CHOOSING A HARMONICA
If you want to learn how to play the harmonica, the first thing you need to do get yourself a harmonica. You can´t just borrow one from one of your buddies or your teacher. Playing someone else´s harmonica is pretty gross since you blow and suck air through the instrument and that means spit and even tiny skin flakes…(eeewww). So before you start playing your first notes, you´ve got some shopping to do. Luckily harmonicas are not that expensive with a price range from around 24 to 45 dollars.
Your first blues harmonica will probably be in the key of C, mainly because this is the most common harmonica you can find and there´s one in just about any music shop. You can (and probably will) buy harmonicas in other keys, but for now you can start with C. However, many guitar players like to play the blues in E or A (because…well… it´s easier), so you might consider having an A or D harmonica as well. Did that sound confusing? Don´t worry, things will become clearer as I explain further.
A little bit about harmonica types
There have been many strange versions of the harmonica over time, including the diatonic, chromatic, octave, tremolo, orchestral and bass versions, but the 2 main types you can play today are built either as a single scale diatonic (like the blues harp) or a chromatic harmonica that can play many scales. This chromatic type is crazy difficult to play and not as typical as the more popular blues-style diatonic harmonica.
The blues harmonica is easy to play with a little practice. The upside is that since the harmonica is based on a scale in a specific key (like our C harmonica) as long as the song is in the right key, you can basically play whatever you want and it sounds more or less “right”. It also means that the skills you learn in one harmonica key (like C) can be transferred to any other (A, B, D, etc).
The downside is that because harmonicas are based on individual scales, you need to buy a bunch of them, one for each possible key, if you want to be able to play on a range of different songs in different keys. Unlike with a guitar or piano where the player can play in all keys and scales on a single instrument, the harmonica player needs to change the instrument itself to play in different keys.
Here´s a post with more detail on the Blues Harmonica Chord Chart and choosing the right harmonica for songs in different keys.
Harmonicas come in different materials (aside from the metal casing), mainly wood-based or plastic-based. Each type has their pros and cons. The plastic harmonicas generally last longer because the wood based ones tend to warp over time from moisture and saliva from the player´s mouth. However, early blues players used to dip their harmonicas in whiskey to swell the wood slightly and fatten the sound, so a little warping isn´t necessarily a bad thing.
Both types have small metal reeds inside that vibrate to the right notes. Unfortunately, regardless of the care you take, these reeds can wear out meaning your harmonica has a finite lifespan. If you play often, your harmonicas will eventually wear out and you will need to keep replacing them if you plan to be a player for a long time. Don´t worry though, with good care they usually last several years before you need to get new ones.
There are several different harmonica makers and the largest by far is Hohner who make popular models such as Marine Band, Blues Harp, Pro Harp, Special 20, Blues Band, etc. Any of these are appropriate and differ mostly in materials (playing one is like playing another, with slight variations). You might find that some types, like the wood bases ones, need a little “breaking in” when you first take them out of the box, but in no time they sound great. I personally own a mixture of different harmonica types to fill out my arsenal and am constantly rotating them and trying new models as I replace broken harps over time.
Why listen to my harmonica advice?
I have been playing harmonica for over 20 years. I have played harmonica on stage countless times – from small, smokey blues clubs to huge rock festivals (over 45,000 fans) and so I like to think I have at least an informed opinion on the subject. I have played blues, country, rock, folk and even ska harmonica, and each one requires their own special touch. Some knowledgeable harmonica players reading this might say that my approach to explaining the concept of blues harmonica playing as too simplistic (sorry dudes, that´s just how I learned it) but I still say that with some very simple techniques, anyone can learn to play.
So go get yourself a harmonica and stay tuned for my next post on How to Play Blues Harmonica – Building Technique.
Here is an example of some blues harmonica playing from one of my own songs. The song is called ORDINARY DAY from the second Daze of Dawn album PUPPET HEADS. The song is played in A and I am using a D harmonica. Although it is not strictly a standard blues song progression, the harmonica playing style is. Listen for the harmonica solo in the middle of the song.