Music Gear Central: Hohner harmonicas: Musical stocking-stuffers

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After a conversation with a fellow musician, I decided to continue my holiday concept and focus on the gift of music for the next three weeks.

When the last gift has been wrapped and the battle with the crowds, cold and the fervor of the retail hustle and bustle is over, there still may be some shopping left to do. You may find yourself lacking ideas for what to stuff Christmas stockings with. If that’s the case, a harmonica is an affordable and sensible “stocking-stuffer.”

I’ve been told how easy the harmonica is to learn. However, I have never taken the time to properly play the instrument. To research for this piece, I went and picked one up and started to tinker around. I also consulted a local expert to assist me.

Joe Poluyanskis, or “Harmonica Joe,” as he’s known on the Rockford music scene, knows as much as one could ever learn about harmonicas. After retiring from the United States Postal Service, Joe began playing “harp” and has become quite skilled at it. Poluyanskis shared his expertise with me, and it turned out that my new purchase was a good one. In fact, he recommended the Hohner Special 20 Marine Band harmonica—the very model I just purchased. Not bad for a drummer.

The Special 20 is a great buy. It has genuine brass plates with visible hole numbers recessed in a plastic body. Harmonica bodies are also made of wood, although experts say comfort is quite important when learning. Wood tends to swell when it’s wet and can scrape a player’s lips. When the wooden bodies dry out, unwanted airflow can damage the reeds. That being the case, a plastic body is the best bet.

Although harmonicas are small and simple instruments, they certainly are not all created equally. Among other “odd” types are tremolo, chromatic and diatonic harmonicas. Diatonic harmonicas come in all 12 keys (G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#). It’s recommended for beginners to start with a 10-hole harmonica in the key of “C.” Key of “C” harmonicas are the most common, and they make learning and understanding theory easier.

I spent $20 on my Hohner Special 20, which turned out to be more than fair. I did find many harmonicas out there for as little as $5. However, inexpensive, poorly-constructed ones don’t last very long. They tend to leak air, making it difficult to learn proper techniques, such as note-bending. Harmonicas at this price can make acceptable gifts for toddlers, who may be excited to just be able to create musical sounds. But to actually create music on a solid harmonica, it is recommended to spend around $15 to $25. The Hohner Special 20 falls safely in this price range.

Jim Hagerty is a staff writer for The Rock River Times. He’s also a singer/songwriter and drummer. He can be reached at 703-7383 or

From the Dec. 6 – Dec. 12, 2006, issue

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