The harmonica commonly called the mouth organ is one of those musical instruments that have a lot of appeal and charm for an instrument beginner. This is because it is amongst the most uncomplicated musical instruments to play and still ranks top amongst the most romantic ones, primarily as it sound the most like a human voice than any other instrument. Learning to play the harmonica, involves breath control and lots of practice. Before that, however, you have to know the different types of Harmonica and make a choice based on your needs and budget.
Choosing a Harmonica
There are many different varieties of harmonica available for purchase. This varies based on what it is to be used for and its price. It is recommended for starters that you purchase either a chromatic or a diatonic harmonica, here at Honkin’ Harmonica Shop we favour the ‘blues’ so specialise in diatonic harmonicas. Any of the two can be used to play blues, folks and lot of other popular music however.
The most commonly used is the diatonic harmonica. It is also generally the cheapest which is another reason to make harmonica attractive for the beginner player. It is tuned to a particular key, one of twelve but the most popular beginner key diatonic harmonica is C. There are three types of the diatonic harmonica; they are the “blues harmonica,” the “tremolo harmonica,” and the “octave harmonica.”
The two favourite harmonica played for blues by both beginners and pro’s alike are Hohner Marine Band which has been around since 1896 and the Hohner Special 20.
The chromatic harmonica controls which holes makes noise by using a mechanical button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the decided reed-plate desired. Elementary chromatic harmonicas with ten notes can only play one full key just like a diatonic harmonica; however, chromatics with 12-16 holes can be tuned to any key. Chromatics are usually more costly than a lot of diatonic harmonicas; purchasing a top quality chromatic from a renowned brand can cost several hundred pounds.
How to Correctly Hold The Harmonica
Correctly holding the harmonica is one of the principal steps in learning how to play the harmonica. You generally cannot play a harmonica and acheive a decent tone if you do not hold it right. Below are the procedures for holding the two types of harmonicas discussed above.
Generally, the lower number should be on your left in all harmonicas. If however, your harmonica doesn't have a numbering system (as is the case in the East Asia Tremolo), then the lowest note should be on your left.
Holding the Diatonic and the Chromatic Harmonica
There are two steps to correctly holding a diatonic harmonica;
In your left hand, between the thumb and index finger, place the body of the harmonica. Let your three remaining fingers curve slightly; this would form a small resonating space.
Over the harmonica, but not on the mouthpiece side, lay the flat of your right hand. Enclose it, to form a tight cup. Optimally, this cup should create a large resonating space.
Since there are various variants of a chromatic harmonica, there are also quite a few variants for holding a chromatic. One is a variation of the same technique used in holding a diatonic, but the right thumb would be used to work the slide button. The other popular variant is quite similar:
Using your left hand, place the harmonica somewhere around the left of your center with the thumb, index and middle fingers.
Twist your right hand along the wrist so that your fingers point to a two o'clock position and your palm is facing up. Place your right palm at the bottom of the harmonica, and wrap all your fingers except the index fingers around it. If this is done correctly, your right wrist will form a right angle. Your index finger should touch the slide button, keep it always there, notwithstanding whether you use the button or not. If you own a 16-hole variant, hold it in a similar manner, except set your cup closer to the center. Alternatively, you can break up the cup.
Blowing a harmonica/How to Hold Your Lips on A Harmonica
There are two methods of playing the harp; the Pucker method and the tongue blocking method. Both methods of playing are accurate, neither is more acceptable than the other although blues guys tend to favour tongue blocking for a traditional blues style. When you become more experienced, you should be able to switch comfortably between the two. However, start with the one that feels natural to you, keep practicing the one that seems alien to you as it’ll eventually need mastering if you are to become magnificent with the harp! None of the two styles are easy to master immediately; you would need lots of practice to do so, but with time, it will drop into place, and you’ll have the hang of it, just be patient. There are lots of videos on you tube that can help with these techniques that a lot of beginner blues harp players find useful.
How to place the Harmonica in your mouth
When you’re holding the harp by its ends, put it in your mouth with these steps:
- Open your mouth wide like you want to yawn.
- Use your forearms to bring the harmonica to your open mouth.
- Place the harmonica between your lips until it touches the corners of your mouth; the place where your top and bottom lips meet.
- Gently close your lips over the cover.
A Tip for playing, Do not move your head along the harmonica, instead, move the harmonica.
Puckering is the common way to begin playing. It involves narrowing your lips to get a single note. A lot of new students learn this method first, and it is certainly the easiest way of the two approaches to tackle blow and draw bends. To pucker, with a quick lick, ensure your lips are, purse your lips as you would do when whistling, this would create an aperture. Relax your lips and loosen up slightly. Use the tip of your tongue to locate the hole you want to play and then apply your pucker right around the harp. Get stuck in.
To play, exhale gently and push from your diaphragm; Inhale gently, pulling from your chest and diaphragm.
It is okay if you hear more than one note at first, however, work on playing individual holes. Keep practicing, listening and learning to adjust your pucker until you can narrow down the sound.
In tongue block, you get a single note by covering 3-4 holes with your mouth and use your tongue to cover (or “block”) all but one. If puckering comes to you naturally, blocking would take a lot of time to. It is, however, ideal to learn blocking if you wish to get that big tone and to give your sound a chunky quality. Tongue slapping, chord and rhythm accompaniment, fluttering, octaving and a lot of other great effects becomes available once you crack this method and essential for blues harmonica, but be warned it is a skill that takes a lot of time, years in most cases.
Breath Control; Blowing and Drawing Notes
"Blowing" and "Drawing" are the terms used to describe how notes are played on the harmonica. You need to think of blow and draw as inhale and exhale to get magnificent tones when you play the harmonica. You do not puff at a harmonica; instead, you exhale through it. You also do not suck air through a harmonica; you inhale through it. Like singing, all good harmonica notes come from the diaphragm. Never overdraw or over blow when playing! A lot of beginners often go overboard and put too much air into it. Playing a harmonica really doesn't need a lot of air to get a great sound. The harmonica responds well to very minimal amount of air movements. If you want more volume than the harmonica naturally provides, instead of blowing harder to get it, get a microphone and amplifier.
Reading the Harmonica Tablature
Like guitars, you can play a harmonica by following a tablature. This helps reduce the number of notes on a single sheet of music to a system of holes and breath pattern that is very easy-to-follow. Tablature is useful for playing larger chromatic harmonicas as well, but it differs somewhat from diatonic tablature, and is less familiar.
All though there are a few options of displaying tabs the most common version which is easier for the beginner harmonica player to pick up is arrows being used to mark breathing. An upward pointing arrow symbolizes a breath out while a downward pointing arrow symbolizes a breath in and when a bend is required to achieve the correct note there is a kink in the arrow.
Here is a simple example-
On a diatonic harmonica, most holes produce two “neighbor” notes on a given scale; hence playing C and then D on the same scale is achieved by blowing into the fitting hole for C, and then drawing in from the same hole to produce D.
Numbers, from the lowest tone to the highest are used to mark the holes. Hence, (up) 1 and (down) are the lowest two notes. While the highest note is a (down) 10 on a 10-hole harmonica.
Most notes on a standard 10-hole harmonica are overlapped, notably the (down) 2 and (up) 3 notes. This is essential as it allows proper range for playing scales.
- There isn't a regulated system of tablature that is used by every single harmonica player. However, once you practice and get comfortable with reading any one type, most other types are likely to begin quickly making sense to you.
Bending is unquestionably the blues harmonica technique. You lose half of the harmonica's expressive capacity without bending; the cries, the moans and the wails, remember nothing sounds more like the human voice than the cry of a humble harmonica. Bending is a way of making use of your tongue, palate and throat to change the INTERNAL configuration of your mouth, this is so you can apply pressure to the air stream in such a way that lowers the pitch of a note. Draw bends are possible on a diatonic harmonica on holes 1 through 6 while blow bends are possible on holes 7 through 10. To get that big bluesy tone that’s made the harmonica popular, you unquestionably need to learn how to bend notes on a harmonica. A lot of people that pick up the harmonica never figure out this essential technique that allows them to play with great soul and feeling.
The Technique of Bending
It is quite difficult to describe the technique for bending notes in a way that is understandable to someone who hasn’t done it before. The major reason this is so is because bending is a somewhat “subjective” technique, that is, different groups have their different ways which they approached it in, these diverse approaches however produces the same results. This is also difficult because you would be required to do things with your mouth, tongue, and vocal cavity that humans just don’t do. The following tips are for producing draw bends on the major diatonic harmonica. It is recommended that you use just the 4-hole draw for now, this is because it is the easiest to get started on.
Keep it in mind that the goal in bending is to change your airflow and the pattern of your vocal cavity so that you change the flow of air over the reeds, this in turn changes the way that they vibrate.
So. On the hole number 4, simply draw the note, thinking and feeling how the air moves over your tongue and into the back roof of you mouth. Now, think about dragging this channel of air into your stomach. To do this lower your tongue down and to the back, as you breath in you should feel the air move into your stomach, as this happens the pitch should lower.
Note. This will not happen the first time you try it, it takes lots and lots of practice so be patient. Maybe watching a video of which there are lots of on YouTube will help you with a more in-depth instruction.
Basics for Playing Amplified
If you have mastered the first few steps of playing harmonica and are keen to get playing the classic Chicago sound of many of the great recording of the 50’s you will need a microphone and an amplifier. Here are a few tips to get you playing amplified blues harp.
Firstly, buying an expensive rig will not improve your tone, if you are buying a rig to sound better, you will be more than likely a little disappointed. Tone starts with you and your harmonica, a good playing technique is necessary to get a "good" tone. Only when you have mastered a good quality acoustic playing tone is it called for to go in search for that perfect rig. A good rig does not make you great harmonica player, however, if you are a great player, your performance would benefit substantially from a good rig. A good player will make a "poor" rig sound great all the same. Unfortunately there is no such thing as like a magic microphone, effects pedal or amplifier, it is all you, being amplified but of course there are some tips to make best of the situation as many classic errors can be avoided.
An amplifier is high impedance so you must match this with a high impedance mic to achieve the correct sound. Most mics are low impedance so it is essential you check you have the correct match. Traditionally small tube or valve amplifier is used for amplified blues harp as they tend to have a warmer tone and drive into distortion when you play a certain way. Usually the smaller the valve amplifier the better so around 5w of tube power is preferred. It is believed Little Walter invented this technique back in the 50’s.
Basic controls for that Chicago sound are turn your treble way down and the bass way up. Players tend to like a nice muddy sound but be careful not to be too low as if you are playing with a band and it is the same frequency as the bass you will not cut through the sound to be heard so find you frequency carefully.
Volume is always tricky, you want to be heard but you don’t want that dreadful squealing that is feedback. Turn up as loud as you can go till it starts making the wrong noises then just bring it back a touch, if that is not loud enough in a band situation you will need to trace the sound through the PA to boost the overall signal. Remember you will never be louder than any guitarist or drummer.
As feedback is the harmonica players curse the simplest way to deal with it is stand way back from the amplifier. If you stand in front or even behind it will feedback, especially as you are trying to use the controls but you will see as you veer away the feed back lessens you should be able to achieve a strong tone at good volume without the unnecessary noises.
Here is a great instructional video with tips to get the best amplified tone form a microphone and amplifier.