Aaah, weird and wacky instruments! Part of the joy of being a musician is the sheer number of interesting instruments out there. You can stick with your primary instrument, like piano or guitar; but sometimes it’s fun to try out something brand new.
The melodica is one such instrument. While historians could argue that Italians were making them over one hundred years ago, modern ones were invented just over sixty years ago.
While relatively new to the music world, they’ve been adopted by a wide array of musicians. Most recognizable is Jon Batiste, the bandleader and jazz pianist for Steven Colbert’s talk show.
Other notable musicians include funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, minimalist composer Steve Reich, YouTube sensations Walk Off the Earth, and reggae musician Augustus Pablo.
In this article, we’ll be looking at six melodicas you can buy right now to get started!
But first … what exactly is a melodica?
Table of Contents
- How Melodicas Work
- History of Free-Reed Instruments (Trust Me, this is Interesting!)
- What to Know Before Buying a Melodica: The Four Price Ranges
- Best Melodicas - My Favorite Models
How Melodicas Work
While this isn’t entirely accurate, here’s the easiest way to describe a melodica: an instrument that sounds like a harmonica, but has piano keys instead of holes.
Melodicas look like really slim MIDI keyboards, but are acoustic. They have a bendable tube connected to one end, which is what the mouthpiece is attached to.
Each piano key has a metal reed attached to it, inside the mechanism. Whenever you blow and press down a key, your airstream is redirected across the reed and out the instrument.
Because the melodica uses reeds, it’s part of the woodwind family. But woodwinds have tons of diversity, since there are many ways to produce sound with reeds and air.
In my opinion, melodicas blend together the coolest features of different woodwinds. They borrow the portability of harmonicas, use multiple reeds like free-reed accordions, and use the expressiveness of human lungs like clarinets and saxophones.
History of Free-Reed Instruments (Trust Me, this is Interesting!)
Most of the time, classical and pop instruments get all the attention – violins, pianos, guitars, all those guys. However, learning about the more obscure guys can really broaden our perspectives on musical possibilities and history.
Woodwinds are the oldest instruments in the world, and free-reed woodwinds go very far back. Although we might think they originate in Europe, they actually come from various regions of Asia!
The oldest free-reed instruments came from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Ancient instruments like the Chinese sheng, Lao khene, and Japanese shō are still used today!
In turn, the reed organs and accordions we’ve come to know today were actually inspired by these Southeast Asian folk instruments. The first reed organs were pioneered in St. Petersburg and Copenhagen after instrument makers studied the sheng.
Unfortunately, many of these instruments lost popularity in Western classical music. But they lived on in rich folk traditions of various Slavic, Celtic, and Indian cultures.
All to say, even though the melodica might be seen as a novelty instrument, it still comes from a rich and fascinating background.
What to Know Before Buying a Melodica: The Four Price Ranges
Because the melodica is a newer instrument, a niche product, and dominated by few brands, its market is small and easy to assess.
The cheapest melodicas sell for anything between $20 and $50, on average. These are the models made for children and absolute beginners.
Given that, they are built more like toys and teaching tools than professional instruments. In fact, some countries use them for elementary education!
However, despite their quality, they still make for great first purchases. It is worth noting, though, that after several months, they will start going out of tune.
If you enjoyed playing it, they are cheap enough to buy a new one. Or, if you’re DIY-inclined, you could try tuning it yourself without risk of ruining something super expensive.
Second-tier melodicas will sell for between $50 and $100, on average. They might still be made out of plastic, but they will be sturdier and wear-resistant. They will also be optimized for faster control, allowing for more nuanced and technical playing.
Second-tier melodicas will also be hand-tuned, meaning they stay in tune longer. However, like any instrument, they wear down with time. When they get out of tune, you will want to learn how to tune them yourselves to avoid buying new ones.
After tier-two, you start getting into specialty, expensive models. Most notably, there is the Suzuki Hammond 44-key melodica, which I found selling second-hand on Reverb for over $500!
Tier-three models like the Suzuki Hammond will have all the perks needed for professional gigs: an extensive range (most stop at 37 keys), a slim and metal body, and an internal mic and jack.
With all that said, let’s dive into the products!
Best Melodicas - My Favorite Models
1. Suzuki M-37C Melodica
While the RASTA melodica listed later is certainly the most unique item on our list, the Suzuki M-37C melodica includes some excellent features. While staying in the tier-two price range, it sports a design that pushes it close to tier-three quality.
Suzuki did a stellar job at delivering numerous quality features. They complete the keyboard with three full octaves (F to F), and the reeds are made with bronze – a material that’s more resilient than the typical brass.
The body itself is aluminum, a clear upgrade from the plastic used by other models. The keys themselves feel solid and responsive. All these features work together to create a robust sound that belies its purchasing price.
Lastly, two other interesting features are worth mentioning. First, Suzuki shaped the mouthpiece like a trumpet. This increases expressiveness and, to a degree, limits the amount of saliva that enters the instrument.
Second, the complementary case is metal and robust. Most, if not all, melodicas come with a complimentary case. However, most of them are not as tough as the M-37C’s.
For what it’s worth, the extra protection certainly adds value to an already remarkable product. All factors considered, the M-37C is a great first choice for serious musicians who want to start cheap with the melodica.
2. Hohner 32B “Instructor” Melodica
The Hohner 32B, or “Instructor” for short, is the cheapest melodica on our list. In the tier-one range, it’s a great choice for hobbyists looking to experiment as cheaply as possible.
Despite the cheap price, the Instructor is a fantastic melodica to start on. Why? It’s simple – Hohner invented the modern melodica in Germany! They’re synonymous to melodicas, like Fender is for guitars and Yamaha is for pianos.
Like all melodicas, the Instructor includes a built-in hand-strap and spit valve. The hand-strap allows you to hold it while playing, as opposed to laying it flat on a table. And since it’s played with your breath like a clarinet, the spit valve is essential to keeping it clean and usable.
The mouthpiece bends a bit, allowing a natural angle between the keyboard and your mouth. However, if you want to extend it, a rubber tube is included as well.
The keyboard extends two full octaves, plus a perfect fifth (hence the 32), starting on F and ending on C. This range is admittedly smaller than most models, but still suits beginners well.
If you’re wanting a wider range though, you’re in luck: the next model is a souped-up version of the Instructor! 😉
3. Hohner S37 “Performer” Melodica
If you like the Instructor melodica, but know you will want more playability, the Hohner S37 Performer is for you! Like the Instructor, you can simply refer to it as the “Performer.”
Both are part of the same series. As is obvious from their titles, the Instructor is geared towards learners, while the Performer gives learners more space to actually gig with it.
Because they’re in the same series, both melodicas look the same. The biggest differences are related to quality of building and range.
The Performer extends the range to a full three octaves, starting and stopping on F. The keys and springs inside react slightly faster to your fingers, making it more reliable for live performance.
Additionally, the Performer has a slightly fuller, accordion-like sound. Its sales page says it’s ideal for “jazz, pop, rock, and reggae.” All these descriptors fit my list at the beginning of this article perfectly!
That said, if you’re looking for a cheap model to start making quality jams on, the Performer could be a great start!
4. Yamaha P37D “Pianica” Melodica
Sitting comfortably in the tier-two range, Yamaha’s “Pianica” melodica includes unique features not typically found in tier-two models.
While the Pianica’s body is made of plastic, it also includes rubber and brass. It’s body is still sturdy, and it extends to the full three octave range (as usual, from F to F).
Admittedly, I find its complementary case rather comical; it’s made of perfectly robust plastic, but its shape makes it look more like a toolkit than an instrument case!
I’m not sure why Yamaha got so carried away with its strange shape, but it’s officially the toughest case in our list! The only downside is it doesn’t have extra pockets; a tiny detail, but worth mentioning.
So, what makes the Pianica unique for its price? First, it includes plugs for shoulder straps, a feature that’s usually included on tier-three models. Second, it has astonishingly good key action for its price!
While it’s not the only good choice for its price, the Pianica’s unique features make an excellent choice for anyone just getting started.
5. Suzuki PRO-37V3 Musical Instrument Melodica
Suzuki’s PRO-37V3 is the professional-grade version of melodicas. It sits squarely in the tier-three price range and includes all the standard features you’d want for serious performance.
Immediately noticeable, we have a crazy-solid body build. Imagine a digital keyboard that mimics an acoustic piano as closely as possible, and that is what the PRO-37V3 looks like.
The entire body is made of brass, as well as the reeds. Both ends are encased in handcrafted walnut, and the body is carefully wrapped in vinyl. Red felt cushions the keys where they meet the body, just like a real piano.
Additionally, Suzuki soups up the PRO-37V3 with standard guitar features. First, they drilled in two plugs for a shoulder strap so you can carry it like a guitar. Secondly, they include an audio jack for live amplification!
Other standard features you’d expect include a hand strap and spit valve. Interestingly, the spit valve has to be unscrewed. While it might not be convenient in the moment, this allows you to drain the instrument overnight.
Also, as a side note for those interested, it is tuned to A440 tuning.
Given the small market for melodicas, if you’re looking for a model for serious performance, the Suzuki PRO-37V3 is one of the best!
6. Hohner RASTA Melodica
Some people are casual fans of music genres. Then you have those other friends who are obsessed with everything about a genre.
If you are one of those people when it comes to reggae, then you might already know the melodica’s connection to reggae.
Enter reggae dub producer Augustus Pablo. A devout Rasta, Pablo used the melodica to further the sounds of his already diverse reggae tunes.
Although he may not be well-known outside reggae circles in 2023, he and John Batiste are the two most important musicians to make the melodica known worldwide.
With that, we come to our last product.
As a homage to Pablo, Hohner designed the 32-key RASTA melodica with black keys and a stylish design with red, yellow, and green. Reflecting the history of the African diaspora, these Pan-African colors represent heritage, wealth, and growth.
Made from a durable plastic, the Hohner RASTA makes a remarkably full sound. Its design is very sturdy, making it one of the heavier melodicas on our list. It also includes a complimentary case, which they jokingly refer to as “stylin’.”
Another notable feature is its plastic mouthpiece tube. Instead of being freely bendable like other models, it has eleven “kinks” that you can use to make it keep whatever shape you want. While it’s a small detail, it does make playing it easier.
As with any unusual instrument, the melodica is often reduced to being called a “gimmicky,” novelty instrument. And while it’s most often used in schools and children’s playrooms, it’s certainly capable of so much more.
In a recent interview, Jon Batiste claimed its sonic capabilities are yet to be fully explored. If John Cage made serious music out of toy pianos, and Johann Johannsson wrote a concerto for an old IBM computer, who’s to say the melodica can’t be taken seriously?
If you’re interested in pursuing the melodica more, I hope this article was helpful in your continuing musical journey!