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Harmonica Lessons (unfinished)

Introduction

Playing the harmonica is a great beginner instrument and a lot of fun! Since the notes are layed in such a way as to produce harmony, its one of the few instruments you can sound decent without knowing what you are doing. Just compare someone learning to play violin with someone learning the harmonica and I guarantee you'd rather sit in the room with the harmonica player.

Play in Harmony

Besides naturally being suited to playing harmony (adjacent holes produce a chord), changing keys is much easier than most instruments. With the harmonica, you can change keys by just picking up a different harmonica and playing the exact same notes (or more correctly, holes). Changing keys on other instrument can strike fear in your heart, not so with the harmonica. (Although a technique called playing positions is a bit more complicated, but we'll talk about that a bit later.)

Even though you might sound better picking up a harmonica over a violin, its still an instrument with a lot of depth, in spite of it being simple and small enough to stick in your shirt pocket. You can play for quite some time and still learn something new. You can play just about any style you like, with the harmonica (also known as a "Blues Harp") being widely used in Blues, Country, Folk, and Rock music to this day.

These pages will help you discover how to build your technique and enable you to play not only basic melodies, but also learn the techniques of professional harpers on the most popular harmonica sold today.

Most Popular Harmonica

The types of harmonica varies quite widely; however, the most popular harmonica type is the 10-hole diatonic harmonica. This inexpensive instrument can have you playing just about any kind of music you want to play, at a beginner level, or even a professional level. All the major harmonica manufacturers produce the 10-hole diatonic harmonica, and there are frankly an overwhelming number of models from which to choose.

Your First Harmonica

There are two harmonicas I recommend if you are just starting out. In the inexpensive category, the Suzuki Easy Rider is good quality for the price (about $6). In the moderate range, I recommend the Hohner Special 20 (about $17), this is a great harp that many professional use, there is not much reason to pay more except for personal taste. If you want a harp somewhere between the two, go with the Suzuki Folk Master (about $11). If you are planning to hit the harmonica really hard, you might want to start with the Easy Rider, and then "graduate" to the Special 20, after you've proven you are going to "stick with it," or when you think you might be ready to bend notes. Lee Oskar and Suzuki sell good quality harps for more money, but I don't recommend them until you first know your way around the harp. You likely won't know the difference until you are comfortable holding the harmonica, hitting clean single note melodies, and bending notes.

First Playing Goal

Single Notes

Your first goal in playing harmonica should be to play simple single note melodies. This is in spite of the fact that diatonics are more commonly used to complement music rather than to play melodies. However, you get a quicker reward by playing single note melodies, and afterwards it is even easier to move on to more advanced playing techniques. After playing single notes, you can learn how to bend, overblow, use a different blowing technique, and possibly get into playing valved harmonicas. The first step though in learning the harmonica is to hold the harmonica correctly, even though this seems like a mundane step, its a fundamental step as you progress through the various techniques.

Holding The Harmonica

Importance

Why not just skip this step? Well, if you don't hold the harmonica consistently, you won't know where the holes are, and if you don't know where the holes are, you aren't going to hit the right notes. So, its easier to learn this now. Now possibly you could look cross-eyed to see the numbers on the harmonica, but you'll look a little funny doing so. Its easier to hold the harmonica correctly and just get the feel for where the holes are. Also, holding the harmonica correctly (by cupping it), will help the sound quality of your playing.

Playing By Numbers

What are those numbers for? Well, basically they help tell you which way to hold the harmonica. As you've probably already guessed, simply arrange the harmonica so that you can read the numbers from left-to-right like you normally would. You really can't read them while you are playing, so they are of little other use.

The numbers help you play music in a special harmonica tablature format, where the numbers on the music correspond to the numbers on the holes. Unfortunately if you're like me, you don't read lips, and neither do your lips read the numbers over the holes. As a beginner you don't have the feel for which hole you are on. You can try putting your finger on the hole you are blowing, then pull the harmonica away from your lips so you can read it. Alternately, you can cover the notes to the left and right with your fingers and then you will know you will get a correct note to hear how it sounds.

Learn Quicker: Forget guessing the hole you are playing by using your fingers. Bendometer will let you simply see what hole you are playing. It uses a microphone to listen to your notes and show you what you are playing as you play. Download it here. It will definitely save you time learning the harmonica.

 

 

I've been told there are a couple of professionals or semi-professionals that actually hold the harmonica in the wrong direction (high notes to the left). Apparently, they weren't told how to hold the harmonica, but I can bet you they do hold the harmonica consistently, and cup it as well.

Cupping The Harmonica

Anyway, back to the harmonica holding. Place your left pointer finger, as far back on the top of the harp as is comfortable and place your thumb on the bottomside (directly underneath your pointer finger). Your harp should slide into that 'C'-shape formed by your fingers so that it is tight up against the "web" of your pointer finger / thumb "joint". The rest of your fingers on your left hand should form a cup behind the harmonica. The last step is to close that cup with your right hand. This can just be done in the best way that seems to cup the whole harmonica, so the back of the harmonica feels airtight within your hands. Don't worry getting the higher numbers getting cupped. They don't get played as much and by the time you do play them often, you will probably naturally figure out how to cup and get the sound out of them more properly.

Wah-Wah

The main point is to hold the harmonica consistently, so keep this hold as you learn to play. The second point is to cup the harmonica to get a good sound out of it. I wouldn't be too concerned if you don't feel like you have the cupping down immediately. Just play around with it as you practice, and you will probably have a "Eureka!" moment when you realize the cupping is giving you a nice "wah-wah" sound. It also helps to hear yourself play by sitting in a room with a lot of reverb (typically a bathroom without towels, or a hallway). The cupping effect will become more apparent.

Embouchure

After getting a good feel of the harmonica in your hand, the next thing is to get a good feel for the harmonica in your mouth by way of a French word. The French word you need to know is, "Embouchure." Embouchure means, "the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument." The harmonica is a wind instrument, and to get a good sound out of the instrument, your embouchure is important. Actually, so important, that you won't be able to play the blues on the harmonica without knowing how to use proper embouchure.

Two Styles (Pucker & Tongue Block)

There are three styles of playing the harmonica as far as embouchure is concerned. They are the Pucker, Tongue Block, and U-Block. The last one Ill only mention by name, since its not a very good technique, and in fact you may not be genetically able to do it. The other two methods (Pucker & Tongue Block) should be both learned at some point, but for the beginner the Pucker method is the one with which to begin.

Puckering

The pucker is pretty straight-forward, basically you pucker up your lips until the opening is just large enough to cover one hole on the harmonica and no more. Its probably what you would have done if you weren't told what to do. You can just think about the opening you would make to whistle, it needs to be pretty small. You will probably find it a bit more challenging than you might expect in getting a clean single note. Your lips are getting stretched on the harmonica while you play , which causes them to tire quicker(and even get a little sore in the process). You will initially just want to practice long enough until they get tired, but keep this up at least on a daily basis, until your lips can pucker longer than you care to play. You can help get clean notes by using your free fingers to keep your lips squeezed properly. This will let you "squeeze" out a few more minutes of play time.

Also, you might find it a little more easy on your lips if you tilt the harmonica up (the way I prefer) or down. This will allow you to get a tighter seal on the hole you are trying to play. As you get better at the pucker method, you want to move the harmonica into your mouth as much as possible as it will give you a richer, warmer tone.

Check your progress: Bendometer will let you see how you are doing with your puckering technique by showing you which note is being played. If you don't see the note you intend to play "light up" then you need a bit more work. You can download it here. .Soon it will show if you are playing multiple notes (not a clean single note).

 

 

Breathing

The key element in breathing is to think about blowing air through the harmonica, and not just into it. Likewise when drawing (sucking), think about sucking the air from the outside of harmonica through the harmonica and down to your lungs. This will help you give you a better sound when you are playing.

When you first begin to play, you will get out of breath (unless you are used to playing a woodwind). Just like puckering, the breathing will tend to come to you naturally as you practice. The way this probably will (and should) develop is by breathing using your diaphram...

 

Please watch this space for more lessons

 


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