What harp?

I have selected my favourite harps in each of three categories… I am sure that there will be people with different opinions – I know fellow players who are Hohner men through and through, equally, I have friends who swear that Lee Oskars cannot be beaten – and it’s always worth trying out a few different harps to find your own particular favourite. My aim is to give you my honest and objective opinion from many years of playing. I believe the harps below are definitely worth trying… I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

a) Throw-away
More and more extremely playable harps are being produced at silly prices. By and large, these come from China; some are more than adequate for blowing away the cobwebs at home. The best ones are approaching gigging quality.

Johnson Blues King
At less than £4 (from Coast to Coast Music), I was naturally skeptical when I read about these harps. But they are a revelation. I was convinced that there was no harp in this price bracket that I would use on stage… I was wrong. I purchased the full 12-harp set to use as practice instruments, purely because of the price, and was amazed by their tone and playability straight out of the box. They are certainly a little on the quiet side, but this is good for practice purposes and doesn’t pose a problem on stage as you can simply turn the amp up. To an extent, of course, you get what you pay for and they do not sound quite as good as those I have chosen in the other price brackets, although, they do sound a lot better than some far more expensive harps. They are easy to bend, robust and have a very even volume across all the reeds, something that can’t always be said of harps costing five or six times as much as these super budget instruments. They look and feel very similar to the Hohner Special 20, except for their stylish violet/blue comb.

2) Budget
There are some pretty good harps around for less than £20 a pop. The best of these make excellent practice instruments… the very best are certainly adequate for gigging purposes.

Huang Star Performer
The Star Performer is, for my money, the best Chinese-made harp on the market. It has the same distinctive shape as the Hohner Golden Melody and, although a fraction of the price, is every bit as good, if not better. I have had mine for yonks and they just seem to improve with age. They are a doddle to bend, feel solid in the hand and have a lovely warm, sweet tone. It is far, far superior to the similarly priced Silvertone Deluxe by the same manufacturer, which, by comparison, looks and feels cheap, sounds tinny and has nasty sharp edges. Just about the only thing I don’t like about the Star Performer is the fact that the reed plates come flush with the front of the comb, as with many of the old wooden-combed instruments. I prefer the feel of the modern instruments, on which the reed plates sit inside the comb. Out of the box, the front edge of each cover plate is located in a slot in the reed plate, leaving the edges of the reed plates protruding. These edges feel a bit sharp against your lips, especially if you have become accustomed to playing plastic-combed instruments. There are two ways to cure this problem. First, if you loosen the screws, you can push the cover plates flush with the front of the comb. This not only feels much nicer to play, but seems to improve the sound, too. However, the cover plates on a couple of my Star Performers have a tendency to slip back into the slot, leaving the edges of the reed plates exposed again. With these, I’ve rounded the edges with a small file, which helped. With either of these two minor modifications, they feel tremendous. The Star Performer is aptly named… a genuine five-star performer and, at around £10, an absolute steal. There really is no better harp on the market for the beginner or intermediate player.

3) Standard
The largest section of the diatonic harmonica market is the £20-£35 bracket. There are some exceptional instruments available in this category.

I had narrowed this category down to my two favourites – the Suzuki Bluesmaster and the Bushman Delta Frost – both of which are superb instruments. However, I have heard such amazing things about the Seydel Blues Session harp from fellow players, whose opinions I trust, that I am reserving judgement until I get a chance to play one. If they are as good as I have been hearing, I will certainly be changing my regular gigging harp. Watch this space!

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