Straight Dope Harmonica Players Check in Here!

Rather than hijack Euty’s banjo thread any further, I decided just to start a brand new one, dedicated to all Dopers who play that delightful hand-held instrument, the mouth harp.

I don’t claim to be a very good or talented player of the harp; I’m a beginner at best. But, I enjoy playing the few diddies that I know.
This thread is for harp players from all corners of the boards to check in, talk about the art, share tips or favorite songs, debate over who’s the best harp player ever, and maybe give advice to young 'uns like me.

Personally, I’d like to learn how to bend notes. It seems to be pretty much a core requirement for playing blues harp, and I’d be happy to accept any tips that people feel like sharing. Also, feel free to post any good web sources or recommend books on playing for the benefit of other players here.

So kick back, listen to some Magic Dick, and help me realize that I’m not alone in this venture.

Hey, handsome. :slight_smile:
Sorry to disappoint you, but all I can claim is to actually own a harmonica. Can’t play it worth a…toot. Hey, I’m still working on guitar.
But my brother plays a little. I wish I’d have learned when I was a kid.
And I realize this isn’t what you were hoping for by way of responses, but isn’t something better than nothing?

As I noted in my hijack over in Eutys thread, I wanna get one and learn. After looking at the website you so kindly posted over there, I’m now wondering if I should just get a cheapy to start and then worry about the specific tuned ones or what? What do I know about E-flat versus B-sharp harps?

Player here. I started playing 'cause Dylan did. I even did the harmonica around the neck holder thing.

I taught myself (doesn’t everyone) but because I’m not studious, I never learned how to tongue it, so I don’t. I use a narrow mouth and cover one or two holes at a time.

Bending notes is done by sucking or blowing hard at first then “relaxing”. Because I “kiss” the harp (narrow mouth) I can bend by pulling my cheeks in like sucking up spaghetti then letting them fill out or vice versa.


I often hum harmony to the note(s) I’m playing. It’s a neat sound.

Sometimes I’ll roll my tongue behind the harmonica for a cool trilling sound (much like a flutist would do).

Another cool effect is to put your tongue up near the roof of your mouth and pull it down and back quickly. This will suck air into your mouth (and harp if it’s in front of your mouth :wink: ) instead of of sucking in. It’s convenient if you need one quick note drawn in between a bunch of exhale notes. It’s easier than changing breathing out-in-out.

I’m no John Popper, or even Dylan, but I can do an “Amazing Grace” that’ll make you think I’ve been in prison for killing my cheatin’ wife over 25 years.

struuter! Yay!
<gives struuter a big-ass, welcome back hug>
I hope you’re hanging around this time, and that things are going better. And yes, I suppose your response will be suitable for the time being. :wink:

But, <ahem> right. Back to the thread thing.

Well, as I said over in Euty’s thread, there’s not a whole lot of need for you to buy a bunch of differently tuned ones yet. (This is advice that I was offered, but anybody else can feel free to disagree.)
The only difference between, say, an E-flat and B-sharp harp is that one plays in the key of E-flat and one plays in the key of B-sharp (rimshot). You can still play the same songs on each of them the same way, and the only real way for it to make a difference is if you’re playing with other people. If you’re in a band, you have to have a harp to match the original key that a song was written in. I’m not sure if I’m explaining myself very well, so tell me if you need clarifying. And if any more experienced players find that I’m wrong, please correct away.
I have a key of C harp, personally, and find that it works pretty well with a bunch of songs, so I would recommend that one to start off. And don’t go super-expensive on your first harp. You don’t know if you’re gonna be a natural at it or not, or if you’re even gonna want to keep learning after a while.


Good idea for a thread!

I play the harp (key of C) thanks to Country and Blues Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless, a wonderful book put out by Klutz Press.

As I said over in Euty’s Banjo Thread, I have learned quite a few things from books over the years; I love the Klutz Press series - they are all good books.

Regarding bending a note, the only way I can describe it is: when playing a draw-note (inhaling), pull the air down further into your throat. It might help to think about tilting your head back a bit and sticking your jaw out - you don’t actually need to move in this way, it just helps illustrate the down further path the air needs to follow.

Spritle, I’ve never heard of anyone bending a blow-note. It seems to me that if you “blow harder then relax,” you’re just going to play a note loudly then softer.

can be done, just tough to do. Also, you don’t get as much of a bend and it is louder (you’re right, there). Check out Little Walter. Or Phil Wiggins of Cephus and Wiggins.

I learned to play from my dad, the ol’ coot, so I use the tounge-blocking style. I block the hole to the left ot the one I’m playing with my tounge, and close the one to the right off with my mouth. Is it worth it to learn the regular, no-tounge style? I was just curious as to whether or not it will make playing fast pieces any easier or whatnot, or whether it’s all just personal preference.

And thanks for the tips on bending, I’m definitely gonna work on it!

I’ve been a beginning harp player for ten years now, and I amuse myself if no one else. Like sdimbert I started with the Musically Hopeless book. It’s great to have a mouth harp in the bottom of your daypack when traveling, a great way to fill those idle moments waiting for busses and such. My one shortcoming is that I’ve never had the nerve to jam with anyone.

As for key, I also recommend a C or D. There’s this confusing-sounding concept of playing what they call “cross harp,” which is basically accompanying in a related key. So with both of these you’ve got most popular bases covered.

And to bend, I’m not great at it, but it seems to come about three seconds after you’re about to give up. Keep drawing on a note as long as you can, and as your lungs are about to explode you instinctively do whatever to your mouth to make it bend. Or if you can whistle on the draw, practice bending whistled notes; it’s pretty much the same.

Another hot blow-note bender is Howard Levy, who can play a chromatic scale on a diatonic harmonica. He can make a pocket Hohner sound like a synthesizer.

I used to play guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, but haven’t for 10 years now. No time. I really missed it. So about 6 months ago, I took up harp, and play a bit for my 2 year old son just before he goes to sleep, and sometimes in the car.

It’s a fun instrument. The only real bummer is that you can’t just play along with the radio like guitar or keyboards, since it’s keyed.

I have a C harp and an A one. And also a G chromatic, but I haven’t really got the hang of that one yet.

A couple of bending thoughts: try “deepening” your mouth, by pulling your tongue down in the back. Try saying “wah” while you’re drawing the note. Try on the third hole, it seems to be easiest. Try tilting the harp up towards your nose while drawing. Try lots of stuff and try it often. Once you get it a little bit, it’s just practice to get it right.

Have you guys heard that player who can do an Eddie Van Halen thing on the harmonica? It’s pretty cool. I’ll see if I can dig up a link.

Here he is; check out the “download sounds” page…

I can’t figure out how he does this; it’s just amazing.

Some people will suggest that you start off with a Marine Band if you want to learn how to bend (on the theory that you shouldn’t take the easy way out), but what the hell, just get a Blues Harp. It’s much easier to bend, and once you get the technique right, you can move up to the stiffer MB for a clearer tone.

I’ve been diddling with it for a couple of years… if I get around to it, I’ll post some MP3s of some of my late night beer-and-a-four-track blues jams with buddies.

In my experience, there isn’t really any way to learn how to use the narrow mouth method. I just kept trying different ombucheres (sp?) till I got it right. Once I got it, it became second nature, and it’s much easier than tounge blocking (which i’ve never quite gotten the hand of).

I used to play a lot, I started on a Hohner Blues harp, then I switched to a really nice Chromonica, but then I grew a beard and moustache, and every time I hit a sharp or flat, I pulled out my moustache hairs. Then I started smoking, and it was all over for me…