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The Secret to Playing Blues Harmonica
Almost everyone has owned a common 10 hole diatonic harmonica. Learning to play it can be very frustrating. The instructions that came with your harmonica attempt to show you how to play a few simple songs. If you are willing to spend enough time you may eventually learn to play them. The problem you encounter is that this does not sound like the harmonica you hear in the songs you listen to. Why? Let me point you in the right direction to learn to play harmonica like you hear in the songs you listen to.
To learn you must first know which key harmonica to choose!
Most recorded harmonica you hear is done in crossed (or second) position. Basically what this means is that the harmonica used is not in the same key as the song. Learning this is THE big step toward learning how to play blues harmonica. Many harmonica players spend years without knowing which harmonica to choose when they know what key the song is played. In second position the draw chord becomes the song key instead of the blow chord. See the following chart to select the correct harmonica for playing crossed harp (second position) in any song key. Note that the harmonica you want to use is 5 half tones above the key the song is being played in.
Now you may ask why you would want to do this. A 10 hole diatonic harmonica doesn't have all the notes you want to play. You can "make" other notes by bending (lowering the pitch) of some notes on a harmonica. It sounds terrific and is what you normally hear when a song includes a harmonica.
On the lower holes (holes 1 through 6 with 3 being easiest) you can fairly easily bend the draw notes. Therefore in second position you have draw notes available to "make" the missing notes you need. It works out! The higher pitched the harmonica the easier it is to bend and control the draw notes on the lower holes (G is the lowest pitch harp and F sharp is the highest..so with an F harmonica it is easy to learn to bend notes. You will be playing in C with an F harp).
Before you harmonica players start writing me... yes, you can bend blow notes too! It is much more difficult to learn and control though. Some blues players (Jimmy Reed for example - See sample below) do much the same sound as crossed harp by bending the blow notes on the top end of the harmonica playing straight harp (harp in the same key as the song). It is almost impossible to bend and control the blow notes on the bottom end of a harmonica. If you want to learn to bend the high blow notes, choose a harmonica in a low key (G or A for instance) and use holes 8, 9, and 10. If you try hard enough and long enough you will succeed. It took me years to master it.
How do I learn to bend notes?
I know of no way to teach you to bend notes. I do know that if you keep trying it will come. Technically the pitch is changed by altering the direction the air enters the hole and strikes the reed. It has nothing to do with pressure or how hard you blow. It is accomplished by changing the shape of the inside of you mouth and/or the location of your tongue. Learning to play the harmonica is very much like learning to talk. No one can teach you how to make the sounds but you learn by trial and error. After you become proficient at playing the harmonica, it is very much like singing. You think what you want to hear and it just comes out!
How do I learn to play single notes (one hole)
Just like learning to bend notes, this comes with practice and is impossible to teach. The secret is learning to control a small stream of air into the harmonica. Similiar laws of physics apply as to playing a flute. Don't worry. If you play long enough it will come! Just be patient and keep trying.
What kind of harmonicas should I buy?
Although several manufacturers make harmonicas, the standard is made by M. Hohner from Germany. Several styles are available including Marine Band, Blues Harp, and Golden Melody. I prefer the Golden Melody because it has better materials, lasts longer, and has a good tone/resonance. Also the insert is plastic instead of wood. Plastic seals well and does not swell when wet. A harmonica with a swollen wooden insert can be a painful experience to play.
What keys do I need to buy?
It is nice to own all 12 keys. When I was playing with the band, I usually carried A, C, D, F, and G onstage. This covers all the normal keys that bands usually use.
How do I take care of a harmonica?
Keep it clean. Avoid eating while playing. I clean them by soaking in warm water with denture tablets and rinsing under the tap. Harps with wooden combs (inserts) should be cleaned only when absolutely necessary (causes swelling of wooden combs - that's why I use Hohner Golden Melodies with plastic combs) or should be disassembled to soak only the reed plates (a lot of trouble). Many harp players "buy their harps a drink" while playing. A little ethyl alcohol (vodka?) and water keeps the harp sterile and wet for better sealing. A dirty harp is a culture dish for growing germs! If you carry your harps in your pocket be careful not to sit on them! The covers are very easy to bend and bent covers destroy the resonance.
What can I do if my harmonica gets out of tune?
Clean it. If it is still out of tune after cleaning I recommend buying a new one. Give the old one to a kid (after cleaning it again and sterilyzing it with alcohol). Repairs, although possible, seldom give good results.
How long will a harmonica last?
Generally a harmonica will last for years. It is according to how well you clean it and how hard you play it. All of them will eventually get out of tune from metal fatigue to the reeds. I have "blown out" many harmonicas in one night from extremely hard bending of the notes.
The easiest way to learn is to listen to (and play along with) recordings. Harmonics are tuned in standard tuning and can't be changed. The first problem you will encounter is that a recording doesn't play in standard tuning, and out-of-tune is not good! Perhaps the recording was not recorded in standard tuning (common on older recordings) or, more likely, your player doesn't run at standard speed. Turntables and cassette players (all analog players) are famous for not running at standard speed. Some expensive turntables have speed correction, so this can be corrected. Thankfully we now have digital recording, so CDs are usually best for practicing. With your computer you can even correct or change tuning on CDs! Hint: Play a recording at half speed to figure out those intricate licks!
Show up at the local jam session or fiddlers convention with harmonicas in your pocket ... The other musicians will seldom be tuned standard! If you want to play along be prepared to ask them to tune standard! You might want to invest in a guitar tuner to help them! I have always loved playing Bluegrass and Gospel music. It's rythm oriented and a harmonica adds sooooo much! Since accoustic instruments (especially guitars) usually sound brighter when tuned above standard, you will often find the band tuned 1/4 tone above standard!
At first you may have difficulty determining the song key. If you are playing with a band, simply ask the key. If you are playing along with a recording, you may use trial & error until you find the key. With a keyboard or guitar you can slide until you find the right key. At any rate this will come easily with a little practice. Just remember that the harmonica you want to use is 5 half tones above the song key!
Get out your harmonicas and go on to some practice licks (music is in tune).