In this article, we are going to make a summary of the basic concepts (and not so basic) that you must take into account when you start playing the Harmonica, especially if you want to learn effectively and not get discouraged in the attempt.
The first thing you should do is ask yourself why you want to play the harmonica. It seems silly, but in reality, it is not because your attitude towards the subject is super important and that should be your starting point.
In short, it is about asking yourself what your objectives and goals are, challenging yourself, and fulfilling what you set out to do. One goal might be to learn a single song on the harmonica, another might be to become a pro on the instrument. It’s not about the goal being bigger or smaller, it’s about being able to accomplish it and rewarding yourself along the way.
The choice of harmonica is important. I do not recommend a cheap harmonica in any case, buy a mid-range one. For example, check out the Hohner Big River and it costs around $30 but you could also get a Blues Harp, Special 20, or Golden Melody. They are options of intermediate cost and good quality.
If you buy the cheapest harmonica, it is a guarantee that you will not learn, besides, we are talking about an instrument that costs less than $30, how much would a cheap mid-range guitar cost you? At least six or seven times more? Hence, don’t even think about it.
Always in C. The harmonicas are tuned in different keys but if you want to learn to play from scratch and take advantage of the vast majority (if not all) of paid or free material to learn to play, you must have a DIATONIC HARMONIC IN C. Later, if you like this instrument, you will have to buy more harmonicas, following the A, D, G until you have all 12 keys. But for now, harmonica in C.
You can hold the harmonica any way you like, but there are ways you can gain speed and technique. Normally we hold the harmonica in the left hand with the numbers facing up using our thumb and index finger as a clamp on the harmonica plates. Our heart or middle finger will be placed in the lower part of the harmonica to give stability to the hold. Try to get your index finger as far away from the harmonica cells as possible so that your upper lip has more surface to rest on.
The breath is what we are going to play our harmonica with since the harmonica is played by breathing. Try to sound cells 123 by inhaling gently, and taking a long, powerless breath. Your breath has to go towards the belly always, it’s the way you don’t drown. Now blow on those same cells. As a curiosity, you have to know that you just played a chord of G sucking and a chord of C blowing.
The amount of air you put in the harmonica is the key to making the harmonica sound good or bad. You have to keep in mind that in the lower part of the harmonica you have to put more air than in the upper part and the art to regulate it will only come to you after playing for many hours, you have to teach your body; It’s easy but you need patience.
The embouchure is what will make it possible for us to sound more than one cell at the same time or just one. To play isolated notes we just have to silence the harmonica as if we were pronouncing shhh. Playing familiar songs like Oh Susana or any simple melody will help us practice embouchure and breathing.
Rhythm is the main subject that will connect us with music because you can play the same notes of a melody but if you change the duration of the same it stops being that melody to be something that looks like that melody.
A good exercise to practice rhythm and breathing is to play the train with a metronome.
Breathing, Embouchure, and Rhythm are what we consider the three rules to play the harmonica well and I recommend that you never leave them aside.
But let’s go to effective things: how to pretend that you know how to play even if you have no idea? If you want to be the goofy fellow who whips out his harmonica and leaves people in awe, you don’t need much. I’m going to give you some tips that work 100%.
But let’s stop fooling ourselves, do you want to learn to play? If so, you should work very, very well on the diatonic scale on the harmonica. That’s the one you’ve known all your life but played on the harmonica:
Do (+4) Re (+4) Mi (+5) Fa (5) Sol (+6) A (6) Si (7) Do (+7)
Understand the numbers that appear next to the notes as the numbers of the cells that must be blown (if it has the + sign) or aspirated (if only the number appears). This numerical code is called harmonic table and it is NOT universal. So it is very likely that each source you consult is different, although it may be similar to this one.
Once you have this you will have to understand and memorize the distribution of notes in the harmonic of C, understand the concepts of tone and semitone, and from there launch yourself towards the next step: the bending.
Bending is the harmonica technique with which we can play notes that normally don’t sound, that is, can we play more than one different note in the same magic cell? This technique takes time to master, but it is the one with which we will enter the coolest world of this harmonica: the blues.
To understand the blues well we will have to understand the blues scheme of 12 BARS and work the blues scale, which is a minor pentatonic scale to which a note (blue note) has been added.
Once we have worked, we will be prepared to understand the questions about keys and positions, or what is the same, what harmonica to use for each song or what different keys can be played with the same harmonica.
After all this theory we should work on blues harmonic techniques such as the trill, double stop, vibrato, overblow, etc.
And as we continue to learn, there will be new challenges such as recording yourself playing, playing with more people, playing a song by ear, transcribing a song, playing other instruments, etc. But the objective of this article is that you see in a summarized way how to approach the study of the harmonica and what would be the first steps to follow.