What is Harmonica – How to play it

The harmonica, also known as French harp, is an instrument just like any other, as it allows the playing of musical notes, chords, etc.

I have already come across many students saying they wanted to learn how to play the harmonica, motivated and anxious to play like names such as Bob Dylan, Alanis Morissette, Bono Vox, Humberto Gessinger, and others.

However, the art of playing the harmonica is not just a matter of blowing or breathing in any way, like the ‘harmonica players’ mentioned above. In fact, there are techniques, mouthpiece, and many other details to be learnt.

Popularly speaking, there are two types of harmonica: the diatonic harmonica and the chromatic harmonica. If you are reading this text, you should know that you can play much more than all these names together! Better still, know that you can really play the harmonica, and there is no secrets in this topic! So let us get started…

The Diatonic Harmonica

The Chromatic Harmonica

The diatonic harmonica is the type that is sold by keys (harmonica in G, in E, etc). In contrast, the chromatic harmonica of 64 voices is sold in only one tone (C major) and can produce any other key.

The best course of action for a beginner is to start out with the diatonic harmonica and then move on to the chromatic version. Later we shall explain the reason.

How to choose your first harmonica

Just to recap, in the case of a diatonic harmonica there are some notes missing and there are many effects that need to be learnt, while in the chromatic harmonica you find all the notes ready to use and also the respective accidents (you just need to activate the side key to execute them). In other words, if you learn to play the chromatic harmonica first, then you will need to relearn everything when you play a diatonic harmonica. For the opposite sequence, you will just need to adapt. In addition, to play the chromatic organ you will need a greater knowledge of music theory. For this reason, we shall start off by talking about the diatonic harmonica.

The diatonic harmonica is sold based on tones, and this is why you often see professional harmonica players with small cases full of harmonicas.

The harmonica in do comes with its scale (C major) ready (C D E F G A B C); the harmonica in sol also has its scale of G, ready for use (G A B C D E F# G) and so on.

OK, so which tone should I buy initially?

The best strategy is to start with the harmonica in C major. This is not because it has the easiest scale, but because it is a harmonica with “medium sound”, whose pitch is neither high nor low. Harmonicas in D, E and F are very low in pitch, while those in B, G and A are very high-pitched.

If you start with a high-pitched sound, then it shall be easier to learn the effects, but it shall not be easy for you to pass to a lower-pitched harmonica. If you start with a harmonica of low pitch, you may feel shortness of breath, which could make you lose motivation. Starting with the medium harmonica, these problems shall be reduced, as it is more intuitive to adapt to other pitches starting from the middle.

Well, now we know why we should start by buying a diatonic harmonica in C major. But now another question looms: what brand should we buy?

We can decide to have a national or an imported brand.  

Some examples of imported harmonicas are: Hohner, Suzuki, Lee Oskar and Dolphin. I will show one picture of each, in this order:

Lee Oskar

Well, each brand presented here includes several models for beginners, intermediate-level players, and professional harmonica players. I suggest you look through prices and information, in order to decide which model best fits your budget. Just bear in mind that the cheaper harmonicas (for beginners) tend not to be well sealed, and this makes it more difficult to execute some techniques. In some cases, it could even break or go out of tune, due to the strong or incorrect blowing action.

In addition, I stress that you do not need to have any prejudice against national harmonicas. They are also excellent.

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