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The Johnson Blues King Harmonica/Harp: a review.

Disclaimer: I don't sell these harps and I don't work for any company connected to whoever does sell 'em...well, except I might teach at a a local music store from time to time and they might sell 'em someday...

Review: There are better harps on the market but, for the money, the Blues King by Johnson is a very serviceable, inexpensive harp. This next bit is opinion, but it's my experience: the quality control is off. The best Johnsons are very nice to play, the average Johnson is at least OK for serious practice, but the worst are really kinda bad. And my ratio was about 1 out of 4 was...uh...not sufficient for my needs. Still opinion: the Johnson is not that far away from being a seriously decent harp. If they all played like the best ones, I'd be ecstatic instead of merely pleased with the price. 

For professional level or public playing, I'd be more likely to recommend the Suzuki Harpmaster because there are essentially no quality control issues and the tone is uniformly good in my experience.


To put these things through their paces I tried all 12 keys--2 each of most--on slow, fast and medium tempo tunes, both at home and live.

Playability: That's where the Johnsons shine. The action is smooth and airtight. An added bonus--on many keys I found the upper gapping of The Blues King much more to my liking than the gapping on my Lee Oskars and Special 20s, for examples. Melodic and fast single note stuff (a la Sugar Blue) were quite easy to play and well enough tuned to sound accurate. Although the body is slightly smaller than a a Lee Oskar--about the size of a Special 20--there was no "getting used to the thing"...I just picked it up and played. I found that a very few notes among the harps were gapped wrong for me, but a minor tweak set things just right. 

Tuning: Not perfect. Octaves on some harps were off, more so than even a Lee Oskar tuned harp (by the way--this last sentence is contentious, since anything I might call "off" on a Lee Oskar is easily more likely due to my pitch recognition than ay mathematical or quality control error--the Lee Oskars use a different temperament than, say, most Hohners for example). Some were off to the point I avoided the octave technique when playing live, but that was not on all harps in all tunings. Some were dead on the money, to my ears. Of about 18 harps, maybe 12 were very good, four were kinda bad and two were just okay. That said, the tuning on all of the harps was good enough to play live, and to get compliments on the sound.  Easily good enough for practicing. Minor filing will set things quite right if you don't want to forego octaves.

Construction: Quite good as far as I can tell. The reeds are inset into the plastic comb for air tightness and comfort, and the reed plates are fastened to the comb with 9 (count 'em) screws. All screws are flathead, which is a bonus--you don't get any of the Philips "slip and wreck"  hassle. The blue plastic comb is easily solid enough for wear and tear. I didn't measure the reed plates for thickness or weight but overall the harp feels slightly lighter than, say, a Special 20 or Lee Oskar. The cover plates are similar--seeming somewhat lighter than the Lee Oskars or the Hohners. That might explain:

Tone: There's no real substitute for a good harp for tone. Both the Lee Oskar and the Special 20, and for that matter, the Pro and Cross Harp, and the Promasters, all sound better, richer, deeper.

But not so much deeper that The Blues King is useless. Far from it. Through a good system the Blues King has a very decent tone for live playing. The Johnsons certainly have good enough accurate tone to get you through a set, or a night.

Major fault: I noticed that, on a number of harps--maybe eight--the bending on one or two hoes, notably the 4 hole, was a bit weird. In fact, this is what I found to be the biggest quality control problem. The harp would sort of hit the required tone, but the bend didn't seem "deep" enough-the harp required an exaggerated technique to trigger and achieve the bend accurately. I'm playing with the gapping on these and getting better somewhat better results, but it was irksome. I had to play around it when I played live.

Major plus: Price/Performance ratio. I like the Blues King easily as much as the Huangs, and better than the Hohner Big River---but not better than the Suzuki Harpmaster. And they're cheaper (depending on where you buy them) than all of the so-called "budget" harps from the major lines. They actually cost much less than the reed plates for the major brands.

Summary: Buy them, or at least try them. They're a great backup harp and perfectly good enough to fill out an incomplete set--a set that lacks rarely used harps like the C#/Db. Good enough to use live and excellent for determined practice. Why wear out a much more expensive harp at home just doesn't make sense. I'm pleasantly surprised by The Johnson Blues King. 

One thing, and this might sound contradictory considering the harps are cheap: I don't think I'd recommend these for practice by beginning players. There are just enough quality control enough faults that, unless you know your stuff, you might think you're the problem when it's actually the harp causing problems. And that misconception might make you quit playing.

Still, even a beginner could use these as backup harps, and they're great harps to practice on when you're learning about gapping and tuning/filing.

For the money, they're...well...right on the money.