Harmonicas, what's the skinny ?

I fancy augmenting my rediscovered nimbleness [sub]kinda[/sub]around a fret board with a blow. I remember a while back a friend saying a couple of things, including that you can practice without necessarily making a lot of noise. Which would be nice, always keen to avoid death by frying pan.

Just interested in general input, do I need to read music pretty well or is a little of that plus tabbing okay? What about types and prices and learning curves, any particular publications, what about that splitting reed thing . . . anything I should be looking out for ?

Any input much apreciated!

Basic harmonica is not TOO difficult. Don’t worry about reading music. It ain’t necessary.

I would suggest to buy a Hohner Special 20 harmonica. The wooden Marine Bands are great, too, but I find after awhile the wood tends to expand and cut your lips alot. Better to buy a plastic-bodied harp–at least to start.

Harmonicas come in many different keys. Theoretically, you can buy one in all 12 keys, but certain keys are much more difficult to find than others. The most popular ones are probably C, D, G and A. The notes for your full major scale are found in holes 4-7. In other words, if you buy a G harp holes 4-7 are G,A,B,C, D,E,F-sharp, G.

OK, there’s your major scale. However, if you will be playing blues-style harmonica, you will normally not be playing the key of the harmonica. Blues harp is normally played in second-position, also called cross-harp. You need a harmonica a fourth up from the key the song you want to play is in. So if your song is in E (perhaps the most common blues key), you play a harmonica in A. In cross harp, the first note of the blues(-ish) scale will be the hole 3 blow. A popular lick is blow3,draw3,blow4,draw4…it sounds like the first four notes of “Oh when the saints come marching in.”

I’m guessing you’re gonna wanna play bluesy cross-harp, so get that key of A harmonica. If you’re more interested in Neil Young/Bob Dylan-type folky chordal harmonica, get a harmonica in the same key (straight-harp) as the music you’re playing.

Great. Next thing you need to learn is how to isolate your notes. You can either do this with the pucker techique or the tongue-blocking technique. The goal of this is to play clean, single notes. In the pucker technique you, well, pucker your lips to produce a single, small line of air. In the tongue blocking technique you put your lips around three or four holes, and use your tongue to block out all but one hole. Both techniques are useful.

Once you can do that, you need to learn how to bend notes. This is key in producing a bluesy sound. Notes aren’t bent so much in playing straight-harp, but in cross-harp they are essential. Start with the 4draw. Try to make your mouth into a similar shape as when making a “y” sound. You basically drop the very back of your tongue. It’s very difficult to describe, but once you get it, it’s easy. If you hear a drop in the pitch of your note, you’re getting it. Now try to make a smooth slide from the bent note to the straight note. Then try draw JUST the bent note. When bending, it kind of feels like you’re breathing from a different place in your moth.

If you can get the 4draw bend, try the 3draw bend. This one’s a lot trickier…You actually have THREE notes you can bend to. Here’s a good resource for bending info.

The higher notes in the harmonica (holes 7-10) can be bent, but only on the blow notes. Also, you’ll find that each hole has a slightly different position your mouth needs to be in to effect a bend.

And those are the basics. After this, you can learn playing in third-position (also pretty bluesy) and advanced techniques such as getting a solid throat vibrato, hand tremolo, and even overblowing and overdrawing - a technique, which when mastered, will allow you to play a full chromatic scale on a diatonic harp. Jazz diatonic harpist Howard Levy (who also played with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) is one of the pioneers of this technique.

Good luck! The basics are easy, just have fun with it.

I hope you don’t have a dog, mine won’t let me play my harmonica (he sings along), and my career as a bluesman was cut very short. Now I just use my harp to get wienerdog to come out from under the bed.
There are sites where you can get instruction, I think I found them by googling.

You don’t read music to play the harmonica, it just isn’t that kind of instrument. And you can’t see which notes you’re playing anyway. So you just have to feel your way it until it’s instinctive.

It’s easiest if you have a diatonic harmonica in the appropriate key. That way it’s hard to make a sound that’s completely out of tune. Only go for a chromatic one if you’re feeling ambitious or if you’re Stevie Wonder. I initially learnt on a chromatic, which meant a long period of bum notes and no friends. :slight_smile:

It’s possible to play very quietly, but you’re not really learning how to play it properly. To get the true feel of the harmonics you need a good blow. Like learning most instruments, the early stages aren’t any fun for anyone else in earshot.

Everything I can say has been said above: go buy an A harp (diatonic) and go for it. You will have to make some noise to learn it.

Also, one bummer about harmonicas, as was noted, they’re keyed. So you can’t just pick it up and play along with the radio as you could with a guitar or piano. I recommend you get a harp to match some of your favorite harmonica tunes so you can play along with them.

For inspiration (or perhaps depression if you try to emulate him) check out Dave Gage.

For the life of me I can’t figure out how he plays like he does.

Technically, it IS possible…but it’s a very, very advanced technique, and you need total mastery of bending and overblowing to do it.

Thanks to everyone for the input, but especially to pulykamell for an especially thoughtful contribution!

So now I feel much better informed what different harmonicas can do and what I should be looking for.

A couple of things, aside from pulykamell suggesting a ‘Hohner Special 20 harmonica’, and plastic rather than wooden (at this point), no one’s offered a view on make and type . . ?

Also, is there an ‘Idiots guide to the Harmonica’ or ‘The Complete Guide’ type books . . I guess, I’ll probably see what the guys in the music shop say . . .

Anyway, thanks again folks. This is very helpful stuff.

pulykamell wrote

Well, yes. But I’ve never met anybody who actually would do that. Nor do I imagine I ever will. The diatonic harmonica is “designed” for certain keys, and that’s pretty much where it’s used.

The chromatic on the other hand is specifically designed like a piano (almost like white and black keys if you will), and in fact it’s expected that you’ll use one harmonica to play all keys. But that’s a different beast.

Oh, and ** London_Calling**, be sure to do a google search; there’s tons of learning stuff out there. Hope those in the proximity like “The Saints Go Marching In”!

Okay, just to report I am now the proud owner of a (ten hole) Hohner, diatonic-tuned Blues Harp in the key of C – reason for the ‘C’ is that (apparently) just ‘bout all ‘beginners books have CD’s and all CD’s are in the key of ‘C’.

For what it’s worth, the book and CD I also bought actually are in C. I guess I’ll get an A in due course.

Anyway, I’m off to frighten the horses, and just about all other living creatures within a mile. Smashing!

Thanks again to everyone for your help.

Howard Levy (plus several other players) does do exactly that. To be absolutely fair, he does use several different harps because the bends don’t always fall in the best places, but I’ve seen him take a jazz tune with accidentals all over the place, and whip it out in all twelve keys on a single harmonica. This is one way he practices. He was a regular at the cafe I worked at and would sometimes jam with the Sunday coffeehouse jazz band without ever calling out a key. He’d just figure it out, pull out his trusty Joe Filisko harp and wail.

It’s not a style most people are interested in; but if you’re a diatonic player and have seen him live in concert or in person, it’s an absolutely mind-blowing ability.

One more thing, a diatonic played chromatically has quite a different sound than a chromatic. I much prefer the sound of the diatonic, because it’s full of bends and ideosyncratic timbres depending on where the notes fall. To hear an example of this, check out Levy’s work on the early Bela Fleck and the Flecktones albums, or his world music stuff with Trio Globo.