In my hand, I hold the Huang Star Performer harmonica in B. I played Huangs back when I made about $16,000 a year and the difference between buying a couple of $8 Huangs and a couple of $15 Hohner Special 20s was enough to cover the beer budget for the month. The price gap remains to this day: The Special 20s are $32 now and the Huangs are about half that, although the Huangs have an unfortunate tendency to blow up and — here’s something you probably never thought of — they taste funny.
This harp has hung around for a couple of decades because B was never a popular harp key — in cross-harp, it’s a song in F#. The only song I’ve ever played in F# is Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love,” and I haven’t played that for 15 years now. (I occasionally play straight harp to Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” in B, so at least the Special 20 in my gig case gets a workout every couple of months or so.) That’s why this Huang, which dates back to the mid-1980s, survives to this day in good working order.
I bring all of this up because people generally kid me about my “cheap” or even “toy” instrument. But it is an instrument with limited range, forcing you to buy multiple keys. And it damn well ain’t cheap.
Consider this: There are 12 common harp keys. At $32 a pop, that’s $384. But wait! You need a complete set of back-ups, because you never know when a harp is going to blow. Now you’re up to $768. But wait! If you play chromatic harp, like I do, you’re going to want at least one of these, at about $150. Now the bill is $918. But wait! I also play a couple of cheap tremolo harps, at about $25 a pop. Now you’re up to $968.
“Now, wait a second,” you say. “Why not buy used instruments? After all, plenty of musicians do that to save money.” My reply: “Are you out of your mind? HARMONICAS ARE NOT MEANT TO BE SHARED.” There’s an old saying among harp players, and I pull it out whenever someone walks up to me and asks to play my harps: “I’ll keep my harps. You keep your herpes.” Diatonic harmonicas are difficult to clean, generally aren’t meant to be disassembled and are magnets for everything that flies out of your mouth. At the music store, they keep a set of bellows next to the harps so you can test them without playing through them — because once they hit your lips, they belong to you. No thank you, I’m not buying someone else’s harps.
But wait — we’re not done with the expenses yet! If you’re going to play classic blues harp — amplified, through a guitar amp — you need a microphone, and preferably two in case something goes wrong with one. Now you’re up to at least $1,118, and probably higher. But wait! You need an amp as well. A Fender Bassman reissue — which is the classic harp amp — will run you about $1,100 all on its own these days, but let’s settle for something smaller — say, a Fender Blues Deluxe. There goes another $550 and now you’re up to $1,618.