Hello! Today I'll be answering the thirteen most common questions I get asked all the time by beginner harmonica players. I hope you find it useful. You can scroll down to get a summary of each answer plus links to more information.
1. Which harmonica should I buy?
For beginners, I recommend a Hohner Special 20 harmonica in the key of C. Here's an Amazon link. The most popular type of harmonica for beginners is a 10-hole diatonic and there are lots of good models of these made by Hohner, Seydel, Suzuki and Lee Oskar. The Hohner Special 20 is a good quality example and a solid, affordable all-rounder for beginners, which is why I recommend it. I play them myself so I'm talking from personal experience as a professional harmonica player.
2. Is harmonica easy to play?
Harmonica is easy to pick up and play a few notes, but it's just as difficult as any other instrument to master. You can get a rough-and-ready tune out of it on day 1, but more complex techniques like bending, overblowing and tongue textures take time and dedication. Don't be put off though, it's great fun and you can start playing music as soon as you get it out of the box.
3. Can I use a tremolo harmonica for your lessons?
No! My lessons use a 10-hole diatonic harmonica (see question 1 above). Diatonics are very expressive, allow bending and are affordable compared with other types. They are used in blues, rock, pop, folk and country music so they're a very versatile and accessible instrument. Tremolo harmonicas have two rows of notes, and are used mainly for Irish and Asian music. The two notes are tuned slightly out from each other to give a pusling or 'tremolo' sound. There are lots of types of harmonica, the other popular one being the chromatic (with the button on the end - think Stevie Wonder), and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses, but the diatonic harmonica is what I play and what I teach.
4. Why do harmonica come in so many different keys?
Diatonic harmonicas are tuned to one specific scale, making it really easy to play melodies, but also making it difficult to play in every key on one harmonica. Owning several harmonicas allows you to play in various keys. You'll notice that a gigging harmonica player will have a whole case full of harmonicas and will switch between songs, and sometimes even mid-song. Horses for courses!
5. How do you play clean notes on harmonica?
Playing clean notes is the first step to playing proper melodies on harmonica. The easiest way to start is to use your fingers to cover the holes either side of the one you want to play, and then breathe through it gently. For example, cover holes 3 and 5 and then try to breathe through hoe 4. This should give you a clean, single note rather than a messy or "chordal" sound. You can then work on narrowing your mouth so that you don't need to use your fingers. There are several ways of achieving the right shape to consistently get clean notes - here's a full lesson on playing clean notes.
6. What's wrong with the 2 draw on my harmonica?
When the two draw note doesn't work, it's almost certainly a problem with your technique. You need to stay relaxed, drop your shoulders from your ears, and breathe naturally rather than forcefully. Don't use any excess pressure to move the air; if it sounds bad, relax even more. Compare the 2 draw note with the 3 blow and it should sound the same. Here's a quick demo to get your started.
7. Why do I get out of breath when I play harmonica?
If you find yourself out of breath when playing harmonica, you are pushing and pulling the air too hard. I cannot stress the following point too much: the harmonica should essentially "play itself" without any force. It's very tempting to try to "blow" and "suck" the air but this will make you lose your breath very quickly (not to mention sending off the tembre and intonation of the note). So practise visualising the journey of the air from your lungs up through your throat, mouth and then through the harmonica. That should be a clear, unimpeded airway for the air. Any obstruction with the tongue or throat, or any force, will affect the sound you are making. This is not easy to get your head around at first, but with practice it will become second nature.
8. Can you play chords on the harmonica?
Yes, you can play chords on the harmonica. The most simple chord is the major chord on holes 1, 2 and 3 blow. On a C harmonica, this would be a C chord. You can also play a G chord on holes 2, 3, and 4 draw. There are other more obscure chords or partial chords, and of course if you use a different tuning of harmonica then the chord possibilities will change dramatically.
9. Is playing harmonica good for your health?
Yes, some studies suggest that playing the harmonica can help with breath control, and harmonicas have been used successfully in the rehabilitation of patients suffering with lung disorders such as COPD. Here's a PubMed article on a clinical study into the health benefits of harmonica. It's also worth remembering the physical, mental and social health benefits to playing any instrument. Plus - most importantly - it's great fun!
10. How many reeds are there in a harmonica?
Standard ten-hole diatonic harmonicas contain 20 reeds: ten blow reeds and ten draw reeds. Of course there are many different types of harmonica so it depends on the specific model you are playing. Some harmonicas contain hundreds of reeds!
11. Can harmonicas go out of tune?
Yes. Sometimes harmonicas are even out of tune when you buy them, but usually they go out of tune over time through the repetitive action of vibration activated every time you play them. The most commonly used notes tend to go flat, especially if you are using bending technique. But fear not, if you don't play it too hard, your harmonica should stay in tune for some time. When they do go out of tune, you can learn to retune them (or send to a specialist), replace the reedplates or just buy a new harmonica.
12. Why is the harmonica sometimes called a 'harp'?
As Pat Missin says in his excellent article on the topic: "Early names for the harmonica were Aeolina, Aeolian and Mund-Aeoline, which stressed this link with the Aeolian harp. As the earliest harmonica-like instruments were little more than a few reeds attached to a reedplate that was held to the players lips, the resemblance to a harp was quite pronounced." It's well worth reading his article in full as it's a wonderful resource.
13. What's the best way to learn harmonica?
I genuinely believe that the best way to learn harmonica is through step-by-step lessons with an experienced tutor. But I would say that, wouldn't I! You certainly don't have to take lessons with me as there are loads of great teachers out there, but if you'd like to then I am offering you a free 30 day trial of my harmonica school. The school includes step-by-step courses from absolute beginner to advanced, as well as specialist lessons on blues, bending, overblowing, tongue blocking, music theory and lots more.
Free 30 day trial of my harmonica school
If you are keen to improve your playing, start your free trial of my harp school today...