The Different Parts of a Harmonica: Anatomy and Structure Explained

The Harmonica is one of the most played instruments in the world. Its success came from German clock-maker Mathias Hohner in the mid-1800s. Within ten years, the harmonica had become a hit, and he was selling his invention to millions worldwide. 

Other versions eventually came along in the 1950s, such as the plastic harmonica, which Finn Magnus invented. 

This instrument is used frequently in various types of music, such as American folk music, jazz, or rock; despite years passing, the harmonica remains popular because of its versatility in countless countries.

The Anatomy of a Harmonica 

Anatomy of a Harmonica

The hand-held harmonica has five major components.

These include the:

  • Comb
  • Reed plates
  • Cover plate
  • Windsavers 
  • Mouthpiece

Keep reading to discover more in-depth information about the different parts listed above and to gain a better understanding of their functions.

Comb

Being the main part of the harmonica, the comb provides air chambers that cover the reeds.

The comb is traditionally made from wood, although manufacturers can utilize plastic or metal in its construction instead.

The comb manipulates the air in several ways and was initially thought to affect the instrument’s tone. 

The comb plays a part in the harmonica’s lack of durability.

While playing the harmonica, the comb becomes damp due to the player’s mouth, making it uncomfortable to play because of the constant expansion and recession.

This event is especially prominent in wooden harmonicas. 

For this reason, it’s recommended that you regularly clean the comb and never immerse it in liquid.

A problem frequently found in chromatic harmonicas is that the combs shrink as time passes, which results in cracks or leakage.

Improvements can be made to wooden comb harmonicas, thus making them less prone to these issues.

Reed Plate

The reed plate refers to a group of reeds and is made of brass.

However, other materials could be used instead, such as steel or aluminum. 

Individual reeds are riveted to the reed plate, or they can be welded or screwed into place.

They are found on the inside of the reed plate, producing sound when air blows into the harmonica’s air holes and vice versa.

Many modern harmonicas have their reed plates bolted or screwed to the comb or each other.

Nonetheless, the first harmonicas had their reed plates nailed to the comb.

During the WWII era, there were experimental American harmonicas that held the reed plates by tension. 

Reeds can be individually replaced if bolted to the comb since they go out of tune through use.

It’s important to note that specific notes are more liable to worsen than others that aren’t as frequently played.

All harmonicas made of plastic have their reed plates all in a single piece of plastic which are then molded or glued together.

Cover Plate

Cover plates, as you might have guessed, cover the reed plates.

Similar to their companions, they are made from metal, wood, or plastic.

This piece carries the heavy responsibility of making the sound louder and more noticeable; each cover plate determines the tones of your harmonica.

Therefore, many musicians take this choice very personally.

Generally, there are two types of cover plates.

The first traditional, open designs of stamped metal or plastic are purposely only meant for holding.

The second is utilizes an enclosed design.

A prominent example is the Super 64 harmonica, which consequently creates a louder sound due to its enclosed nature.

Several upgraded designs have gained popularity over the years.

Complex covers have allowed unique functions or special abilities that previously weren’t offered in the old-fashioned designs.

Windsavers

Windsavers are one-way valves made from a variety of different materials, the most common being plastic.

They are glued onto the reed plate; windsavers are typically found in chromatic harmonicas and chord harmonicas.

They function when two reeds are together, and the reed that is not playing is likely to leak, creating a noticeable sound.

You could think about it this way: if a draw note plays, the valve on the blow reed slot shuts, confirming that no air would be leaked through its non-playing partner.

Nevertheless, the Hohner XB 40 harmonica is different.

Its valves do not isolate single reeds but entire chambers, and because of this placement, their activity is limited.

This ability allows the harmonica player to bend notes, and you should be a more advanced harmonica performer to reap all the benefits this model offers.

Mouthpiece

The mouthpiece of a harmonica is positioned between the air chambers and the player’s mouth.

This piece can be a part of the comb or cover or a separate part altogether.

In chromatic harmonicas, the mouthpiece is held in place by screws.

A mouthpiece is designed efficiently, helping make the process of playing easier and more pleasant.

Overall, a mouthpiece is essential for the instrument’s function (at least for most models) since it also has a groove for sliding.

Other accessories

Some musicians get amplification devices, such as microphones or tube amplifiers, to improve or alter their musical skills.

This concept has been around for decades, and amplifiers distort sound and produce a higher volume. 

The method for increasing a harmonica’s sound is similar to the one used for a saxophone.

In some cases, the proper amplifier could make the harmonica be heard above an electric guitar.

Some may want a rack or holder while playing the harmonica, as their hands may be busy holding another instrument, like a guitar.

This accessory allows them to place the harmonica in front of their mouth, clamped between two brackets.

The holder is then attached to the harmonica, and a loop of metal rests on their opposing shoulders. 

If you’re the star of a one-man band, then this idea could suit you well.

Different Types of Harmonicas

There are multiple variations of the instrument available, depending on what music you’re playing. 

As previously mentioned, the chromatic and chord harmonicas are two versions; however, diatonic harmonicas, tremolo harmonicas, and orchestral harmonicas all come with different styles, sounds, and features that may suit you.

  • Diatonic harmonicas are designed to play a specific key and are an excellent choice for a beginner musician at a reasonable price. This type of harmonica is the most common version, and skilled artists can create multiple sounds with effects and accompanying instruments. 
  • Tremolo harmonicas are called echo harmonicas because of their warbling sound created by playing two opposing notes at once. These are popular in Asian rock and pop music but are also used in country music due to the rustic sound it can produce.
  • Orchestral harmonicas are more catered for ensembles and come in various pitches and note-layout arrangements.

Summing up the Harmonica’s Parts

We hope that you found the above article helpful and interesting.

Choosing the right harmonica depends on your talent level and interest; knowing the parts of this instrument will help you on your journey to playing better.

You can learn and apply many techniques while playing the harmonica, such as head-shaking or vibrato.

Even though this instrument is small, it undoubtedly has an extensive background and potential.

Whether you’re a beginning artist or a skilled musician, researching your instrument and practicing with it will inevitably give you the results you’re looking for when it comes to discovering more about the harmonica.

Photo of author
Written by Robert Jackson
Robert is a professional pianist and writer who's been playing the piano for over 20 years. He studied music education at college and now works as a full time musician and piano teacher all over the country.