A Primer on Playing the Harmonica (Plus a Few Tunes)

Playing the harmonica is an American folk tradition, but can be played by anyone. The sound of this instrument offers a unique experience that makes it easy to learn how to play and enjoy over time with practice.
This article will walk you through some basic steps for playing the harmonica in addition to providing some tunes you might want try out on your own!

The “hohner harmonica” is a type of diatonic harmonica. The most common models are the Hohners Chromatic Harmonica and the Marine Band. They can be used for both playing melodies and chords, as well as to play bass lines.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Connor Frontera, a professional harmonica musician. 

If he had any sense, a wise cowboy in the Old West was never without his pistol. If he got lost in the woods, you’d be hard pressed to locate him without his harp, too. The harmonica was a perfect musical companion to life on the range, whether he was seated by the fire with his mates or alone with his faithful horse.

The harmonica is unquestionably a macho instrument: inexpensive and compact, it encapsulates a whole universe of music in a little “tin sandwich.”

Unfortunately, many people regard the harmonica as a “fake” musical instrument (I know from personal experience), connecting it with prison, people’s grandfathers, or a trinket found in a child’s Christmas stocking. In reality, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. The harmonica has a secretive air about instrument, which is why so little is known about it. Everything takes place in the mouth, and the tongue, an underutilized muscle, is employed to make notes and obtain the optimum tone.

This essay seeks to clarify some concerns about the omnipresent but enigmatic harmonica, provide a quick introduction to this little but epic instrument, and add a bit more musical manliness to your daily carry list.

A Harmonica’s History in a Nutshell

Vintage man sitting on a top and using Harmonica.

The harmonica is a descendant of the sheng, an ancient Chinese instrument. The sheng is the earliest known instrument that produces notes with free reeds (thin, flexible metal strips). The harmonica, which was created in 1821 by a guy called Christian Buschmann and standardized by a man named Joseph Richter, generates the same sound.

The harmonica was traveling about America around the end of slavery, and it most likely came into the hands of impoverished African Americans since it was tiny and concealable, despite the lack of specific historical evidence of how its popularity rose. Similarly, because of their size, cowboys started to carry them about.

Vintage man playing Harmonica.

The harmonica quickly became a popular American instrument. Harmonicas were ubiquitous in the United States by the 1930s. Everyone played one or knew someone who did since they were so inexpensive. Harmonica groups sprung up all throughout the nation. Harmonica players thrived as a result of the enthusiasm. As time progressed, African Americans were allowed to express themselves more freely, resulting in the creation of a form of music known as “blues,” which included the harmonica regularly.

The harmonica has supplied endless hours of amusement since its invention in 19th century Germany, and it has moved throughout the globe and into the galaxy (being the first instrument to be played in outer space).

The Harmonica’s Components

Parts of a Harmonica.

All of the components of my old Marine Band harmonica can be seen plainly.

The cover plates, reed plates, and comb are the three primary components of a harmonica.

Plates should be covered. A harmonica’s cover plates are the metal parts that lie on the top and bottom of the instrument. A logo is generally emblazoned on them. The numerals on the top cover plate almost usually correlate to the holes you blow into and draw from. 

 

Plates made of reeds The metal plates behind the cover plates are known as reed plates. This is where the noise originates. Brass is often used, however other metals are also used by certain firms.

Comb. The comb is in the middle of the harp, with screws or nails keeping everything together. Its name comes from the fact that it resembles a hair comb.

Slides, windsavers, and valves are all included in certain harmonicas. They generally need a higher level of skill and contain more music theory.

Harmonicas come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Harmonicas are divided into five categories: diatonic, chromatic, chord, bass, and speciality. Each variety has a distinct purpose, and gamers typically figure out which one is best for them after getting to know them all. Although diatonic is the most popular (and least expensive), all serious harmonica players should ultimately learn to play and acquire all five variants. Beginners commonly begin with diatonic or chromatic scales. The diatonic will be used as the explanatory model for the purposes of this study.

The diatonic harmonica is a ten-hole instrument with each hole capable of playing a note on the blow and draw. Because of this, not all of the notes of the chromatic scale can be played on a diatonic harmonica, however sophisticated methods may be used to unlock them. In summary, a beginner’s diatonic harmonica can only play a restricted amount of notes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t generate great music. Much of the greatest harmonica music may be performed within the instrument’s limitations.

Which Diatonic are you looking for?

As a beginner, you should start with a conventional diatonic harmonica in the key of C. There are numerous different brands, but Hohner, Suzuki, and Seydel are the leading three. Consider the following models:

  • Special 20 by Hohner. This is an excellent entry-level option.
  • Marine Band by Hohner. The blues harmonica is a well-known instrument. It works fine, but it’s tough to disassemble and reassemble since it’s held together by nails rather than screws.
  • Golden Melody by Hohner. This harmonica is great for melodies, especially in country and religious music.
  • Manji Suzuki is a Japanese actor. Suzuki’s top-of-the-line diatonic. These are high-quality harmonicas that Jason Ricci (one of the finest harmonica players in history) used for a while.
  • Seydel was born in the year 1847. Bread and butter from Seydel’s bakery. It’s a great harmonica, but it’s more than double the price of the others. The reeds are constructed of stainless steel, which lasts far longer than brass reeds.

I play Marine Bands, Golden Melodies, and Rockets for anyone who are interested (all made by Hohner).

Other, more economical brands, such as Golden Bird and Easttop, are available, however their quality is a half-step lower. Golden Bird harmonicas are endorsed by me and come highly recommended. This is the greatest method to buy various keys to explore the spectrum of sounds without breaking the bank if you start like the harmonica.

 

Layout of the Harmonica

Every diatonic and chromatic harmonica has a key, which means the holes are arranged in a manner that matches to the notes of the scale in that key. You’ll comprehend the patterns when you learn more about theory, but for now, we’ll keep things easy. The notes follow a repeating major scale with a few minor alterations. With blowing and drawing, the diatonic harmonica can only play notes in that key’s major scale. The following is the layout of a diatonic harmonica in the key of C:

A layout of Harmonica.

Consider this: if you start on a C note on a piano and play alphabetically (the white keys) all the way up to the next C note, you’ll end up with the same layout as a harmonica. You’ll need to utilize a method called bending, which will be covered later in this tutorial, to acquire the other notes (or black keys).

Before You Start Playing

Before you even begin to play a note, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Posture. When playing the harmonica, posture is crucial. It will be simpler to play if you keep a straight back when standing or sitting, as it will give you a better tone and greater control over the air traveling in and out of your lungs.

A boy holding the harmonica.

Holding/Cupping. There is a certain method to hold the harmonica in order to get the greatest possible acoustic tone. Make an old-fashioned hand puppet using your left hand (the numbers on the top cover plate). Place the harmonica in the hand puppet’s mouth all the way.

The right hand must then build a chamber to deepen the sound and add tone to the harmonica. To do so, cup your right hand slightly and put it behind your left. You’ve now mastered the art of cupping. A tremolo effect may be achieved by quickly moving the right hand on and off, giving the music an old-timey, cowboy vibe.

Playing for Novices

Vintage beginners Playing harmonica, studying and cleaning shoes.

Chords. Let’s get started. The major chord of a key is obtained by blowing three or more consecutive notes on a diatonic harmonica. On a C harmonica, blow [123] to get a C major chord. Drawing is a unique experience. When you draw on holes [123], you obtain a G major chord.

Most harmonica “train rhythm” music (a broad phrase for a melody that sounds like a steam-powered train) dwells on holes 1, 2, and 3, so if you only blow and draw on those first three holes, you’re a train chuggin’ harmonica player! Two breaths in, two breaths out is a normal train. Begin slowly and gradually increase the pace. The ability to master this is what distinguishes excellent harmonica players from average harmonica players. Anyone who claims to play harmonica but can’t play a solid train rhythm isn’t really playing.

Begin by sketching twice on holes 1, 2, and 3 and then blowing twice on the same holes to create a basic train beat. 

 

Simply draw on holes 4 and 5 at the same time to play the train whistle. Remember to start slowly and gradually increase your pace (trains don’t immediately charge out of the station, and neither should you).

Single notes are used. Every note you can play “works,” in the sense that it produces a sound, but this does not imply that every note will sound excellent in every song or circumstance. Any competent musician, including you, should select your notes carefully. It takes a little care to play a single hole, but it’s not tough.

Tongue blocking and lip pursing are the two most common techniques to play a single note (sometimes called puckering).

Illustration of tongue blocking.

To tongue block, place the harmonica in your mouth and use your tongue to “block” the undesirable sounds as if you were playing a chord. This is accomplished by extending your mouth wide enough to play a four-note chord, blocking three holes on the left with your tongue, and leaving room for one clean, single note on the right. 

Illustration of a lip pursing.

Wrap your lips over one single hole and blow or draw to lip purse (or pucker) a single note. The longer you can keep the harmonica in your mouth while doing this, the better it will sound. 

Lip pursing will be simpler at first, but being able to do both is vital.

Bending. You can only reach the notes in that key’s major scale by blowing and sketching; what about the missing notes? Here’s where bending comes into play. Bending the harmonica like a great bluesman will allow you to express yourself!

Only draw bends are used in holes 1-6, while only blow bends are used in holes 7-10. Furthermore, some holes feature several bends, allowing you to reduce the pitch by many steps (more than one key lower on the piano). Bending on pitch is quite tough, so don’t give up if you can’t accomplish it right away. Some bends take a long time to perfect (especially on the 3 hole).

Illustration of elevating tongue in mouth to constrict the airflow of the harmonica.

To bend the harmonica, you must raise your tongue in your mouth and limit the airflow. It will always decrease the pitch (draw 4 bend will be Db, one note lower than D). 

You’ll be well on your way to becoming a skilled musician after you’ve mastered chords, single notes, and bends. It may take some time to master the skills, but it will be well worth it in the end to give them the attention they need. It may be difficult to fathom at first, but some musical works use two or more approaches at the same time!

Starter Music

A man playing harmonica with gun in hands.

You’re ready to start playing music once you can hear a single note. The harmonica, like the guitar, uses tablature (or tabs) to perform tunes (which is much simpler than learning how to read sheet music). Unless you already know the tune, you’ll need a reference in addition to the tabs in order to learn it. That is when YouTube will come in helpful. 

 

Harmonica tablature is as follows for the sake of this article:

  • 4 blows Equals 4
  • -4 = draw 4
  • -4′ = 4 draw bend (each half step down has another marker in the upper right; for example, -3″ = 3 draw double bend)
  • 123 blows = [123] (notes played together in a chord)

On any diatonic harmonica, here is how to play the major scale in the middle octave:

4-4-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5 6 – 6–7–7–7–7–7–7–7– 

Here are five tunes that every harmonica player should be familiar with:

“Oh! Susanna”

4 -4 5 6 6 -6 6 5 4 -4 5 5 -4 5 5 -4 5 5 -4 5 5 -4 5 5 -4 5 5 -4 5 5 -4 4 – 4 4 -4 5 6 6 -6 6 5 4 -4 5 5 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 4 -5 -5 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 6 6 5 4 -4 4 -4 5 6 6 -6 6 5 4 -4 5 5 -4 -4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4

“When the Saints March In” is a song performed by the New Orleans Saints.

4 5 -5 6 4 5 -5 6 4 5 -5 6 5 4 5 -4 5 5 -4 4 4 5 6 6 6 -5 5 -5 6 5 4 -4 4 4 5 6 6 6 -5 5 -5 6 5 4 -4 4 4 5 6 6 6 -5 5 -5 6 5 4 -4 4 4 5 6 6 6 -5 5 -5 6 5 4 -4 4

“You are my sunshine,” says the narrator.

3 4 -4 5 5 5 -4 5 4 4 4 -4 3 4 -4 5 5 5 -4 5 4 4 4 -4 5-5-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6 6 -5 5 4 -4 5 -5 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 -6 6-5-5-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4 5-5-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4

“Camptown Races” is a series of races held in the town of Camptown

-6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6

5 -4 5 -4

-6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6

-4 5 -5 5 -4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4

-6 6 -6 6 -6 6 -6 6 -6 6 -6 6 -6 6 -6 6 -6 6

-6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6 5 -6 6

-4 5 -5 5 -4 4 4

“Amazing Grace” is one of the most beautiful hymns ever written. 

-2 -3 -2 -3 -2 -3 -2 -3 -2 -3 -2 -3 -2

-1′′-3′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′

-1 -2 -3 -2 -3 -3 -4 -1 -2 -3 -3 -4

3-4-3-2-3-2-3-2-2-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1

-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′-2′′

The harmonica, like any other instrument, is not something you can pick up and perform on stage right immediately (unless you want to sound terrible, like Bob Dylan). To become a skilled player, it takes several years of practice. Even if you’re only wanting to blast a few songs once in a while, the methods described here will be more than enough to get you started. Because of its size, the harmonica is a one-of-a-kind instrument, and there is no excuse for not practicing. In the vehicle, during your lunch break, and while waiting for the bus are all good places to practice. You’ll eventually find yourself sitting around a campfire, like one of those cowboys, waiting for the dawn; the moment you’ve been anticipating.

The harmonica, like any other instrument, is not something you can pick up and perform on stage right immediately (unless you want to sound terrible, like Bob Dylan). To become a skilled player, it takes several years of practice. Even if you’re only wanting to blast a few songs once in a while, the methods described here will be more than enough to get you started. Because of its size, the harmonica is a one-of-a-kind instrument, and there is no excuse for not practicing. In the vehicle, during your lunch break, and while waiting for the bus are all good places to practice. You’ll eventually find yourself sitting around a campfire, like one of those cowboys, waiting for the dawn; the moment you’ve been anticipating.

Connor Frontera is a member of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica and a professional harmonica player. Every year, he plays and teaches at harmonica conferences around the United States, sharing his expertise with anybody who wants to learn and keep the harmonica’s traditions alive.

 

 

The “how to play harmonica” is a guide that helps people learn how to play the harmonica. It also includes some tunes that are commonly used in songs.

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