Have you always wanted to be a mouth harpist or a mouth organist? No? Well perhaps those words are a bit odd and even goofy. Maybe if we call it a harmonicist it will sound more appealing!
The harmonica holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first instrument I was given as a kid. Now decades later, I’m no John Popper. But I still play the harmonica as a singer and songwriter.
And as a music teacher of multiple instruments, my job is to educate new students on how to get started playing as fast as possible. With that in mind, lets jump right into some of the most common questions about the harmonica!
Background and history of harmonicas
Who invented the harmonica?
A man named Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann (1805-1864) is often credited with inventing the harmonica around 1821. But like many instruments that have evolved over time, the harmonica has more than one contributor.
The earliest harmonicas may have stemmed from a Chinese reed instrument called the sheng (笙). First introduced to Europe in the early 1800s, many instrument makers built on the reed concept from there.
Joseph Richter was one of many harmonica makers in central Europe around this time. He developed the blow and draw mechanism we still use today.
By the 1840s a clockmaker named Matthias Hohner (1833-1902) began mass producing harmonicas. As the century progressed, they became very popular. Even Abraham Lincoln was known to carry one in his pocket! And the Hohner name is still synonymous with harmonicas to this day.
What family does the harmonica belong to?
The harmonica is part of the family of free-reed aerophones. These are instruments that produce sound by moving air over reeds often made of metal. Other instruments in this family are the concertina, accordion, harmonium, pitch pipes and chord organs.
How does a harmonica work?
The harmonica is composed of a few basic parts like the cover, comb and reeds. The comb is the center body that makes up the air chambers for the reeds to vibrate in.
On the top and bottom of the comb are two reed plates, one for blowing air through and the other for drawing air in. The reeds nestle the edge of the comb chamber and vibrate when the air flows, each creating their specific notes. The larger chambers of the comb create lower notes. And the smaller chambers create higher notes.
Harmonicas create their sound when you blow air from or draw air into your mouth through the reeds. The metal reeds create specific music notes based on their length, weight and stiffness. Blowing air out through the reeds will often create a different note than drawing air in.
What is the range of a harmonica?
The range of a harmonica depends on which kind you’re playing. Chromatic 16-hole harmonicas feature all the notes in the scale and have a four-octave range. Diatonic harmonicas, which only have the notes of the specific key they’re in, can vary in range up to three octaves.
Chromatics are great for jazz or any music score that requires changing keys. A simple diatonic harmonica in one key may be more suitable for simple pop and folk music, as you won’t need a wide range.
The chord harmonica, which can have up to 48 chords, offers the widest range. It allows you to play chords that are major, minor, sevenths, augmented and diminished. Of course, with such a high number of chords available this is quite a large harmonica.
As a beginner, it’s usually wise to get a diatonic in the keys that work best for the music you hope to play.
Is harmonica easy to play?
Getting any kind of sound from a harmonica is easy—you simply blow air in or draw air out. Some other wind instruments require learning how to hold your mouth a special way just to get a sound out. But let’s face it. Creating just any sound isn’t the same as playing with the proper sound or tone.
There are a few factors that can make your playing great or awful. Embouchure is how you hold your mouth, lips and tongue on the instrument. Your embouchure can make all the difference.
Another important skill is tonguing notes, where you use your tongue to block the air, so your notes are not all slurred together. Vibrato can also be done with the tongue and mouth giving your sound a wavy quality.
Put simply, the harmonica is rather easy to play. But there are a few techniques you’ll need to practice before you can play well.
What genres of music are most popular for harmonica?
The harmonica appears in many genres of music, including pop, rock, blues, folk, bluegrass, Irish, country, jazz and classical. These days you may even hear harmonica played in some hip hop.
The harmonica can be a very versatile instrument, depending on the type. And modern hardware and software let you adapt the harmonica to almost any soundscape or genre you like.
If you’re like most aspiring harmonicists, you probably want a harmonica for blues, rock and maybe folk purposes. The only other category more popular than these would likely be children’s music. When you start playing harmonica as a beginner the easiest tunes to play are kid’s songs.
Who are some famous harmonicists?
Some examples of dedicated and expert harmonicists are Sonny Boy Williamson II, Mickey Raphael and James Cotton. But like these, many of the top harmonicists are not well known because of the instrument’s secondary role in most popular music.
Instead, you’ll more likely hear a famous vocalist, guitarist or other musician occasionally play the harmonica, though it’s not their main instrument. Some examples are Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Bands with a dedicated harmonicist, particularly as a front man, are generally rare. But some virtuoso players do exist, like John Popper of Blues Traveler.
Buying a harmonica
How much does a good harmonica cost?
These days the music market is flooded with very cheap instruments that are barely playable. And you won’t want a harmonica from the dollar store if you’re serious about learning to play.
Beginner harmonicists will typically want to start with a diatonic or chromatic harp. A decent diatonic harmonica in any key should cost between $35 and $80. A good chromatic harmonica should cost between $90 and $250.
If you go any lower in price you risk buying an instrument with some major defects. All the notes may not sound right. And the reed quality and build will be subpar.
What key of harmonica should you get?
Your goals for playing should inform your decision about which key of harmonica to buy. For example, you’ll most often be blowing in first position if you plan to play straight melodies like traditional tunes. And key of C harp is perfect for first position playing.
You’ll be drawing more notes in second position if you’re looking for more expression like the blues and rock and roll. You’ll need a key that is a fourth above what you’re already playing for second position.
If you have a blues song in the key of E, you’ll need a key of A harmonica. This is because the notes you’re drawing on the A fit the key of E better.
The table to the right shows the most popular keys to play in along with corresponding harmonica keys.
Which harmonica is best for beginners?
In some cases, your best buy is a set of multiple keys, the most common being C, A, G, E and D. That way you can play in a variety of keys. But you might want to buy a single harmonica instead if you’re not fully committed to playing.
Here are some of the best models for a beginning harmonicist:
- Suzuki Promaster – a 10-hole diatonic
- Hohner Marine Band – a set of five diatonic harps with keys in C, A, G, E and D
- Hohner CX-12 – a 12-hole chromatic jazz harmonica
- Suzuki Chromatix SCX 48 – a 12-hole chromatic
- Lee Oskar – a 10-hole diatonic
- Seydel Blues Session Steel – a 10-hole diatonic
- East Top Chromatic – a 12-hole, 48-tune chromatic
Of course, there are many choices out there. Expect to get what you pay for when it comes to harmonicas. And look for a well-built instrument with strong customer reviews.
Owning and playing harmonica
How often should you clean your harmonica?
One of the most basic ways to keep a wind instrument clean, is to keep your mouth clean before playing. Don’t play your harmonica right after eating!
Give your harmonica a quick cleaning after each time you play it. This can be as simple as tapping the harmonica against your hand to get any moisture out. Any foreign objects that get inside can usually be gently removed with a screwdriver. Just be careful not to damage the reeds, which will affect the sound.
Depending on how often you play, it may be wise to give your harmonica a more deep cleaning once ever three to six months (related: How to Clean a Harmonica).
How to hold a harmonica?
Here are the basic steps for properly holding your harmonica:
- Hold your left hand in a C position, keeping the thumb and finger parallel.
- Put your harmonica in the middle of that C position and tuck it back into your hand between the index finger and thumb.
- Cup your right hand it over your left. For an open and bright tone, leave your right hand open. For a muted effect, cover the back of your left hand with your right.
Of course, simultaneously playing the harmonica with another instrument like guitar will require a holder for hands-free play.
How to read harmonica tabs?
Harmonica tablature, or tabs, can get you started playing tunes right away, even if you can’t read sheet music. Harmonica tabs follow a simple system that tells you which specific hole to play, by number, and whether to blow air out or draw it in. Tabs are read from top to bottom and from left to right.
Blowing can be shown by an upward arrow, by “B” following the hole number or as just the hole number alone. Drawing is typically shown by a downward arrow, a hyphen (-) or by “D” following the hole number. If multiple numbers are shown, then we blow or draw all the holes shown.
An apostrophe (’) sometimes follows the hole number to indicate bending a note. For example:
- 2’ shows to play on the second hole and bend a half step
- 3’’ shows to play on the third hole and bend a whole step
- 4’’’ shows to play on the fourth hole and bend a step and a half
Bending in a harmonica is like bending a guitar string to get a different note except you’re lowering the pitch on harmonica, whereas you’re raising it on guitar.
As you advance there are a few more pointers to tablature. But these points will get you started for now. An advantage of tablature is that it’s the same across different keys. So once you learn a song on one key, the same tablature follows for every other.
How long does it take to learn harmonica?
The time needed to learn harmonica depends on several factors. You can expect to be able to play multiple songs on harmonica after a month’s practice. And prior experience with another musical instrument typically helps new harmonicists progress faster.
Harmonica is one of the quickest instruments to pick up, even if you’re completely new to playing music. You don’t have to worry about strings to tune, unlike with guitar or ukulele. And developing the proper embouchure is much easier for harmonica than for other wind instruments, such as the clarinet.
Assuming you bought a decent beginner harp, you’ll be ready to start playing songs with tablature right away. The more often you practice, the faster you’ll advance. Just don’t overdo it at first. You’ll have mouth fatigue, so give yourself at least a day’s rest when that occurs.
Can a harmonica go out of tune?
Harmonicas can go out of tune. And in fact, they all eventually go out of tune after enough playing. Even if you keep them clean, the reeds will wear overtime from blowing and saliva.
If your instrument is cheap, it’s usually best to just replace it when it goes out of tune. More expensive harps are often worth the cost or effort to repair.
Are there any helpful books available for beginner harmonicists?
If you’re really going to get into harmonica playing, I’d suggest a thorough and concise book like The Encyclopedia of the Harmonica. If that book seems too detailed, then keep it simple with Absolute Beginners Harmonica.
Apart from these more general books, you can also purchase a more genre-focused book like Rock n’ Blues Harmonica.