Beginners' Guide To Playing 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.
- Wilbur's Beginning Harmonica
Discusses both the lip blocking and tongue blocking techniques for playing single notes. My preference is to lip block.
- HarmonicaClub's Harmonica Lessons
Has a chart showing what notes are played on each hole and a guide for playing your harmonica in other keys (cross harp).
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.
- How To Bend Notes
A good description of how to draw bend and blow bend notes. Includes animated diagrams and audio clips so you can hear how it should sound.
- Bending Tips
Tips on how to improve your breathing and bend notes.
- Wilbur's Intermediate Harmonica
Instructions for doing draw bends along with audio clips.
Harmonica Guides - Lesson Books for Beginners
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.
- Jim's Giant Harmonica Songbook
A huge listing of free harp tabs including Happy Birthday To You which I wanted to learn for my toddler's 2nd birthday and didn't find anywhere else.
- Harmonica Country Practice Songs
A listing of over 100 free harp tabs covering hymns, country, folk and other well known songs. Everything from America The Beautiful to Rawhide.
- Dave Gage's Harmonica Songs & Tabs
A few free harp tabs listed by difficulty level. Includes riff tabs for songs like Low Rider and Devo's Whip It.
This site has harp tabs for over 3000 songs. You can also request songs to be tabbed. First site I've seen that has a tab for the theme to Star Wars.
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.
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!
Was this guide helpful to you? How did you learn to play the harmonica?
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