The harmonica is a much-neglected instrument that is actually quite enjoyable. I personally just started 4 days ago (that'd be Thursday, June 21st, 2001), and already I can play some recognizable songs. I have no musical talent whatsoever, so this is a big accomplishment. And you can do it too!

First things first: you need a harmonica. Specifically, a diatonic harmonica. Mine has ten holes (probably known as something fancier than 'harmonica holes,' but I'm not sure what they're called. See? You can learn to play it without even knowing anything about the instrument itself! Fantastic!). According to one of the tablature sites I found, you need a diatonic one because the other kinds (chromatic and tremolo) have the holes in different places and therefore won't work as well with their tabs. For example, the tremolo harmonica my mother owns has two rows of holes, and eleven holes across.

I believe the one I own is a concert pitched, or 'C' harmonica. I'm not sure if the tuning makes a huge difference or not, but to be on the safe side buy a 'C' harmonica. That's what the salesman told me, at least.

As far as brands of harmonicas, I know that Hohner makes some very high-quality ones. This information also comes from the salesman, and it's the only kind my general music-teaching mother has ever heard of. I'd imagine that there are other brands out there, though.

Okay, now for the fun part: learning to play your harmonica.

If you'll notice, your harmonica has numbers over the holes. If it doesn't, flip it over. If it still doesn't, you may be in trouble. But have no fear! Masking tape is here! Simply take a strip of masking tape and write the numbers over the holes. Blow into the harmonica first and make sure that the lowest-pitched note is on the left side and the highest-pitched note is on the right side. The lowest note is number 1 and the highest is number 10. If you got a harmonica with more than 10 holes (I hear 12-holed harmonicas are popular as well), then keep going until all the holes are numbered.

I play using harmonica tabs. These are simply numbers, either positive or negative, generally written over the lyric of a song. Frex:

       6   5   6    6   5      6
      This old man, he played one
      -6    6   -5    5   -4 5   -5
      He played nick-nack on my thumb
       5  -5  6    4    4  4   4
      With a nick-nack, paddy-whack
       4    -4   5 -5  6
      Give your dog a bone
       6   -4  -4   -5   5  -4   4
      This old man came rolling home
So, what does this mean? It's simple, really. The absolute value of the number is the hole played. If it's positive, you blow into that hole. If it's negative, you suck (known as a 'draw') out from that hole. That's all there is to it! Just blow and draw according to the rhythm of the song and you've got it!

This is, of course, just the bare basics to harmonica playing. There are more difficult techniques to master, such as bends and 'wah's with your hands, but for simple, easy harmonicing, this is all you need!

Some tablature websites for your perusal:

      Over 650 songs for the harmonica!
      Another good site, with online lessons as well

      Not as many tabs, but still a nice site
Happy harmonicing!

How to Play Blues Harmonica

It's like this. Your standard blues progression has three main chords and 12 bars. The three main chords are the tonic, dominant, and subdominant, but we'll call them 1, 4, and 5. Each of these chords has a note on the harmonica that corresponds. Chord #1 is found at the 2 Suck hole, chord #2 is found at the 4 Blow hole, and chord #5 is found at the 4 Suck hole.

Now let's memorize the chord progression. Twelve bars, four beats each, and the chords go like this:

1 1 1 1 4 4 1 1 5 4 1 (turnaround)

So, basically, you go 2 Suck for 4 bars, 4 Blow for 4 bars, 2 Suck for 2 more bars, then 4 Suck for one, 4 Blow for one, 2 Suck for one, and one bar of turnaround which is basically a 1 Suck.

If you just play that on the harmonica you'll hear that it's a bluesy sounding chord progression.

Choosing the key...

This is important because if you're not playing in the same key as anyone else, you're going to sound quite assy. You've got your diatonic (10 holed) harp. Check the key of it, it should be written on the side or the top or the case. The key of the harmonica is the note that the 4 Blow hole plays. The blues key that you'll play in is the note that the 2 Suck hole plays. So...

With an A Harmonica, you'll play E blues.
With a C harmonica, you'll play F blues.
With a D Harmonica, you'll play G blues.
With an Eb Harmonica, you'll play Bb blues.
With an F Harmonica, you'll play C blues.
And so forth.

Actually playing something.If you just noodle around for a while, using the chord progression I listed up above as a sort of a template, you should get an idea for what notes sound good during certain chords and what notes don't. You'll probably get an idea quicker if you're playing with other musicians.

A Few NotesI don't recommend using a C Harp as the first one you learn on - several of the lower holes, the first one specifically, are very hard to play without accidentally bending the note.

E Blues is probably the easiest for guitar players to play, so an A Harp is a good one to have, whereas if you have lots of friends with trumpets and trombones, you might want an Eb Harp to play along in Bb, which is probably the easiest to play on a brass instrument.

The terminology and the original know-how came from a book called Zen and the Art of Blues Harp Blowing, by a fellow named Dave Harp. It's all you'll need to know to be a happy and (with a good deal of practice) competent blues harpist.

Actually, the "Choosing the Key" Section in the above post is incorrect. A diatonic harmonica works in 5ths. The draw key is always a fifth away from the blow key. Playing harmonica using and bending the draw notes is refered to playing cross harp. When you play and bend the blow notes, you are playing straight harp


A "C" harp will play "G" cross harp
A "D" harp plays "A" cross harp
An "Eb" WILL play "Bb" cross harp
And "F" plays "C".
Straight harp plays in its own key. For instance, to play straight harp in the key of E, you need an E harp.

The two fullest and sweetest sounds keys in my opinion are Bb and G. Bb plays a F cross harp and G plays D cross.

If you do not know how to play cross harp, but you can whistle, you are not far off! Imagine whistling the highest note you can and then the lowest really quickly. Now try that with the harp, but do it as you suck in on the 3rd hole, instead of blowing out. Its that fast change that helps bend the reed to play a lower note.

If you want to hear some of the most amazing harmonica ever, you need to listen to 2 artists: John Popper of Blues Traveler, and Stevie Wonder. I listened to "Hook" by Blues Traveler, and "Boogie on Reggae Woman" by Stevie Wonder, and I knew I had to learn how to play harp. I have been playing for 2 years now, and I've loved every minute of it.

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