Suzuki Bluesmaster, vs. Lee Oscar Major, vs. Hohner Special 20 and Blues Bender

OK, I’m just starting out here. I read around a few places on the internet, including comments from users in forums, various recommendations for what to start out with. The most recommended models under about $35, what I consider to be reasonably priced, seem to be:

Hohner Special 20
Lee Oscar Major
Suzuki Harpmaster
Suzuki Bluesmaster
Hohner Big River
Sydel Blues Session Standard
Hering Master Blues
Bushman Delta Frost

I should probably include the Golden Melody in this group, as it’s only slightly more expensive than the others, maybe a dollar or two over my limit, and seems to be popular, but that’s pretty much the cutoff. The next price level above this I consider just a bit of a step up, with models like the Manji, Promaster, and Overdrive from Suzucki, or the Pro Harp, Marine Band Deluxe, Marine Band Crossover, or Cross Harp from Hohner, or the Blues Favorite from Sydel. Probably nothing wrong with learning on one of those either, but I had to cut it off somewhere, and this seemed to be a practical price point to do so, with plenty of good options to consider.

Now, much as I’m tempted to want to try everything, and decide for myself, that wouldn’t be very practical either. I decided to limit myself for now to a few harmonicas, and settled on the Hohner Special 20, the Lee Oscar, and the Suzuki Bluesmaster; pretty much what seemed to be the most recommended models, and one each from three different manufacturers, to hopefully give a bit of variety. And a pretty good head to head comparison as far as value since all are about the same price.

In addition, I was tempted to try a cheaper model, just to see if I see much difference, and was especially tempted by the Big River, which a lot of people say is the best lower priced model out there. But then, I also became intrigued by a newer Hohner model, the Blues Bender.

When I googled it, I found the Blues Bender has had some pretty good reviews. It’s a China made model, but manufactured to a higher standard than the cheaper models, with better materials, and according to reviews, the fit and finish is more competitive with more intermediate priced models. Also, Hohner doesn’t include it in their “standard” line with the cheaper harps, but in their “classic” line with other quality models. It’s also the cheapest model for which I’ve seen them claim “airtight construction”. So I decided to give one a shot at $17.99 and see how it compares.

So I now have on the way:

Susuki Bluesmaster in E
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic in Bb
Hohner Blues Bender in F
Hohner Special 20 in C

I almost didn’t order a C, but decided it was a good idea to have one to play along with any instructional materials in that key. Doesn’t really matter for me for written instructional materials though, but mainly for playing along with a recording. In general, since I’m thinking I might eventually buy a set, once I decide what I like, I didn’t want to duplicate too much what is already in those sets. The other key choices were with that in mind; the Hohner 5 packs leave out F, the Bluesmaster has a 6 pack, with no E, and the Lee Oscar 5 pack could use the Bb added.

I should mention I’m not a total beginner here, I have a pretty good music background, have played a lot of piano, and actually have a Hohner Chromatica that I’ve had for over 20 years now, I just for some reason never did buy that blues harmonica I’ve thought about buying many times.

Only regret is, I just paid $32.99 (free shipping) for that Special 20 in C. And then came here a day later and saw it at $19.97! Whoops. Especially since getting it in that key was a last minute change. I would still only save about $7 after shipping; and I did buy from a retailer with a lowest price guarantee, so we’ll see. Order is already on the way though.

I’ll update later when I get my stuff, and have a chance to try it out some. Meanwhile, any thoughts on my choices here?

Well everyone tries for whatever calls out to them, even lil ole me.

[ul]Suzuki Bluesmaster in E >>>Not familiar.

Lee Oskar Major Diatonic in Bb >>> Have one; stiff reeds; prefer my Spec 20, Big River and Piedmont Blues in Bb.

Hohner Blues Bender in F >>>Someone mentioned this type of harp as too gimmicky. So were my Sux-Oookey Over-never-Drives in A & C. Rerturned for a refund/exhange.

Hohner Special 20 in C>>> Have 3 now; can never have too many Cs.[/ul]

My appreciation for Seydels and also Manjis grows daily too.

Just one harpster’s opinion here…

Good Luck!

Hope it helps!

Keep On Jammin’!

[center]Seems like you did your homework in deciding which harps to start with.

You made some really good choices there, am sure you’ll find a favorite
amongst them ;D

Just be careful and watch out for “G.A.S.” It can hit you hard. ;D ;D ;D

Harp On!![/center]

Maybe some of the marketing is a bit gimmicky, but that will probably be true of any new model. Even there, the most gimmicky thing seem to be the claims about the patented cover with the “special side vents” that improve “both volume and projection”; maybe not much truth to that, but if it’s a gimmick, it’s also one Hohner has been using for over 100 years!

Of the other stuff, it appears they are using a thicker reed plate than the Big River or Special 20, which at least should have some impact on tone (good or bad may be a matter of opinion). And the stuff about airtight design by most reports is pretty accurate, and seeing as the main complaint I see about cheaper Chinese models is how badly they leak air, is encouraging.

I’m not buying the stuff about this model making it much easier to bend notes, or to play the blues, but I doubt the more expensive models are going to deliver too much on those things either. The real idea behind the model though seems to be to make a quality intermediate model, employing some design elements which have become popular in more premium priced harps (recessed plates, narrower gaps between holes, more airtight construction, etc.), but making it in a modern factory in China, keeping costs to $5-$10 less than you might otherwise pay for comparable quality. I think some are prejudiced against anything made in China, but it is possible to make some good quality stuff there (I believe most violins are now made in China; if they can make good violins they should be able to make good harmonicas).

I still have some thought I might have been better off with the more proven Big River, and the “MS” design…but, I’m getting one MS model in the Special 20, and in any case the replacement reed plates seem to cost more than a new Big River, and nearly as much as a whole new 20 (actually more than JP now has the 20 for).

Yeah, while thinking I might end up with doubles there if I do end up ordering a set, I figured the C is the one where it might not hurt to have an extra.

Seydel seems to be well liked for their higher end models. For some reason I’ve seen less talk though about the Blues Session Standard, their offering in this price range. It might be one to consider in the future though if I decide to explore a bit more.

All very well said and presented there, Ken!

However:

I'm getting one MS model in the Special 20
I have to admit that this is a new one on me.

We had a fine discussion about the various MS models here:

http://www.harmonica.com/forums/harmonica-gear/hohner-ms/

And I don’t recall the Spec20 being one of them.

Hoping you and/or someone else can help us out on it.

Smiles!

Rock on, yo!

My mistake, SPD. I had almost bought a Pro Harp, that was the other MS model, I just got it confused. The 20 isn’t one of them.

Well, my stuff arrived Thursday night.

On first impression, having ordered a variety of different models, I was kind of surprised how very similar they all seem. I did go for plastic combed models, and I’m sure I must have looked at pictures of all at some point, but didn’t realize how much they really look alike; the plastic is all the same color, as are the stainless steel cover plates, all are about the same size and weight (very light), and all have that bit of brass peeking out from recessed reed plates. At first glance it could almost be a matched set.

Also can see why some question sometimes whether these things should cost $30 each; they seem so light and plastic, you could easily think you were holding a cheap budget model. Play them though, and you start to see the value there, and also start to see the real differences between them.

I think my favorite to play so far has been the Special 20. It just seems to do everything well, and I like the sound. Plays easy, good mouth feel, and seems very versatile as far as sound, meaning you can play loud and brassy or you can play soft and mellow, and it sounds good, does what you want. Also just sounds like what I think a harmonica should, I pick it up and I find myself sounding out Bob Dylan harmonica songs, like Visions of Johanna, or Blowin’ in the Wind.

The Lee Oscar is a close second. This was very easy to play out of the box, and a nice warm tone to it. And I get the feeling this instrument just wants to play the blues. I’m just learning to bend a bit, and the Lee Oskar seems the best so far for that. The tone seems just a bit thinner than the 20 to me, but it’s also very versatile, with a sweet tone for playing melodies, and a grittier sound when you play a bit harder. This shares a lot of the same positive qualities as the 20, does everything pretty well. One thing I noticed is it’s very easy to sound a note, but if you want to sustain a loud note, that takes a little more breath to sustain it. It’s almost like a piano or guitar, where there’s naturally an attack and fade. This seems just a little bit different from the Hohner models, which can sustain a note with good volume with little effort, and sound great when you do, almost like a sax or trumpet. All in all, while I like the 20 slightly better, if I were buying a set right now, there’s a decent chance I would choose the Lee Oskar over the Special 20 for pragmatic reasons, based on the availability of reasonably priced replacement reed plates, plus what I’ve been reading from other players about the reliability and durability of these reeds. In the long run the Lee Oscar, at under $30 each, could be the best buy here.

The Bluesmaster has some similarity to the Lee Oskar. Seemed to be very well tuned out of the box. I believe it’s supposed to be equal tempered, but those chords sound really nice regardless. The tone is clean and woody, with some natural vibrato to it. This one wants to play like a flute or recorder. This was probably the smoothest and easiest to play out of the box, and even being in a relatively high key, even the highest notes sounded cleanly and easily right off. It also shows nice bending potential. I like the feel here as well; I like the full cover plates, and the relatively thin body. It seems to naturally be the quietest and most mellow of the four models here, but still takes well enough to a hard driving blues riff. While it’s a pleasant instrument overall however, this was the most expensive model I purchased, and it seems to fall a hair short of the competition here for me. Most of what it does well, the Lee Oscar does equally, and there are times I want a bit meatier sound that the Bluesmaster doesn’t quite seem to have in it.

Next up, the Blues Bender was the toughest to play at first, especially in the 7-10 holes, the reeds were tight and difficult to sound cleanly. It maybe just needed to be broken in some, and seems to be playing better now. It has a less full sound than the Special 20, but very bright and brassy in tone. The cover plate is very similar to the Special 20, and the bottom plate is almost identical to the top, missing only the numbers over the holes; this has led me more than once to try to play it upside down, which of course makes it even more difficult to play :). The bottom plate being rounded like the top also gives this a different feel in the mouth from the other models here. I like to tongue block, and this took a bit of getting used to, as I had to get it farther into my mouth to get a comfortable position; the more rounded bottom seems maybe more suited to a pucker style. While it has taken a bit more effort though, this one really has been fun to play once I got going with it. Playing loud or soft, you seem to have to work it a little more, but when you do the results are nice enough. It seems best played aggressively though, it has a very thin sound when played more softly. The jury is still out on this one for me; I need to continue to get used to it, and might need to think about opening it up and trying some gap adjustments.

Finally, of practical concern, but not too much overall importance, I thought it was interesting that the cheapest model here, the Blues Bender, came with the nicest case. The Honer cases were both nice, both similar in design to a good eyeglass hard case. The Suzuki case was somewhat similar, but was lacking a liner, so that the harmonica is kind of loose in there and rattles around some. The Lee Oskar has a cheap soft plastic case.

A very well thought out and enjoyable presentation to say the least!

Kudos, Ken!

Certainly, may not ever be the last words on these particular subjects –

However, your reviews here by far were/are exceptional to read and view.

Thanks so much for that!

Smiles!

Rock on, yo!!

I think it’s all very subjective and unless one does a comparison test using exact same keys then it’s a bit like comparing apples with oranges. Noticed that the Bluesmaster pictured in a key of E with the comment that it played like a flute or recorder ie could this be because it was in that key?

I have all these harps and quite a few more with the only exception being the Blues Bender. They are all very good harps & a lot comes down to personal preferences. I use a Bluesmaster or a Harpmaster most of the time. They have proven to be almost indestructable, well priced and very comfortable to play. Another time in another place I could well say much the same for Lee Oskar or SP20.

Yeah, that could have a pretty big impact on some of this. I’ve yet to even try one model in both a high and low key, so I can’t really even say how much. These are sort of first impressions, with not much experience behind them, so I expect my mind will change on a lot of things. The E and F keys are pretty close though, and those models are probably the most different here in tone, with the Blues Bender being more harsh and brassy, while the Bluesmaster is more sweet, mellow and woody. The Bluesmaster seems to be the better, more versatile instrument there overall, though the harsher sound of the Blues Bender has it’s own charms.

If I were looking for a smooth professional sound, say I was asked to record a track for a Steely Dan Album, I would choose the Bluesmaster. But if I were at a folk dance and wanted to get people to break out in a happy jig, I think I’d prefer the Blues Bender. The cleaner sound of the Suzuki though might be really good playing blues miked up through an amp.

Actually, I just googled to see what harmonica Bob Dylan used. Apparently it was usually a Marine Band. The Blues Bender I think has some of that Marine Band heritage in it’s tone. I think of Mr. Tambourine man when I play this. Just looked that up too; it is in F.

It is definitely subjective. I lip block and find the shape of the Special 20 covers is the most comfortable. I also have Manjis which are excellent harmonicas, but I’m not sure they’re that much better than the Special 20s.