100+ QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT THE HARMONICA

Here you'll find the most common questions about the harmonica, and the answers by the most expert harmonica teachers and players.

100+ questions and answers about the harmonica

Welcome to the 100+ questions and answers about the harmonica. You'll find the most common questions asked by beginners (and not only) harmonica players on this page. I categorized the topics into four sections for easier consultation. You’ll find some generic questions about the instrument, some about playing theory, and a number of questions about how the harmonica is built and works. Of course, there are also many questions and answer about how to play the harmonica.

The information you'll find on this page is provided by experts, harmonica players, and teachers around the world.

Do you doubt your preferred musical instrument and want to ask a new question? Get in touch, and we'll answer you soon! You can reach out to me using the contact form or on my social media pages.

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GENERIC QUESTIONS ABOUT THE HARMONICA

Can a harmonica play chords?  A standard diatonic harmonica can play several chords; the two most important are the first-degree chord (holes 1, 2 and 3 blow) and the fifth-degree chord (holes 1, 2, and 3 draws). There are also some other chords, but their usage is limited.

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Can playing harmonica help in singing? Learning to play a musical instrument can help you sing better because you’ll learn about music and train your ear. However, if you can't sing, studying the harmonica doesn't guarantee you will learn to sing.

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Can you play any song on a harmonica? With a standard diatonic harmonica, you can play most of the song out there; however, some require bending and overbending capabilities. The truth is that the average harmonica player will not be able to everything he listens to.

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Can you teach yourself, harmonica? Yes, you can teach yourself harmonica, but it takes more time and effort. Being guided by a teacher is the best option. If you want to teach yourself harmonica try at least following a structured learning path with online courses.

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Do you need to read music to play the harmonica? Reading music is not a prerequisite to learn harmonica, but your learning journey will be easier and faster if you can read music. Reading music gives you more opportunities when you look for new material to study, and knowing the musical language is great if you need to communicate with other musicians.

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How can I tell what key my harmonica is in?  If your harmonica is not labeled, blow in hole 4 and use a common tuner to read the note you get; that’s the key of your harmonica.

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How do you know what key a song is in? If you want to find a song key, first find the root note (the one that plays better on the entire song) and then check the minor third and the third major intervals. For example, if you find that a D note always sounds good on the track, check D and F#, and the D and F. If you find that the first pair sounds good, the song is in D major; otherwise, it is in D minor. To find the minor third interval, count 3 half-tone up starting from the root note, add a half-tone to find the third major interval.

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How long does it take to learn harmonica? It depends, you can learn well in 4 years if you study well and you’re followed by a good teacher, or you can be a beginner all lifelong if you just watch YouTube videos.

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How much does a harmonica cost? A cheap harmonica costs less than $10, and a professional custom harp can cost more than $150. Good harmonicas cost not less than $40. However, I will advise that you don't buy a very cheap instrument; they normally don't play as they should and make your practice harder.

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How much should I practice to improve my skills on harmonica? Aim for at least 30 minutes per day, every day, better if you practice one hour per day. Professional harmonica players practice up to 4 hours per day. If you practice many hours during the day, split your study routines into a 20-minutes block, including a break between each block.

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Is playing harmonica good for my health?  Of course, playing the harmonica is good for your health. You learn to breathe properly, and music is always therapeutic. There are also a couple of harmonica models designed specifically for pulmonary rehabilitation.

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Is the harmonica hard to learn? Learning harmonica is hard and takes time. It costs few and though it is often considered as a toy, it doesn’t mean that it should not be respected as any other instrument. Most of the students don’t succeed because they don’t take it seriously.

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What are the 3 chords used in the blues? In the blues, the three main chords used are the first-degree, the fourth-degree, and the fifth-degree chord. In a G blues, the first chord is the G chord, the fourth chord is the C chord, and the fifth chord is the D chord. Blues often makes use of dominant seventh chords so that a G blues would have G7, C7, and D7.

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What do I have to study to learn harmonica? If you want to learn harmonica well, you should study songs, exercises, scales, and arpeggios. You would also want to work on your tone and learn to bend notes. The harmonica is a musical instrument like many others, and it is not easier.

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What is the easiest song to play on the harmonica? There are many easy songs to play on harmonica. "Piano Man" by Billy Joel is a good one for beginners.

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What is the lowest key harmonica?  In the standard harmonica set, the G harmonica is the lowest, whereas the F sharp harmonica is the highest. There are also many low-tuned harmonicas like low F and low C.

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What key are most blues harmonica songs in? Many blues are played in E, G, and A. The best way to play an E blues is to use an A harmonica and play in second position (cross harp). You can use a C harmonica fpr a G blues; and for an A blues, use a D harp.

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What key harmonica should I buy to play with a guitar? It depends; you should consider the song key you play on the guitar and the position you want to play on harmonica. For example, if you play a G song on the guitar, you can take a C harmonica and play in the second position or a G harmonica and play in the first position. Many rack harmonica players, particularly of the past, used to play harmonica on the guitar in the first position.

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What type of harmonica is used in country music? A standard diatonic harmonica can be used in country music. You can also buy a country-tuned harmonica to have an F sharp note on hole 5 in place of the natural F; this would fit more if you play major mode melodies. To play country music on harmonica, you will make large use of the second position pentatonic scale, and the G scale on a C harmonica.

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Who is the most famous harmonica player? It is hard to choose the most famous harmonica player. Here is a small list of great artists:

Alan Wilson 

Cliff Martin

Paul Butterfield

Little Walter

Sonny Terry

James Cotton

Sonny Boy Williamson II

Charlie Musselwhite

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TECHNICAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE HARMONICA

Can a harmonica go out of tune?  Yes, a harmonica can go out of tune; however, this shouldn't become an obsession. If you play alone, your tuning doesn't have to be perfect, and if you play with someone else, then you should check your harmonica tuning more often.

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Can I wash a harmonica? If your harmonica has a plastic comb, you can wash it under water, and then dry it with a soft cloth and a hairdryer. You can also opt for an ultrasonic cleaner that permits you to avoid disassembling the harmonica. If your harmonica has a wood comb, you should be careful and avoid immersing the instrument in water because the comb can get deformed.

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How long does a harmonica last? A harmonica can last for years if you know how to play it properly and maintain it. When learning, beginners break harmonicas easier; most of the time, they use too much hair for playing and try to bend notes.

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How to retune a harmonica? Tuning a harmonica reed is not complicated, but you should be careful because if you move the reed, it could happen that it doesn't vibrate well in its slot. You will have to file the reed on the tip part (far from the rivet) if you need to raise the note pitch, or on the beginning part (where the rivet is) to lower the pitch. A small action is required; often check how the reed sounds while tuning it.

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What is a custom harmonica? A custom harmonica can have a different comb design, different materials and can be worked to make bending and overbending easier. Customization can interest not only the instrument look, but especially how it will play.

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What harmonicas are made of? Common harmonicas are made of plastic, wood, steel, stainless steel, and brass.

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Where did harmonica originate? The harmonica, how we know it today, was born in Germany. One of its ancestors is the Sheng, a Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes.

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How does a harmonica work? In the harmonica, the sound is produced by the vibrations of the reeds in the slots. When you blow in the holes, the upper reeds vibrate; those in the bottom work when you draw.

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QUESTIONS ABOUT HARMONICA THEORY

How many harmonica tunings are available?  The most common harmonica tuning is called "Richter," followed by the "Country Tuning" that differs on hole 5 draw, where you find an F sharp in place of a natural F note. There are also some minor tuning, such as the natural minor and harmonic minor. Some manufacturers also produce custom tuning (like Seydel) and other special tunings. Among those, you'll find the melody maker by Lee Oskar and the Powerbender.

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What are harmonica keys? There are twelve notes in our musical system, those you find on a piano keyboard and form an octave. They are basically, the white and black keys. A song can be in twelve different keys, and the diatonic harmonicas are sold in twelve keys and labeled with the name of the key. The standard range starts from G (the lowest key) to F sharp (the highest). Once you learn how to play something on the blues harp, if you want to change the key, you only have to use a different harmonica and play the same holes. That's the advantage of playing a pitched instrument. With a single harmonica, you can play different song keys, but you need to know something about "harmonica positions," which means knowing various musical scales.

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What are harmonica positions? With the same harmonica, you can play different songs in different keys. Knowing the position is basically knowing the musical scales and where these scales' notes are located on the harmonica.

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What are harmonica tabs? Harmonica tabs are a simple way to notate music for the harmonica. Simple harmonica tabs show only the hole number to blow or draw and some additional information like when you have to bend notes. Some more complex tabs also show the notes on the staff and some hybrids tabs with the name of the notes. You should know the song you are playing with the basic harmonica tabs because you don't have anything that tells you how each note lasts. 

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What harmonica key should I buy for blues?  The most common harmonica key for blues is A, this is because most of the blues are in E. Another common blues key is A, and you need a D harmonica to play it. The G blues is also quite common, and it requires a C harmonica. With these harmonica keys, you'll play the blues in the second position (cross harp); if you get the same key as the song, you will play in the first position (straight harp).

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Which harmonica key should I buy?  Harmonicas in the key of C and A are the most common for beginners. You also want to consider a D, a G, and an F harmonica to have a quite complete set. Knowing different playing positions will permit you to play most of the songs.

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What is the fifth position on harmonica? The fifth position is one of the best harmonica positions to play minor songs and minor blues. Your root note is located on hole 2 blow, 5 blow, and 8 blow with the fifth position. If you know the second position, you already know how to play in the fifth position; in fact, the second position major pentatonic scale, and the fifth position minor pentatonic scale share the same notes. On a standard C harmonica, in the fifth position, your root note is E.

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What is the first position on harmonica? The first position, also known as straight harp, is one of the best harmonica positions to play major songs. Your root note is located on hole 1 blow, 4 blow, 7 blow, and 10 blow. On a standard C harmonica, in the first position, your root note is C, and you have a complete major scale on holes from 4 to 7.

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What is the second position on harmonica? The second position is a great harmonica position to play blues songs and major songs. Your root note is located on hole 2 draw, 3 blow, 6 blow, and 9 blow with the second position. On a standard C harmonica, in the second position, your root note is G.

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What is the most common key for a harmonica? The most common harmonica key is C.

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What is the third position on harmonica?  The third position is one of the best harmonica positions to play minor songs and minor blues. Your root note is located on hole 1 draw, 4 blow, and 8 blow with the third position. On a standard C harmonica, in the third position, your root note is D. When playing in the third position, the minor scale you play is called "Dorian" and shares the same note as the first position major scale. For example, a C major scale has the same notes as the "Dorian" D minor scale. It's suggested to avoid playing holes 3 and 7 draws in third position if the song mode is minor.

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What's the difference between a diatonic harmonica and a chromatic one? Basically, the diatonic harmonica has a three-octave extension but doesn't permit you to play all the notes that form them. The note layout follows a diatonic progression (major scale). With a chromatic harmonica, you can play all the notes like a piano. The technique to play these two kinds of harmonicas differs, and the sound is quite different too. On the chromatic harmonica, the blues is almost always played in the third position, and the fact that you can play all the notes makes the chromatic harmonica perfect for jazz and classical music.

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What's the extension of a standard diatonic harmonica? The extension of a standard blues harp is three octaves, but they are not complete. Even the major scale of the same key of the harmonica is found only on the middle octave, holes 4 to 10. To play the same scale on the low octave, holes 1 to 4, you need to play a couple of bendings. On the highest octave, holes 7 to 10, another bending is required to get the whole scale.

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Which harmonica should I use for minor key songs? If you want to play minor chords, you need a minor tuned harmonica because the standard tuning permits you to play only a minor chord on holes 3, 4, and 5 draws, and 8, 9, and 10 draw. On a C harmonica, the notes of the D minor chord. If you want to play solos and melodic lines, a normal diatonic harmonica is fine, and you just have to choose the right key and the right position. The most common positions used to play minor songs are the third and the fifth. You could also use the fourth position for minor playing, but having the root note on hole 3 whole-step bending is not comfortable.

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PRACTICAL QUESTIONS ABOUT PLAYING THE HARMONICA

How do I start learning harmonica?  This is what you should start to learn harmonica: Learn to hold the instrument correctly, choose a technique such as puckering, tongue blocking, U blocking, or Lips blocking. Then learn to breathe correctly and play single notes, better if you practice long notes. Work on your tone and don’t rush; learning to bend notes should happen later. Work on simple tunes and practice the whole instrument range. Avoid focusing too much on blues and on the blues scale. Try to become a musician, not a copy of everyone else.

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How many embouchures to play the harmonica? There are several techniques to play the harmonica. Puckering, tongue blocking, lips blocking, and U blocking, are the most common, and each of them requires a different approach.

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How to accompany on harmonica? To accompany on harmonica, you should learn to play chords and how to interact with the other musicians. Avoid overplaying; it is important to learn where to stop playing, leaving space for the others. When accompanying with the harmonica, you can play pads using octaves, emulate horn sections, and adapt your playing to the music style.

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How to bend on harmonica? Bending on harmonica is not for beginners and often is a trap that results in a waste of time and frustration. Basically, to bend a note, you need to shape your oral cavity and use your tongue to modify the airflow. Blow bending is different from draw bending, and bending with puckering is different from bending with tongue blocking. Learning to bend notes takes much time; consider it a long-term goal, and do not neglect the most important things to learn, like playing at tempo and getting single clear notes.

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How to breathe for harmonica playing? The correct breathing for harmonica playing involves the diaphragm. You should learn to make long breathes in a relaxed way while sustaining the flow. Controlling the airflow is fundamental for a good tone on harmonica. Most of the harmonica players struggle with air and get full of it easily, and it is important to learn to manage the amount of air you inhale and exhale, using your nose as a vent valve.

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How to cup a harmonica microphone?  To cup a harmonica microphone means making a perfect seal; you don't want the air flowing out of the harmonica. With good cupping, all the air goes on the microphone element, and the result is a full-round tone.

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How to improve my tone on harmonica? Your tone on harmonica is strictly correlated to your embouchure, the seal you make with the harp, and the shape of your oral cavity. Sustain of the airflow also plays a big role in shaping your tone. Before relying on expensive harmonica mics and amps, try to build your tone with your embouchure. Basically, a bigger space in your oral cavity makes a bigger tone and vice versa.

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How to have hole 2 draw playing well? Getting a good sound from hole two draw is often difficult for beginners. Keep your throat relaxed and avoid sucking. The airflow should start in your opened throat, not in your mouth. Think about breathing from your belly and not in your mouth.

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How to hold the harmonica? Hold your harmonica without tilting it, and it should stay straight in front of your mouth. Practice in front of a mirror to verify you don’t assume strange postures. Move the instrument and not your head.

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How to play a dip bending on harmonica? A dip bending is a note that starts with bending and ends with the normal pitch. The transition should be quick, and you don't want to hear two notes. Start like when you play the bending and immediately release it. Opening your nose can help you achieve the goal. You can play a dip bending on blow notes, on draw notes, and on double stops too.

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How to play a glissando on harmonica?  To play a glissando, start from a hole that is different than the target one. For example, to play hole 7 blow with a glissando, start on hole 2, and continue blowing until you reach hole 7. The airflow remains constant while you move the harmonica. You can play a glissando with blow and draw notes, and you can go up or down to reach your target.

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How to play a pull on harmonica? A harmonica pull is a feature of the tongue blocking technique. Basically, the sound is stopped by the tongue on the harmonica, and you start drawing or blowing before removing the tongue. Once you remove the tongue from the holes, the sound starts.

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How to play a slap on harmonica? The slap is a feature of the tongue blocking technique. To play a slap, your airflow (it can be draw or blow) starts with the tongue off the harmonica. You will slap the harmonica holes quickly to get a distinct sound attack. Very often, slap and pulls work together when playing with the tongue blocking technique. When playing through a bullet microphone and an amplifier, slaps and pulls help you get that punching sound that many harmonica players love.

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How to play a tremolo on harmonica? A tremolo is a variation of the note volume. You can use your throat or the diaphragm, or both. When playing a tremolo, you can shape it by working on the amount of air variation (volume) and speed (frequency).

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How to play a vibrato on harmonica? A vibrato involves a note pitch change. To play vibrato on harmonica, you should know how to bend notes. Basically, you play a bent note and changing the airflow amount influences the note pitch. You can regulate how much the pitch is affected and the speed of change.

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How to play a wah wah on harmonica? The wah wah effect on harmonica is made by working on the cupping of the instrument. You apply the wah wah moving your hand (normally your right one), opening and closing the cupping. You can also help the wah wah by working with the airflow.

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How to play a warble or shake on harmonica? A warble, also known as a shake, is when you play two contiguous holes switching from one to the other very quickly. You don't stop the airflow during the playing, and you can also play a bent shake or warble. It is recommended to move the harmonica and not the head, or both, but never only the head.

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How to play double stops on harmonica? A double stop on harmonica is when you play two notes on two contiguous holes simultaneously. To play the double stop, open your embouchure a little. If you play using the tongue blocking technique, start like when you want to play a single hole, and then open your embouchure, moving your right lip side.

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How to play single notes with lip blocking on harmonica?  Lip blocking is a particular technique used to play the harmonica. It involves blocking the holes with the internal side of your bottom lips. Tilt the harmonica a little bit when positioning it on your lips to have better adherence. With lip blocking, you can also play double stops and bend notes. This technique is easier than what most players think; give it a try, and you'll be surprised!

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How to play single notes with puckering on harmonica? To play single notes on harmonica with puckering, you need to shape your embouchure, making a little "O." Blow or draw in a hole to get the sound. If you hear two notes, you want to reduce your embouchure and check the harmonica's position, and it might be that you are in the middle of two holes. Puckering lips shape is similar to the one you make when you use a drinking straw.

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How do I play single notes with tongue blocking on harmonica?  When playing holes 3 to 10, cover the holes that must be blocked on the left, with the upper part of the tongue, closer to the tip, and leave the right hole free. Don't use the tip of the tongue if you need to cover two or three holes, as you need a slightly larger surface area of your tongue to serve that purpose. As an indication, put your tongue on the vertical separator between holes 2 and 3 if you want to play hole 4. The tongue will cover two holes: i.e.2 & 3. 
For hole 2 playing, put your tongue between hole 1 and the left border of the instrument. For hole 1 playing, you should learn to switch your tongue to the right and cover holes 1 and 2 with its left side.

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How to play single notes with U blocking on harmonica? U blocking is another technique used by some harmonica players. To use this technique, you should be able to curl your tongue to have its sides facing up. Essentially you will play like with the puckering technique, but with the added centering of your air via your tongue. Sounds complicated? It is; most people can't even curl their tongue.

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How to play split notes on harmonica? You can play split notes on harmonica if you use the tongue blocking technique. The most common type of split notes is the octave. To play the hole 1 and 4 octaves (C octave on ha C harmonica), close holes 2 and 3 with the tongue. You can play many octaves on a diatonic harmonica, and they are a good way to obtain a full sound that contains low and high frequencies.

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What chords can I play on harmonica? The most common chords you can play on a standard harmonica are the first-degree chord and the fifth-degree chord. On a C harmonica, the C major chord and the G major chord.

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What is an overblow on harmonica? An overblow on harmonica is a note obtained with very advanced technique that most of the time requires to set the harmonica. Reed gap adjustment and embossing are some of the modifications that help to get the overblow. Overblows allows you to play chromatically and have more notes on the instrument; for example, on a C harmonica, on hole 1, you can get a D sharp, as well as on hole 4. On hole 5, with the overblow, you can play an F sharp, whereas, on hole 6, you'll find a B flat. The B flat on hole 6 is necessary for playing the second position blues scale on the higher part of the harmonica. With overblows, you can play much better jazz music because it makes large use of chromatics.

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What octaves can I play on harmonica? On a standard harmonica, you can play many octaves if you can tongue block. For example, on a C harmonica, blowing, you'll have C, E, and G octaves on the whole instrument extension. Drawing notes allows you to play D, A, F, and B octaves.

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What scales can I play on harmonica? There are many scales you can play on a harmonica. Basically, the first position major scale, then the second position dominant seventh scale. You can also play the third position "Dorian" minor scale, and also the twelfth position major scale. It depends on your bending and overbending skills. The most common scales you can play on a C harmonica are C major, G seventh, D Dorian minor, D blues, G blues, C, F, and G major pentatonic scales. You can play F major and D major scale on holes 1 to 4. These are only some examples.

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