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"What should I learn first on harmonica?" | 5 Step Beginner Harmonica Lessons

Updated: Jun 4

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Hello, my name's Liam Ward and I'm a professional harmonica player and teacher. This is my 5 step plan for beginner harmonica players.

Embarking on a musical journey with the harmonica can be a thrilling and rewarding experience. Whether you're drawn to the soulful blues, lively folk tunes, or catchy pop melodies, the harmonica is a versatile instrument that's accessible to beginners. To set yourself on the right path, follow this five step plan designed to help you build a solid foundation and enjoy your harmonica playing from the start.

Step 1: Hold It Right, Play It Tight

Before you can make any sweet music, you've gotta get a grip on your new friend. Hold the harmonica with your left hand, playing your thumb on the bottom and your fingers on the top. The numbers on the top - hole 1 on the left (the lowest note) and hole 10 on the right (the highest). Arch your fingers so you don't block the sound coming out of the harmonica. Make sure you can see the hole numbers in front of your fingers - this will mean your mouth can access the holes freely. Keep your other hand free so you can use it for tremolo and other effects.

Close up of a man holding a harmonica
The correct way to hold the harmonica

Step 2: Breathe Easy, Play Free

The harmonica is all about air, so mastering your breath control is key. Imagine you're fogging up a mirror. That's the kind of steady, controlled breathing you want to aim for. With good breath control, you'll be able to play longer phrases and create dynamics in your music.

Put the harmonica to your mouth. First off, all you should do is breathe in and out without changing your mouth shape. You should naturally be able to cover holes 1, 2 and 3 without any effort. Gently let your breath come in and out, in and out, in and out. You'll get different sounds on the blow and draw. Don't worry about it sounding messy. The important thing at this point is to have a controlled and relaxed breath with as little tension as possible. Drop your shoulders and relax your throat, and let your tongue rest gently in your mouth.

One way to work on great breath control is by chugging. 'Chugging' is when you play multiple in a rhythmic way. We'll be using holes 1, 2 and 3. The way you'll create the rhythm is by using your tongue. Flick your tongue up and forward on the draw breath to create a sort of "AH-DUH" sound, and then do the same on the blow, to create that same "AH-DUH" effect. You don't need to verbalise the "AH-DUH" using your vocal cords, it's enough just to flick your tongue to stop the airflow momentarily. Try to keep this going, remaining relaxed as you do so.

Do you feel out of breath? If so, you need to work on getting an equal balance of air. Try to match the amount of air going out with the amount of air going in each time. Remember that you're breathing, not heaving. If you are relaxed enough, you should be able to keep playing forever.

Step 3: Clean Notes Make Sweet Tunes

Now that you're holding your harmonica like a pro and breathing like a seasoned yogi, it's time to focus on getting the building block of melodies: clean single notes.

Without any training, you'll almost certainly get multiple notes when you breathe through the harmonica. This can be useful in some contexts (like chugging) but most of the time you need to play individual holes so that you can play clean and clear melodies.

Lip pursing (also known as puckering) is the most common technique for beginner harmonica players. To play with a lip purse, try 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. The key to the single note is getting your mouth narrow enough.

Side view of man playing harmonica
Side view of lip purse mouth shape

Close up of man playing harmonica
Front view of lip purse

Step 4: Play a Song

With a few clean notes under your belt, you're ready to tackle some tunes! Start with simple melodies like 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' or 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'. Check out my Free Harmonica Tabs for inspiration!

The first song I ever learned on harmonica was 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. It's a great tune to get you started. Here's how to play it with 'harmonica tabs' These 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.

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

Free harmonica lessons and tabs

Step 5: Find Your Harmonica Hero

Learning from a great teacher can sky-rocket your harmonica playing to the next level. Look for a teacher who is experienced, patient, and passionate about the instrument. They can help you refine your technique, troubleshoot any problems you're having, and introduce you to new musical styles and techniques. There are also plenty of online harmonica communities and forums where you can connect with other players, ask questions, and share your musical journey.

If you've enjoyed this harmonica lesson, why not take a free trial of my Online Harmonica School?

What to Learn First on Harmonica Bonus Tip:

  • Take care of your harmonica! Tap gently and wipe it down after each use to remove any dirt or moisture. Store it in a case to protect it from damage. Also check out my Harmonica Cleaning Tips to keep your harp sounding great!

Reach the Next Level with my Online Harp School

If you are keen to improve your playing, start your free trial of my harp school today.


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