The harmonica is a really amazing instrument. Variously called the blues harp, mouth organ and even the tin sandwich, it's a traditional instrument that has a lot of nostalgic charm, intuitive appeal and the ability to play lots of different styles. It's a simple machine that can be played by anyone, so why not give it a try?
However, despite its simplicity, playing the harmonica requires practice including learning breath control, tongue use and subtle manipulation of your airflow. This is a beginner guide to get you started on the right track with all of those techniques.
We'll get to all that in good time, but your first job is to find an affordable, quality instrument to play.
Choose the right harmonica
There's no need to spend a fortune when you buy a beginner harmonica. However, the cheapest harps are not really fit for purpose because they haven't been engineered properly.
Assuming you want to play blues, rock, pop, country or folk music, start with a 10 hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C. I recommend you buy a Hohner Special 20. This is a great instrument that is in the mid-price bracket. It's not the cheapest but it also won't break the bank like some of the more elite models. I genuinely don't think it's worth spending any more when you're a beginner. Here's an Amazon link for the Special 20.
TOP TIP: Types of harmonica
There are other types of harmonica available. Check out my guide to the diatonic, chromatic and tremolo harmonicas.
How to hold the harmonica
To hold the harmonica, make sure the numbers are on the top with hole 1 on the left and hole 10 on rhe right. Using your left hand, place your index finger on the top and your thumb on the bottom of the harmonica. This is all you need in order to hold the instrument. Your right hand is then free to add 'wah' sounds or other textures.
I tend to taper the rest of the fingers on my left hand to allow the sound to be released. If you have those fingers too low, they can block the sound.
Every beginner harmonica player plays too hard to begin with. The good news is it's a simple fix. It's all about breath control.
You need to get used to breathing gently through the instrument in a conscious, almost meditative way. Try not to use any force, allowing air to enter and leave your mouth and lungs naturally. Notice any tension in your hands, tongue, shoulders or throat, and let it go. (See, I told you this was like meditation!)
Don't worry about what notes you're playing at this point. We'll think about that in a minute. If you're having to force the air, it's probably poor technique getting in the way. It's tempting to force the air more, but actually the thing to do is loosen up and relax more.
How to play clean notes on harmonica - lip pursing
Now you've had a taste of proper breathing, let's look at playing notes. When you first breathe through the instrument, you'll get several notes playing at once. So you need to learn to isolate single notes so you can play melodies. So how exactly do you do that?
Lip pursing/puckering is the method that beginners usually find easiest, and it's the most common technique for playing clean notes. You need to isolate a single hole by avoiding the adjacent holes. Aim to keep your mouth narrow but without adding any tension to your tongue, cheeks or throat muscles (because this can negatively 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.
As I said, this is the most common method. But if it doesn’t work for you, try one of the following two mouthshapes.
U-blocking isn't too common but it can be useful for some beginners. You still need a relatively narrow mouth 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 the 50% of the population who have the gene allowing them to curve their tongue! If this doesn't work, try the third and final method below.
Smake 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.
Start with your mouth at the width of four holes. Put the harmonica to your mouth and you should hear roughly four notes. 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. Just as with other mouthshapes, the sound should be a clean, clear note with no other tones creeping in.
Reading harp tabs
Once you've played some clean single notes, you'll now be able to play a song! To play a song, you need to follow tablature (tabs).
You'll find harmonica tabs all over the internet. Tabs tell you the hole number and the direction of airflow. Unfortunately there's no standardised tab system, but I use the most common version. It's very basic - positive numbers are blow (exhale) notes, negative numbers are draw (inhale) notes. Some other symbols are used for more advanced techniques. Check out my full tab guide.
TOP TIP: Free tabs
I have 100's of free tabs on my website - visit the Free Tabs page for more.
How to bend notes on harmonica
Before bending notes, you need to get clean notes very accurately first, otherwise you'll just cause yourself unnecessary problems. Assuming you can play single notes, 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. Not all notes will bend: the easiest one to bend is usually hole 4 draw. Your standard 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 blues
Need more help with your bending? Check out this lesson.
It's possible to achieve extra notes by bending on the lower draw notes, and the higher blow notes. Here's a full diagram showing all the bend notes you can achieve on the harmonica.
The best harmonica gear
If you have made it to this point, you might be thinking about other equipment to help with your sound.
Before I go on, I just want to say that equipment should be something you consider an extra bit of icing on the cake, rather than expecting them to be the cake themselves. To be a great harmonica player, you have to concentrate first and foremost on your technique. Expensive equipment will not improve your tone - it will only draw attention to your shortcomings. If you put crap in, you get crap out. That said, good equipment can really bring the best out of a good player.
Here are some definitions, ideas and tips to help you avoid common errors and get the best out of your gear.
A microphone will pick up the sound of your playing and send it to the amplifier. It can also affect the sound of the signal. For a clean sound, a standard vocal mic like a Shure SM58 will work fine. For a gritty blues sound there are lots of specialist mics avaialble, most of which are called 'bullet mics' because of their shape.
An amp will make your playing louder. It can also affect the sound as it amplifies. Valve/tube amps will give you a warm, rich sound if that's what you're going for. They drive well into distortion which again may be your desired sound. If you want a clean sound, you can plug your mic straight into the PA desk which will amplify your sound without the need for a personal amp.
Harp tabs are high impedance so you need to match them with a high impedance mic to get the best out of your equipment and instrument. Most mics are low impedance so you need to check.
To get a "big" sound, harp players often turn the bass up on the amp controls, and the treble down. This can work well, but be careful as if your sound is too bassy then it can get very muddy in the context of a band.
Feedback is that horrible squealing sound. To avoid it, turn up as loud as you can until you get feedback, then roll off the volume a little. If you're too quiet to be heard, mic up your amp and send it through the PA desk to give yourself extra volume. Don't be tempted to just turn up the amp because this will lead to a night of horrible sounds for you, the rest of the band, and the audience.
You can also avoid feedback by trying to stand awat from the amp, and standing between your mic and your amp (i.e. not pointing the mic at the amp).
TOP TIP: Mics, amps, pedals
Want to learn more? Check out my Harp Gear Course.
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