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Beginners' Guide To Playing The Harmonica

play-harmonica

The Harmonica

What image comes to mind when you think of the harmonica?  Maybe you picture a scene from an old movie with a hobo or convict slumped against a wall playing a sad, lonely tune or you see a blues musician on stage giving it all he's got to produce the most incredible riffs.  Either way, you're hooked on the sound.

The harmonica (aka harp) is a simple instrument capable of producing a wide variety of sounds and it fits in your pocket so you can take it anywhere.

The good news is that it's fairly easy to pick up a harp and start playing.  Harps are inexpensive, easy to find, and (best for me) you don't need to know how to read music or have any musical experience.

This guide contains some of the tips and web resources that I'm using while learning to play the harmonica.

Getting Started - Links for harmonica beginners

These are the best free introductions to playing the harmonica that I have found on the web. They provide good overviews on basics such as how to hold the harp, play single notes and breathe while playing.

How to Bend Notes - and get that Blues sound.

Bending notes is a technique to change the pitch of a note as you are playing. This allows you to play notes that aren't on the harp and is used heavily when playing blues.

Draw bends can be done on holes 1 through 6 and blow bends are used on holes 8 through 10.

Learning to bend notes requires practice and knowing how to play a single note cleanly. Here are some good sites that explain the various bending techniques.

  • How To Bend Notes
    A good description of how to draw bend and blow bend notes. Includes animated diagrams and audio clips so you can hear how it should sound.
  • Bending Tips
    Tips on how to improve your breathing and bend notes.
  • Wilbur's Intermediate Harmonica
    Instructions for doing draw bends along with audio clips.

Harmonica Guides - Lesson Books for Beginners

Beginning Harmonicas

Many harp players recommend starting with a 10 hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C. They sound good playing most songs and can be played "cross harp" to produce notes in other keys. My first harmonica was the classic Hohner Marine Band in C.

Free Harp Tab Websites - Learn to play your favorite songs.

Instead of telling you the note to play like a regular music sheet, a tablature (tab) tells you the hole to play and whether you should draw or blow.

  • Jim's Giant Harmonica Songbook
    A huge listing of free harp tabs including Happy Birthday To You which I wanted to learn for my toddler's 2nd birthday and didn't find anywhere else.
  • Harmonica Country Practice Songs
    A listing of over 100 free harp tabs covering hymns, country, folk and other well known songs. Everything from America The Beautiful to Rawhide.
  • Dave Gage's Harmonica Songs & Tabs
    A few free harp tabs listed by difficulty level. Includes riff tabs for songs like Low Rider and Devo's Whip It.
  • Harptabs.com
    This site has harp tabs for over 3000 songs. You can also request songs to be tabbed. First site I've seen that has a tab for the theme to Star Wars.

Take A Harmonica Lesson

Having someone show you different playing techniques or tell you if you're playing a note properly can help improve your skills. If you don't know someone who plays the harmonica to ask for help then check into lessons.

Most music stores offer lessons or can provide you the name of an instructor. Also check if your local government or community center offers classes.

I took a short course through my county's adult education program to kick start my playing. It was very helpful and the highlight was when our instructor brought in his amp and microphone so we could try playing amplified harp.

Just remember that all the lessons in the world won't improve your playing unless you practice, practice, practice. If you can't find an instructor then try this lesson CD by the late blues harp great Gary Primich.

Online Harmonica Lessons

A sampling of my favorites from the many good harp lesson videos on YouTube to get you started.

A Cool Little Harmonica Amp

This is the amp I play harp on. It produces a really good sound for such a small size and low price. It runs on batteries so you can take it with you or get the optional AC adapter.

Some Harmonica Fun - From old school to new...

Here are a few videos I selected to show you what's possible with the harmonica and, hopefully, provide some inspiration to start learning how to play this fun instrument. Enjoy!

Comments

Was this guide helpful to you? How did you learn to play the harmonica?

Please leave a comment below in the guest book.

Hot Riffs

TurtleDog on August 14, 2019:

Great instrument! A serious one too. Powerful

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 12, 2014:

What image comes to mind when I think of the harmonica? Stevie Wonder! When I started reading this article it sent me immediately to my Motown collection to listen again to Stevie's harmonica solos on "Finger Tips, Part 2" and especially, "For Once In My Life." Since both those songs were big hits, Stevie Wonder has to be the most widely heard harmonica player in the world. For me, "For Once In My Life" is a revelation of what the instrument can do.

Amine from Doha, Qatar on July 07, 2014:

i really like the sound of this amazing instrument

sweetmou25 on May 20, 2014:

It is very easy & useful for kids

stoddarda on May 17, 2014:

I use to play these bad boys as a baby! It's nice to get a bit more of a professional look and feel of it again.

williamslaw on May 07, 2014:

I remember playing the harmonica just like a wild child. No note, no particular tone... just how I wished to play!

astevn816 lm on April 29, 2014:

I admire anyone how invests the time to learn any instrument. The harmonica is one of the most versatile instruments and is very small and portable

joe-mc-1426 on March 05, 2014:

Nice. I love that sound. Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite. I can even put up with Stevie Wonder when he plays the harp. Thanks for the lens.

Harmonnia on February 14, 2014:

I was given harmonica and have to start learning! Thanks for suggestions :)

hosibinh on February 11, 2014:

I love harmonica, it is a part of my life

caossquidoo on January 24, 2014:

It is a very cool instrument. Although I find it quite hard to play. I guess I am not that coordinated! Should use some of these tips to practice :)

ReloadedRedPIll on January 21, 2014:

I laughed in a meeting to the Harmonica Madness

Sounds like a soundtrack from Tom & Jerry.

kehsiberry on December 11, 2013:

thanks for the lens, I tried playing a harmonica once but i was not good at it.lol

pjsart on November 14, 2013:

I have always wanted to learn how to do more than blow on this little thing...lol, thanks for the references

Marinna on November 07, 2013:

I am trying to learn to play harmonica. Thank you for the recommended books. It would be helpful

McDreamer on October 11, 2013:

Next to the major diatonics and chromatics I see here, there are also natural minor, harmonic minor, and extral low/high tuned harmonicas, as well as zillions of other tinings like spiral, diminished and more...I'm soon awaiting a double low F harmonica! :)

tech-hunter on October 10, 2013:

Interesting, there are so many things about the harmonicas that I didn't know.

pcblogger lm on September 29, 2013:

Great lens.. I really want to learn harmonica online..

AfroGorgonzola on September 03, 2013:

I really think I might start playing the harmonica myself now. Good lens!

cwilson360 on August 16, 2013:

Great lens. I want to play more harmonica

hspro71 on August 15, 2013:

My father bought me one, aged 10 yrs old and it sure was a rage with me till my late teens :)

Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on July 24, 2013:

Who knew harmonicas could be such fun?? I enjoyed this lens, Mac33.

socialcx1 on July 02, 2013:

I have had a harmonica for years but as soon as I start playing I am asked if I can do it elsewhere.

johnonsquidoo on June 20, 2013:

As much as I love picking up a harmonica when my mates are playing the guitar, I must confess that I rarely know what I'm doing. This is a superb resource with so much useful information, great lens!

nana2013 on June 15, 2013:

What an informative lens about harmonicas! So many to choose from - thanks for the great lens.

Joy2013 LM on June 04, 2013:

Thanks for my first harmonica lesson. Great lens.

LaptopLeader on May 31, 2013:

I enjoy playing the harmonica, and I enjoy this lens. Thanks for sharing!

ayla5253 on May 03, 2013:

Love harmonica , love the blues. It's relaxing to listen to. Enjoyed this lens.

HarryNguyen07 on May 03, 2013:

I love Harmonica. I am a newbie. This is useful information for me. Thanks

pbrandon65 on April 09, 2013:

Tried to learn on my own a few years ago without success, but I might have another go, great lens

anonymous on April 01, 2013:

I learned on my own. The harmonica amp would be fun!

JimmPlus on March 31, 2013:

I always have a liking for harmonica since young. I like some of those you featured here. Great find. May buy one.

CristianStan on March 26, 2013:

Wow... I didn't think playing the harmonica was like this... I've actually tried to learn on my own several times and failed

RetireAt57 on March 24, 2013:

thanks for sharing. interesting. i only had kiddie harmonicas.

pillarcandles on March 20, 2013:

My grandfather had two harmonicas which he played and we used to have lovely musical evenings. - before the TV!

Smurfs LM on March 18, 2013:

I was never much of a musician, but surely, harmonica produces some wonderful sounds! :)

Fcuk Hub on March 12, 2013:

Beautiful sound has harmonica. Perhaps I will start to learn too :)

anonymous on March 02, 2013:

Excellent guide! Thank you very much for sharing

MacPharlain (author) on February 21, 2013:

@kerilovesadeal: I heard that tune a lot while growing up and watching cartoons. The harmonicas in that video are crazy.

kerilovesadeal on February 20, 2013:

The harmonica video was awesome! Thanks for sharing. :) I was thinking Tom & Jerry, Warner Bros. and cartoons in general all the way. That tune was so familiar. LOL. Wow, didn't think of it as being a harmonica song before. Not sure what I thought it was. :D

wulfguard on February 14, 2013:

Big fan of the harmonica sound and recently purchased one, brilliant lens!

PaigSr from State of Confusion on February 14, 2013:

I remember growing up with a harmonica. Yes I still have it. Yes I will try to play it once in a while. Not always well I admit.

Gregory Moore from Louisville, KY on January 24, 2013:

You were my 900th Squidlike! My dad used to play the harmonica when we were little. Brings back good memories.

cleanyoucar on January 17, 2013:

Great lens! That was one of my childhood dreams... playing the harmonica

DJ-TBone on January 15, 2013:

Man the harmonica is so cool. It's a shame that you don't hear it more in today's music, which is surprising because it can work so well over almost any type of music, even things like rap and hip hop which I have heard it layered over a few times and always thought that there should be WAY MORE harmonica in modern music. nice lens man :)

Tom on January 01, 2013:

Awesome lens, I'd love to play the harmonica.

Robz007 on December 29, 2012:

I would love to be able to play the harmonica

McDreamer on December 25, 2012:

I just picked up a harmonica and just started to play, improvised...just like that. Now I have a stack of them (mostly Seydel's) here, low major tunings and minors I seem to like the most...Enjoy! :)

rdcbizz on December 23, 2012:

Love the harmonica

Motionmaker on December 18, 2012:

Great article. Maybe I'll even attempt to learn how to use that harmonica gift I've had for 20+ years!

nathanrconner on December 18, 2012:

I've had a harmonica since I was a child. This was a really helpful post! I am going to be busy learning today.

bensen32 lm on December 16, 2012:

I have always wanted to learn just never did it but I bought one last week, now lets see if I can learn. Thanks for the info

Pat Goltz on December 16, 2012:

There are a few classical concertos for harmonica. I absolutely adore them! More composers need to compose lyrical concertos for harmonica and orchestra.

Margot_C on December 12, 2012:

I have a harmonica and would love to learn to play it some day. Will mark this lens for future reference. Thanks!

libertyloudspeak on December 05, 2012:

Brought back memories of my father playing the harmonica...trip down my childhood memory lane! Proof in the power of music. Loved it and SquidLiked it!

FearfulRose on November 28, 2012:

I'v e always wanted to learn the harmonica; I'm a big fan of the blues you see, I'm going to feature this on one of my lenses!

RetroMom on November 18, 2012:

I really want to learn how to play a harmonica. Thanks for sharing those helpful tips and for the videos as well!

JoshK47 on November 05, 2012:

Very nicely presented lens! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

rooshoo on November 01, 2012:

I just love the sound of the harmonica in folk music, those early Dylan albums--lovely. I've always wanted to learn to play the harmonica, but for some reason have never picked one up. This lens gives me some inspiration. I love those Danelectro Honeytone amps too, very cute. Thanks for the great lens.

jimmyboy88 on October 15, 2012:

i played one of these while i was young but was not able to master it. nice lens

anonymous on October 10, 2012:

inspiring....maybe i'll look for my harmonica:}

anonymous on October 09, 2012:

i have played harmonica after reading this lens and i had nice experience thanks for sharing

anonymous on September 29, 2012:

I've always wanted to play the harmonica. Thanks for this lens!!

JosephLaue on September 11, 2012:

Time to finally start learnin' this harmonica thing... let's do this!

DJ-TBone on September 04, 2012:

really nice article, 2 big thumbs up. harmonica is classssiccc

AlysonMarcellino on September 02, 2012:

I've always wanted to be able to play the harmonica! Hopefully this lens will help me get there ;)

guitar for dumm on August 27, 2012:

Hey nice lens! I did something similar with acoustic guitar, feel free to check it out, maybe we can shre some design tips :)

anonymous on August 15, 2012:

This is a great lens. I played with a band way back when that had a harmonica player. He made me think, "wow, I didn't know you could do that with a harmonica!" I was impressed and the experience gave me a new found respect for the harmonica. I am a piano player so I am jealous of the fact that harmonica players don't have to drag around 100 pounds for their instrument! :)

itravel2004 lm on August 02, 2012:

thanks for the lesson

anonymous on July 24, 2012:

My grandfather played the harmonic as did my father. As a boy I started and still play now and then. My son plays about any instrument but he at times plays the harmonica with his band. They just play for the fun of it. He is a vet. Thanks for this nice lens. Maybe I'll get one of my harmonicas and play a tune. My wife has ALZ and she likes me to play for her. John T. Jones, Ph.D. Buhl, ID

dellgirl on July 19, 2012:

This is a great lens, you have shared lots of good information on learning to play the harmonica. Congratulations on getting the Purple Star.

craig57 lm on July 05, 2012:

Thanks for the information. I will give the harmonica a try!

GabStar on June 28, 2012:

I'll give it a go!

robertzimmerman2 on June 13, 2012:

Don't forget Toots Thielemans!

JohnGcorner on June 09, 2012:

Thx for this, I have an old harmonica sitting around my table but I never thought about playing it up until now.

markadamdouglass on June 06, 2012:

Wow. I did not know you could get little harmonica amps. So cool!

Reginald Reid on June 05, 2012:

I've never owned a harmonica, but I love to hear Stevie Wonder's ,in "That's What Friends Are For."

anonymous on June 05, 2012:

this lens got great info.i'll try i always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument.

oakstreet on June 04, 2012:

This len reminds me of the good old day in my high school. The first musical instrument I learned in my high school age was harmonica and it was fun. Great len and a "like" from me.

nicks44 on May 31, 2012:

I should start playing you know ... Thanks a lot for the tips! Very useful indeed!

getwellsoon on May 29, 2012:

I have always loved the harmonica!

BodyLanguageExp on May 24, 2012:

Id love to learn :-)

tobydavis on May 22, 2012:

Always wanted to learn the harmonica - fantastic introduction to it - love it!

pickuniversity on May 14, 2012:

Good to learn!

domjohnson lm on May 13, 2012:

Great, I've had a harmonica sitting in a drawer in my bedroom for years that I've never even taken out of it's box. Your lense made me want to go and get it out and have a go :)

MargaretJeffreys on April 30, 2012:

Very helpful! I may have to give it a try

SellClean on April 29, 2012:

I love playing my harmonica! Thanks for the great lens.

JoyfulReviewer on April 27, 2012:

Nice tips, videos and resources to get us started. Now where did I put my harmonica? ~~Blessed~~

peggygallyot on April 25, 2012:

Tried to play as a child. Not so good.

Little Linda Pinda from Florida on April 24, 2012:

I loved it when my friend played the guitar and harmonica at the same time and then sang, not while playing the harmonica, of course, smile. Thanks for the nice lens.

Whitwillow LM on April 21, 2012:

Inspired me to try again to learn harmonica after giving up in frustration.

chris-woods on April 13, 2012:

Great lense. The harmonica is just one of those instruments that is so cool to play!

spelaspela on April 11, 2012:

Wonderful lens,I always wanted to learn.)

Mark Spivey from Australia on March 10, 2012:

A nice harmonica lens (and one of my favorite instruments) . Keep up the great work.

PoeticChristian on March 04, 2012:

Very interesting and my hubby loved this lens, blessings

vdanker on March 01, 2012:

My favorite uncle always carried a harmonica with him; I can still hear him, even though he has been gone for fifteen years.

MGuberti on February 28, 2012:

This lens was very helpful! Excellent job

Samuel Franklin on February 28, 2012:

Wonderful guide and resources.

kevingomes13 lm on February 27, 2012:

I've always played for fun but you had some good tips on getting better.

goo2eyes lm on February 26, 2012:

as a child, i had a plastic harmonica just for playing. this brings lots of memories. blessings for this lens.