Picking up a new instrument can feel like a daunting undertaking. Learning to play is often time-consuming (especially if you never took lessons), not to mention the fact that many musical instruments — even at the entry level — can be expensive, pricing out any potential players who need to stick to a budget for their new hobby. The harmonica, though, is decidedly neither of these things. It’s tiny, relatively easy to pick up and start playing, and generally affordable, with many professional models coming in at under $50.
When you’re looking for a starter harmonica, the experts we spoke with advise sticking to diatonic harmonicas (or harps) as opposed to chromatic harmonicas, because harps are easy to learn, even without an extensive musical background. “You can start playing a few notes right away, and intuitively, without knowing music theory,” explains Yvonnick Prene, who teaches at both the New York Harmonica School and Harmonica Studio. Harps typically have ten holes and are ideal for playing rock, blues, or folk music. No matter what starter harp you choose, though, musician and music teacher Sasha Vallely recommends getting it in the key of C, because “that is the easiest key to learn on and memorize the notes.” To find the best harmonicas for beginners, we asked Prene, Vallely, and four other harmonicists and teachers to recommend their favorites, which we’ve listed below.
Best overall harmonica for beginners
Four of the experts we spoke with recommend beginner harmonica players start out with the reliable and well-designed Hohner Special 20. “I am always happy to see a student walk in with a Special 20,” says Zoe Savage, a harmonica teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music. This model has a plastic comb that is comfortable on the mouth, even after practicing for long periods of time. Plus, at under $50, it is an affordable starter instrument that you won’t need to ditch if your hobby becomes a passion, because the Special 20 is also the “go-to harmonica for professional players on a budget,” according to Grammy-nominated blues harmonica player David Barrett.
Best harmonica for learning single notes
Three of our experts (Vallely, musician Brian McIniss, and New York City–based musician and private teacher Marcus Millius) like the Lee Oskar harmonica because it has slightly larger holes than other models and a bright and clear tone that makes it easy to learn how to isolate and play single notes — something beginner students often struggle with. Millius says it’s also a great model for learning how to bend notes, which is one of the main techniques in harmonica playing. “These are very airtight, and because of that most of my beginner students find it ideal for learning bending,” he says.
Best harmonica with a wood comb for beginners
Compared to the Special 20 (which has what’s called an enclosed construction), this Hohner Marine Band harmonica has side vents that give it a “brighter, more vibrant sound,” says Barrett, who calls it the “gold-standard harmonica model.” (He specifically likes the Marine Brand Crossover, which is very similar to this but features raised cover plates, a rounded-off comb made of bamboo wood, and a screw-fitted construction for easy cleaning.) But McIniss notes that while Marine Brand harmonicas have an excellent quality of sound, beginners may find this model harder to play than the Special 20 because of its mouthpiece’s design. “It’s not as easy on the lips,” he explains. “But don’t let that stop you from picking up one for yourself.”
Best ergonomic harmonica for beginners
Prene also loves Hohner’s Golden Melody harmonica for its warm tone, airtight construction, and ergonomic, rounded shape. Another unique feature is that the Golden Melody has a larger plastic comb compared to those of other harmonicas, making it easy to hold while also “assuring a relaxed embouchure,” or placement of the mouth on the instrument, according to Prene. McIniss agrees that this harmonica fits nicely in your hand, saying it’s a very good choice when learning “expressive hand dynamics.”
Best higher-end harmonica for beginners
“This harmonica is not only beautiful but will last longer than the average one,” says Millius, who admits that it’s expensive but says it is “of the highest quality and value.” Made with stainless-steel reeds and a maple-wood comb that will resist wear and tear, this one may be worth splurging on if you are super-serious about your new hobby, he says. “Imagine someday giving your first harmonica to your children rather than throwing it away.”
Best chromatic harmonica for intermediate players
Chromatic harmonicas have up to 16 holes (compared to diatonic harmonicas’ ten), giving them a more versatile range that experienced musicians will find better suited for playing jazz and classical music. “A simple way to think about the diatonic harmonica is that it has the white keys of the piano, where the chromatic harmonica has both white and black,” explains Barrett. “You’ll have to learn solfeggio, scales, and basic music theory to use it at its best,” adds Prene. That’s why he says chromatic models are best for intermediate players who are starting to learn more complex songs. If that sounds like you or the harmonica player in your life, Barrett and Prene recommend this 12-hole Super Chromonica 270 Deluxe, from the same brand that makes our best overall harmonica for beginners. “It has a warm tone that I love, and it has the quick responsiveness I need,” says Prene, who has been playing this harmonica since he was a teenager. An added benefit of the 270 Deluxe is that it’s assembled with screws, which makes it a snap to take apart for cleaning and maintenance.
The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.