Learning harmonica

I had my first lesson this afternoon, and… I bent a note! I don’t know how many videos I’ve watched in my attempts to do that, but having a one-on-one session did the trick.

The first thing you have to do is learn to play single notes. I can do that, so we went straight to bending the 5-hole draw. This week I am to practice the 5-hole draw and the 4-hole draw, and if I get that down, I can attempt to bend the 3-hole draw. In addition, I am to try playing along with Blues guitar tracks. The instructor offered to make CDs, but I have some in my iTunes. (Anyway, my computer’s CD player doesn’t work.)

I asked how to keep myself from becoming bored, and the instructor said I could try bending notes on things I know how to play, such as When The Saints Go Marching In and Mannish Boy. But the notes he wants me to bend are blows. He’ll show me next week how to play Mannish Boy so that the note I need to bend is a draw. Also next week, I think we’re going to start Blues scales.

Good for you! Harmonica is a very cool instrument.

I used to play all the time; started playing in high school with a beginner’s book that came with a Hohner G (that I still have). At some point I also bought an A but I don’t think I’ve seen it in years now (prolly in some box somewhere around here tho). I slowed down my playing when I took up the sax and pretty much stopped altogether when I started playing guitar.

I thought it was fun, tho, and I liked that I could play in the car at red lights. :smiley:

It is an awesome instrument! Exhale on the G for a G, inhale on the G for a C. You get the whona-hoo-awhona-hoo sound, which is a need for many blues tunes.

I have The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Playing The Harmonice by William Melton and Randy Weinstein, and 101 Harmonica Tips by Steve Cohen. The latter is the one with the guitar accompaniment, and it also starts right off with Blues licks. I’m hoping that between the books and the instruction, I will be able to play well enough to amuse myself. (Les Stroud always makes me envious when he plays in Survivorman.)

I tried some bending earlier when the wife was outside. Two steps forward, one step back. I’ll practice with the Cleartune Chromatic Tuner app I downloaded. (Note: Link is to Apple; I downloaded an android-compatible app from Google.) Of course, bending practice is annoying to anyone not doing it. Mrs. L.A. suggests the Jeep would be a good place to practice. (Nah, the Prius would be more comfortable.) Anyway, with the app I can see what the notes are doing, and I think that helps me.

ETA: My uncle says my dad was quite a good harp player. My uncle would accompany dad on guitar. I heard dad play, but he didn’t play Blues. It was more Big Band, like Sentimental Journey, that he played on a Hohner 64 Chromonica.


You’re progressing fast. I tend to hyperventilate and to unintentionally play more than one note at a time. It’s a frustrating instrument for me.

Yay!!! It’s a great feeling once you get that bend down! Once you feel your first bend, you have a good idea of what you’re going for and the rest come much easier, although some take a good bit of practice. The two and three draw bends took me a little bit to really control well, as the three draw has three half step bends in there, and the two is a bit “deeper” than the rest. Out of curiosity, what is it that he showed you that made it finally click? I had to learn by trial and error–I’m just curious what it is that I can show to people in person when they have trouble bending that will help them learn.

Well, I’ve been ‘playing with’ (as opposed to ‘playing’) harmonica off and on for 30 years. As the instructor said, ‘Most people can pick out a melody without too much trouble.’ I just never got beyond that point.

The first thing he did was tell me that the 5-hole is easier to bend than the 2-hole (which is what I’d been trying). Then he showed me the ‘ooh-eee’ thing you see on so many YouTube videos. And then he did one more thing: Unlike the videos, when I tried it and got the start of a bend, the instructor said, ‘There! You’re bending!’ The vids never did that. When you’re beginning and your bends don’t sound like the bends the guy in the video is playing, it helps to have feedback. We used the tuner app and I could see I was bending an eighth-note. Not a lot, but noticeable. Now I know what it feels like (a little), and I can see the bend on the tuner.

The instructor (heck, I’ll just call him ‘Fred’) said to use the ‘ooh’ shape for the unbent note, and bend it with the ‘eee’ shape. On the drive home (without being able to look at the tuner) it sounded opposite. But at least I’m bending a little, and I’m sure it will become easier with practice.

Yeah, you definitely want to start with the 4 or 5 to bend. I think the four was the one that came first for me (and is the one I typically recommend for people to start on.) The two and three take a good bit more breath control and come from “deeper” in the mouth, which will make sense to you once you get your first half step bends down. For two and three, depending on the key of the harp, I really have to drop down the back of my throat to get the airflow right.

I can’t seem to bend the F (5-draw) more than a quarter of the way to the E. Any tips?

Sorry. I forgot to get back to this yesterday. As for tips, well, unfortunately, I don’t think I have anything more than what I explained in your previous thread on harmonica. For me, as I’ve described before, it’s kind of like trying to make a “yaw” shape in my mouth. I feel my tongue pull back and a bit up into my mouth. I don’t think a diagram will help, but this is what happens physically. To me, though, it definitely doesn’t feel anything like as extreme as it looks in that diagram. It just feels like my tongue sliding back like it’s about to make a “y” or “yaw” sound. I certainly don’t feel like it’s aiming downward like that, although it may be. It just doesn’t feel that way.

You can physically tilt and angle the harmonica (side to side or up and down ) while you are trying to manipulate the air flow on the hole your trying to bend.
That’s the best way I can describe it . That may help you with bending .

Apparently I’m bending better than I thought I was. Not great, but ‘Fred’ is encouraging. Tonight we went over the Blues scale. ‘Fred’ drew the notes on music paper, wrote the notes, and indicated which hole to blow or draw and which to bend. This looks like it will be more interesting than simply practicing bends on a given hole, and I can start learning patterns and making up tunes.

I needed to come back to this thread. This is wrong. It just occurred to me when I was playing the harmonica today that, “wait, did I say 4 or 5 bend” back in that thread to Johnny L.A.? The 5 doesn’t have a half step bend in it. You can’t really bend it more than a quarter tone. Note that the blow note on the 5 on a C harp is an E and the 5 draw is an F. Those two notes are a half step apart. You can’t bend that note more. There is an overblow on that hole, and that’s what I must have mixed it up with. That’s the easiest overblow to hit, but that’s a completely different technique.

So you’re doing fine and try 4 draw for the half step bend.

I had to skip a week, as I broke a molar and abraded the hell out of my tongue. (Hm… I thought that bite of burger was a bit crunchy. Apparently I was chewing a piece of tooth.)

Anyway, last Friday he gave me some ‘Blues licks’ to practice.

#1: 4D 4D~ 4B 3D
#2 5B <=> 6B Tremolo
#3 5D6D / /// /
Order: 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1

(The tilde indicates a bend. The slashes indicate the beat.) Very simple, and doesn’t sound especially ‘Bluesy’, but it sounded better when he was accompanying on guitar. As usual, there’s little time to practice. I can’t practice when the wife is home, and I have to do my job before I can play. So basically, I have limited time to play during my twice-weekly commute. It would be nice if the sessions were more than 30 minutes. Better yet, it would be nice if I had a harp-playing friend to hang out with.

Thank you for your mistake pulykamell. Because I didn’t know an overblow even existed before you corrected yourself, and now I have a whole new technique to learn on the harmonica. :)!

I taught myself from a book in high school. Could play single notes and a few simple melodies that were in the book. Bends? Never heard of them. guess that was in book 2. :wink:

My problem was, the harmonica kept stopping up from spit. I recall trying to clear it by slapping on my hand. But usually it needed to dry out for a couple days. Frustrating. I lost interest after a couple months.

probably my fault. Something I did wrong but still wonder what. Most band instruments have a valve or they pull out a slide to drain out spit. I’ve seen them do it many, many times in rehearsals. Harmonicas just have to air dry.

It’s a really weird technique and I don’t even know how to describe it. It was definitely 5 overblow that I learned first, so on a C harp, you get E on the blow, F on the draw, and F# (!) on the overblow. I’m not that great at it, and I find it really tough to control. When I was playing harp daily, 5 OB was the one I could get consistently, but, now, after many years away, I’m having a tough time getting it.

It’s also worth noting that it is easier to do on some harmonicas than others. I would gap my harp reeds a bit closer than factory if I was having difficulty controlling the overblow. It also has a different timbre than your standard draw or blow. To me it sounds a bit more muted, perhaps not quite as “rich,” like it doesn’t have all the harmonics of a normally expressed note. With overblows and overdraws (which I cannot do), you can fill in all the missing chromatic notes on a diatonic harmonica and play a chromatic scale from first hole to tenth hole. Howard Levy is one of the pioneers of this technique (he was a regular at the cafe I worked at in college and I learned of the overblow technique from him.)

As for how to make a note overblow–it’s hard to explain. It looks like there’s a few good tutorials out there. I just remember spending hours blowing into the harmonica and changing tongue positiong and airflow, etc., until I finally stumbled upon the right mouth shape. Despite the name, it does not require force, just a normal blow. You know you’re on the right track when the reed starts to squeak or even mute itself; when you do get it, the overblown note just “pops” into place. It’s not like a bend where you slowly slide into the note. It’s more like, you’re playing E (5 blow) and trying to overblow and all of a suddem, bam, there’s F# (usually with a squeak when you’re first learning.)

That’s the funny thing about harmonicas. They’re so easy to play, a child can do it. Anyone can pick one up and play a tune after just a few minutes. You can read a book and be playing better in no time. But when it comes to techniques, ‘you can’t really describe them’. With a guitar, a book can say ‘If you want to do this, put your fingers here and strum/pluck these strings,’ or ‘If you want this sound, push this string.’ (The latter is kind of like bending on the harmonica.) With harmonicas it’s ‘Well, you just have to experiment until you get it.’ It’s definitely easier when you have a live person to say ‘There! You were doing it right there!’ or ‘Almost. Try this instead…’

Thought I’d throw this guy’s name out there for you, in case you haven’t heard it. Adam Gussow, “Kudzurunner” on Youtube, is fairly well-known in the harp community and has a long series of ‘how-to’ vids you can watch for free.

Now, much of it is intermediate-level-plus stuff, so it might be early for you, but if you watch his vids, he’ll introduce you to some concepts and history of the instrument, as well as some theory. More than that, he’ll give you some listening recommendations (not just harp) to help with your playing, and his enthusiasm for the instrument may cheer you, and motivate you to get past the roadblocks you’ll eventually hit and need to overcome.

To add to my last post, this guy explains it fairly well (and, judging by the comments, it has helped a few people get it down), and does make a note of setting up the reeds on your harmonica, so you also might want to check out how to do that, too. It basically involves gapping the reeds a little closer to the plate. That said, when I learned it, it was just on an out-of-the-box Special 20 (or maybe it was a Golden Melody). After gapping the reeds a little closer, I found overblows much easier, but they were possible on an unmodified harp–just a little harder to keep under control.

That video also demonstrates what I was talking about–how the reed chokes before the overblow pops in. The first demonstration he shows on the 6 overblow is likely what will happen when you first get that overblow–you start to hear your blow reed choking, and then the overblow squeaks in as you continue to raise the airflow. (When you overblow, you actually do choke the blow reed and it’s the draw reed that is producing the note.) And that also demonstrates how the note sounds–notice it’s a bit less tonally “rich” than a standard blow or draw. Note that this doesn’t mean you can’t hit the overblow directly–you absolutely can. It’s just when you’re learning, you’re most likely “sliding” from one airflow position to the next, so you’ll hit that intermediate step of the reed choking out before the overblow hits. Once you know the proper mouth position to make the airflow, you can hit it on cue and in a chromatic run or whatever. But if you’re hearing the reed choking out and a lot of squeaks, you are most likely on the right track. If you listen to him demonstrate the 5 overblow at 1:38, you can hear a bit of that “squeak” I’m talking about, as he doesn’t hit it cleanly (because he’s just demonstrating the practice technique for finding the feel, not that he can’t hit it cleanly–he does fine later.)