Basic harmonica for guitarists

(and other musicians)


This is a guide to your first few hours of harmonica playing, meant for people who already play at least one other instrument. This document is full of generalizations, and is only intended to provide a quick start.

Choosing a harmonica

Your first harp should be diatonic and in the key of C, probably a Lee Oskar or Hohner Special 20. These are standard, good quality workhorse harmonicas, and most online tutorials will be in the key of C.

Which key?

If you’re looking for a folky, Bob Dylan sort of sound, choose a harmonica where the blow chord is the tonic of the song (use a C harmonica for a song in the key of C).

If you’re looking for a bluesy, wailing sound, use a harmonica where the draw chord is tonic of the song (use a C harmonica for a song in the key of G) — this is called “second position” or “cross harp.”

Harmonia tuning

Harmonicas are Richter tuned.

The notes on a C major diatonic harmonica are:

     hole  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
blow note C E G C E G C E G C
draw note D G B D F A B D F A

The blow notes are the tonic or I chord, and the draw notes are the dominant, or V chord. For a C harp, the blow chord is C major, and the draw chord is G major.

Bends

To play blues harmonica, you need to bend.

It’s possible to bend the higher note on a hole toward the lower note, so holes 1–6 can be bent on the draw, and 7–10 can be bent on the blow. Other bends are available using other techniques, but that’s outside the scope of this tutorial.

Concentrate on learning to bend the draw notes on holes 1–6.

Bending feels like whistling while inhaling and lowering the pitch of the whistle. If you can do that, you can bend a note on the harmonica.

Second position / cross harp

Blues harmonica is played in second position. To understand why, look again at the diagram of a C harp:

     hole  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
blow note C E G C E G C E G C
draw note D G B D F A B D F A

Since this is a C major harmonica, there is a C major scale starting on hole 4 blow (4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B). There is a C major triad on the blow notes, and a G major on the draw.

There is also most of a G mixolydian scale starting on 2D or 3B: 2D 3D 4B 4D 5D 6B

Since those draw notes are bendable, the 3D B can be bent to a blue 3rd, and the 4D D can be bent to a blue 5th, giving you a G blues scale. This might be all you ever need to know about blues harmonica.

Further resources

Go watch Adam Gussow’s nine minute tutorial “Instant Naked Raw Brutal Blues Harmonica — your first lesson.”