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How to Play Harmonica: 7 Step Beginner Plan

Updated: Mar 7

Hello! Harmonica beginners often ask me 'how is harmonica played?' or 'how do you play the harmonica'. You've come to the right place. This is a complete guide for beginner harmonica players. I'm going to show you how to become a great harmonica player, step by step.

In this lesson I'll give you my seven steps to success. The lesson includes choosing the right instrument for you, basic breathing and playing technique, bending, playing in different positions and cleaning your harmonica. I hope you find this useful!

❓Prefer to watch my video on how to play harmonica (7 Steps to Harmonica Success for Beginners) - click here.

Step 1: Choosing the right harmonica

Your first step is obviously to buy a harmonica. Most beginner harp players start with a 10 hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C, such as a Hohner Special 20. However, the instrument you need really depends on the music you want to play on it.

So what are the different types and what are they used for?

Photo of a harmonica - Hohner Special 20
Diatonic Harmonica

The diatonic harmonica is likely what you picture when you think of harmonica. It's probably what you'll start (and I'll assume it's what you've chosen for the remainder of the lesson). Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen all play diatonic harmonica, and they're also featured in Western movies and in some older pop tunes. But most famously, they are used in blues music - so much that they are often just called "blues harps". Diatonics usually have 10 holes and are built to play a major scale. You can fill in extra notes and make them sound even more bluesy with bending (explained later in this lesson).

Photo of a chromatic harmonica
Chromatic Harmonica

The chromatic harmonica is the type played by Stevie Wonder and Larry Adler. It has a button or "slide" on the end which lifts each note by a semitone (halfstep) allowing you to play the full (chromatic scale). The note layout make chromatic harmonicas capable of playing lots of different styles including jazz and classical, but it does mean they lack the rich, bluesy sound of a diatonic.

Photo of a tremolo harmonica
Tremolo Harmonica

Tremolo and octave harmonicas have two rows of notes. The two notes on a tremolo are tuned ever so slightly apart. On an octave harmonica, they are an octave apart. Both of these tunings give an interesting pulsing beat, or 'tremolo', effect. They are tuned to play simple melodies and are very popular for Asian and Celtic folk music.

There are also such things as bass and chord harmonicas. There are lots more specialist harmonica tunings available, in fact as many as your imagination can dream up because these days you can get custom tunings to your own specification.

Click here to learn more about the diffferent types of harmonica.

So, What Harmonica Do I Recommend For Beginners? The easiest place to start, as I said above, is with a 10 hole diatonic in the key of C. I recommend the Hohner Special 20. Here's an Amazon link.

Step 2: Learning to breathe

"I know how to breathe!", I hear you say. But do you know how to breathe through the harmonica? Probably not. Beginners almost always blow too hard. So get used to breathing gently through the instrument in a conscious, meditative sort of way. Use no force, just allow the air to come and go as it naturally wants to. Let go of any tension in your hands, tongue, throat and shoulders. Don't worry about what notes you're playing at this point. All your focus should be on breathing naturally.

TOP TIP: Holding the harmonica

Hold the harmonica in your left hand with the numbers on the top. The lowest note (hole 1) will be on your left, and the highest note (hole 10) will be on the right.

I'm working on embedding demos on this page - please follow link for now. Thanks!

Step 3: Playing clean notes

You're almost certainly getting multiple notes when you breathe through the harmonica. But most of the time you need to play individual holes so that you can play clean and clear melodies. So how exactly do you do that?

Photo of a close up of a man's mouth covering a harmonica
How to play single notes on harmonica

Lip pursing (also called puckering) is the most common technique for playing clean notes, and it's the method that beginners usually find easiest. It's intuitive because you're trying to narrow your lips so that you isolate a single hole, avoiding the holes either side of the one you're aiming at. You should aim to keep your mouth narrow but without adding any tension with your tongue, cheeks or throat muscles because this can affect the sound of the note. Start by trying to play a 4 hole blow. Remember to stay relaxed. The key to the single note is getting your mouth narrow enough.

On a harmonica in the key of C, you are aiming for the C note. You are listening out for a distinct clean tone. If it sounds like more than one note, your mouth is too wide.

I'm working on embedding demos on this page - please follow link for now. Thanks!

If the above method doesn’t work for you, you might want to try one of the following two mouthshapes.

Photo of a close up of a man's mouth
Mouth shape - harmonica

Tongue blocking is the second way you can get clean notes. It isn't usually as accessible for beginners but you may find that it works for yu. It is also an important technique if you want to use tongue textures later on.

To tongue block, make your mouth the width of four holes. Put the harp to your mouth and you should hear roughly four notes at the same time (a bit wider than for chugging). Take the harp away from your mouth and practise putting your tongue forward and to the left - towards the low notes. Put the harp to your mouth again and search for hole 1 with the tip of your tongue. You are aiming to play hole 4 out of the right hand side of the mouth. Again, it should be a clean, clear note with no other tones creeping in.

I'm working on embedding demos on this page - please follow link for now. Thanks!

Photo of a close up of a man's mouth with tongue in shape of a 'u'
U blocking

U-blocking is, in a sense, a hybrid of lip pursing and tongue blocking. You will need a relatively narrow mouth - but not quite as thin as a lip purse - but you'll also be using your tongue. As the name suggests, your tongue should be in a 'U' shape, which means this option is only available to 50% of the population, who have the gene allowing them to curve their tongue! U-blocking is popular with some folk harmonicists as they can move quickly between holes to play accurate triplets and other fast runs.

Keep reading for more steps on how to play the harmonica for beginners - or you can watch my video covering the 7 steps to harmonica success for beginners.

Learn more about how to play harmonica:

Step 4: Playing songs

Once you've played some clean single notes, you'll now be able to play a song! To lay a song, you'll be following 'tabs'.

Tablature (or tabs for short) tell you the hole number and the direction of airflow. Positive numbers are blow, negative numbers are draw. Some other symbols are used for more advanced techniques. Click here for a full tab guide.

TOP TIP: Tabs galore!

I have 100's of free tabs on my site - visit the Free Tabs page for more.

Try playing the classic jazz standard, When The sSaints Go Marching In, nice and slowly, trying to get the notes as clean as possible. Remember, 4 = hole four blow and -4 = hole 4 draw.

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

I'm working on embedding demos on this page - please follow link for now. Thanks!

Step 5: Learning to bend

One question that beginners ask all the time is "how do you bend notes on harmonica"? Well, you need to make sure you can play clean notes very asccurately first, but assuming you can do that, I'll give you the basics of bending technique.

Bending means to change the pitch of a note. On harmonica, we can bend the notes down in pitch, so that they get lower. But not all notes will bend. The easiest one to bend is hole 4 draw. Your 'normal' mouth shape when playing unbent notes should be an "ah" - not too tight and small, otherwise your tone will be bad and accurate bends will be impossible. In order to get the note to bend, gradually shift from "ah" to "oo". Don't let the harp push out of your mouth too far. Next, try to "slurp" the air. Imagine you're drinking milkshake through a straw - it's a similar feeling. Don't yank the air too hard, just increase the pressure and narrow the cavity. Finally, drag the front of your tongue backwards so it humps up in your mouth (see illustration below). The further you go back, the lower the bend you will be able to get. Make the movement very slowly because if you go too far then you'll miss the bend entirely. If you do all these things at once, you should get at least a small bend. If you don't hear a bend, or you get a horrible sound, or no sound at all, the best thing to do is to start again, making the movements as slowly as possible while paying close attention to everything you hear as you do it.

TOP TIP: Bending

Need more help with your bending? Check out this lesson.

I'm working on embedding demos on this page - please follow link for now. Thanks!

Diagram of the position of a tongue in a mouth (tongue is bent)
Tongue Bending

Step 6: Exploring positions

If you've reached this point, you need to know about positions. I'll try to keep this as simple as possible because it can confuse beginners.

Let's go back to basics. Notice that your harmonica has a key printed on it - if it's a C harp, it will say C on it somewhere. As we learned in Step 1, diatonic harmonicas are intended to be played in one key only. However, it is possible - and sometimes - preferable to play your harmonica in a different key from the one it was designed for.

Why would you do this? First, it helps you to play scales other than the basic major scale. Second, it can give you more expressive sounds, like the ones you hear in blues or country music.

We can use two things to achieve this: first, a knowledge of how different scales are related to each other; and second, bending (and later, overblowing) technique.

In theory, you can play your harmonica in 12 positions - i.e. use it to play in the 12 different keys of the musical scale - but this is extremely advanced. Most harp players use the three most useful positions: 1st, 2nd and 3rd. We will look at each of these, plus 4th and 12th positions as well.

Let's start with the basics. If you've reached this far, you've already played in first position because the tab you played above was in first position. This is using the harp for its intended purpose, e.g. playing your C harp to play in the key of C. This is popular for folk songs, pop songs and simple melodies like nursery rhymes, but it's pretty limited beyond that.

Second position is a fifth up from the home key of the harp, so you'd use a C harp to play in the key of G. This position is most useful for blues music because it produces really gritty playing, using bends to expand the expressive capacities of the instrument. It's also useful for country, pop, rock and certain types of folk music. Your new 'home' note is the 2 draw. To get a feel for second position, play the following notes:

-2 -3 4 -4 5 -5 6

I'm working on embedding demos on this page - please follow link for now. Thanks!

Third position is a fifth up from second position. On a C harmonica, it is the key of D. It naturally lends itself to playing dark, moody melodies so it's very useful for playing in minor keys. Your new 'home' note is the 4 draw. To get a feel for third position, play the following notes:

-4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8

I'm working on embedding demos direct on this page but please follow link for now. Thanks!

Most players only ever use the first three positions, but there are some others that can give you a great sound too. If you want to learn more, check out my Positions & Modes Course.

Step 7: Cleaning and maintenance

Photo of a man's hand and a harmonica, man is cleaning his harmonicas
How to clean harmonicas

Finally, it's extremely important to keep your harmonicas clean. You'll notie that dust, saliva and unidentified horrible objects will get stuck in your harmonica. This may not affect your playing at first, but over time it will. The single most effective way of keeping your harmonicas clean is brushing your teeth before playing, and only drinking water while playing.

Easy Clean

You can give your harmonica a quick clean by blowing and drawing a little harder than usual, tapping either side of the harp on your hand, and then running it under a water tap, then finally tapping it on your hand again. This should get rid of any loose particles inside.

Deep Clean

If the easy clean doesn't work, you can dissemble your harmonica to give it a deeper clean. You will need to take the cover plates off, then separate the reed plates from the comb (the wooden or plastic centre of the instrument). Usually this is a simple procedure requiring only a screwdriver and a little patience. Once it's dismantled, I'm pretty old school so I use a toothbrush and rubbing alcohol to sterilise each part, but lots of people just place theirs in an ultrasonic cleaner to do the job for them. Then you just put the instrument back together and enjoy your clean harmonica!

I highly recommend watching this cleaning video to make sure you do it safely and effectively.

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