I’ve played harmonica for over 40 years and I’ve played a lot of different harmonicas. I hope this little article is of some help to you in sorting through all the different harmonica brands out there now. This is, of course, not comprehensive guide, because I have not tried everything –but I have tried more than a few brands! You can do a web search for reviews of specific models. Some links at the end have reviews of various specific models. I’m trying to give some general help on brands here. I have tried to be objective and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, though I might, but here goes anyway!
NOT JUST HOHNER! (OR, "TOTO, WE'RE NOT IN TROSSINGEN ANY MORE!")
In the early days there were many companies that made harmonicas. Seydel, for instance, started 10 years before Hohner and Seydel rivaled Hohner until Seydel ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. During World War II the American company Kratt had an up turn because Hohners come from Germany. Eventually Hohner emerged as the primary manufacturer of the instrument and for a period there was a virtual monopoly in the harmonica market. Today the harmonica market has exploded and there are many new brands now being produced. Are any of them any good? EMPHATICALLY YES!
Let’s consider the brands. Everybody knows Hohner, and Hohner certainly makes good harmonicas, but of course realize that not all Hohner models are the same in quality and sometimes you can get a clunker, even from Hohner. There is a world of difference between a Hohner Meisterklasse, Crossover or XB-40, a Blues Band, and a Fuego Azul. The first three are Cadillacs and the last two are closer to Yugos! Now, maybe a Yugo will get you someplace just as sure as a Cadillac, but it will get you there less comfortably, less reliably, and will not last as long. A 10 hole Hohner harmonica can sell for over $100, such as the Meisterklasse, XB-40, or a specially modified harmonica, or it can sell for as little as $4.50, such as the Fuego Azul. You generally get what you pay for in the realm of harmonicas. And now there are other brands that are easily as good as Hohner.
NAME BRANDS: Hohner, Hering, Lee Oskar, Suzuki and Seydel
Some people think Hohner is it, period, but they are grossly mistaken! The free market has produced brands that are equal to Hohner. Some of these companies do not as yet have the extensive catalog Hohner has, but they have models that are at least as good as their Hohner counterparts, better in many cases, and there are, beyond any question or debate, models from other companies that surpass lesser models from Hohner. For example, a Lee Oskar, Hering, Seydel or Suzuki diatonic is FAR SUPERIOR to a Hohner Blues Band, and of course also sells for much more, as it should. A $15 Huang Star Performer or Silvertone Deluxe is also superior to the Hohner Blues Band, which sells for about $6 at Cracker Barrel and is also made in China, not Germany. That’s right, Hohner makes some harmonicas in China, and some of the parts for those that are German made come from China, as well. Hohner Fuego Azuls and Piedmonts are definitely of lower quality. Don’t assume that just because it is a Hohner it will always be better than another brand! That is a very serious mistake!
Blues harp players, and harp players in general, all have personal preferences and, even if they play Hohners, they still debate which Hohner model is better --one harp player may love the Hohner Golden Melody and another may prefer a different model! Many professional players prefer other brands over Hohners these days. Lee Oskar makes a very nice harmonica. Of course, the great Lee Oskar plays his own brand! Hering harmonicas are also catching on and are challenging Hohner. Some players, like Peter Madcat Ruth, prefer Hering harmonicas, and many others especially prefer Hering chromatics. Seydel makes some excellent harmonicas which are now becoming better known in the US market. Charlie Musselwhite and James Cotton endorse them. I visited the Seydel factory in Klingenthal Germany and got the grand tour. They still make harmonicas by hand, are 100% German made, and they take great pride in their instruments. Their model 1847 with stainless steel reedplates is a real innovation, is great to play, and compares to customized harps. It is pricey, but cheaper than the customizers charge. The 1847 Silver is even dishwasher safe! The new Seydel 1847 Session Steel is less expensive, has the same stainless steel reeds, and an unusual orange plastic comb. I personally love it. The Seydel Soloist is a very nice harp and has a wooden body and their Session harmonica has a great sleek design with a plastic body. It has rounded edges and is sleeker to hold than most harps. Both are high quality harps. They also have a Blues Favorite with a metal comb that is similar to the Hohner Meisterklasse, but again, rounded edges. An exciting new model is the Seydel Session Steel, with stainless steel reeds and a modest price. Regarding Huang, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Huang harmonicas I’ve tried. They are less expensive, a real bargain, but still fairly decent harps, but you get what you pay for. Bushman also makes good harps, or perhaps I should say puts their names on them, as they are actually made for them by Suzuki and Seydel! Buy a Seydel Session or Suzuki Harpmaster or Bluesmaster is my advice, instead of a Bushman, because the service is far superior. Suzuki makes some excellent very top line harmonicas. Their Promaster line is similar to Hohner Meisterklasse, with metal combs, but at a better price. I like the Promaster better than the Meisterklasse. It has a bit brighter sound. Their Bluesmasters and Harpmasters are very nice harps and reasonably priced. Their new Manji is a great harp, too. I would rank Seydel and Suzuki as the top diatonic harps, with some of the Herings equal or better than many Hohners. All of these brands are respectable harps and to some degree the differences between harps of a similar price are a matter of taste and personal preference rather than quality. Hohner, Hering, Lee Oskar, Suzuki, and Seydel are what you would call top “name brands" and they all make quality harmonicas. I suggest you get a harmonica from one of these top brands and spend at least $35. (Some of these same companies also make cheaper models, like the very mediocre Hohner Piedmonts. Any harmonicas in the $5-10 range are not going to be as good as more expensive harps, of course! See below.)
CHEAP HARMONICAS: $5 TO $10 RANGE -- YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR...
As mentioned above, Hohner and several other name brand companies make some lesser quality harmonicas, so beware of their low end models, but some additional companies specialize in very inexpensive harmonicas. I’ve tried the Johnsons and Meranos and they are OK for the price. We’re talkng $5 range here. (I’ve tried Hohner Piedmonts and found them not as good as the Johnsons and Meranos! Piedmonts are horrible harps in my opinion!) You do get what you pay for generally speaking in life, though sometimes you find a bargain. The Johnsons and Meranos take more breath than more expensive brands, are not as bright or loud, are not as easy to bend, and may have a plastic smell. I have not tried Kay or Chicago Blues, but they are in the same ball park, I suspect, as they are in the same price range. The Huang Bacpac is playable, inexpensive and OK for the price. Hohner’s Blues Band is not bad for $5 and Hohner's Old Standby and Hot Metal are also inexpensive models, under $10. Bends are a bit harder on these, but they will all play. I have a Hohner American Ace that is alright. Suzuki Folkmasters are pretty good harps and are a great value. The Hohner Fuego Azul is very low end. So you see, price does make a difference, even with a Hohner! I’ve tried several cheap Chinese made tremolos like Golden Cup, Parrot, and Hero. They all play, cost only a few dollars, and are good gifts for kids. None of these inexpensive harmonicas are for a serious player who wants to play in public, but if you want to try a harmonica, these cheap brands and low end models are not much of an investment, though they may frustrate you because they are not as easy to play.
LOW PRICED $15-$25 BUT OK
If you want a good playable bargain harp go with a Suzuki Folkmaster or a Hohner Big River, or a Huang Star Performer or Silvertone Deluxe, all of which are in the $15-$25 range. The Hohner Blues Bender is pretty good and sells for about $20.
CHROMATICS: Name brands are Hering, Hohner, Seydel, and Suzuki.
A few final words about Chromatic harmonicas. There are basically only a few name brands available in the US: Hering, Hohner, Suzuki, and Seydel, though sometimes you see some other brands here and there on ebay. I personally prefer Herings, Seydels and Suzukis over Hohners, but all five of these brands are high in quality, though I have not liked Hohner Chromettas at all. The Hohner CX12 is great and the Hohner 280 and 64 Professional have been standards for years. Hering also makes a 64 which is on an equal level as far as I am concerned. In a 12 hole model, and these are the ones which come in other keys, I think the Herings are an excellent choice because of their air tightness and the shape of their mouthpiece, plus the mouthpiece has round holes, but many folks prefer the old Hohner 270, which also has come out in a new 270 Deluxe model with round holes. Seydel chromatics can be special ordered with a round holed mouthpiece. Suzuki makes high quality chromatics. I have received a good reports from folks who have tried the SCX line (48, 56 and 64) and I have tried the Magic Garden, which is more expensive. They also put out several top line pro models like the Gregiore Maret and the Sirius. They are definitely quality harmonicas. Seydel makes an excellent chromatic, their Chromatic Deluxe, that is very similar to the Hohner 270, but has an acrylic comb (also available in wood). It is is much tighter than the Hohners, and is a great value. Seydel has now come out with the amazing Saxony Chromatic with stainless steel reeds and an aluminum comb. Is is a high end pro model. The mouthpiece is shaped like the Hering chromatics. This is an amazing harmonica. Seydel also makes their Chromatic Standard model, which is an inexpensive entry level chromatic. It has no wind savers, which means less maintenance and no problems in cold weather, but it is not as air tight as their Deluxe model and does not have much volume, either. I am not enthused about it, but it has its place as an "outside" cold weather harp. Hohner's Educator is a similar cheaper entry level model. Huang puts out a 12 hole chromatic that is available in C, though made in other keys. Now Huang has issued a redesigned version with a rounded mouthpiece. These are very reasonably priced and a good value, yet fairly decent quality chromatics if you want to save a little money. I do not recommend anything below this price range. I have also tried an inexpensive Chinese imitation of the Hohner CX12, the Golden Butterfly WH12 and it isn’t too bad at all for a very cheap chromatic and I've been playing it for a while now. It did have an unusual odor when it first came, though, and I have read other reviews that mention that. Yamaha made a nice chromatic at one time and Miwha from Korea makes or made an inexpensive one that works ok and sometimes these go up for sale. I cannot speak much from personal experience about some other inexpensive chromatic harmonica brands like Swan, Lark, Victory, etc, though I have tried one very cheap Chinese chromatic, a Hero, and it worked ok, but was a little different to play because of note spacing and of course did not have anywhere as good a tone as a better chromatic and it was very cheaply constructed. I have tried a cheap Chinese 10 holed chromatic that plays OK but does not have much volume. It looks exactly like a Hohner Educator, and probably is one without the Hohner engraving, and it is ok to keep in the car to play at stoplights. I've had reports on the Swan that it is not very tight. These do provide inexpensive possibilities if you want to try a chromatic or give one to a kid and you are not interested in investing much. Realize cheaper models do not play as well, though, so you may get frustrated and quit prematurely. You generally get what you pay for! If you are more serious, you cannot go too far wrong with a new Hering, Hohner (but avoid Chromettas), Seydel or Suzuki chromatic.
One last mention in the chromatic department is you can buy a solo-tuned 12 hole harmonica, like the Hering Master Solo or the Huang Cadet Soloist to get a feel for a chromatic. The Hering is better and the Huang is cheaper but works. These have no slide for the sharps and flats but are tuned like a chromatic. They work pretty well for third position Blues in D like a chromatic. These sell in the $22-$40 range. A better choice is the Seydel Soloist Pro 12 Solo Tuned, which costs more but is an excellent harp.
To give full disclosure, I am currently selling all harmonica brands except Bushmans. I am truly trying to be as upfront and objective as possible in my assessments here. I am an authorized dealer for Seydel, Suzuki, Hering, Hohner, Lee Oskar and Huang.
My site: www.eezyreeder.com
These sites have reviews of specific harmonica models: