The harmonica is one of the world's most popular musical instruments and is known for its distinctive rootsy sound. It can be used to play blues, rock, country, folk and more. So let's explore the note layout of the harmonica, and learn how to play some easy beginner songs.
Harmonica notes layout
The most common type of harmonica is the diatonic harmonica. Diatonic harmonicas have 10 holes, and each hole produces two different notes, depending on whether you blow or draw. The note layout of a diatonic harmonica in the key of C is as follows:
If you look closely, holes 4 to 7 produce the notes of the C major scale. This means that you can play simple melodies in the key of C by simply blowing and drawing on these holes, without the need for any advanced techniques.
Playing the major scale on harmonica
To start with, you can play the major scale. This is a good building block for lots of melodies. These are the notes of the C major scale:
C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C
You can play the major scale by playing up from hole 4, going blow-draw-blow-draw until you reach hole 7 where you need to play the draw note first, then blow (I'll show you the tabs for this below).
Playing harmonica tabs
Harmonica tabs are the most popular way of learning to play harmonica. They are easy to follow because they show you the hole number and the air flow direction (blow or draw).
Positive numbers are blow notes (outward breath). Negative/minus numbers are draw notes (inward breath)
For example, 4 means blow on hole four and -4 means draw on hole four.
The tabs for the major scale look like this:
4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7
Playing clean notes on harmonica
Playing clean notes on the harmonica is essential for playing songs.
Proper Breath Control: Start by focusing on your breath control. The harmonica responds to subtle changes in air pressure, so controlling your breath is crucial. Practice breathing in and out gently to get a feel for how the harmonica responds.
If you try playing the scale, you'll probably get "messy" notes. To play it cleanly, you need to learn to isolate a single hole. You can then blow (outward breath) or draw (inward breath) to create single notes which can be used to build melodies or songs.
Which Mouth Shape? There are three ways of playing clean notes on harmonica: lip-pursing, tongue blocking and U-blocking. We're going to look at lip-pursing. You may also want to try Tongue Blocking or U-Blocking.
Lip-pursing clean notes on harmonica
The lip-purse method (sometimes called puckering) is 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. 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.
The key to getting a clean note with this technique is how narrow your mouth is. Keep your lips relaxed as you do this because any tension will affect the sound. Try to think of placing the harmonica into your mouth rather than reaching out the instrument with your lips. Your tongue should be relaxed and you should breathe freely and easily.
Here's what a pucker shape would look like if you could see through the harmonica:
Try not to look at the harp as you put it to your mouth. That would lead to using your eyes rather than your ears, plus it doesn't help because you can't see the holes when you are actually playing!
Now let's look at some easy songs.
When the Saints Go Marching In - harmonica tabs
4 5 -5 6 4 5 -5 6 Oh when the saints, oh when the saints 4 5 -5 6 5 4 5 -4 Oh when the saints go marching in 5 5 -4 4 4 5 6 6 6 -5 Oh how I want to be in that number 5 -5 6 5 4 -4 4 When the saints go marching in
Oh Susanna - harmonica tabs
4 -4 5 6 6 -6 6 5 4 -4 5 5 -4 4 -4
Oh I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee
4 -4 5 6 6 -6 6 5 4 -4 5 5 -4 -4 4
And I'm going to Lou’siana, m-y true love for to see
-5 -5 -6 -6 -6 6 6 5 4 -4
Oh! Susanna, oh don't you cry for me
4 -4 5 6 6 -6 6 5 4 -4 5 5 -4 -4 4
For I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.
Camptown Races - harmonica tabs
6 6 5 6 -6 6 5 5 -4 5 -4
Camptown ladies sing this song, doo-dah doo-dah
6 6 5 6 -6 6 5 -4 -5 5 -4 4 Camptown race track's five miles long, oh dee doo-dah day
5 6 6 5 6 6 -6 6 5 5 -4 5 -4
I came down there with my hat caved in, doo-dah doo-dah
6 6 6 5 6 6 -6 -6 6 6 5 -4 -5 5 -4 4 I’ll go back home with my pocket full of tin, oh dee doo-dah day
4 4 5 6 7 -6 -6 7 -6 6 Goin' to run all night, goin' to run all day
5 6 6 5 5 6 6 -6 6 5 I’ll bet my money on the bobtail nag
-4 -5 -5 5 -4 -4 4
Somebody bet on the bay
Good luck with playing single notes and the above songs. See you again soon!
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