every key, and a protective case to keep them all together.
For those who need less variety, they also have a three-harmonica bundle with a case that includes the keys of C, G, and A. Both bundles offer the harmonicas at a much-discounted price compared to buying them singly.
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Harmonica
The Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Harmonica was designed by jazz/funk harmonica pioneer Lee Oskar. As a founding member of the band, WAR, Lee was the lead harmonicist who pioneered a vision of new music genres for the harmonica. Unable to find exactly the right harmonica to suit his musical vision, he went on a quest to design his own. Harmonicists everywhere can now experience the Oskar sound.
Lee Oskar teamed up with a Japanese harmonica company named Tombo, which has been manufacturing harmonicas since 1917. They built his designs into new harmonicas with unique tuning to create the distinctive sounds of various musical genres from folk to hip-hop and everything in-between.
The Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Harmonica is perfect for playing killer blues. This can be played in the first position (straight harp) or second position (cross harp) depending on the type of melody and amount of chord notes that are desired in the music. Cross harp is the most widely used position for the blues harp.
The major diatonic harmonica is one of four harmonicas designed by Lee Oskar, two of which are suitable for playing the blues. This particular harmonica has the regular major scale tuning in a whopping 18 keys. This makes the Lee Oskar harmonicas suitable for everyone from beginner through expert because a harmonica can be purchased to play any song in any key.
Each Lee Oskar Diatonic Harmonica has brass reed plates that are easily replaceable by opening the case. It is held together by 3 self-tapping screws for quick disassembly and reassembly. This harmonica has a plastic comb with wider holes and narrower dividers which makes the notes easier to hit.
Each type of tuning is color-coded for easy indexing, and first and second positions are clearly marked. The 18 diatonic harmonicas are colored orange on the carrying case so that they are easy to distinguish from other types of tunings that are available from Lee Oskar.
Lee Oskar Natural Minor Harmonica
There are rock blues and country blues, but what is more haunting than those slow minor blues? Some of the most memorable blues songs are in the minor keys, and Lee Oskar makes them easier to play than ever. Playing in minor keys on a major key tuned blues harp is a very advanced skill that still does not render a complete minor scale.
The Lee Oskar Natural Minor Harmonica series features 12 unforgettable minor keys. These blues harps are tuned with five altered notes that hit the minor notes perfectly in each minor-tuned scale. This means that every musician can play complicated minor compositions in the second position without advanced skills. This opens up a new world of music for many harmonicists who dream of playing old minor blues favorites.
The natural minor harmonica is also manufactured in Japan by Tombo and has fully replaceable brass reeds and a plastic comb. The natural minor tuned harmonicas are color-coded green on the carrying cases for easy organization.
Lee Oskar has designed other tunings for harmonicas, but the major diatonic and natural minor harmonicas are the only two that are suitable for playing blues music.
Suzuki is well-known for instruments and learning methods that are different from the rest. They are especially well-known for their violins. They also offer an array of other unique instruments that are well made and beautiful to hear. One of these collections is their harmonica lineup. They have some lovely harmonicas including a model made just for the blues.
The Suzuki Bluesmaster is a quality diatonic harmonica that comes in at a middle price point, making it a good selection for a wide array of blues harmonicists. This is a 10-hole harmonica with phosphor bronze reeds. That makes it easier to play and bend even for beginners.
- The Suzuki Bluesmaster is made with an ABS plastic comb for more accurate tuning, and a longer lifespan.
- It features stainless steel cover plates for easy reed replacement when the time comes to put in new ones.
- It is available for purchase in 12 keys.
The smooth case design makes this easier to play for some and is generally considered a good entry-level harmonica. Many harmonicists start on a Suzuki Bluesmaster before exploring other types of harmonicas. This does not have as rich of a sound as the Marine Band or the Hohner 532 Blues Harp, but it does have a nice clear tuning that is especially good for single-note melodies.
Seydel Blues SESSION Steel
Seydel has been making harmonicas since 1847, and it shows in all the right ways. The Seydel Blues SESSION Steel harmonicas are popular for a very good reason. These harmonicas are highly responsive, which is necessary for great blues. These are more popular with those who play blues/rock and blues/funk because of the predictable responsiveness of this blues harp.
Seydel reeds are stainless steel. This means that they are a little stiffer so they require a little more air to get the vibration going on the reeds. However, they are corrosion resistant, making them more resilient in the long term. All reeds need replacement after a time, but stainless steel reeds should last longer than most others. Seydel claims that stainless steel reeds last five times longer than other types of reeds.
Seydel Blues SESSION Steel blues harps are available in 18 keys, including a fantastic array of low keys. The mouthpiece is completely rounded and the comb is made of ABS plastic which makes this blues harp more comfortable for beginners and those with facial hair. Pairing ABS plastic with stainless steel makes for a blues harp that will keep going and keep its tuning for years to come.
The reed plates are designed with very tight tolerances to avoid air loss. This makes them easier to play and gives a clearer sound that resonates better.
Those who are looking for a more unique stainless steel blues harp can get the Seydel Blues SESSION Steel with an antique sepia brown finish that is very eye-catching.
What to Look for in a Blues Harmonica
There are certain traits to look for in a blues harmonica. While many are marketed as being specifically made to play the blues, the fact remains that a blues harmonica is simply a diatonic harmonica. It plays a single key and can be played in the second position, or cross harp, which allows for chords rather than single-note melodies.
The best blues harmonica is one that can be played for hours with comfort and gives the richest tone. This means something different for everyone. A more comfortable harmonica may be better for new players to avoid having sore lips discouraging them from practice.
Types of Reeds in a Blues Harmonica
A blues harmonica can be made with three kinds of reeds that all sound good and the preference is all up to the player. Some are more durable than others, and they each have slightly different tonal qualities.
- Stainless steel reeds are less widely used, but have a nice resonance and last longer than other reeds. Those who play especially hard, such as blues rock harmonicists will still blow through a set of stainless steel reeds pretty quickly, and they will need to be replaced.
- Brass reeds are the most common. They have a nice bright sound that can be more mellow depending on the body type. They have an all-around beautiful tone. They are more susceptible to breakage with very rough play, but they can also be replaced.
- Phosphor bronze reeds are made of mostly brass and tin with a tiny bit of phosphorus added. That little bit of phosphorus helps the metal to be slightly more malleable with a nice resonance. These reeds are a little easier for practicing bending distortions.
A professional should buy a blues harp that allows for reed changes. Some of the very cheap blues harps have rivets instead of screws. They are so cheap that it is assumed they will be discarded for a new one when the reeds have broken or gone out of tune. Those who play blues harp seriously will need to replace reeds sooner or later.
Plastic Combs vs. Wooden Combs
ABS plastic combs are more durable and hold the tuning better than traditional wooden combs. The debate is on as to which is better, and it comes down to personal preference. The ABS plastic is easier on the lips because it is smooth. The wooden combs deliver that big, thick sound that made the blues harp so popular in the first place, but they are harder on beginner lips.
The ABS plastic dries out quickly with no deformation, whereas moisture will eventually cause wear and tear on wooden combs. The ABS plastic holds perfect tuning until the reeds break or wear out. The combs are subject to deterioration, causing the blues harp to lose tune and need more frequent repair. However, for purists and those who want to make that original blues harp music, there really is no competition.
Venting or No Venting
A hotly debated topic. The only other thing about blues harps that may be different depending on the model is the side venting. Most blues harps do not have side vents, but some do. The side vents deliver additional volume out the side which can be a great benefit in jam sessions. This helps players hear their own sounds better instead of getting drowned out in the group.
Closed vent blues harps have a more mellow sound and work better with a pickup. It can be hard to amplify a harmonica with side vents because the sound coming out of the reeds is a little less predictable, especially in the highest notes. They can cause distortion and feedback in amplification. For this reason, most harmonicists choose a closed blues harp when it is going to be amplified with a pickup.
The Best Harmonica Brands
We prefer to recommend brands that we know, who have a long history making harmonicas. This does not mean that there are not also great harmonicas on the market from less-known brands or more recent brands. These are brands that we know and love for various reasons. We can recommend them and know that people will love the blues harps that they get. Our favorites include:
- Lee Oskar
- Fender Blues
We have a sweet, nostalgic place in our hearts for Hohner, because they are the original. They are still making blues harps in the way that they did when Bruce Springsteen first started blowing our minds on one. The Marine Band model was played by Little Walter who used it to invent a new genre of harmonica music and inspired generations of musicians to come.
For these reasons, as well as the fat, resonant, rich tones that come from the Marine Band, Hohner is always our top pick for blues harps. A close second is the Hohner 532. These are great little harmonicas that deliver that dirty, gritty blues sound that we love. These two blues harps are ones that most harmonicists will reach for often, if not first. The wooden combs are part of the magic.
We also really love the Lee Oskar harmonicas, especially the Natural Minor series. These are great-sounding harmonicas, but the natural minor series stands out because they make it easy to play some incredibly complex music. These turn minor pieces into a reality for those who have not yet achieved expert skills on the blues harp.
Next, we really like the Fender Blues for the blend of richness and affordability. These also have a nice bright but gritty blues vibe. The DeVille model takes that grittiness and adds classic styling. If a bottle of Jack Daniels could be a harmonica, this would be it.
Finally, Seydel is a really popular choice for intense players who constantly blow through reeds. The stainless steel sounds good, holds up to abuse, and is easy to replace. We also like the longevity of the Seydel company. They obviously know what they are doing. The Suzuki Bluesmaster is a good all-around model that is good for beginners but stands up to a fair amount of abuse before needing new reeds.
Top Beginner Harmonicas For Blues Music, Conclusion
Blues Harmonica is a staple of American culture, even for those who do not stop to pay attention to it. The raging harmonica strains that run through rock music, hip-hop, country music, and back to its roots of jazz, blues, and folk music are inextricable from the American music landscape.
Blues harps are beautiful, fun to play, affordable, and give the color and dimension that makes blues so gritty and soulful. They can be integral to a band, or stand-alone in haunting refrains. They do not need a power source, an amplifier, or an electronic tuner. They are solo music at its finest. From single-note melodies to intense riffs, the blues harmonica is a haunting and memorable musical sound.