How many of you have bought a harmonica, blown and drawn a few chords, got bored with it and put it down, discouraged and not sure what to do next? I suspect, most of us. That’s because we probably didn’t know even the basics of how to play this little folk/blues/classical music wonder. In this article I’m going to show you how to play the harmonica in several different ways, even if you’ve had no previous experience with this terrific instrument! We will learn the difference between the diatonic harmonica and the chromatic harmonica. We will hear the scales on both types. We will learn how to play a simple chord melody. We will learn (this is big!) how to play a single note melody. We will learn how to combine the single note melody with accompanying chords. You will hear my friend John and I play folk tunes, old standards, a beautiful classical melody, as well as cross-harpin’ the blues! Also included is a video featuring blues greats Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker, as well as a video of young harmonica great, Konstantin Reinfeld. If you’ve been curious about the harmonica but were afraid to try it, the encouragement you are seeking just might be in this article!
HOW NOT TO PLAY THE HARMONICA: Listen to me play the tune Oh Susannah the way you’d probably try to play it when you first pick up your “harp.” (We harmonica geeks call them harps.) Too many corny old western movies taught us the wrong way to play the harp. In this self-standing lesson you will learn some cool ways to make that old harmonica really sing!
Oh Susannah – Blow/Draw Chords – (easiest)
When you’re first learning to play, this simple playing style impresses the heck out of us. But it’s terribly limiting. A tune might sound good when playing the 1st chord or the 5th chord, (ignore the tech talk), but it sounds terrible when drawing (inhaling) on the 4th chord. This playing style also sounds quite monotonous. Further, it’s difficult to nail the actual melody note in all that mess. Is there a better way to play the harp? Oh, yeah. 🙂
BLOWING INDIVIDUAL NOTES: To add definite structure to a song, we need to learn how to blow individual notes so we can nail the melody and then chord around it. There are three ways to do that–
1> You can purse your lips so it surrounds the note hole you want to blow. Some swear by this method, but it doesn’t work for me at all. I often got blurps and bleeps, no matter how much I practiced this method, making the tune sound rough rather than clean. On an accuracy scale of 1 to 10, I give this method a lowly 1, with 10 being the most accurate on the scale. I must hasten to add, though, that just because this method doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for others. In fact, my friend John Arbuckle, who you will hear play his chromatic harmonica in this article, does well with this method.
2> With your tongue you can block the notes you don’t want to sound and leave unblocked the single note you want to sound. This method works well enough, but I find it clumsy and uncomfortable to execute. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give this method a 3, with 10 being the most comfortable. There is no doubt the method is accurate, but it’s an uncomfortable tongue tangle for me.
3> By placing just the tip of your tongue under a note hole, the note will sound clearly and accurately. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give this method a 10, with 10 being the most accurate. It’s also, (for me), the most comfortable method to get just one melody note at a time, which is exactly what we want. It will take a bit of work to get it right, and when you first try it, it might not work at all. It didn’t work for me at first. But I kept at it and it didn’t take long before individual notes began to emerge loud and clear.
SCALE ON THE HOHNER MARINE BAND G HARMONICA: When you hear me play this scale, you will be confused by the lower notes. They don’t seem to be part of the scale we’re used to hearing. My friend John calls these the oompah notes! They are strictly used for adding interest to the bass line, even though some of the notes can sometimes be used to fill in the lower part of a melody. Let’s hear what individual notes sound like on the Marine Band–
G Scale on the Marine Band diatonic harmonica
Notice how the first five notes don’t fit into any scale we’re familiar with. Those are the oompah notes. Going past these first five notes takes us into familiar territory. Notice, though, that the second to the last highest note is missing. This apparently is by design because this note is missing on all the Marine Band harps I’ve owned.
THE CHROMATIC HARMONICA: There is another kind of harmonica called the chromatic harmonica. Picture yourself sitting in front of a piano keyboard. What do you see? You see white keys, but you also see black keys. These are referred to as the sharps and flats. The standard Marine Band, the harmonica I just played, has no black notes. Only white notes are available on this simple model. The chromatic harmonica has all the notes. Let’s listen to John play the scale on his key of G chromatic harmonica–
G Scale on the Chromatic Harmonica
To directly compare between the Marine Band, (musically speaking it’s called the diatonic model,) and the chromatic model, first play the Marine Band key of G scale, (two tracks back), and then play the key of G chromatic scale, (the track above). Notice how many more notes are available on the chromatic harmonica. It has a much longer note range, and all the sharps and flats are there. This is accomplished by a button controlled sliding gate that blocks and unblocks the sharps and flats just by pressing the button when you need to access them! It’s a fine instrument if you want to play complex music. Larry Adler of some years ago was a monster chromatic star. He played everything from jazz to classical. The most noted master of the chromatic harp today is Stevie Wonder. We are all familiar with his music! Listen to John play the first part of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a single note melody on his chromatic harmonica.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow – G Chromatic
Single note melodies work well if you are playing along with someone like a guitar player for some added accompaniment. Folk musicians, though, often want to play an instrument as a full sounding solo instrument, and they want to play both melody and accompaniment, all at the same time! Is this even possible? It most certainly is. 🙂
OH SUSANNAH SIMPLE MELODY: At the beginning of this article you heard me play Oh Susannah the easy way by simply blowing and drawing whole chords. Now hear me play this tune as a single note melody–
Oh Susannah Melody on the Marine Band (diatonic) Harmonica
Notice this was played on the simple Marine Band harp that has no chromatic button to get at the sharps and flats. That’s because many melodies have no sharps and flats. Oh Susannah is one of many tunes that fit in this category.
MELODY/CHORD DEMONSTRATION: You’ve heard single notes. But what if we added something more? How about we add a chord accompaniment, just like we might do when playing the piano or when finger picking the guitar. First, a simple melody/chord demonstration–
Diatonic Melody and Chord Accompaniment Demonstration
Notice that the chords are made up of more than one note. That’s what makes them chords. You probably also noticed I dipped into the oompah notes to show you how that worked. If you didn’t hear those, don’t worry about it. You’ll figure out how to use them when you try it yourself.
OH SUSANNAH AS A MELODY/CHORD SOLO: When you hear what I play next, you probably won’t believe it’s coming out of just one harp and played all at once! Recall the melody/chord example you just heard. I’m using exactly that technique here, but now the song has a recognizable structure because the tune is so familiar.
Oh Susannah With Melody and Chords on Diatonic – Medium Tempo
Sounds pretty darned cool, doesn’t it! Let’s kick up the tempo–
FAST! Oh Susannah Melody Chords on diatonic
Gasp! There is no way I can play it faster than that. I call this my show off speed! 😀
WALTZ TIME: Oh Susannah isn’t the only song you can play like this. To demonstrate for you a simple waltz tune, I chose Goin’ Home as the perfect example. This beautiful melody, often mistaken for a folk song, is from Dvorak’s Symphony #9. It’s slow, it’s quiet, it’s heartfelt, and the melody is so beautiful. But notice the long section where I leave out the chord accompaniment and play only the single note melody. On a Marine Band (diatonic) harp like I’m playing, there are no chords you can play in this section that will sound good with the melody. And so, put every bit of feeling you might have in you into this section. Here me play it–
Going Home Waltz Demonstration – Diatonic Harp
PLAYIN’ THE BLUES! And finally, let’s cross-harp the blues! Blues notes are gotten by playing in a different position and then by mostly drawing rather than blowing those blues notes on the scale—notes like the minor 3rd and the flatted 7th. Ignore the tech talk. You’ll play this instinctively. This puts the harmonica in a different key. If you are playing a C harp, cross-harping the blues will be in the key of G. Cross-harping a key of D harmonica will put the blues in the key of A. Cross-harping on an A harmonica puts the blues in the key of E. The secret is to look at the key your harmonica is in. The key is printed on the end of the instrument, but it’s even easier to read on the box it came in. When we cross-harp, it moves the blues key up five scale intervals from its native key–
Key of C — C, D, E, F, G — blues is in G
Key of A — A, B, C, D, E — blues is in E
Key of C — C, D, E, F, G — blues is in G
Key of D — D, E, F, G, A — blues is in A
Listen to my blues demonstration below. I cross-harped the blues on my C harmonica, which means the blues is in the key of G. I found a couple of drum tracks from Garage Band, stuck them together, and then I played along with them. There are many instrument loops in the Garage Band library, but most are in specific keys. If your harp key doesn’t match the GB track key, the result will sound terrible! Drums like the timpani, most often used in symphony orchestras, are tuned to specific keys. But for the most part, GB drum tracks will go well with any instrument tuned to a specific key —
Blues With Garage Band Drum Tracks – Diatonic
PROS CROSS-HARPING THE BLUES: If you want to see how the pros cross-harp the blues, check out this old video featuring Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker–
They are playing the original Hohner Marine Band harmonica. It was invented by a German watchmaker in 1896, and it still remains a favorite model. By the way, if you want to visit Hohner’s website, go here–
Another excellent video on the Hohner website is of the young man, Konstantin Reinfeld, from Germany who plays everything imaginable on the simple “diatonic” model, which is the Marine Band or Blues Harp models which has no chromatic button to give him sharps and flats. He’s a fantastic player and talks about playing in several keys on just the one harmonica. He talks about “over blows” and “over draws.” This is a difficult technique because for many notes it requires a lot of wind. But by shaping the note with your mouth as you play a note, you can distort the reed to play higher or lower than blowing it straight. You heard me do this in Oh Susannah, where the pitch of the notes change when I play the line, “Oh Susannah.” Since the chord notes available for this part of the melody sound terrible, I do this to add character to those two single notes. This is called an “over draw,” because I’m pulling in rather than blowing out. It’s difficult to explain the technique, but you can hear me do it, so you know it can be done. A player with strong lungs can play this little harmonica like a chromatic model, where all the sharps and flats are there, even though they aren’t there when you play it normally. Watch this guy play! —
I would be remiss if I wouldn’t mention my hero, Bob Dylan! Bob introduced us all to the “harmonica holder,” that rack around the neck that holds the harp in place while you are playing another instrument, like the guitar, at the same time. It’s easy to use and with a bit of practice you will sound like a one-man (or woman) band. Bob is a good harmonica player for what he needs it for. But he’s a straight player. He doesn’t mess with the pitch much. But even though he’s not that accomplished when compared to those monster blues stars out there, it fits his type of music perfectly.
BEWARE OF FOOD PARTICLES! If you are thinking of playing the harmonica, beware of eating right before you play! The clearance between reed and valve and the metal grid they live in is extremely close. One tiny bit of food can instantly wreck your instrument. John, (my friend who demonstrates the chromatic harmonica in this article), has taken the cover off some of his harps and cleaned out food particles. It can be done. But I should mention that John is a careful craftsman with very steady hands. Don’t try fixing a harp yourself unless you know what you’re doing.
And there you have it! My lesson doesn’t go very deep, but I hope it gives you an overall view of what’s possible with this simple instrument. Playing the harmonica competently and cleanly won’t happen overnight, but with practice you will eventually amaze yourself! And your family! And your friends, too! Keep practicing! That little harp in your hand can be pure dynamite!