How to Play Harmonica for Beginners
If you want to play harmonica fast. I will talk about what worked for me. I play harmonica by ear. When I play in the church worship band I usually play harmonica in the key that the song is in. It is more melodic to play this way. I use trills and bends. I have an assortment of harmonicas for major keys and sharp and flat keys. I haven’t found harmonicas in minor keys and must choose the notes with care. To work out the melody you have to find the notes and know when to blow and when to draw. This takes some practice. You can start by playing around the melody as all the notes work when your harp is in the same key. As in a minor key or another key you have to pick out the notes that work.
Cross Harp Harmonica
Cross harp harmonica is a very commonly used technique; particularly in blues and jazz. You would pick a 4 progression harmonica and draw (suck in). For example if you were playing in the key of C your harmonica would be in the key of F. In the key of G it would be a C harmonica.
Occasionally the worship band would play something funky or more rhythmic and I would play cross harp. I would play more rhythmic and use the tongue block method instead of the purse your lips method. With the tongue block method you put the harmonica deeper into your mouth on a downward slant. This gives you better control of the notes and makes it easier to do bends. You can also get that blues wail or howl as you hold a bend. [ As I write this I have a Matlock episode about an acoustic blues guitar player on TV. There is plenty of good blues harmonica in this episode as Matlock (Andy Griffith, a former music professor and an appreciator of roots music ) had many episodes that included good music.]
Play Cross Harp
If you want to play cross harp in the key of G you would use a C harp and draw. To get a very fast rhythm going, you can alternate from drawing to blowing and using your tongue to make a taca-tica sound as you draw and blow and then resolve it on a long bend on a draw, and some note changes. Cupping your hands around the harmonica and waving your right hand in a fast
flap like a bird’s wing will give you vibrato.
By adjusting your embouchure on the draw you can cause the note to “bend” to a different pitch.
The term “bending” comes from guitarists who “bend their strings for a higher pitch. With a harmonica, it makes the pitch lower.
This technique was invented in the 1970’s by Howard Levy. It is also called “overblowing” and “overdrawing.” when you use your embouchure to bend it causes the lower reed in the chamber to vibrate faster and the higher reed to vibrate slower. By overbending a player isolates the higher reed and can play higher pitched notes. By bending and overbending a player can play the whole chromatic scale on a diatonic harmonica. This is a very difficult process to master and is sometimes added by adjusting a harmonica for air tightness and making the reeds have closer tolerances. Personally, I use bends but am not to the skill level of overbends. I hear some very fuzzy sounds from some of the electric blues harmonica players. I think that comes from
amplification but could be bending and overbending also.
Tongue Blocking or Lip Pursing
Tongue blocking and lip pursing are two different ways to play the harmonica. Most players play one or the other. I use both at different times, depending on the type of music we were playing. With the tongue blocking method your mouth covers three or more holes and you single the notes by blocking some of the holes with your tongue. With this method, I sometimes block the middle holes and play the outside holes for an “accordion” sound. You can get some different sounds using this method.
With the lip pursing method, you only cover one note at a time.
Tongue blocking harpists include James Cotton, one of my favs that influenced me. Sonny Boy Williamson I, Sonny Boy Williamson II (not related),Big Walter Horton, and Little Walter.
Lip Pursing harpists include Stevie Wonder, Junior Wells, Paul Butterfield, and Jason Ricci.
Breaking in and Harmonica Care
In the old days it was believed that soaking your harmonica in warm water, whiskey, vodka, or beer would make it airtight, bend better, and break them in. With wooden harmonicas, this would make the wood swell and be more airtight. In time, however, the wood would crack.
I have both wood and plastic combs. When I started I didn’t worry about eating and brushing my teeth before I would play. With the cost of a good Hohner harmonica approaching $50, this was getting expensive. I now brush, rinse and clean my mouth out before playing.
I also have been rinsing the harmonicas out with cold water after I play. Right or wrong the have been lasting longer and playing in tune. So far I have not had any problem with the wooden comb harmonicas.
There are some varied opinions on how to break in a harmonica. Some players start by playing for several hours without bending. Some players play for a number of short periods of time.
Breaking in is said to keep the reeds from cracking.
My Recommended Harmonicas
For public playing, I use Hohner harmonicas. There are other brands such as Oscar Schmit and an expensive brand called Suzuki, they are supposed to be very good, that I haven’t tried.
Since I was going through them in about 6 months I found a brand that only costs $17. They are Huang Silvertone, and I use them for practice. They are adequate.
The Hohners are around $44 to $47 and work for me. My absolute favorite is the Pro Harp ms. I just love the gritty sound that it produces.
It has a plastic comb as does the Marine Band Pro 20. I also use the Blues Harp ms that has a wooden comb. I find more keys, flats, and sharps with this little puppy and really like them all.
Hohner offers a starter pack with about 7 keys for about $23. To see if you can catch on I would recommend a Hohner starter pack. In comes in a handy case.
Since I want to help newbies try new things out I will not get into the technical theory of scales, modes, and what not. If you want to find that out you can do a google search.
I asked my son and his wife to get me harmonica for Christmas about 5 years ago just to see if I could do it. They bought me one of the Silvertones that I mentioned and I still play it. I have had it apart for cleaning about 4 times and it always plays well when I put it back together. Thanks for checking this out and I would be happy to answer any Questions you have if you leave a message.
I am also interested in knowledge and opinions from other harmonica players, as I am just telling this from my experience. Please leave a comment.
Honer Piedmont Blues Harp Beginner set about $23
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