Learning How to Play Harmonica

This beginner's guide to learning how to play harmonica will teach you about the instrument, how to hold your harmonica, playing tips, tunes to start out with, and more.
By Ken Hall
July/August 1978

Some of the many different types of harmonicas.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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Both the country homesteader and the urban blue collar worker put in long days of tough labor. And on summer evenings — when the work's finally done — both, traditionally, have recharged their weary bodies (and souls) out on the front porch in an easy rockin' chair blowin' sweet music on a mouth harp. There just is no better way to watch the sun go down and help dusk creep in across the fields and up the streets. This article will teach you how to play a harmonica so you can soon be on your way to front porch blowing and relaxing. (Click on the Image Gallery link above for illustrations and descriptions of how to hold and play your harmonica.)

The folks who keep track of such things say there are probably as many harmonicas "out there" doing their thing in the U.S. of A. and Canada . . . as all other musical instruments combined. But that's understandable because the harmonica is certainly affordable, exceptionally easy to play, highly portable, and — once you get the hang of it — mighty rewarding, expressive, and entertaining too. I reckon it comes about as close as an instrument can to being "every man's (and woman's) musicmaker."

A Bit of Harmonica History 

If, as so many others have done, you decide to take a fling at learning how to play harmonica, start by simply picking up one of the little charmers and cradling it between your palms. Hey! You're in good company already. Millions of fine folks — from little people you've never heard of to Calvin Coolidge and Bob Dylan — have all taken exactly this same step before you.

A few of those beginners, of course, have gone on from there to fame and fortune for their mastery of the instrument . . . and many others haven't. I like to think, though, that even some of the duffer harp players have risen to the heights of entirely different fields at least in part because of the solace they've been able to draw from their mouth organs.

Why, even Honest Abe Lincoln wasn't above playing a tune or two on the harmonica when the occasion demanded, as Carl Sandburg related in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years . . . part of his massive study of the 16th President.

According to the story, Lincoln had just finished a particularly hard day of vote chasing during his 1858 campaign against Stephen Douglas for an Illinois state senate seat. And there he was — off by his lonesome, scrunched down in somebody's battered old farm wagon, playing a quiet tune to revive his spirits . . . when someone happened by.

"Say! Mr. Lincoln!" the surprised citizen called out. "What are you doing here playing that mouth organ, when Stephen Douglas is out there in Peoria right this minute campaigning with a brass band?"

"Let Mr. Douglas have his brass band," said the Illinois rail-splitter. "This harmonica will do me just fine."

It's that kind of spirit — the spirit of the true, dyed-in-the-wool mouth harp player — I'm sure, which eventually carried Lincoln all the way to the White House.

The Harmonica’s Innards

If it's true that Abraham Lincoln played the mouth organ, it's just as true that the "tin sandwich" he — and a host of homesick Civil War soldiers — mouthed in the mid-1800s was almost identical to the harmonicas being manufactured both today and as early as the 1820s.

Despite the fact that some historians trace the harmonica's ancestors all the way back to the "sheng" — a reed instrument supposedly devised by the Chinese Emperor Nyn-Kwa around 3000 B.C. — the harmonica as we know it was actually invented in 1821. It was then that a German clockmaker named Buschmann put 15 pitch pipes together to create what he called a "mund-aeroline" (derived, obviously, from the German word mund . . . meaning "mouth").

Christian Messner, another clockmaker, soon introduced the instrument to the town of Trossingen, where ­— in 1857 — Matthias Hohner, his wife, and two employees produced 650 harmonicas by hand. As you probably know, Hohner has led the field ever since. Furthermore, the German firm "still makes 'em just like it made 'em in the Good Ol' Days."

The heart of the harmonica has always been — and still is — its reeds: Thin strips of a special brass alloy that vibrate when air is blown past them. These reeds are mounted into two plates which, in turn, are sandwiched — one above and one below — around a resonating chamber (a squared-off slice of wood or injection-molded plastic that has been "honeycombed" with air passages cut parallel to the platemounted reeds. Two nickel-coated steel cover plates — one across the top and the other across the base of the instrument — protect the reed/resonating chamber/reed sandwich within from drops, bumps, and prying fingers. A few small rivets and screws hold the whole thing together.

And why does the harmonica have two separate and distinct reed plates inside, each equipped with a full set of reeds? Because one plate contains a set of "blow" reeds, and the other is filled with "draw" reeds . . . so that, no matter whether you breathe in or out on one of the honeycomb holes across the front of your harmonica, you'll get a note. The mouth harp, in short, is a very simple instrument to play . . . precisely because its manufacturer has taken the time to do some rather sophisticated work on its "innards" before you buy it.

Types of Harmonicas

And, believe me, this "sophisticated work" can become quite complex indeed. There are, for instance, diatonic harmonicas (tuned to just the eight tones of any standard major or minor scale such as — for the key of C — C, D, E, F, G. A, B, C). There are also chromatic mouth organs (tuned to any of the same standard scales . . . but including all the sharps and flats too, such as — for the key of C — C, C4 or Db, D, Db or Eb, E, F, F or Gb, G, G4 or AO, A, A# or Bb, B, C). You can frequently — though not always — tell the chromatic harps from the diatonic ones because many — but not all — of the chromatic instruments have a little finger slide on one end which, when pushed, diverts the air that is blown through the organ from the whole-note to the half-note reeds.

Then there are tremolo-tuned harmonicas. Each air passage of such an instrument is divided into an upper and a lower cell, and each cell is equipped with a reed . . . but all the reeds are either "blow" or "draw," instead of the half "blow" and half "draw" of a basic harmonica. Besides that, although both the upper and the lower reed in each air passage of a tremolo harp are tuned to the same note, one is pitched just slightly higher than the other. This very small difference gives a beautiful "vibrating" effect when the organ is played.

And there are octave-tuned mouth harps, which are very much like tremolo harmonicas except that each double-set of reeds is tuned one octave apart for a stronger and more fullbodied sound.

There are big and small, double and triple decker, and straight and curved versions of most of these variations on harmonica design. There are special mouth harps designed just for concert work and orchestral accompaniment and the blues and Lord knows what all.

The Basic Instrument

But you can forget about such complicated and specialized mouth organs when you're learning how to play a harmonica. For that matter, you can forget about them even if you have played a harmonica for a hundred years. Because — as millions of harp players, ranging from the rawest beginners to the most polished professionals, have amply demonstrated over the years — there is one simple, inexpensive, straightforward, easy-to-play mouth harp that (for all practical purposes) will "do it all."

I'm talkin' 'bout the good ol' Hohner Model HH-1896 Marine Band harmonica. The instrument internationally recognized by farm boys, factory hands, trail-ridin' cowpokes, blues artists, folk performers, and all other devotees of the mouth organ . . . as the handiest, most versatile, most expressive, easiest to carry and easiest to play little musicmaker the world has ever known.

Technically, the Marine Band is a "single reed, diatonic" harmonica with 10 holes. Each opening is equipped with one (hence the term "single") blow and one draw reed, and every reed is tuned to a different note on the scale. This "doubling up" of two tones in each hole makes it possible for you to play a full eightnote scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C . . . in the case of the key of C) by breathing in and out properly on just the four openings in the mouth organ's center. The three holes to the left and the three to the right of the four central openings continue this basic pattern . . . but with certain notes omitted so that chords can be wrung out of the small (it's only four inches long!) instrument.

The HH-1896 Marine Band is available in 12 different keys: A, B, Bb, C, Db (Cg), D, E, Eb, F, Fg, G, and Ab (G4). If you're just starting out in music, pick up one of the harmonicas tuned to the key of C (which is the easiest of all the keys to learn). Later, after you've mastered a number of songs in C and started thinking about transposing them into some other key, you'll find the job to be quite simple: just buy another HH-1896 in A, G, Eb, or whatever and wail away exactly the same way that you learned the tunes in C (only the sounds which come out will be different).

Get Acquainted With Your Harmonica

Once you've ambled on down to the local musical instrument shop and returned home with an HH-1896 Marine Band in your pocket, it's time to sit down and become well acquainted with your harmonica.

First off, your mouth organ probably was packaged in a compact little hinged box with a U.S. Marine Band photograph on its cover. And the nice fellow or gal down at the music store probably slipped you a complimentary copy of a 24-page booklet entitled "How to Play the Hohner Harmonica." (If he or she didn't, go back and ask for the guide. You'll undoubtedly "outgrow" the mini-manual during your first serious day of harp practice, but the booklet does contain some good beginner's tips and . . . well, you're entitled.) The 24-page Hohner guide plus the information in this article should be all you need to learn how to play a harmonica.

Now right at the beginning, you can tell your casual-interest-in-the-instrument player from your dyed-in-the-wool hardcore harmonica freak. Because the "boys" and "girls" — so to speak — tend to hold a mouth organ rather gingerly in a "four fingers on each end" clasp . . . while the "men" and "women" in the game start right out cradling their harps in a "ten finger sandwich" (the only decent grip ever invented for a self-respecting harmonica).

Form this sandwich by, first, placing your hands around your harp as if you're praying . . . with the instrument lying between your palms and aligned with your fingers. Then — depending on which feels most comfortable to you — rotate your hands one way or the other so that one winds up with its fingers on top of the mouth organ and its thumb on the bottom ... and the other is wrapped around the first with the heel of its palm squarely facing your mouth. (Righties generally end up with their right hands "dominant" in this kind of sandwich and lefties the opposite . . . but suit yourself.) This grip, as you'll immediately see, creates a sort of "chamber" around the harmonica. And that does two things: [1] It automatically gives a funkier sound to your harp playing and [2] it allows you to move the fingers of your "outside" hand up and down rapidly, thereby "wavering" your mouth organ's notes as you play . . . which adds a great deal of emphasis and emotion to the music that you just can't squeeze in any other way. Try it! You'll see.

The manner in which you "kiss" your instrument also has a great deal to do with the sound you'll get out of it. If you simply insert the harp partway into your mouth and blow, you'll get just what you deserve: a disgusting mix of three or four notes at a time and no melody at all. (The half-wits who try to play this way also tend to play with chewing gum or food in their mouths, blow excess saliva through their harps instead of swallow it, and otherwise follow practices guaranteed to wreck a harmonica in short order.)

What you have to do is experiment and practice until you've trained your lips and your tongue to direct a breath of air (either in or out) through just one of the openings in your instrument at a time. This will produce one steady, pure tone after another which — despite what you may have heard to the contrary — is what basic harmonica playing is really all about.

Yeah, this'll seem kinda tough to handle right at the start. But then so was riding a bicycle the first time you tried that. Keep at it. Don't give up. Try different ways of pursing your lips and different ways of curling your tongue. Before you know it, "kissing" those sweet sounds — as clean as country water — out of your harp will seem like second nature. It's just a matter of practice and "gettin' the feel" of the whole thing.

Your First Tunes

The Hohner company — with a little printed sheet folded up in the box that contains your harmonica or its 24-page beginner's booklet — tries its darndest (with letters, numbers, and arrows) to teach you a few simple songs note by note.

Well, I don't reckon it'll do you any harm to start off that way, especially if you're completely new to the idea of makin' your own music. Anything that'll get you rollin' is fair.

The sooner you learn to get by without "training wheels" (which is what that sheet music really is), though, the sooner you'll be able to take off and really "ride" your new musical instrument. Yes sir! I'm talkin' about "playing by ear" and — at least with a harmonica­ — that's not nearly as difficult as most folks seem to believe.

Once you've gained a certain amount of "feel" for the mouth organ, you'll surprise yourself. Your lips and tongue will begin to understand the "ups and downs" of the harp, and you'll start blowing and drawing out "just the right" notes with hardly any conscious effort at all. My own experience is probably as good of an example of this as any:

I was the rankest of rank beginners when I first picked up a harmonica four years ago. After noodling around on the instrument for a while just to get acquainted, I began to feel comfortable holding it properly and trained my mouth to blow pure notes. Soon, I was ready to learn a song.

I chose "When the Saints Go Marching In" as my initial musical conquest because I figured it for a natural harmonica ditty that would be about as easy to work out on the mouth organ as any tune could be. I was right (you'll have a hard time getting discouraged if you start your harp career with "Saints"). It wasn't long before I was following up my first victory with "Oh, Susanna," "Greensleeves," "The Old Gray Mare," "Red River Valley," and just about every other folk song that I could think of.

Eventually I sharpened my skills enough so that I could begin picking songs off the radio. And I've never stopped. As a friend of mine says, "You know, I find that I'll lay my harmonica aside for a while and more or less forget the instrument. Then I'll hear a song on the radio, and I know right away that I just have to learn it. And off I go to dig out the of harp and have at it."

I know what my buddy means. It happens to me all the time. And, most generally, I can "sound out" and memorize a brand-new tune in only about 10 minutes these days! (If I can do it, so can you. Give it a try . . . and, before too long, you'll be measuring your progress by the number of songs you can coax out of your harp too. And after that — when you've finally stopped countin' — is when you'll know you've really mastered the mouth organ!).

Add a Little Soul

Just as with most other musical instruments, there's harmonica playing . . . and then there's harmonica playing. One man or woman can get up and blow a tune and you'll feel a real emotional tug, but when another player tries, there's nothing.

Emotions. Feelings. That's what music (especially harmonica music) is all about. And, just as soon as you have the mechanics of the mouth organ down, that's what you'll want to strive to inject into your playing.

The simplest way to add this flavor to your music is by varying how loudly you play. Make your harp's sound rise and fall with the character of a song (don't worry, the tune will tell you how loudly or softly to make a passage if you'll only let it). The amount of sound coming out of a mouth organ, of course, is varied and controlled by blowing and drawing more or less forcefully as air is directed through the instrument's reeds.

Expression is also added to harmonica music by soulful use of the wavering tones made possible by the "10-finger sandwich" grip that I described earlier in this article.

One of the best ways of all, though, to add "guts" to your harp playing (especially those sad old blues songs) is by "bending" notes as they're formed. Nothing beats a bent note for sheer expression . . . still, it's only fair to warn you that the practice is hard on an instrument's reeds. (But, what the heck: If you refuse to bend notes just because you're too cheap to buy a replacement organ from time to time, you've got no business trying to play real music in the first place. Bend 'em!)

To accomplish this little trick, you have to flatten that curl you've learned to roll into your tongue . . . and you have to do it while you're blowing or drawing a note. That will change the way the air passes through the reed cause the reed itself to distort while it's vibrating and, in turn, "bend" the sound it produces.

Of course, when you really wanna add something special to your harp blowin', you'll just have to teach yourself to play some chords on your ol' Marine Band.

What you do is you open your lips enough to allow you to blow through four of the harmonica's openings at once. At the same time, though, you press your tongue up against the wooden partitions on the instrument's front and you use it to cover either the three holes to the left (if you want to add a low chord to your melody note from time to time) or the three holes to the right (if you want to add a high chord). And then — while one corner or the other of your mouth concentrates on blowing a steady tone through the single hole that's always uncovered — your tongue is moved (in rhythm!) to cover and uncover the other three openings, thereby adding and subtracting the high or low chord.

That's right. To play chords, you have to be able to do two things at once.

It ain't easy . . . but it sure can drive a audience wild. If you want to hear an excellent example of what I mean, give a listen to The Ozark Mountain Daredevils' version of "If You Want to Get to Heaven." I still can't figure out how the group's harmonica player does it. He must have two mouths!

Care for Your Harmonica

Even though there's not a whole lot that can possibly go wrong with a mouth organ, you can ensure a longer life for your instrument if you follow a few simple rules:

[1] Vary blow and draw all you like for emotional effect as you play your harp . . . but do try to limit the maximum amount of stress that you put on the harmonica's reeds.

[2] Swallow and otherwise control the flow of saliva as you play. A dry mouth harp lasts longer.

[3] Don't play your Marine Band while you're chewing gum or when you have any food in your mouth . . . for obvious reasons.

[4] After playing the harmonica, tap it a few times against the heel of your hand — face down — to dislodge any saliva or foreign matter that might have gotten into the instrument during its use.

[5] Before putting the Marine Band back in its case, dry its playing surfaces with a soft, clean, lint-free cloth.

Me and Ol' Betsy

There's something so nice and comforting about carryin' a harmonica around in your pocket that I hope you'll give the idea a try. And if you do — and if you're like me — it won't be long before you give the instrument a name and start thinkin' of it as a true friend (in my case, "Ol' Betsy") who can entertain you, inspire you, comfort you, and help you get across life's awkward spots.

For instance: there was the night I took Ol' Betsy with me to see a Civil War movie set in the South ("Dixie" was more or less the film's theme song), and something happened to the electricity about halfway through the flick. One second, the packed theater was full of happily entertained people . . . and the next, it was filled with suddenly restive humans sitting in total darkness.

What'd I do? Why, I grabbed Ol' Betsy and started blowin' out a quick rendition of "Dixie" on my own. And the whole crowd immediately began laughing, stomping, and clapping along.

Well sir. I'm here to tell you that that made me feel pretty darned good. It could just as easily have been you and yours getting that applause, of course . . . but I'm glad it was me and mine.


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Post a comment below.

 

jones_1
1/12/2008 4:47:03 AM
good day, my name is jones i am from nigeria a country in Africa.I have been playing the tremolo harp for sometime now(a year).i have learnt alot about the tromolo and the diationic harmonica but i will like to go into more of traditional music cos i will really want to promote Nigerian music but i am a little bit confused about the kind of harp i will use in achieving what i want but the main thing is that i want to know really what kind of harmonica to use.Actually i learn t how to play the harmonica with the tremolo 24holes.And now i want to go fully into music but i want to know the kind of harp that will give me what i want. it is my pleasure to write to you about the harp.Well i will like to know which kind of harp should i use when playing traditional music.In my country, there are different kind of music like Fuji juju.Well i will like to go into juju music this kind of music has to do with more of the drums so i will like to know which kind of harmonica to purchase either a diatonic 10holes of 24 holes. hope to hear from you soon jones.








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