Are You Wanting to Learn to Play the Harmonica?

What kind of harmonica should I buy?

My focus here is mainly "blues harmonica." This is the main kind of harmonica playing you will hear in blues music and country and western music.

There are different kinds of harmonicas. The one you should start out with is an inexpensive harmonica in the key of C. The key of C has no sharps or flats. You don't need to know any of this stuff to play the harmonica but it will all make sense later on.

You can pick up an inexpensive harmonica that is easy to play and sounds good for less than $10. You can also pay thousands of dollars for specialty harmonicas. For blues harmonica, you should get a ten hole diatonic harmonica. I picked up a Hohner Bluesband harmonica in the key of C at Cracker Barrel resataurant for less than $10 and it actually sounds pretty good and is very easy to bend (we'll talk about bending later).

There are many companies that make harmonicas. Hohner, Lee Oskar and Suzuki are among the best. Start with a harmonica in the key of C.

How do I hold the harmonica?

How to Hold the Harmonica
This is the traditional way to hold a harmonica, pinched between thumb and forefinger. The other hand is place behind the harp and can be used to make vibrato sounds. Use your right or left hand, whichever feels the most comfortable to you.
How to Hold the Harmonica
Some harmonica players use their open hand to repeatedly tap the side of the harmonica to get a vibrato sound when needed.

I never found a video on Youtube that showed how the harmonica should be oriented when I was playing it. Each harmonica (blues harmonica) has ten holes. A different note is played on each hole depending if you are blowing through the harp or if you are drawing a breath through the harp. Most harmonicas have numbers stamped on top, right above each sound hold numbering from 1 to 10. When placed in your hands, the deep notes go to your left and the high notes go to your right. Number One hole is the lowest note on your harp and the number Ten hole is the highest note. There is a specific way you should hold the harp too. Most people tend to hold it in their right hand. My personal preference is to hold it in my left hand. To hold the harp correctly, extend your forefinger across the top of the harmonica. Put your thumb on the same hand, across the bottom of the harp. This will put your finger and thumb in a pinching position if the harp was removed. (see illustration).



How do I play the harmonica and another instrument, such as the guitar, at the same time?

Traditional Harmonica Neck Brace
This is the traditional neck brace that holds a harmonica and allows a person to play another instrument while they also play the harmonica simultaneously.
Harparm Harmonica Holder
This is the Harparm. It mounts to a mic stand and harmonicas mount magnetically or by adhesive strips.

Guitarists who also play the harmonica have to have a way to free their hands up. Obviously, they can't hold the harp at the same time they are using both hands to play guitar. Traditionally, a neck brace has been used to hold the harmonica in the playing position. The harmonica is held in place between two pieces of steel with the springs holding the harp firmly. These are difficult to get used to if you are singing because the harmonica is so close to your mouth and it comes between your mouth and the microphone. I have just discovered a new contraption that looks like it should be a better "moustrap." The "Harparm" mounts to a regular mic stand and is fully adjustable. The harmonica is mounted by a magnet right below or in front of the microphone. It is not in a contraption that holds it right in front of your lips at all times. If your harmonica is not steel and will not stick to a magnet, adhesive strips are available for the Harparm which solves that problem. I am the lead singer and rhythm guitar player for a band and this fancy tool will keep the harmonica from being strapped right between my mouth and a microphone. I haven't tried a Harparm yet but I put my order in for one this morning. After I have had time to try it out, I will post a review.

How do I play the harmonica?

To play the harmonica, you will blow air through and suck air through it to make many different notes. Don't overblow. It is not necessary and may damage the reeds in your harp. The harmonica puts out a lot of sound without you having to blow hard.

Each hole has one note when you blow into it and it is a different note when you draw air back through it. You can learn to play single notes by using your tongue to block all the holes but one when your mouth is on the harp or you can play chords which are three or more notes at the same time.

By mixing and matching chords, notes or a combination of both, you can play songs with your harmonica. It doesn't take long to learn how to play some excellent songs with your harp. You will learn how to "bend" notes and how to make a vibrato and tremolo effect with your harmonica and various other tricks that will make you shine when playing for your family and friends. I will talk about those methods later and refer you to some Youtube videos.

Why do harmonicas come in so many "keys"?

Every song, no matter what song it may be, is written in a "key" or a "chord". If you are playing your harmonica with a band, you will have to have a harmonica that corresponds to the key of the song the band is playing or the music will NOT sound good. Many great guitar players do not use sheet music to play songs but many of them will use what is called a "chord chart". It is simply the lyrics with the chords (keys) of the songs written in place where they go in the song. If the band is playing a song in the key of G for example, you will need a harmonica that is in the key of G. If they are playing a song in the key of F, you will need a harmonica in the key of F and so on. There are some exceptions to the rule by using what is called "cross harp", "second position" and even "third position".

There are a total of 14 keys that a harmonica can be offered in.Tthere are 12 keys in our musical scale. That is the way it has always been and the way it will always be. Harmonicas are offered in the keys of C, G, A, D, E, F, Bb, B, F#, Eb, Ab, Db, Hi G and Low F. So you see, we can get every note plus the Hi G and Low F.

Starting out, I recommend buying a harmonica in the key of C. It is the most available anyway.

What Brand of harmonica should I start with?

There are several excellent harmonica manufacturers. The first ones I were introduced to were the Hohners just because they were sold at our drug store/diner/variety store in the small town where I grew up. Hohner makes excellent harps with affordable pricing depending on what kind of harmonica you want to purchase. There are other excellent choices for a beginner, Suzuki, Lee Oskar, Huang and Dannecker to name a few. You should start with a 10 hole diatonic harmonica. Some can be purchased for as little as $10 and some for several hundred dollars. A Hohner Marine Band harp will run around $50 and will be a great first harp.

What is "cross harp"?

Now that you know you have to have a harmonica that matches the key of the song you are playing, I am going to throw a wrench into the gears. You can play "cross harp" and not have to have a harp in the same key. Are you scratching your head? LOL. It is possible to play a harmonica in the key of C with a song that is being played in the key of G. Look at the illustration below and you will see that if you draw a breath on the second hole of the C harmonica, it will make a "G" note. So by starting out on the second hold or what they would call, "Second (2nd) position with the C harp, you can play along with a song in G chord. Many times I think the cross harp sounds better than playing the original key. You can even play cross harp using 3rd and 4th positions.

Cross harp chart - showing what notes are on each harmonica at different hole positions.

Looking again at the chart, if you are playing with a band and they start playing a song in the key of Dm (D minor) and all you have is your C harmonica, you can start playing from the 3rd position or the third hole from the left. It is very simple and yet, very nice to know this. And, it may save you money since you won't have to buy so many harmonicas.


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