There are two main types of harmonicas: the diatonic and the chromatic. The diatonic harmonica is the harmonica with ten holes. The most well known of these is the Blues Harp. (Harp is another name for harmonica). The chromatic harmonica has 12, 14, or 16 holes. The button on the side changes all the notes from major to half steps while playing, allowing you to play all the keys on this one harmonica. This is a much more difficult harp to play and is only recommended for very experienced players. For this crash course we will be focusing on the diatonic blues harmonica.
A diatonic harmonica is a single key. As a result, there are 12 different diatonic harmonicas you could acquire. I would recommend getting a C harmonica to begin with as most tutorials on the internet are played using C.
I purchased my beginner harmonica off of sweetwater.com. It was a Hohner Blues Band Harmonica in C and only cost $6. It works great for beginners and is not very expensive, so when a reed goes out it is no big deal.
Parts of a Harmonica:
I believe in knowing your instruments before you play them, so to help you know the harmonica a bit better, let's break it down.
REED PLATE: The reeds are what give you sound when you draw (inhale) or blow (exhale) into the harmonica. There is actually another reed plate on the other side of the comb (not pictured above). The top reed plate is used when blowing notes and the bottom reed plate is used when drawing notes. You will learn about blowing and drawing in the NOTES section below. Each reed has its own slot in the reed plate and is connected to one side. When you blow into the harmonica or draw out of the harmonica the reeds vibrate up and down in those slots incredibly fast. The sound comes from them chopping up the air as they pass through their slots.
When playing you want to make sure you are being gentle, as the reeds can bend and cease to work properly. When starting out, it is best to go with a cheaper harmonica so you are able to practice and get the hang of it without worrying about bending a reed.
COMB: This is the main body, or middle, of the harp. All the holes that you blow into are here as well.
Only being in one key, the "C" harmonica does not have the ability to play all the notes in the musical alphabet. The very basic notes are written below. Through the technique of bending you will be able to play more notes on a harmonica, but that is for a different tutorial. "Blow" means the same as exhaling. "Draw" means the same as inhaling.
When learning to play a song on the harmonica, most songs you will look up will be in tab form. Depending on where you go, they could look like either of these:
The more popular of the two is the second picture. This time it looks like they are using positive and negative numbers to tell the notes apart. The bottom of the picture gives a nice little cheat sheet to help you out. All "positive" numbers are blows and all "negative" numbers are draws. The numbers on each tell which hole you are blowing/drawing into.
As I mentioned earlier, there are 12 different diatonic harmonica keys. These follow the musical alphabet A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, Ab. It is always recommended to learn harmonica in the key of C because that is what most all tutorials will be taught in and C is the most widely know key. But what if you want to play with a band who isn't playing in the key of C? That is where you get into "positions".
1st Position (also called "straight harp"): This is when you play the same key as the band. Ex: They are playing in F so you pick up your F harmonica. A very easy way to know what key they are playing in is to ask. Also, typically the first and last bass note of the song is the key. 1st position is played in most folk-style playing (Think Bob Dylan).
2nd Position (also called "cross harp"): This is when you play 4 steps higher than the band. Ex: The band is in C, so you are playing in G. An easy way to find 2nd position is to count four steps up from the key you have (ignoring the flats (b) and sharps (#)). This position is most popular in blues, jazz, reggae, etc.
The harmonica is pretty simple when it comes to cleaning, but there are a few things you should do to get the longest life out of one.
- Always store your harmonica in a case. A hard case would be the best, but a leather bag that fits the harmonica snugly is good to protect it from dust. A hard harmonica case also protects your harmonica from minor impact.
- Avoid extreme temperatures and excess moisture. Especially if you have a wooden comb, moisture can cause the wood to swell and shrink and cause problems with your instrument. Even plastic combs can be affected by this.
- Keep debris and dust out of your harmonica. Make sure you don't have any food particles in your mouth before playing and avoid excess saliva. To help clear out the harmonica, tap it against your palm or thigh gently.
- Before playing the harmonica, it is ideal to get it to the same or similar temperature to your body. If it had been in a car that was cooler, hold it in your hand to warm it up before playing.
- When you get a new harmonica the reeds will be a little stiff from not being played yet. For the first few weeks, play gently to "break in" the reeds so you can get the life possible out of your instrument.
There is not a lot you need for harmonicas. The only must have item I would suggest getting with one is a decent case to keep it in. You can usually purchase one the same place you purchase the harmonica. Some even come with one.
If you are wanting to play the harmonica along with another instrument at the same time, a harmonica neck holder would be something to look into to free up your hands.
If you are still eager to learn more, here is an awesome site I found that gives all sorts of cool information on harmonicas! It has helped me out a lot and it covers some more advanced stuff that I didn't go over here. I also put a link to a website will all sorts of tabs for the harmonica! Happy playing!!