In today's harmonica lesson, I'll be teaching you about the note layout of the diatonic (blues) harmonica.
Beginner harmonica players can be confused about the layout of harmonica notes: some of the notes seem to be missing which makes it difficult to play certain songs, and leads to confusion and frustation. In this guide I'll teach you an easy way to learn the notes on a harmonica.
The basic note layout of the harmonica
Diatonic harmonicas - the 10 hole ones used in blues, rock, pop and folk music - come in a variety of keys. Each harmonica is tuned to play one specific key, so most players end up with lots of harmonicas so they can play in lots of keys. The normal note layout of diatonic harmonicas is called Richter tuning. The most common key of harmonica is the key of C. Here's the note layout of a C diatonic harmonica:
I've highlighted holes 4 to 7. Notice that the notes for these holes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. This is the C major scale: exactly what you'd expect from a harmonica in the key of C! You can play lots of melodies using this scale.
What about the lower holes?
But if you look at holes 1 to 4, the notes are C, D, E, G, G, B, D, C. This can be confusing for beginner harmonica players. Unlike holes 4 to 7, these lower holes don't form a full C major scale.
This is because the lower notes are arranged so you can play a C major chord (C, E, G) on the blow notes. If you breathe out through holes 1 to 4, you'll notice that they sound "correct". They agree with each other rather than sounding messing and horrible. This is a C major chord, and it can be useful when accompanying other musicians.
The draw notes on the lower holes are set up to allow you to play a G chord. The draw notes on holes 1 to 4 are D, G, B, D. These are all part of the G chord, which is very useful as well. If you breathe in and out, you'll notice that the two chords go together well.
The harmonica has missing notes for precisely this reason: to allow you to play chords in the bottom of the harmonica while playing melodies in the middle part of the instrument.
What about the higher holes?
Now take a look at holes 7 to 10. Like the lowest four holes, we don't have a full C major scale. We have the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, C, so we're missing a B note at the top end. Notice though that we still have the C major chord on the blow notes (C, E, G).
Finding the "missing" notes
In order to arrange the harmonica in the way described above, some notes are "missing". However, we can fill in the gaps and get these missing notes by using a technique called bending. Bending changes the pitch of a note to turn it into another, meaning you can fill in some of the notes you don't naturally get on the harmonica. It requires great mouth control and the ability to change tongue position and breath pressure. It's not a beginner technique, but I have a free lesson on it here.
Which notes will bend?
It's possible to bend holes 1 to 6 draw and 7 to 10 blow. You can get the following notes by bending:
Most holes will give you one extra note through bending, but notice that hole 2 gives you two extra notes, hole three gives you three, and hole 10 gives you two as well.
Do you have to remember the notes of the harmonica?
No! Because there are so many keys of harmonica, memorising all the notes would be a massive job. Instead, harmonica players remember a version of "scale degrees". These correspond to the 'do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do' that you might have learned at school (don't worry if you didn't). This allows you to learn songs without worrying about the notes for specific keys. To learn a song in this way, we use harmonica tabs. For a free harmonica lesson on using tabs, click here.
Full harmonica chart for all keys
So far I've just talked about the notes on a harmonica in the key of C. But of course you can buy harmonicas in lots of different keys. So to finish this article, let me share with you a complete diagram for the notes of the harmonica in every key. This charts the natural notes, all bends and also all the missing notes using an advanced technique called overbends. I hope you find it useful!
Thanks for taking the time to learn a little about the note layout of harmonica. I hope you enjoyed the lesson!
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