HOW TO PLAY HARMONICA – THE MODERN STUDENT GUIDE

The modern harmonica student guide

Do you want to learn how to play the harmonica? Want to know which are the best moves to learn first and better? Read this practical guide for the modern student – a document I’ve created especially for beginner students. Find out with me which harmonica to buy, how to study, and what mistakes to avoid to become a good harmonica player. In this guide, you will also find some videos with examples and exercises to immediately put what you learn into practice.

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MODERN HARMONICA STUDENT GUIDE INDEX

Introduction to the diatonic harmonica.

Why choose the diatonic harmonica?

How to choose the right harmonica for your needs. Wood or plastic comb? Brass or steel reeds?

Is there a better harmonica to play the blues?

Harmonica keys - what to get.

Which harmonica key to choose? How many do I need?

Is it better to buy a harmonica that costs a lot or can I save?

Do I have to buy a harmonica with minor tuning to play on minor tracks?

Technical guide – how to play the harmonica.

How hard is it to learn harmonica? How long does it take? What should I expect from my learning path?

How to handle the harmonica.

Correct harmonica breathing.

The harmonica embouchure.

Starting to play harmonica with the single notes.

Why learn to play single notes? Do I have to use tongue blocking or the puckering technique?

How to play single notes on harmonica with puckering.

How to play single notes on harmonica with tongue blocking.

How to make the hole 2 draw work properly.

How to play high harmonica notes.

How to play double note combinations, how to modify the embouchure.

How to play chords on harmonica.

Learn chugging to play chords and melodies together.

Harmonica bending, how to play draw and blow bends and get more notes.

Tongue blocking technique.

Why should I adopt the tongue blocking technique?

Tongue blocking slaps and pulls.

Tongue blocking flutters.

Harmonica split notes, octave playing.

Get to know the harmonica and learn to play it in different positions.

Get to know the notes on the harmonica.

How to find the key of any tune.

How to play the different positions on harmonica.

First position harmonica playing (straight harp).

Second position playing (cross harp).

Playing on minor songs.

Third position harmonica playing.

Fifth position playing.

What to practice, how and how much.

Using the metronome and playing at tempo.

Practicing long notes on harmonica.

Adding dynamics to your playing.

How to practice bending on harmonica.

How to improve your playing.

Learning some simple songs to acquire skills.

Studying technical exercises to get the most of the techniques.

Learning some music theory.

How to learn improvisation.

Ear training and the importance of recognizing the notes you listen to.

Harmonica equipment and accessories.

Choosing the right harmonica amplifier.

How to find the best microphone for your needs.

Which other accessories can I buy?

Harmonica maintenance.

How to clean the harmonica.

INTRODUCTION TO THE DIATONIC HARMONICA

The harmonica is a fascinating instrument and it may seem easy to learn. However, if you try to learn to play it by self-teaching, you will face many difficulties, and most of those who study alone end up getting tired and giving up the practice. As a harmonica teacher, I recommend reading this guide and keeping it as a reference for every stage of your study, whether you’re studying alone or with a teacher. Keep in mind that the content of this document is the result of years of study and teaching, during which I have been able to discover what the important aspects are for correctly learning the instrument.

Why did I create the modern harmonica practical guide? Today, you can find all kinds of documents online to learn how to play the harmonica. However, this tutorial contains all the most important concepts, such as choosing the right harmonica for you and building a path of serious and effective study. You no longer need to jump from one topic to another at random – here, you find everything at hand. Within this guide, you will find links to the various topics covered, and of course, if you want to seriously study the instrument, you can contact me for more information. Enjoy your reading!

Why choose the diatonic harmonica?

There are different types of harmonica on the market, but the most common are the diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. The diatonic harmonica has 10 holes that sound when you blow or aspire in each of them, and the chromatic harmonica also has a slide that allows you to raise the note you are playing by a semitone. On the chromatic harmonica, you can play all the semitones like on a piano, while with a diatonic, some tones are missing. Despite this slight deficiency, this small instrument has enormous potential, both in terms of sound and what specifically can be played. The diatonic harmonica is small and less demanding than the chromatic one, both from a cost and maintenance perspective. This harmonica model is very suitable for playing blues but also country, rock, folk, and swing; it also fits well with modern musical genres such as pop.

How to choose the right harmonica for you. Wood or plastic comb, brass or steel reeds? 

As with any musical instrument, the diatonic harmonica is present on the market in different models, from the cheap few dollar gadget to the custom one that can cost up to 150 dollars. The main differences between one model and another lie in the material of the body (comb), which can be plastic or wood, and of the reeds, which can be made of brass or steel. Steel reed harmonicas perform well and are very durable, but even those with brass can last a long time.

Keep in mind that the better you become as a player, the longer your harmonica will last. As for the comb, a plastic body has excellent airtightness – a fundamental aspect for good performance – while the wooden comb has a better sound but can be subject to change due to the humidity and temperature of the environment. A harmonica with a plastic comb can be washed more easily, while the one with the wooden body requires more attention. There are even harmonicas on the market with a wooden body covered with a special lacquer that makes it waterproof, even if not totally.

So, which harmonica should you buy to start? You can easily start with a harmonica like the Hohner Special 20 with a plastic comb, or a Hohner Blues Harp with a wooden comb; both are excellent models with brass reeds. If you want a harmonica with steel reeds, you can go with a Seydel Session Steel or 1847.

You may also wish to read the comparison of the four diatonic harmonica models.

Is there a better harmonica to play the blues?

You can play the blues with any diatonic harmonica. Don’t be fooled by the names of the models; often, the manufacturers add the word 'blues' to the name of the model to attract buyers, since generally, those who approach this instrument do so through this style of music.

HARMONICA KEYS - WHAT TO GET

Which harmonica keys should I buy? How many do I need?

To start playing the harmonica, buy just one in C key. You can also buy one in A. These are the most useful keys to start; the C harmonica allows you to study music theory, having notes named as on the piano and other musical instruments, while the A harmonica is useful for playing the blues in E, a very commond blues key. This relatively low-pitched harmonica also lends itself well to chugging and train imitation.

Read this article about the most important harmonica key to have.

Is it better to buy an expensive harmonica or I can save?

When you get good at playing the harmonica, you can play almost any model on the market, even the very cheap ones. However, I suggest buying one of the models I listed to be safe. If you’re a beginner, the last thing you want is to not know if it’s you that can’t play or your harmonica that has the problems.

You can find an article about which harmonica is best for beginners here.

Do I have to buy a harmonica with minor tuning to play on minor tracks?

Absolutely not! You can play minor songs using a normal major-tuned harmonica; you will just have to choose the right position to adopt. Minor harmonica tunings are useful in particular cases, but I suggest trying to use them when you become more experienced.

TECHNICAL GUIDE – HOW TO PLAY THE HARMONICA

How hard is it to learn harmonica? How long does it take? What should I expect from my learning path?

The harmonica is an instrument that requires time and effort to learn; it takes years of study. However, practicing the harmonica is simpler than other instruments, since you can take it anywhere and, if you live in a condominium, the volume does not bother the neighbors. If you want to learn how to play well, you will have to study both songs and exercises, practicing the basics to get a good tone and the correct agility of execution. Usually, after a few lessons, you will be able to play simple songs.

Read about four harmonica learning strategies to save money and learn better here.

How to handle the harmonica.

You can hold the harmonica using either the left, right hand, or both. It’s important to keep the instrument aligned on all axes, as in the following image.

How to hold the harmonica correctly

Correct harmonica breathing.

To play the harmonica, you have to breathe using the diaphragm, learning to control the emission or intake of air in a sustained manner. Diaphragmatic breathing is very effective for controlling sound. Learn to take long breaths in a relaxed manner, and to breathe not only in the mouth and lungs but throughout the trunk to the stomach. Don’t lift your shoulders when you breathe in. Below, you find an exercise for breathing, which is to inhale for a few seconds and then to exhale, following the metronome.

The harmonica embouchure .

To get the correct embouchure, you should form a small 'O' with the lips to isolate the individual notes you want to play, depending on whether you use tongue blocking or not. With puckering, you isolate the notes with the lips, and with tongue blocking, you also use the tongue. A little later in this guide, you will find how to play single notes with tongue blocking or puckering – the techniques most used to play the diatonic harmonica.

The harmonica embouchure - how to hold it

STARTING TO PLAY HARMONICA WITH THE SINGLE NOTES

Why learn to play single notes? Do I have to use tongue blocking or the puckering technique?

The first thing you should learn with the harmonica is to play single notes, isolating them using your tongue or lips depending on the technique you’re using. Only by learning to play single notes can you perform melodies and solos – otherwise, you will be confined to playing chords, like someone taking harmonica lessons for the first time or who has never studied it seriously. Learning to play single notes takes a few days and a lot of practice, but don’t be discouraged – it’s something everyone goes through at first.

How to play single notes on harmonica with puckering.

To play single notes on the harmonica with the puckering method, you have to form the letter ‘O’ with your lips, small enough to isolate a single hole of the instrument. Exhaling or inhaling air through the harmonica will play the chosen note. If, during the passage of air, you hear two notes together, it means you need to shrink the embouchure a little, bringing the lips forward or slightly moving the harmonica to the right or left.

How to play single notes on harmonica with tongue blocking.

When playing with the tongue blocking technique, the tongue closes the holes to the left or right of what you want to play. To play holes from 3 to 10, keep the tongue to the left of the hole to play. To play hole 2, keep the tongue to the left and the harmonica a bit to the outside to the right, while to play the hole 1, the tongue is positioned to the right.

Tongue blocking embouchure for playing holes from 3 to 10
Tongue blocking embouchure for playing hole 2
Tongue blocking embouchure for playing hole 1

You can find an extensive tongue blocking single notes tutorial here.

Use the following video to practice the single notes. If you’re starting to learn harmonica now, I suggest using the puckering method.

How to make the hole 2 draw work properly.

For beginners players, the hole 2 draw is often difficult to play. To get the right tone, keep your throat relaxed, as well as your neck and face muscles. Remember that you don’t need to 'suck' but rather simply inhale air, without straining and without causing a vacuum in the instrument.

How to play high harmonica notes.

To play the highest notes on the harmonica, those on holes 8 to 10, you have to shrink your embouchure and use a slightly higher air force. Don’t neglect these high notes as many harmonica players do, thus excluding the possibility of playing in many situations.

How to play double note combinations, how to modify the embouchure.

To play a combination of double notes on adjacent holes, simply widen the embouchure a little, usually with the right side of the mouth. Learn to control the muscles around the mouth to modify the shape and position of your lips.

How to modify the embouchure to play double notes on harmonica

How to play chords on harmonica.

To play chords on the harmonica, you just have to widen the mouth. While performing chords, you can articulate consonants such as ‘da’, ‘ta’, ‘ti’, ‘ta’, ‘ku’, ‘ka’ and others; if you use the tongue blocking, you can also use the tongue in place of the consonants.

The most important chords on the instruments are those played on holes 1, 2 and 3.

Learn chugging to play chords and melodies together.

If you learn to play chords and melodies together, you can do what’s called ‘chugging' or ‘vamping'. This way of playing allows you to accompany yourself while performing melodies, giving the impression that two harmonicas are playing at the same time. You can practice chugging by watching the video below.

Harmonica bending, how to play draw and blow bends and get more notes.

The diatonic harmonica has an extension of 3 octaves; however, it can normally emit only 20 notes – 10 on the blow side and 10 on the draw. This means that 16 notes are missing! With the bending technique, you can get some of these missing notes. Learning to play the draw and blow notes allows you to play different musical genres and have a wider range of possibilities. Bending is a technique that consists of shaping the oral cavity in a certain way and moving the tongue to obtain the desired note. Consider bending a technique not to be learned immediately – first, learn to play at tempo single notes and chords. Below is a bending exercise you can practice.

TONGUE BLOCKING TECHNIQUE

Why should I adopt the tongue blocking technique?

The tongue blocking technique allows you to get a fuller tone and perform special effects such as pulls, slaps, and flutters. Tongue blocking also allows you to play split notes, which means playing holes that are distant from each other while closing the intermediate ones. A common type of split notes combination is the octave, for example, on holes 1 and 4.

Tongue blocking slaps and pulls.

When you play with tongue blocking, you use your tongue to hit the surface of the harmonica holes or to open some of them with a particular effect that produces a rhythmic and dry sound. You can learn these particular articulations after a few months of study, and your execution will be much more interesting. Watch the video below to listen to pulls and slaps in action.

Tongue blocking flutters.

Flutters are special effects that are produced by moving the tongue on the surface of the harmonica holes. These effects are learned alongside slaps and pulls.

Harmonica split notes, octave playing.

One of the biggest benefits of tongue blocking is the ability to play notes on distant holes. To play split notes, you learn to interpose your tongue on the intermediate holes, letting playing those on the side. The split notes can be 2, 3, or even 4 holes apart. A typical example of split notes is the execution of the octaves. In the next video, you will find an example of tongue blocking that includes octaves playing.

GET TO KNOW THE HARMONICA AND LEARN TO PLAY IT IN DIFFERENT POSITIONS

Get to know the notes on the harmonica.

If you learn where the notes are located on the harmonica, you will have a major advantage in every situation, whether it’s playing a particular song or improvising. This is a fundamental aspect if you want to become a good harmonica player. The knowledge of theoretical elements, in conjunction with knowledge of the instrument, are extremely effective tools for every musician.

The diatonic harmonica presents the notes of the first position major scale on holes 4 to 7. Looking at the image below, you will notice that some notes are missing on holes 1 to 4 and 7 to 10. To obtain these notes, it’s necessary to learn the bending technique. Once you learn this technique, you can play the full scale on the three octaves of the harmonica.

Harmonica notes layout

How to find the key of any song.

Finding the tonality of a song is simple if you know a little bit about music theory, especially intervals. If you can play a chromatic instrument like the piano, you can also:

• Find the root note of the key.

• Find which third interval works well with the root note of the song.

For example, if you find the D note as root and notice that the F sharp note sounds good with it while playing along with the song, the song is in D major. If you find that the D note works well with the natural F, the song key is in D minor.

Read the complete tutorial about finding the key of any song.

How to play the different positions on harmonica.

By learning to play the harmonica in different positions, you can use the same instrument for songs of different keys, both major and minor. Basically, by counting the distance between the harmonica and the song’s tonality on the cycle of fifths, you get the position. Some positions such as the first and second positions are better suited to playing on major songs, while others such as the third and fifth positions are good for minor tunes.

The circle of fifths for choosing the harmonica position

First position harmonica playing (straight harp.)

The first position harmonica is well-suited to playing on major songs. When playing in first position, you use the harmonica of the same key of the song and find all the useful notes to play on the major scale on holes 4 to 7. You can also play the notes of the scale on the lower octave, holes 1 to 4, but you’ll need to use draw bending on holes 2 and 3. The same goes for if you want to play the scale on holes 7 to 10, in which case, you will have to blow bend on the last hole.

When you play in first position, your root note is located on the 1, 4, 7, and 10 holes blow. In the video below, you will find an example of a song in the first position.

Second position playing (cross harp.)

The second position is used a lot to play the blues and major songs. Blues music uses seventh chords, and the dominant seventh scale in second position has the same notes as the major scale in first position. For this reason, on a C harmonica, you have all the notes to play the G seventh scale and the G blues.

When you play in second position, your root note is located on the hole 2 draw, as well as on 3, 6, and 9 holes blow. In the video below, you will find an example of a song in second position.

PLAYING MINOR SONGS

Playing on minor songs choosing the right position.

What characterizes the minor key is the third interval which is precisely minor. To play this type of song, you just have to use a normal harmonica and choose the correct key, using the cycle of the fifths. By choosing the correct position, you will find the useful notes on the harmonica, including that which represents the correct third interval.

Third position harmonica playing.

The third position is perfect for playing minor songs, because on the central holes of the harmonica, you will find all the notes to play the minor scale of the relative tonality. For example, if you get a C harmonica, you can play in third position in a D minor key. In this case, your root note is on holes 1, 4, and 8 draw. In the video below, you will find an example of a song in third position.

Fifth position playing.

The fifth position is likewise highly suitable to play on minor tracks. With a harmonica in C, you can play in fifth position on a track in E minor. The root note in this case is on holes 2, 5, and 8 blow. In the video below, you will find an example of a song in fifth position.

WHAT TO PRACTICE, HOW AND HOW MUCH

To learn how to play the harmonica correctly and in the shortest time possible, you need to know what to practice, how to practice, and how much to practice. Below, you will find the most important elements to include in your practice sessions.

Using the metronome and playing at tempo.

The metronome is a fundamental tool that helps you learn to play in time. Try to use it right away to practice slowly but correctly. Remember that if you learn something good and slowly, you can then play it fast and well; if you learn something bad and fast, you won’t be able to play it well, even slowly.

All my online school courses make large use of the metronome!

The metronome - the best tool to learn to play in time

Practicing long notes on harmonica.

The practice of long notes is essential to achieving good sound. While practicing long notes, you have to support the airflow with the diaphragm. Try to practice blow and draw notes by holding them for at least 5 seconds.

Adding dynamics to your playing.

In addition to playing long notes, you need to learn how to apply dynamics, such as volume change or tremolo. Dynamics are very important because they convey emotion to the listener, and make the performance more interesting and professional.

How to practice bending on harmonica.

To learn bending (which takes time and effort and should be avoided in the first few months of study), you have to practice the individual holes, then play them by notes as part of the musical phrases. In the next video, you will find a demonstration of playing with various bending.

HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR PLAYING

Learn some easy songs to acquire skills.

During practice, choose simple harmonica pieces so that you can play them while taking care of all aspects, such as playing in time and with a good tone and support. Don’t make the mistake of wanting to learn something too difficult too soon, as you’ll just be wasting your time. Below, you will find the tabs and video to learn a simple song for harmonica.

Simple song tabs:

5 4 2 4+ 5+ 4

6 4 3 5+ 4+

1 3+ 4 6+ 8+ 8

7 6+ 4 2 3

1+ 4+ 2+ 5+ 4 7 6 6+

7+ 5+ 4 1

2 6+

Studying technical exercises to get the most of the techniques.

In addition to studying songs, if you really want to learn how to play the harmonica, you will need to practice many technical exercises. These exercises are the tools you need to acquire the right techniques. There are exercises for speed, agility, bending, phrasing, and more. In the next video, you will find a technical exercise of medium-high difficulty.

Learn some music theory.

If you learn a bit of musical theory, you will certainly have an advantage in the study of harmonica. Theory, practice, and musical ear are the three elements that, working in synergy, make you become an excellent musician. The basic theory elements you can learn are keys, scales, chords, and intervals. Knowing musical theory also helps you learn much faster.

Read about how to create an effective harmonica study routine here.

How to learn improvisation.

Improvisation is one of the most fun and interesting activities you can do with the harmonica. The following elements are needed to learn how to improvise:

• Knowledge of the location of the notes on the harmonica.
• A good ear.
• Technical vocabulary built with scales, chords, arpeggios, patterns, and licks.
• Plenty of practice!

If you want to learn to improvise, you have to study improvisation and do many hours of exercises. There are exercises to improve your playing as well as techniques you can apply to make improvisation more interesting. You’ll find an example of improvisation in the next video.

Ear training and the importance of recognizing the notes you listen to.

A good musical ear will help you learn to play the harmonica faster. Train yourself to recognize notes and intervals, transcribe the songs you like, and create tabs. Try also to play everything you listen to. Practice your ear with the next video!

HARMONICA EQUIPMENT AND ACCESSORIES

There are some accessories you can buy for your harmonica, such as amplifiers and microphones. I recommend that you focus initially on the study of the instrument, using your money to learn how to play it first. Then, you can buy all the accessories you like.

Choosing the right harmonica amplifier.

Generally speaking, to play the harmonica with an amplifier, a high impedance microphone is used, connected to a solid-state or tube guitar amplifier. However, there are alternative solutions, such as using a low impedance microphone like a voice microphone and connecting it to a PA system like a mixer or active loudspeakers. The choice of how to amplify the harmonica varies according to numerous factors, including the type of sound you want to achieve. If you want a distorted sound (Chicago sound), you can buy a bullet microphone with high impedance and an electric guitar amplifier, if you want a clean sound, you’d best orient yourself toward voice microphones and PA systems.

How to find the best microphone for your needs.

The choice of microphone, as already seen, is dictated by the type of sound you want to achieve. For a faithful sound, a dynamic vocal microphone is more than enough. For more elaborate sounds, you can choose a bullet microphone. Here you find a complet guide to harmonica microphones.

Which other accessories can I buy?

Among the accessories for harmonica, you can find rack holders (support for playing the harmonica without hands), cases, and maintenance kits.

Read this extensive article about harmonica accessories.

HARMONICA MAINTENANCE

If you use the harmonica correctly, it requires very little maintenance. You don’t need to disassemble it unless you want to thoroughly clean or tune it. The most important thing are to wash your mouth before playing it if you just ate, keep it in a clean place when you’re not using it, and not sharing it with other people.

How to clean the harmonica.

When you finish playing the harmonica, you can eliminate the saliva inside by tapping it on the palm of your hand with the holes facing it. You can clean the outside with a damp cloth, while I suggest opening it more rarely to clean it inside. If you have a harmonica with a plastic body, you can immerse it in an ultrasonic cleaner without disassembling it. At the end of the cleaning cycle, you can dry it with a cloth outside and use a hairdryer for the inside – however, be careful not to use too hot air. You can keep the dryer at a certain distance to dry the inside of the holes.

Read the specific article about how to clean your harmonica.

A ultrasonic cleaner that can be used to clean a harmonica

We have now come to the end of this guide about how to play the harmonica. I hope this document will help all of you who approach the world of this wonderful tool, and I invite you to contact me if you have any further questions. Happy playing!

Luciano Guida, harmonica teacher and owner of the online harmonica school at harmonicalearning.com (2020)


SHARE THIS GUIDE WITH YOUR HARMONICA FRIENDS!