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Beginners' Guide To Playing The Harmonica

Updated on April 5, 2016

The Harmonica

What image comes to mind when you think of the harmonica?  Maybe you picture a scene from an old movie with a hobo or convict slumped against a wall playing a sad, lonely tune or you see a blues musician on stage giving it all he's got to produce the most incredible riffs.  Either way, you're hooked on the sound.

The harmonica (aka harp) is a simple instrument capable of producing a wide variety of sounds and it fits in your pocket so you can take it anywhere.

The good news is that it's fairly easy to pick up a harp and start playing.  Harps are inexpensive, easy to find, and (best for me) you don't need to know how to read music or have any musical experience.

This guide contains some of the tips and web resources that I'm using while learning to play the harmonica.

Getting Started - Links for harmonica beginners

These are the best free introductions to playing the harmonica that I have found on the web. They provide good overviews on basics such as how to hold the harp, play single notes and breathe while playing.

How to Bend Notes - and get that Blues sound.

Bending notes is a technique to change the pitch of a note as you are playing. This allows you to play notes that aren't on the harp and is used heavily when playing blues.

Draw bends can be done on holes 1 through 6 and blow bends are used on holes 8 through 10.

Learning to bend notes requires practice and knowing how to play a single note cleanly. Here are some good sites that explain the various bending techniques.

Harmonica Guides - Lesson Books for Beginners

Beginning Harmonicas

Many harp players recommend starting with a 10 hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C. They sound good playing most songs and can be played "cross harp" to produce notes in other keys. My first harmonica was the classic Hohner Marine Band in C.

Free Harp Tab Websites - Learn to play your favorite songs.

Instead of telling you the note to play like a regular music sheet, a tablature (tab) tells you the hole to play and whether you should draw or blow.

Take A Harmonica Lesson

Having someone show you different playing techniques or tell you if you're playing a note properly can help improve your skills. If you don't know someone who plays the harmonica to ask for help then check into lessons.

Most music stores offer lessons or can provide you the name of an instructor. Also check if your local government or community center offers classes.

I took a short course through my county's adult education program to kick start my playing. It was very helpful and the highlight was when our instructor brought in his amp and microphone so we could try playing amplified harp.

Just remember that all the lessons in the world won't improve your playing unless you practice, practice, practice. If you can't find an instructor then try this lesson CD by the late blues harp great Gary Primich.

Online Harmonica Lessons

A sampling of my favorites from the many good harp lesson videos on YouTube to get you started.

A Cool Little Harmonica Amp

This is the amp I play harp on. It produces a really good sound for such a small size and low price. It runs on batteries so you can take it with you or get the optional AC adapter.

Danelectro Honeytone N-10 Guitar Mini Amp, Aqua
Danelectro Honeytone N-10 Guitar Mini Amp, Aqua

Several other colors are also available.

 

Some Harmonica Fun - From old school to new...

Here are a few videos I selected to show you what's possible with the harmonica and, hopefully, provide some inspiration to start learning how to play this fun instrument. Enjoy!

Comments

Was this guide helpful to you? How did you learn to play the harmonica?

Please leave a comment below in the guest book.

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      What image comes to mind when I think of the harmonica? Stevie Wonder! When I started reading this article it sent me immediately to my Motown collection to listen again to Stevie's harmonica solos on "Finger Tips, Part 2" and especially, "For Once In My Life." Since both those songs were big hits, Stevie Wonder has to be the most widely heard harmonica player in the world. For me, "For Once In My Life" is a revelation of what the instrument can do.

    • aminebombom profile image

      Amine 3 years ago from Doha, Qatar

      i really like the sound of this amazing instrument

    • profile image

      sweetmou25 3 years ago

      It is very easy & useful for kids

    • stoddarda profile image

      stoddarda 3 years ago

      I use to play these bad boys as a baby! It's nice to get a bit more of a professional look and feel of it again.

    • williamslaw profile image

      williamslaw 3 years ago

      I remember playing the harmonica just like a wild child. No note, no particular tone... just how I wished to play!

    • astevn816 lm profile image

      astevn816 lm 3 years ago

      I admire anyone how invests the time to learn any instrument. The harmonica is one of the most versatile instruments and is very small and portable

    • profile image

      joe-mc-1426 3 years ago

      Nice. I love that sound. Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite. I can even put up with Stevie Wonder when he plays the harp. Thanks for the lens.

    • Harmonnia profile image

      Harmonnia 3 years ago

      I was given harmonica and have to start learning! Thanks for suggestions :)

    • profile image

      hosibinh 3 years ago

      I love harmonica, it is a part of my life

    • caossquidoo profile image

      caossquidoo 3 years ago

      It is a very cool instrument. Although I find it quite hard to play. I guess I am not that coordinated! Should use some of these tips to practice :)

    • ReloadedRedPIll profile image

      ReloadedRedPIll 3 years ago

      I laughed in a meeting to the Harmonica Madness

      Sounds like a soundtrack from Tom & Jerry.

    • kehsiberry profile image

      kehsiberry 3 years ago

      thanks for the lens, I tried playing a harmonica once but i was not good at it.lol

    • pjsart profile image

      pjsart 3 years ago

      I have always wanted to learn how to do more than blow on this little thing...lol, thanks for the references

    • Marinna profile image

      Marinna 3 years ago

      I am trying to learn to play harmonica. Thank you for the recommended books. It would be helpful

    • McDreamer profile image

      McDreamer 3 years ago

      Next to the major diatonics and chromatics I see here, there are also natural minor, harmonic minor, and extral low/high tuned harmonicas, as well as zillions of other tinings like spiral, diminished and more...I'm soon awaiting a double low F harmonica! :)

    • profile image

      tech-hunter 3 years ago

      Interesting, there are so many things about the harmonicas that I didn't know.

    • pcblogger lm profile image

      pcblogger lm 3 years ago

      Great lens.. I really want to learn harmonica online..

    • AfroGorgonzola profile image

      AfroGorgonzola 3 years ago

      I really think I might start playing the harmonica myself now. Good lens!

    • cwilson360 profile image

      cwilson360 3 years ago

      Great lens. I want to play more harmonica

    • profile image

      hspro71 3 years ago

      My father bought me one, aged 10 yrs old and it sure was a rage with me till my late teens :)

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 4 years ago from GRENADA

      Who knew harmonicas could be such fun?? I enjoyed this lens, Mac33.

    • socialcx1 profile image

      socialcx1 4 years ago

      I have had a harmonica for years but as soon as I start playing I am asked if I can do it elsewhere.

    • johnonsquidoo profile image

      johnonsquidoo 4 years ago

      As much as I love picking up a harmonica when my mates are playing the guitar, I must confess that I rarely know what I'm doing. This is a superb resource with so much useful information, great lens!

    • nana2013 profile image

      nana2013 4 years ago

      What an informative lens about harmonicas! So many to choose from - thanks for the great lens.

    • LaptopLeader profile image

      LaptopLeader 4 years ago

      I enjoy playing the harmonica, and I enjoy this lens. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      ayla5253 4 years ago

      Love harmonica , love the blues. It's relaxing to listen to. Enjoyed this lens.

    • profile image

      HarryNguyen07 4 years ago

      I love Harmonica. I am a newbie. This is useful information for me. Thanks

    • pbrandon65 profile image

      pbrandon65 4 years ago

      Tried to learn on my own a few years ago without success, but I might have another go, great lens

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I learned on my own. The harmonica amp would be fun!

    • profile image

      JimmPlus 4 years ago

      I always have a liking for harmonica since young. I like some of those you featured here. Great find. May buy one.

    • profile image

      CristianStan 4 years ago

      Wow... I didn't think playing the harmonica was like this... I've actually tried to learn on my own several times and failed

    • profile image

      RetireAt57 4 years ago

      thanks for sharing. interesting. i only had kiddie harmonicas.

    • profile image

      pillarcandles 4 years ago

      My grandfather had two harmonicas which he played and we used to have lovely musical evenings. - before the TV!

    • Smurfs LM profile image

      Smurfs LM 4 years ago

      I was never much of a musician, but surely, harmonica produces some wonderful sounds! :)

    • Fcuk Hub profile image

      Fcuk Hub 4 years ago

      Beautiful sound has harmonica. Perhaps I will start to learn too :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Excellent guide! Thank you very much for sharing

    • MacPharlain profile image
      Author

      MacPharlain 4 years ago

      @kerilovesadeal: I heard that tune a lot while growing up and watching cartoons. The harmonicas in that video are crazy.

    • kerilovesadeal profile image

      kerilovesadeal 4 years ago

      The harmonica video was awesome! Thanks for sharing. :) I was thinking Tom & Jerry, Warner Bros. and cartoons in general all the way. That tune was so familiar. LOL. Wow, didn't think of it as being a harmonica song before. Not sure what I thought it was. :D

    • wulfguard profile image

      wulfguard 4 years ago

      Big fan of the harmonica sound and recently purchased one, brilliant lens!

    • PaigSr profile image

      PaigSr 4 years ago from State of Confussion

      I remember growing up with a harmonica. Yes I still have it. Yes I will try to play it once in a while. Not always well I admit.

    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 4 years ago from Louisville, KY

      You were my 900th Squidlike! My dad used to play the harmonica when we were little. Brings back good memories.

    • profile image

      cleanyoucar 4 years ago

      Great lens! That was one of my childhood dreams... playing the harmonica

    • DJ-TBone profile image

      DJ-TBone 4 years ago

      Man the harmonica is so cool. It's a shame that you don't hear it more in today's music, which is surprising because it can work so well over almost any type of music, even things like rap and hip hop which I have heard it layered over a few times and always thought that there should be WAY MORE harmonica in modern music. nice lens man :)

    • graphite75 profile image

      Tom 4 years ago

      Awesome lens, I'd love to play the harmonica.

    • Robz007 profile image

      Robz007 4 years ago

      I would love to be able to play the harmonica

    • McDreamer profile image

      McDreamer 4 years ago

      I just picked up a harmonica and just started to play, improvised...just like that. Now I have a stack of them (mostly Seydel's) here, low major tunings and minors I seem to like the most...Enjoy! :)

    • rdcbizz profile image

      rdcbizz 4 years ago

      Love the harmonica

    • Motionmaker profile image

      Motionmaker 4 years ago

      Great article. Maybe I'll even attempt to learn how to use that harmonica gift I've had for 20+ years!

    • nathanrconner profile image

      nathanrconner 4 years ago

      I've had a harmonica since I was a child. This was a really helpful post! I am going to be busy learning today.

    • bensen32 lm profile image

      bensen32 lm 4 years ago

      I have always wanted to learn just never did it but I bought one last week, now lets see if I can learn. Thanks for the info

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