How To Play Harmonica

Like all instruments, harmonicas require practice and enthusiasm to master.  They can be found in many different styles.  The most common is the diatonic harmonica, which is sometimes called a blues harp.  It has a total of ten holes.  The first four holes are used to play chords and the next six are used to play single notes.  Diatonic harmonicas consist of a basic major scale.  With more advanced techniques, you can add in the notes that don't occur in the scale.  Diatonic harmonicas come in many different scales, ranging from very high to very low. 

Another style of harmonica is the chromatic harmonica.  This harmonica can play an entire chromatic scale (all notes, including sharps and flats), using buttons, instead of playing technique. 

Often used in Asian music, tremolo harmonicas have two rows of holes that are played simultaneously to produce a wavering tone.  

The final type of harmonica is the orchestral harmonica, which encompasses several types used professionally.  These use brass reeds to produce a larger range of notes.

  1. To get started, purchase a diatonic harmonica in a middle-range scale, such as C major.  Most harmonicas are relatively inexpensive, but you should spend enough that your harmonica is easy to play.
  2. The first two terms with which you'll need to become familiar are "blow" and "draw."  Blow refers to the process of producing a note by exhaling through the harmonica.  To draw is to play a note by inhaling. 

    Using holes four through seven, you should be able to play a C major scale in this manner: on hole four, blow, then draw (notes C and D).  On hole five, repeat this process (notes E and F).  Continue in this pattern for holes six and seven.  You've just played a scale!  Practice this scale until you can play it easily, moving only the harmonica to move from one hole to the next, never your head.

  3. When you play this scale, you are playing in what's known as first position.  Playing blow notes in first position on a diatonic harmonica in C major will produce notes that are all within the C major chord.  First position includes all of the blow notes in the middle range of the harmonica. 
  4. More advanced harmonica-playing involves playing in second position.  This includes most of the draw notes at the low end of the harmonica's scale.  These notes are all a perfect fifth above the C major scale's notes.  Notes that are a perfect fifth apart always sound good together, with no dissonance.  These second position notes are easier to bend, which is why second position is prominent in blues-style music.
  5. Once you are comfortable with single-note playing in first position, try to bend some notes in second position.  Because of the way the reeds are situated in a harmonica, notes can only be bent downward, not upward.  The method that is used to bend notes is different for each person.  In its most basic form, bending consists of simply changing the angle of the air as it enters the harmonica.  Experiment and do whatever works for you, then repeat it so that you remember next time how you did it.
  6. When learning to play harmonica, keep some basic instrument-playing techniques in mind.  Breathing is always done from your diaphragm, not your chest.  Chest-breathing creates a thin, wispy sound.  You can also sustain your breath for much longer if you breathe from your stomach.  If you have trouble with this, do some deep-breathing exercises: inhale for a count of four, checking to make sure your stomach expands, not your chest. Then, exhale for a count of eight, keeping the amount of air exhaled consistent.
  7. The best way to learn how to improvise on harmonica is to listen to CDs of artists that you like.  Notice how they improvise, but don't try to copy them.  Create your own style.

There are many more advanced techniques to harmonica-playing, but practice these basics first.  When you feel confident in these areas, start tackling the more advanced stuff.  Soon, you'll be jamming with ease!


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