Harmonica Lessons

Type of Harmonica

  • The type of harmonica that these lessons are intended for is, a ten hole "diatonic harmonica". It is often referred to as a Blues Harp by players. It's the one that all the cool Bluesy stuff is played on. Blues Harps come in about 12 different keys, depending on the manufacturer or brand name. For the purposes of learning, it is better to begin with a Key "C" harmonica. This is because all beginners instructional material for harmonica tends to be in the key of "C"
  • Some popular brands of Harmonica are ; Lee Oscar, Hohner, Suzuki, Bushman.
  • Practically all diatonic harmonicas have numbers over the holes, the lowest pitch note being number 1

harmonica


How to hold your Harmonica

harmonica
Hold the harp between the index finger and thumb of your left hand and use your right hand to create a sealed sound box at the back of the harp.

harmonica
With your hands closed tight around the harp you will notice that this dulls the sound coming from the harp or that the harp can't be played as loud.

harmonica
Now allow an opening at the back of your hands. This opening will let the sound to escape. When you have this opening the right size, you will notice that your hands act like an old style megaphone to amplify the sound of the harp.

harmonica
These next two pictures demonstrate the Wah-wah effect created by opening and closing the hands. In this picture the right hand is closed against the back of the harmonica.

harmonica5
In this picture the right hand is opened away from the harmonica.

Explanation of Tablature

For the purposes of learning, and if you are not familiar with reading sheet music we are going to use Harmonica Tab or tablature to describe the notes or holes we are playing on the harmonica. Over time there have been many ways of tabbing Harmonica, most involving pictures of arrows to depict inhails, exhails and bent notes. However a convention has developed over time, using pluses (+) Minuses (-) and commas ("), and its a method that allowa tab to the typed easily. Below is a brief explanation.

4 means, blow into hole 4 on your Harmonica

-6 means, inhale on hole 6.

-4' means, a half tone bend on 4 draw.

-2" means, full tone bend on 2 draw.

-3"' means, bend hole 3 down one and a half steps.

8' means, blow bend hole 8 down one semi tone.

3* means blow into hole 3 with the slide pressed in on a Chromatic Harmonica.


What Notes are on a Key "C" Harmonica

There are two notes in each hole, a blow note and a draw note. Study the diagrams below and you will notice that some notes are missing.

harmonica notes

notes

"F" and "A" on the lower octave, and "B" on the upper octave are missing. These notes can be played by bending the higher pitched note in that hole down in pitch, but this is an advanced technique so don't worry about it for now.


How to Play a Single Note

Put your mouth over the front of the harmonica covering holes 2 to 4. Then put your tongue on the separator bar between holes 2 and 3. This should block holes 2 and 3, leaving hole 4 open. Blow or inhale on hole number 4. This method for playing a single note is called Tongue Blocking

tongue blocking

Another popular method is called the Pucker or Lip Blocking method, and this is achieved without using the tongue. You just purse your lips, or pucker up.

lip blocking

You should get a clear single note, no double notes. Practice both methods until you get clear single notes every time. Personally I favor the Tongue Blocking Method while playing and feel that it facilitates a broader range of effects. You will find that different people favor different methods and they may even denigrate other methods. Try to learn both methods but you will probably eventually favor one. With enough practice you will be able to play well which ever method you favor.

Practice the "C" scale using both Tongue Blocking and Lip Blockingc scale

Notice the change in direction at holes 6 and 7.


Some Basic Music Theory

The C major scale goes like this:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

This means the same as:

do, re, me, fa, sol, la, te, do.

And it looks like this on sheet music score:

c scale

There are also a lot of half notes or semi tones in between these notes. These half notes or semi tones are also known as sharps and flats.

C# = C sharp

Bb = B flat

C#, is a note half a tone above C and Bb, is a note half a tone below B. So from this we can figure out that, C# is the same note as Db

The full range of notes and semi tones on a c scale are:

C  C#  D  D#  E  F  F#  G  G#  A  A#  B  C

This can also be written as:

C  Db  D  Eb  E  F  Gb  G  Ab  A  Bb  B  C

And this full range of notes and semi tones looks like this on sheet music score:

scale

Notice that there is only a semi tone between E and F, same as for B and C. And now look at the G major scale.

G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G

And the A major scale:

A  B  C#  D  E  F#  G#  A

Study these scales and compare them with the full possible range of notes and semi tones. There is a pattern or sequence for major scales, the notes go up in steps.

whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step

See if you can write out some other major scales yourself.

For some more advanced music theory check out MusicTheory.net

What is Note Bending?

Note bending is a technique used to change the pitch of a note and so reach notes that are not on a diatonic harmonica, For example, if you take the fourth hole on a key C harmonica, the blow note is a C and the draw note is a D. It is possible to play a C# by bending the 4 draw down by one half tone. This is accomplished by using a combination of your tongue, throat and lungs to vary the pressure of the air across the reed. Bending notes can be one of the more difficult techniques to master (it took me quite a while). Note bending lends that bluesy sound for which harmonica is known, and can be used in combination with other effects such as wah-wah to add more style and diversity to your playing. The 4 Draw was the first note that I learned to bend but this isn't true for everybody. If you have a lot of difficulty, practice your bends on other holes (either; 1 Draw, 2 Draw or 3 Draw).


Bending Hole 4, from D down to C#

We are going to jump straight in by discussing how to physically bend a note, I will explain the theory later. I'm going to start this lesson by demonstrating the 4 draw bend on a C harmonica. This is bending from note D to C#. Listen to it first.

Now that you know what it sounds like we are going to describe how it's done. Different folk have different ways of describing how to bend a note. This is a description of what I feel is happening. Look at the tongue movement in the picture below. While I am inhaling on the fourth hole, I dip the center of my tongue down leaving a larger space inside my mouth. The action of dipping my tongue down brings the note from D down to C#.

four hole bend

This is difficult to do because you will be training your tongue to do something unusual that it has never had to do before. But when you get the hang of it, it will be as easy as riding a bicycle. There are a few tricks that may help.

Can you whistle backwards? (make a whistle while inhaling). Whistle backwards and change the pitch of the whistle while inhaling. You will notice that you are moving your tongue back in your mouth, and so increasing the volume of the cavity or space within your mouth. This is a similar effect, but you will be doing this while leaving your tongue on the harmonica. You need to be able to leave your tongue on the harmonica, so that you can bend notes while tongue blocking (the style of playing which was described on the first lessons page).

When I was first trying to bend notes, it didn't come to me straight away. One of the things I did was to put some scotch tape (sellotape or sticky tape) on the front of the harmonica, so as to block all the holes except the one I was practicing on. This meant that I could achieve a bend using the whistle backwards method, and not be concerned about tongue blocking. If you are having difficulty bending a note while tongue blocking, this exercise will give you the sound and feel of playing a bent note. Although on the other hand, you really don't want to be covering your harmonicas in scotch tape if you can avoid it.


Bending Hole 3, from B down to Bb, A and Ab

The three-draw note on the harmonica can be bent down in three stages of a half tone each. Listen to the next recording to hear how it sounds.

The picture below shows the varying position of tongue during these notes.

three hole bend

The first note B is a straight note and can be played simply by inhaling on the third hole of your harmonica. You can then drop the pitch of this note down to Bb, A, and Ab, by dipping the center of your tongue down in three stages. You may find it difficult to tell if you are landing exactly on each half tone, so another good exercise is to finish on the 3 blow note. Finishing on the 3 blow note will mean that you are playing 5 notes of the chromatic scale on one hole of your harmonica, B, Bb, A, Ab, and G. This will make it easier for you to hear if you are spacing them apart properly (one half tone each).


Bending Hole 2, from G down to F#, and F

The two-draw note on the harmonica can be bent down in two stages of a half tone each. Listen to the next recording to hear how the bend sounds.

The picture below shows the varying position of the tongue during these notes.

two hole bend

The first note G is a straight note and can be played simply by inhaling on the second hole of your harmonica. You can then drop the pitch of this note down to F# and F, by dipping the center of your tongue down in two stages.

As you start to get the feel for these different bends you will notice that each hole behaves and feels different form the last. The larger reeds in the lower pitched holes allow a greater flow of air through the harmonica and into your lungs. This means that you will be inhaling a greater volume of air to achieve the pressure difference required to reach the bend. This will be particularly noticeable on the first hole.


Bending Holes 1, 5 and 6

The draw note on the first hole of your C harmonica can be bent down by a half tone, from D down to C#. These are the same notes as you played while bending the fourth hole, but they are an octave lower. You will notice that you are inhaling a lot more air while playing this bend. You won't have to worry about tongue blocking on the first hole, so you can draw your tongue back into your mouth if this makes it easier. The bend should sound like this.

You will be able to bend hole 5 down from E, but this is less than a half of a tone (even though it sounds like F). This bend can be used for effect but should not be used to play the note F. Some people also claim that bending the 5 draw damages the reed in that hole, but I dont see whey it should.

The sixth draw note on your harmonica can be bent by a half tone from A down to Ab, and it should sound like this.


This picture is here to illustrate all possible bends on a harmonica, We have just covered draw bends on holes 1 to 6. When learning how to play harmonica, beginners generally find the blow bends on holes 8 to 10 more difficult. So for the next exercise we will talk about some techniques that can be used in combination with bends.
Bend Harmonica

bends1


 

Wah-wah

The wah-wah effect is achieved by opening and closing your hand at the back of the harmonica. When done in combination with note bending the effect can be enhanced. The first recording is simply a 4 draw without any bending (the note D).

Now! This time, start on the 4 draw bend C#, and release it to the straight 4 draw (going from C# to D). Do this repeatedly so that it sounds like wah-wah. Then add the wah-wah hand-effect.


Train Sounds

A train whistle effect can be achieved if you bend two holes together. Inhale on both 4 and 5 and then bend both notes together.


Blow Bending

Blow bending notes "feels" the exact same as draw bending, yet you will find it a little harder to master. There is no point practicing this technique if you haven't mastered the previous exercises. So, practice draw bending until you feel very comfortable with it.


Blow Bending Hole 8, from E down to Eb.

Hole 8 on your C harmonica can be bent down by a half tone from E to Eb.

The picture depicts what I feel that I am doing. I lift my tongue at the back and blow with "ever so slightly" more force. If you are having difficulty it will be easier if you start on a lower key harmonica, like G or A. You can then work your way up through the different key harmonicas.

eight hole bend


Blow Bending Holes 9 and 10.

Hole 9 is a similar experience but a little more difficult. It will bend from G down to F# (half tone).


The 10 hole blow bend on a C harmonica, will bend from C down to Bb (full tone). This is very difficult to do on a C harmonica and I find it hard to hold the note for any length of time. You will find it easier if you start with a G harmonica and work your way up to your C harmonica.

 


Transposing riffs or tunes to another octave.

  • It is a good exercise to transpose songs from one octave to another. It will make you more familiar with your Harmonica.
  • You will also find this technique useful when writing solos. If you are stuck for a new idea, you can transpose one of the riffs you are using up or down an octave.
  • Initially you may find this difficult to do by ear, but you can use Harping Midi to transpose melodies up or down as many octaves as can be reached on your harmonica.
  • Do this for as many songs as you can and after a while you will notice that you will be able to transpose songs by ear.

 


Amazing Grace

On the high Octave


Amazing Grace

Transposed down one Octave


Last of the Summer Wine

On the low Octave

Last of the Summer Wine

Transposed up one Octave

Notes:

If a song covers more than two octaves on your harp it cannot be transposed up or down (without the use of some poetic license)
If your song has a -6 or -5, these notes will transpose down to bent notes -3" and -2". It can be difficult to get bent notes to sound good in a straight melody. However, it is a good exercise to learn to play the same melody on different octaves. Keep trying to perfect your tone on those bent notes.

 Cross Key Playing

  • This simply means playing your Harmonica in a different key than it says on the box.
  • Blues on Harmonica, is most commonly played in second position.
  • This means that you will play your "C" Harmonica in the key of "G".

Harp

1st Position

2nd Position

3rd Position

Straight Harp

Commonly used for simple melodies and a folk-rock style. Your basic starting and/or ending place would be hole 4 blow.

Cross Harp

The most common position for blues, country, and rock. Your basic starting and/or ending place (point of resolution) would be hole 2 draw.

Third position

Great for songs in minor keys and minor blues. Your basic starting and/or ending place (point of resolution) would be hole 4 draw.

Java Script Harmonica Key Table courtesy of HarmonicaClub.com

 Playing with a Band

The Band

Straight Harp

Harmonica

2nd Position

Harmonica

3rd Position

Harmonica


Java Script Harmonica Key Table

If you would like to add this Java Script table to your website just paste the following code into your source. You are welcome to customize the table however you see fit, but please leave the return links intact so that others can share it too.