How to Play the Harmonica Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Play the Harmonica

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A primer on the 'Mississippi saxophone'

So you want to play the blues?

Well, you could spend bushels of cash on a guitar and years of lessons before locking yourself in the woodshed with your six-string and a medicine bottle slide and practicing until you sound like Elmore James, but you'll probably end up going broke and wearing your fingers down to mid-wrist first.

Or you could spend the price of a crate of beer on a few cleverly arranged bits of wood and metal from Germany, follow these few simple tips and become your neighbourhood's incarnation of Elwood Blues1.

First you Need a Harp

Buy a diatonic (or 'blues') ten-hole harmonica. Hohner is the gorilla of the harmonica industry and most professionals use their products, though Lee Oscar also makes a pretty good harp. Hohner's Blues Harps and Marine Bands are the most common favourites and very good results can be had with Pro Harps2 and Special 20s as well. All of them will cost you about £20 ($30 US), but for the beginner, or the not-sure, a £3 ($5 US) Pocket Pal will suffice.

Check the letter stamped on the end. This is the key that the harmonica is tuned in. Get a C or A harmonica to start - don't get some obscure fancy key like B-flat or E Minor because you won't use it much.

Whatever you do, don't buy one of those great big, fat, expensive, silver, brick-sized things with valves and tiers of holes. That's a chromatic harmonica and you could hurt yourself (or at least someone else's ears) with one. You need to learn to stand up and walk before you can start doing Olympic-level gymnastics.

Q: How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
A: Practice, practice, practice.

Now for the boring bit: learning and practising playing technique. As in certain other contexts, the word 'blow' is just a figure of speech. Bluntly put, harmonica players suck, though instead of 'suck', most prefer to say 'draw' in order to avoid stupid jokes.

Take the harp between thumb and forefinger with the numbers up and the holes toward you, put your lips on it and blow. Now suck. Now blow. Now suck. Sounds like two accordions having sex right? Try blowing and drawing through only one hole. Not so easy right? Pucker up like you would to kiss your old aunt Ethel3. Now relax your lips a bit, open your jaws a little and try again. Practise until you can reliably hit single notes. As icky as it may sound at first, you can use the tip of your tongue to count holes. Practise blowing and drawing on the third hole and then shifting up to the fourth hole.

Don't be discouraged by the fact that, just as someone learning the violin would sound like someone killing a cat with a power saw, it sounds dreadful at first. The advantage to learning the blues harp over the violin is that the dying-cat stage should only last a matter of weeks, not years. Practice as often as you can until you can comfortably hit single notes and shift from one hole to the next.

As what you are doing is learning a single thing well, as opposed to being competent at many different things, frequency of practice will help more than duration. Try honking your harp three or four times a day for ten or 15 minutes, instead of inflicting a solid hour upon yourself of trying to play just three or four notes.

Practising harp is a lot easier than practising piano. You can keep a harp in the car and practise at red lights4 - that just can't be done with a Steinway.

Music Is just a Bunch of Notes

Now you need to learn a bit of theory to make music instead of noise. This may sound complicated at first, but if you can knock 'shave and a haircut' and count to five without using your fingers you should be all right5.

There are several styles, sometimes referred to as 'modes' or 'positions', of harp playing and the style you play will govern your choice of key to play in. The two most common styles are straight- and cross-harp.

Straight-harp, in which the key of the harp matches the key of the song (ie, if the song is in C, you play a C harp) and the harp player plays the melody, is most common in folk and country music and usually requires that you know the melody of the song, learn which notes are which and all that other musician stuff (you might as well just learn to play guitar). It has its place in blues, but you can work your way up to it.

Cross-harp is the core of most blues playing and involves playing a harp that is the fourth note (the Subdominant6, if you want to be posh) from the key the song is in. Therefore a song in A requires a D harp, a song in B requires an E harp, a song in G means you need a C harp and so on.

The standard 12-bar blues or rock progression follows a I, IV, V7 pattern. The 'I' is the key of the song, the note of resolution on which the progression starts and ends. The V, or fifth, is the note that creates all the musical tension. The IV, or fourth, is the stepping stone that joins the two. For a song in the key of E:

  • I (First, Tonic) = E
  • IV (Fourth, Subdominant) = A
  • V (Fifth, Dominant) = B

Try this simple theory experiment for non-musicians. Knock 'shave and a haircut' (dah dah dah-dah dah, dah dah) - it's seven beats, right? Now try just knocking the first five or six beats. Does it feel like your brain will explode unless you 'finish' with the seventh knock? You have just created musical tension. Go ahead and knock that seventh beat and you've just resolved the tension.

If you can find that note of resolution on the harmonica, the equivalent of the start and finish of 'shave and a haircut', you can sit in and play in key.

Professional Harp Players' Secret Number 1: It's the note you get if you blow in the '3' hole or suck air through the '2' hole.

If you can find on your harmonica the note that creates all the musical tension, the equivalent of the fifth beat in 'shave and a haircut', you can solo.

Professional Harp Players' Secret Number 2: It's the note you get if you suck air through the '4' hole.

If you can manage to hit that stepping-stone note, the IV (Fourth), to link the other two, you will soon be ready to get your mojo working.

Professional Harp Players' Secret Number 3: Blow in the '4' hole, draw through the '3' hole; both of those are stepping-stone type notes.

A Quick Summary:

  • Notes that create tension: draw 4, draw 1, draw 6.
  • Notes that resolve tension: draw 2, blow 3 or blow 6.
  • 'Stepping-stone' notes: draw 3, blow 4, draw 5, blow 5, blow 1, blow 2.
  • To play a simple octave scale: blow 4, draw 4, blow 5, draw 5, blow 6, draw 6, draw 7, blow 7.

NB 'Draw 2' and 'blow 3' are the same note and the switch from draw notes being higher to blow notes being higher after the sixth hole

The Riff Stuff

Time to apply the theory to the technique and vice versa. Don't go blabbing it around but there is a secret to being a jam session star: to play the blues on a harp, you do not need to learn a single song. What you need to learn are riffs.

Riffs are musical phrases that are used to accentuate a song. String a few together and you have a solo. The theory of a riff is simple: you create and relieve musical tension. Just as you use words to make a phrase or a line of lyrics for a song, and string phrases to make a sentence or lines to make a verse, you use notes to make a riff and riffs to build a solo.

The simplest riffs go up (to create tension) or down (to resolve tension) and can be used to accent the end of a line of a song. Try drawing on the fourth hole and then blowing in the third hole for a simple down riff and reversing it for an up riff.

You create longer riffs by using stepping stone notes to connect notes that create tension with notes that resolve tension. If you want to use a longer riff try this:

Blowing 3, draw 3, blow 4 then a long draw on 4. Now reverse the order, stretching out the blow 3 or better yet, replacing it with a long draw on 2 (the same note, but draws sound better because you can bend them much more easily).

The simplest riff of all is a single bent note of tension or resolution, which of course begs the question 'what the @$%*#! is a bent note?'

In 'musicianese' a bent note is a note in which the pitch is shifted to become sharper (higher) or flatter (lower), the most common being a flattened fifth - a patented8, registered trademark of the blues.

Bending Steel With Your Bare Tongue

Bending notes on a harp is an essential skill and one that is very difficult to explain. Normally when you play a draw note the air you suck in is flowing along the roof of your mouth. To bend the note, you change the airflow by moving your tongue as if pronouncing the letter L and opening your jaw a little wider so that the air flows along the tongue, and hits lower on the back of your throat. Try experimenting with long draws on Hole 4 until you can get your harmonica to say 'Wow'.

Another cool, sort of percussive effect can be produced by tapping the tip of your tongue against the back of your top teeth on longer blow notes.

After much practice, you'll be ready to try trills, produced by moving the harp quickly back and forth while playing a draw note so that you alternate between, for example, draw 4 and draw 5. Try doing it slowly at first to get the hand movement just right.

Using your hands is also an essential skill, especially when playing without a microphone. Take the harp between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand as before. Now put your right hand up against it so the heels and fingertips are touching. Opening and closing your hands gives you a nice homemade (or possibly handmade) wah-wah effect.

Practice does not make perfect, but it does help. Once you can play a few simple riffs and bend the occasional draw 4, you're ready to take the plunge, amaze your friends, confound your enemies and meet attractive members of the gender of your preference...

Playing in the Band

Playing the blues harp is like sex - it is possible to do it alone, but its a lot more fun to do it with other people. Go out and find yourself a guitar player (try the seedier bars and the unemployment office if there aren't any hanging around the music shop), and ask them to play a simple blues progression for you. For example:


Each letter represents four beats or one bar, hence the term twelve-bar blues. Get this on a tape loop and you'll be able to practice until your lips bleed. Try throwing in short riffs at the end of a bar or the end of a line, Try singing a blues verse and then trying to play the same melody. Try echoing the last few notes at the end of the line as someone else sings. These are the most natural ways to come up with riffs of your own.

Active Listening

The best way to learn riffs and everything else is the same way art school teach people to paint - study The Masters. Listen to all the blues you can lay your hands on, but especially listen to the great harp players. And not just the tunes where they strut their stuff, but also the ones where they are strictly playing background along with the rhythm section.

Take note of when the harp player plays and, more importantly, when he doesn't play. Listen to the phrasing and the way riffs go up and then back down. You might be surprised at how simple some of the best-sounding ones are.

Get your favourite solos on tape9 so you can play them over and over again and try to break them down into separate shorter riffs you can play. If you have access to vinyl records and a turntable, try playing a few select cuts at half-speed to make it easier to break them down to individual notes. Be warned that many of the top players switch back and forth between diatonic and chromatic harmonicas so some of your favorite pieces may not be playable on the humble ten-hole blues harp.

Players of Note

Obviously you should listen to your favourite players but if you are a true beginner and your favourite player is Elwood Blues (a totally adequate player from whom much can be learned, don't get me wrong) or 'that guy in that band from Chicago, the one with the good guitar player' then this quick guide to who's who in harp may give you some ideas:

The Old Masters - Guys like Sonny Boy Williamson I, Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller), Big Walter Horton and especially Sonny Terry didn't come up using microphones and playing swanky clubs and theatres; they learned it all the hard way, scuffling in juke joints and street corners during the depression.

The Muddy Waters Academy - Muddy didn't work with no10 clumsy wannabes. The first great harp player in his band was the legendary Little Walter Jacobs, the man who invented electricity (he was the first guy to run his harp mic through a guitar amp and effects instead of through the main sound system like a vocalist). The great tones and smoking instrumentals Little Walter came up with established the blues harp as a solo instrument strong enough to stand on its own, not just something for a singer to play when he ran out of words. Greater players than ourselves are still awestruck and wonder how he got some of those meaty tones.

Muddy didn't exactly take a step down when Little Walter left the band - the harp position in the band was filled by other greats in their turn such as James Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton.

Can White Men Play the Blues? - Ask two other harp maestros from Chicago's second generation of bluesmen who came up in the 1960s: the late great Paul Butterfield and, one of today's reigning kings, Charlie Musslewhite.

Fingers Too Cold to Play Guitar? - You don't have to have picked cotton; shovelling snow can also give you the blues. Just ask Minnesota-based folk and blues scholar Tony 'Little Sun' Glover, who is as good a teacher as he is a player. Or one of the greatest players to ever come out of the north, Canada's Richard 'King Biscuit Boy' Newell, from the steeltown of Hamilton, Ontario.

Only two things come from Texas - Sleazy politicians and some damn fine bluesmen. While most of his fellow Texan bluesmen feel the need to strut their stuff with more phallic guitars, Austin's Lazy Lester blew some mean harp.

Latter-day Saints - The third and fourth generations of bluesmen have taken the harp to new heights with virtuoso riffs and mind-boggling speed from Sugar Blue and Rick Estrin (of Little Charlie and the Nitecats), Norton Buffalo and rock player John Popper of Blues Traveller.

Where do I Plug in?

If you are going to play with a band, whether it's in front of a paying audience, at a local open-mic night or just sitting in with your cousin's garage band, you'll need to use a microphone.

There are two things to remember when it comes to microphones. The first thing is never, never, never ever point the mic at the speaker which it is feeding sound to. It will cause feedback and someone could get hurt, namely you if the soundman gets hold of you.

The third thing is that you get what you pay for in a mic - exponentially. The difference between a £20 and a £120 in terms of the quality of sound produced is far more than £100, so don't be cheap. Remember, Elwood Blues once traded a Cadillac for a mic.

If you are playing country, bluegrass, folk or even some acoustic blues you'll need to use your hands to mute the harp and get vibrato (that wah-wah-wah sound) so leave the mic in the stand and get good and close. Have the soundman turn up the bass a little and turn down the mid-range. You'll probably want a nice bright clear sound so go easy on the echo and stuff.

If you are into electric blues, take the mic out of the stand and hold the harp right against it while holding the mic with the last three fingers of your left hand and the heel and edge of your right hand. If possible plug the mic into a guitar amp and then have the sound man treat it the same as a guitar11. Depending on your stage set-up and situation you may want to mic the amp and run it through your sound board or just crank it up and compete with the guitarists head-to-head on volume.

Be warned: if you turn the volume up too high you will get feedback. Don't try to use the same mic to sing through either, it won't sound right. Crank up the bass and don't be afraid of a little distortion or echo. In fact, you might even want to go the whole hog and invest in some guitar effects pedals if you really get serious. A volume pedal can come in very handy if you want to turn it up to 11 for a solo and then pull back from the brink to back up the singer.

If you have to play through the PA, be sure to do a sound check so that you can pick up the mic and get close without causing feedback but still have enough volume to be heard along with the rest of the band.

Most Important Thing to Remember

Listen lots, practice more and then get off your seat and jam! Carpe a little diem and do it now! Stock the fridge with beer, order some pizza and call all your musician friends to come over and annoy your neighbours. Few blues musicians can afford to turn down a free meal and even drummers aren't dumb enough to look a gift beer anywhere but the mouth. Remember what you have learned here and especially what you have taught yourself during all those long hours of practice. Don't worry if you don't sound like James Cotton; just remember he doesn't sound like you either. Get out there and shake your money maker, dust your broom, pitch that wang dang doodle and generally bluesify the world around you.

Further Reading

Obviously in this day and age, the Internet is a great source of information on almost anything and that includes harp. Try these websites as a jumping off point for lessons, tips, legends, and places to buy harps and gear:

1Aka Dan Ackroyd, who learnt to play the harmonica especially for the stage-act and film The Blues Brothers.2As you will gather, the word harmonica has a few too many syllables for most musicians, and they find the word 'harp' a bit easier to pronounce.3The one with the moustache.4The author and h2g2 take no responsibility for traffic accidents or road rage caused by harmonica players.5If you can't count to five without using your fingers, consider becoming a drummer or vocalist.6Do not use this term when speaking to guitarists. They will look at you as if you are from another planet.7'First, Fourth, Fifth', or 'Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant' for the posh people.8Well, not actually patented. As far as is known, it is not possible to patent musical genres.9Or preferred recordable media.10Essential knowledge for aspiring blues players: your grammar should under no circumstances be perfect.11Caution - Start at very low levels of amplification, or you are liable to cause some shocking damage and severely annoy the guitarist.

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