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How to Play Harmonica | The Beginner Harmonica Cheat Sheet

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Learning an instrument can be daunting, but the harmonica is great fun and easy to play if you know the basics. My 'Cheat Sheet' will get you on the right path immediately.



Click the above link to download the cheat sheet, then read on below as I explain what the cheat sheet contains.

So what does the cheat sheet tell you? Well, it contains the following sections:


1. Playing clean notes

2. Reading harmonica tablature (tab)

3. Playing in positions

4. Understanding the different keys


1. Playing clean notes

To play songs and riffs on the harmonica, you need to isolate one hole. You can then blow (outward breath) or draw (inward breath) to create notes. This can be achieved with one of three 'embouchures' (mouth shapes): pucker, tongue block or U-block.


Pucker / lip purse

Here's what a pucker shape would look like if you could see through the harmonica:

Harmonica pucker lip purse mouth shape


Upsides:
Easy for beginners

Downsides:
Can sound thin


The pucker (or lip purse) method is usually the most intuitive for beginners. You simply need to narrow your mouth so that you can isolate a single hole. It can give you a great sound if you do it right. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands it can sound thin and feeble. Don't be fooled by the name, you're not puckering up to kiss your grandma!


To get a great pucker sound, follow these steps:


1. Make an 'oh' shape with your mouth.


2. Keep your jaw low and your tongue relaxed.


3. Place the harmonica to your mouth and breathe naturally.


Tongue block

Here's what a tongue block would look like if you could see through the harmonica:

Harmonica tongue block mouth shape

Upsides:
Great for textures

Downsides:
Difficult for beginners



The tongue block method is not so intuitive for most beginners, but it does sometimes work. For this method, you will need a wider mouth, using your tongue to block the holes you don't want to make a sound. Tongue-blocking in the favourite embouchure for adding extra textures to your playing - slaps, flutters and more. It's popular with a lot of blues players, but it is difficult to master.


Give tongue blocking a go by following these steps:


1. Keep your mouth at its natural width.


2. Slide your tongue over to the left side of your mouth.


3. Place the harmonica to your mouth and 'search' for the left-most hole with the tip of your tongue.


U-block

Here's what a U-block would look like if you could see through the harmonica:

Harmonica U-block mouth shape

Upsides:
Quick movement

Downsides:
Genetic dependency!



U-blocking isn't so common, but it is used by some folk players who require fast trills and find that it works well for jigs, reels and other tunes at lightning pace. It is probably the least common harmonica embouchure because it requires you to curl your tongue, which not everyone can do.


Give the U-block a go by following these steps:


1. Curl your tongue and keep it resting on your bottom lip.


2. Place the harmonica to your lips and cradle the hole you are aiming for.


Remember, you can use whichever embouchure works for you!


2. Reading harmonica tablature (tabs)

Reading tablature (tabs) is a great way to learn songs. It is easy because it shows you the hole number of the harmonica to find, and the air flow (inhale or exhale).


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Sadly there is no universal tab system, but this is the most common:


Positive numbers are blow notes (outward breath)

Negative/minus numbers are draw notes (inward breath)


For example:

4 = hole four blow

-4 = hole four draw


For bends, a forward slash is used for each semitone (halfstep) bend. For example:


-2/ = hole two draw, half step bend

-2// = hole two draw, full step bend


There are some other symbols for advanced techniques and textures. Here is a full tab guide:

Harmonica tab guide

3. Playing in positions

Harmonicas are designed to play in one specific key, but it's possible to play in multiple keys on one harmonica within certain contexts.


A harmonica position tells you the connection between the key of the harmonica and the key of the song. Each number, from one to 12, has its own character and strengths.



The following table shows the most common positions and their uses:

Common harmonica positions and their uses

4. Understanding the different keys

Harmonica positions are numbered from one to 12. This means that each harmonica can - in theory at least - be played in all 12 keys. This is a lot to remember, so use the following table to check specific positional relationships:

Harmonica positions chart

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