Introduction: How to Play the Harmonica
After searching around on instructables, I didn't find any complete harmonica tutorials. There are quite a few good ones around the internet, but I thought there should be an instructable.
So. The harmonica is one of the easiest instruments to play, it sounds really cool, and can be used for a variety of musical styles. All right, maybe not too many musical styles, but it's fun to play anyway. So. Here we go.
Step 1: Types of Harmonicas
Diatonic: This is the most common, simplest type of harmonica. You'll probably want to start here. A diatonic harmonica has 10 holes. It is built to play a major, diatonic scale. Additional notes can be played by "bending" (explained later) and different scales can be obtained by playing in different positions (explained later).
Chromatic: These are fancy harmonicas. They have a little button on the side. When you press this button, whatever note you are playing moves up a half step. This allows you to play every note in the musical scale, a chromatic scale. Although they offer more versatility, they are often harder to play, especially if you are trying to bend. Not recommended for blues.
Tremolo and Octave Harmonicas: These harmonicas have a double row of holes. On a tremolo, the notes are tuned slightly apart, but almost the same, creating a cool "tremolo" vibrating effect. On an octave harmonica, the notes are tuned an octave (8 notes) apart, creating a fuller sound. Compare to a 12-string guitar. Both are sort of rarely used.
Special tunings: Some harmonicas come with different scales like minor scales and scales made for playing in more than one key.
Bottom Line: Start with a diatonic harmonica, preferably in the key of C (as this is the easiest key to understand).
Here are some pictures of each type.
Step 2: Brands of Harmonicas
The most common brands are Hohner, Hering, Lee Oskar, Suzuki, Seydel, Bushman and Huang.
Hohner is the one you hear about most, as it is the most common. However, that does not make it the best. Hohner produces lots of different harmonicas, some good and some not so good. Be sure to explore a range of harmonica brands.
For a beginner, I would personally recommend Lee Oskar. They are very easy to play and sound great. But I'm not saying that's all you can use, there are definitely other equally good harmonicas. Take a look at this chart for more info on good harmonicas for beginners.
Step 3: How the Harmonica Works
Image sourced from https://www.themusicstand.ca/
If you were to blow into the holes of a harmonica, one by one from left to right, you would hear the 1, 3, and 5 notes of a major chord (C, E, G in the key of C) repeated repeated three times (as well as one high C at the end). Alone, this won't do you much good, as it's only one chord.
That's why playing the harmonica involves a combination of inhalingandexhaling (also called blowing and drawing). If you blow into hole 4 on a C harmonica, you'll hear a C. Now inhale–—the note moves up to a D. Blow into the next hole and it's an E. Inhale, F. Blowing into hole 6 produces a G, and inhaling makes an A. At this point you can probably guess what come next if you blow into hole 7: a B, right? Wrong! If you blow into hole 7, you will hear a C. You have to inhale to produce the B. As you can see, there isn't a set pattern to the blows and draws of a harmonica.
The three main oddities are holes 2, 7, and 10. In holes 7-9, the pattern mentioned above is changed so inhaling moves the note down instead of up.
Sound confusing? It is. The diagram above should make things much clearer.
Step 4: Techniques for Playing
And now comes a problem that many beginning harmonica players encounter. You look at the chart on the previous step, say, "That seems easy enough," blow into your harmonica, and three notes come out. Here's how to just play one note.
There are two main methods:
Pucker method: To play like this, start with your lips relaxed. If you exhale or inhale, you will hear multiple notes. Now push your lips outward, almost as if you were trying to kiss someone. Experiment until you can get a single, clear note. Now stay like that. It may be helpful to think of your lips as being over or around the harmonica, rather than just on it. If you take away the harmonica and you look utterly ridiculous, you're doing it right.
This may seem hard at first, but once you get the hang of it (which shouldn't take long), it's a very effective method.
Tongue method: Relax your mouth so it is covering multiple holes, then cover the ones you don't want with your tongue. This technique is often used to "split" notes, allowing you to play two notes that aren't directly next to each other by putting your tongue in between them.
Which method you use is totally up to you.
Step 5: Try a Song
Here are some beginning harmonica tabs from Dave Gage's website. B means blow, D means draw.
Step 6: Bending - Part 1
Bending is something that's hard to get at first, but easy to do once you get it. However, this is not exactly a beginner technique. Make sure you can do everything mentioned previously, especially playing single notes, before you attempt bends.
Bending is used to change the pitch of a note. While inhaling or exhaling, you change the shape of your mouth, changing the speed at which the reed is vibrating and the pitch of the note that plays. Bends are primarily used when playing blues harmonica.
The most common bends are draw bends, especially on the lower notes. However, there are also blow bends, overblows, and overdraws.
Step 7: Bending - Part 2
For better explanations of bending technique than I can give, check out these websites:
Additionally, here's a beginner method that I originally pasted from http://www.hoerl.com/Music/harmon5.html, a website which doesn't seem to exist anymore.
Playing "bends" using the TILT Method
Start with the #4 draw (you can pick any note to start with but the general consensus seems to be that #4 draw is easiest). Remember that you must change the angle of the airflow over the reed to "bend" the note. So let's cheat a little bit and alter the angle of the harmonica rather than alter the airflow angle by changing your mouth, tongue, and throat. Hold the harmonica by the ends and then while playing a clean #4 draw. Tilt the back of the harmonica up towards your nose. Make sure that when you tilt the harmonica up that you continue to draw the air through the harmonica though you hadn't tilted it up.
- Do not let your head, mouth, and tongue follow the angle of the harmonica with your airstream, or you negate the effect of tilting the harmonica in the first place.
- REMEMBER: You must change the angle of airflow across the reed to make the note bend. This trick of physically tilting the harmonica up, will create the same change of angle that you must eventually learn to do with your mouth, tongue, and embouchure. If the harmonica pops out of your mouth, start over and make sure you have the harmonica placed far enough into your mouth so that it won't pop out.
- TILTING TIPS: The reed in each hole requires a different angle to achieve a bend. Generally speaking these angles look like this:
Hole #4 draw takes about a 45 degree change of airflow angle.
Hole #2 draw takes almost a 75 to 90 degree change of airflow angle
to get it to bend down a whole step.
Hole #3 draw takes an angle somewhere in between 45 and 90 degrees.
Experiment with the tilting technique until you get a change in pitch. When you start getting a "bend" stay with it until you can make a noticeable change in pitch. If you just can't seem to get #4 draw to "bend"....go ahead and try a different hole. If one practice session doesn't yield any "bends", call it a day and come back tomorrow. But whatever you do, don't give up.
Playing "bends" Without Tilting the Harmonica (recommended)
After you have reached the point of being able to get "bends" using the tilting method, it's time to start learning how to get the same sound without tilting. Tilting is OK to get the idea of "bends", but you won't be able to play very many songs if you're constantly tilting the harmonica around. You now must learn to change the shape of your mouth and tongue to simulate the same change in airflow that you got by tilting the harmonica. This is the most difficult harmonica technique to describe in words (and different people describe the same process differently) but here goes.
-Start by playing a single, clean, draw note.
-Push your lower jaw forward just a tiny bit.
-Push the tip of your tongue against your front bottom teeth.
-Arch your tongue towards the roof of your mouth.. (but don't arch so much that you cut off your ariflow).
-Draw (pull the air) a bit harder to compensate for the sharp airflow angle caused by your jaw and tongue changes.
-Caution: Don't draw too hard or you will move past "draw bend" to "overdraw bend".
-Do 2,3,4, and 5 as close to simultaneously as possible.
-Listen for the change in pitch (the "bend").
-Immediately after the bend, relax you jaw relax your tongue
-Return your tongue to it's regular place (at the bottom of your mouth)
Continue the draw, and the note should return to it's usual clean single note sound.
There you have it. "Bending" a note only requires two things: good breath control and the ability to "shift" or change the airflow.
Below is a diagram of which notes can and can't be bent.
Step 8: Playing in Different Positions - Intro
Your harmonica might have more than one key printed on it. On one side it probably says C, but on the other side, it might say G. Which key is it in? Your harmonica is technically in C, but you can play a different type of scale in the key of G.
The natural position of the harmonica (in this case, the key of C) is called first position or straight harp. Second position, or cross harp, is the key a fifth up from first position (G).
Why use different positions? Two reasons. First, they allow you to play in multiple keys on one harmonica. Second, it allows you two play scales other than the standard major scale. For example, if I wanted to play a blues scale in C, I would use a harmonica in the key of F.
Each position is a fifth up from the next. So, on a C harmonica, 1st position would be in the key of C, 2nd in G, 3rd in D, 4th in A, and 5th in E. You will rarely use anything beyond fifth position, and you will usually stick to 1, 2, and 4.
Step 9: Second Position
Second position, as mentioned earlier, is in the key of G. It is primarily used for blues harmonica.
To play a blues scale, use this tablature:
You can also play a mixolydian scale (G A B C D E F G) and a major pentatonic scale (G A B D E G) but those aren't as nearly as common.
Step 10: Third Position
Third position is a fifth up from second position. On a C harmonica, it would be in the key of D. You can use third position to play a blues scale or a Dorian minor scale (which is almost a minor scale and can be used to play a lot of minor things. The seventh note of the scale is just sharp). See tabs below.
Step 11: Fourth Position
Fourth position is a fifth up from third position. On a C harmonica, it would be in the key of A. You can use fourth position to play a minor scale or a minor pentatonic scale, which is one note short of a blues scale (A C D E G A). If you get good at higher bends (which are advanced) you can add the Eb on the higher scale and make it a blues scale. But it's mostly used for minor scale. See tabs below.
Step 12: Fifth Position
Fifth position is less common than the rest, and it's about as far as you'll ever need to go. It's in the key of E. With a little bending, you can play a blues scale or a minor pentatonic scale, or even a phrygian minor scale, although all these scales in various modes (that's what those long fancy words are called) are a bit outside the scope of most harmonica music. To play a phrygian minor scale (or any other mode previously mentioned) just go straight up the harmonica note by note starting and ending on the note of whichever key you are in. So a phrygian minor scale on a C harmonica would be E F G A B C D E. Below is the tab for a blues scale. To turn a blues scale into a minor pentatonic scale, remove the fourth note.
Step 13: Collecting Harmonicas
If you really start getting serious about the harmonica and you want to start jamming with people and playing music, you're going to need some harmonicas in different keys. Start with C of course. Then, if you want more, you can get them in as many keys as you want. I would stick to natural keys (plain lettes, e.g. C instead of C#) with the exception of B. Get a Bb instead, it's more common and allows you to play blues in F instead of F#. I have harmonicas in A, Bb, C, D, E, F, and G, as well as a chromatic that someone gave me.
*Here's a hint: if you happen to get Lee Oskar harmonicas (although you can probably try this even if you don't), call Lee Oskar and ask a harmonica question. When I did, they asked me if I wanted them to send me some information, and I said yes. If they don't ask, you can probably ask yourself. Anyway, this "information" includes a very nice case that holds 7 harmonicas, for free. Pictured below.*
Step 14: Cleaning
As you play, you'll notice that gunk is going to start building up in the harmonica. This may not affect anything, and overcleaning can be bad, but cleaning occasionally is good.
Cleaning Without Disassembling
If your harmonica has a plastic comb (as opposed to wood or metal) you can run room temperature water through it and let it dry.
For a more thorough cleaning, you can unscrew the cover plate, take out the comb, and clean it with water, soap, and an old toothbrush. But make sure you get all the soap off, you don't want it tasting like soap. If you have a wood comb, just rub it with the tooth brush. Don't use soap or water. You can use soap and water on metal, but make sure to dry thoroughly so it doesn't rust.
You can clean the cover plates by the same methods.
The reed plates can be cleaned the same way, minus the toothbrush.
-There are also various cleaning kits you can buy, with brushes and products made for cleaning harmonicas.
Step 15: References and Links
For more information:
riccardos.org/harmonicas - explains the theory in more detail, good for scales
www.davegage.com/tips.html - the basics. also has a tabs page.
www.harmonicalessons.com - also by Dave Gage. There are a lot of plugs for you to pay to become a member, but it has some useful info.
www.monkeysee.com/play/10524-how-to-play-the-harmonica - videos
www.volcano.net/~jackmearl/ - Tabs for lots of simple songs, as well as 10 basic lessons. He does a good job of noting some common mistakes that people make.
www.harmonicalinks.com/ - more links
www.harmonicalinks.com/players.html - Some more harmonica players to check out. It's really important to listen to good harmonica players so you know what to aim for and to help you develop a good sound.