How To Pick an Instrument to Start On.

I've been seeing on various online forums, how beginners are wondering what instrument to buy to get started. It's a good question. It's not easy to pick a starting instrument when you have no experience to go on, and people tend to buy one instrument, and when they discover that it takes some practice time to do what they want to do, immediately decide to try another brand or model of harmonica, instead of, you know, Practicing.

Here's my unasked-for suggestion, that few will follow:

It's like buying a new house in an area that you're not familiar with. The very best suggestion, that almost nobody, including me, takes to heart, is to rent there for a year and then, after you have a feel for the neighborhoods, look, and buy a house.

Same with harmonicas. If you can, figure out what range you want, for instance, three octaves, which was, for me, the best place to start, for many reasons, the first of which was that it was what Tommy Morgan suggested, and the second was that I was being paid to play a show, while learning "on the job", for money, and the music called for that range of harmonica. I also loved Toots' playing and he used three octave machines pretty well.

Then find a player whose playing you enjoy, and find out what kind of instrument he or she plays. Buy three or so, (or a 12 pack in the frozen harmonica section of Costco) and spend a year or so playing them, learning about them, and only then, you'll have enough background to make a cogent decision that you can stick with until you have something hard to play and then, of course, don't waste time actually practicing, just buy a more expensive instrument, with the hopes that throwing money at the issue will substitute for Hard Work on Your Part. (As with some things on this site, part of the above is a lie, or, at best, sarcasm.)

End of money- and, perhaps, marriage-saving lecture, thanks for listening. 

For the 99% of people who, like me, choose to not follow this advice:

The Instrument I Picked: Hohner Deluxe 270.

Instrument Maintenance Comparison

This list of instruments I  play in order of how much maintenance they need, from most to least, with purchase price noted.

  1. Chromatic Harmonica ($200)
  2. Oboe/English Horn ($6000)
  3. Flute ($12,000)
  4. Saxes ($5000-$7000)
  5. Clarinets ($4000-ish)
  6. Kazoo ($3.99)
It's pretty important that the chromatic player be able to work on their instruments.

Even within one model of instrument, each made in the same factory, to the same specifications, very individual instrument has pluses and minuses. Every instrument has features, qualities that you can use AND challenges to be overcome.

There are no exceptions. And there are no exceptions to that last sentence.(Or, as it turns out, THAT last sentence.)

For the "C' instrument, I use only the Hohner 270 Deluxe. IF I need to use a keyed instrument for some reason, I have some keyed Hohner 270's and a couple of Herings. Mostly three octaves, with a few four octave instruments (Straight-tuned Hohner 64's from Dick Gardner) that I use if I want to feel uncomfortable and miss notes that don't exist on the 270's. Nothing to do with Dick's Horn-smashing, of course, I can feel uncomfortable and miss notes all on my own with a four octave machine. At this point, I don't miss too many notes on the three octave machines.

MY GUARANTEE: (stolen from my own Harp-L posting of October '14)

I GUARANTEE THAT IF YOU PLAY ON A DELUXE 270, the very same model instrument I use, YOU WILL SOUND EXACTLY LIKE...(drum roll) ....YOU. You will also find that the instruments seem to change as you play them more, that is, the more you practice, the better their sound becomes and the fewer wrong notes they play. This probably has something to do with the way they break in. Play easy passages at first, and then do the harder passages, and you'll discover the Hohner Magic, wherein the instrument actually gets better, the more you practice...or so it seems.

How they do it is a mystery to me, perhaps it's just you doing the improvement, I've heard it both ways.

Here's how I got there:

1. For regular playing, when I started, at Tommy Morgan's suggestion, I got two of each key...regular 270's. Fine workhorses for keyed playing. The more experience I got, the less I used any non-C chromatics, unless all I had to play was a low D that went on forever, in which case I'd make an exception. (My Medicare Plan doesn't cover exploding lungs.) Square holes in the mouthpiece give me a bigger sound than the round ones. Round ones respond more quickly with less wear and tear on the lips. I  usually (Always) use the round-holed mouthpieces, and ask the studio engineer to turn up the "make my sound bigger" EQ knob.

2. When I learned that Toots plays MellowTones, I bought a six pack of them, sent them to Dick Garder, got them back, air tight, but still, as Dick  said, "Not a Strad in the bunch". Good, but not Great.

Also, they've still got the nails holding the things together. Putty knives are the traditional tool-of-choice for plate removal, and, as I have only one putty knife, it became annoying to have to clean the putty off it every time I wanted to use it to remove the nails on the chromatic for tweaking...or for removing bits of recently-eaten saltines that got stuck inside.

  • Saltine bits in the reeds can ruin a potentially great musical passage.
  • Almonds, however, do it better and are healthier.

3. Then I got some Hard Boppers. Had them tweaked by Bill Romel, and one of them is pretty good. Fast Response, with  Bill's inserts, easy to get into, and an acrylic comb, so I can hear it better when it falls on the floor while I'm reassembling it. It feels and responds much like the Deluxes do.

I never use it, but it looks great.

4.Then I found the Deluxe 270, and it seems to be a great compromise. so I went to Costco and bought three six packs of them, sent some to Dick and kept some to work on myself.

I think the Deluxes have fewer wrong notes in them.

Most important: I think the Deluxes have fewer wrong notes in them....Or, possibly, I just got better a few years after i started using the Deluxes.

They come with five or seven bolts holding the plates on. The ones that have five, are the older ones. I add two more bolts, mostly because I've read that Seven is a particularly significant number, in general. Since the cover plates hold the whole mess together, I think that five is just fine, but I did buy a drill press, so it's easy to add the two bolts. Logically, if you get the five bolt ones, they are, I think older, and, if there are no cracks, the wood might be aged better, or is just waiting for you to get too comfortable and then crack and ruin your day. (Once again, Elmer's wood glue to the rescue.)

The MellowTones: I can see why Toots uses them, the resistance is more and that gives something additional to "blow against". If I play them for a day or so, and switch back to the Deluxes, my speed is better on the Deluxe models, and I can skip a day or two of practice.

I'm not sure what the difference between the Hard Boppers and The Deluxes is, but I think having the thicker plates (thicker than the MellowTones or  Regular 270's) makes for more speed, the round holes make for comfort, and the square holes make for a slightly bigger sound. Tommy uses square holes, and I use round holes. We've managed to put aside our differences, and thru hours of  Professional Therapy, we manage to coexist.

Ebay Special!
"Guilty Monika 270 of Super Chromonica-270/being super becomes the existence having to do with a pronoun of the Chromatic harmonica by the long seller model which walked with Horner's history.

Like all instruments, and most people, the Deluxes have issues, one being that the alignment of the plates on a few of the combs takes some time to get right, and the bolts don't always fit correctly. I think the wood isn't always cured long enough. I remember that wood for making instruments like oboe and clarinet, is aged for decades, and is pretty stable, and still, they crack at times with changes in humidity and temperature. With the Deluxes, SOME of them shift for a few years and then seem to settle down and behave. The newer ones seem to be better, fewer shrinking or expanding combs and so on.

I've never had a Deluxe comb crack on me.

During this time, in the few instances where the wood shifts around, some of the valves and/or reeds, tend to hit the sides of the slots, flutes, whatever they're called, so I'm careful to place the valves as far away from the wooden divider things when I install them. At times, I'll sand the dividers to give a bit more room. The newer instruments seem to need less care in this area. Perhaps the wood is aged differently, or it's one of those "luck of the draw" things.


After years (11) of coping wtih the issues that wooden combs present, changing size, warping, floating to the surface when you toss them into a pond, and doing some tests involving People With Ears, I've decided that the comb material is not a significant factor, and, that having combs that are guaranteed to stay the same size and shape is a Good Thing.

So, I've replaced most of the combs on my 25+ Deluxe 270's with computer-printed combs from Brendan Power. I've not tried tossing them into a pond, but I think they, too, will float. But they won't change size.

Go Here for more information.

Full Disclosure: Brendan lives in England. Recently, I bought England.

Most of the Deluxes these days don't need as much adjustment as they did back when I didn't play as well. I'm also having some acrylic combs made, which might be a good thing. Combs are available, but you need to be sure to tell the maker that you use the Deluxe 270, which has some longer reed slots that need tending to, in that normal 270 after market combs might not work....if you want ALL the notes to actually play.

Still, after all this messing around, there are still more than a few Wrong Notes coming out, my next logical step is to remove the slide spring, put gold foil inside the covers, or buy a high-end Renaissance Door Stop Chromatic Harmonica.

Or Practice.

There's an inspiring audio floating around the internet, wherein Doug Tate and Tommy Morgan play a duet, with Doug on his Very Expensive Renaissance harmonica and Tommy playing on what he says was, at the time, a six dollar 270, and they sound the same.

Note that I've never tried any other brands and see no reason to. These work. Now it's up to me.

One other thing: You can't be in tune in every situation using only ONE harmonica. Can't be done, so using a fairly affordable model chromatic harmonica allows you to buy quite a few, tune them to various variations of A=440-444, and carry extras of each tuning.

Also I've noticed that the older ones were pitched way above any normally-needed pitch, but the newer ones are pretty close to 440-441. That's a good thing.
Thank you, Hohner Tuning People

So,  for what it's worth, that's how I arrived at the Hohner Deluxe 270's. I think I probably have more experience at the Deluxes than most people do, and if you have questions, there's an email link down below.

My advice is usually free and, at times, over-priced.


People who bought this product also purchased a musical instrument.

somebody please send me an alternate caption for this actual Walmart Screenshot

UPDATE:new caption suggestion:

"To play well both require practice but the one on the left needs more"

email here

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