Wilbur's Beginning Harmonica FAQ
This page provides basic information for the beginning harmonica player. The rest of the site contains online lessons and tutorials (with sound files). If anything on this FAQ helps you (or someone you know) make progress on the harmonica....please let me know.
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Introduction
- The harmonica is a wonderful instrument!! It is small, portable, and easy to learn, but if you want to play the harmonica beyond beginner and intermediate levels, it provides as much challenge as any other wind instrument. Compared to most other instruments it's cost is low and well within the budget of even modest incomes. Depending on the performer, the harmonica can play blues, jazz, folk, and even classical music. I've heard rocking tunes, old time standards, and hauntingly beautiful ballads, all played on the harmonica.
- So why don't more people play harmonica??? Why don't we see it taught in school (like clarinet or saxophone)?? Is the harmonica the "Rodney Dangerfield" of instruments ("can't get no respect")???
- Perhaps harmonica doesn't get the attention it deserves because it's difficult to appreciate the versatility and beauty of this instrument until you've heard some really good harmonicists play. Fortunately, the current revival of harmonica blues has helped revitalize the harmonica's image and interest, and in the process exposes people to the other types of music that can be played on the harmonica.
- Go out and buy a harmonica, get a beginning instruction book (with tape or CD), and start your musical voyage. Use this Harmonica FAQ and the other links in my Home page to help you on your way.


How Do I get Started??
First...buy a harmonica. You can find good ones at practically any music store, or you can also order a harmonica right now on line over the Internet at - Joe's Virtual Music Shop
(Joe's offers secure online ordering....fast delivery and very good prices....I've ordered from these guys several times).
Don't spend a lot of time worrying over which harmonica to buy. As long as you select a diatonic harmonica from a reputable manufacturer (like Hohner or Lee Oskar) you should have little problem. I would suggest that you avoid "cheap" harmonicas (this includes the $5-$10 wonders you find in discount stores). A very good diatonic harmonica is not expensive ($20-$40) and the difference in price from a cheap harmonica is well worth the money.

I suggest beginners start with a diatonic harmonica in the key of "C" major. Most beginning harmonica instruction books are written in the key of "C". Diatonic harmonicas are relatively inexpensive and they allow you to develop your playing technique, breath control, and sound variations (vibrato, close/open hand, etc.) without worrying about hitting a button for sharps and flats. If you like playing the diatonic harmonica you can always try a chromatic instrument later     (besides, much of the blues and rock harmonica you hear is played on diatonic harmonicas anyway).
NOTE:   If you'd like more info on the different types of harmonicas and the primary types of music music they usually play...check out the Hohner Web page at - www.hohnerusa.com

Last but not least, after you find a harmonica...buy an instruction book on beginning harmonica. These can be found at most music stores and on the Web...(see the Sales links on my Home page).



Which Harmonica Is Best??
The question "which is best" has no answer because no one harmonica is clearly and universally heralded as "the best". Harp players have their favorites (and swear by them). Overall a number of harmonicas qualify as equally good. Since you're reading my FAQ, I will give you my evaluation (based on limited experience) added to what I've read and heard from other harmonica players.
    Hohner: Very good to Great harmonicas
  • Diatonic: Select the "Marine Band" and avoid the "Pocket Pal" and the "Blues Harp". Both the "Pocket Pal" and Blues Harp" sound OK but neither match the great sound or "draw" quality of the "Marine Band". Supposedly the "Blues Harp" has thinner reeds and lends itself to better bends, but I didn't notice better bending and the "Marine Band" sounds much better.
  • Chromatic: The Chromonica sounds great, plays easily, and feels like a large diatonic in your mouth. The Chrometta sounds very good (and is cheaper) but the shape of the body and the slightly extruded plastic around each hole felt much less comfortable in my mouth.
  • NOTE: Hohner has a whole slew of other harmonicas ranging from inexpensive to pretty pricey. I haven't tried them all but I have no reason to doubt their quality.
    Lee Oskar: Excellent harps.
    Haven't found one yet I didn't like. Oskars have a plastic body which I've found easier on my mouth (running up and down the harmonica on riffs) than wood.
    Oskars have a bright sound (tuned to 441) accurate note tunings, and good volume. They have tight construction and seem to last a long time. Oskars have slightly wider holes with corresponding narrower "walls" between them than the Hohner. In the beginning it took me a few days of practice to consistently hit clear single notes on the Oskar (but I think my lip positioning needed work anyway).

NOTE: Don't get caught up in the "wood" versus "plastic" harmonica body discussion. At a beginner to intermediate level, both wood and plastic bodys play equally well and sound equally good. If you develop into a professional level player and can push the limits of the instrument, then evaluate the subtle differences in sound and timbre.



Do I need to Know How to Read Music??
Good News!!! You don't absolutely have to know how to read music to learn to play the harmonica. This miracle of modern music training is made possible thru a technique called "Harmonica Tablature". Harmonica Tablature uses a numbering scheme of one number for each hole on the harmonica, and either arrows (up and down) or plus/minus ("+" or "-") signs next to the numbers.....or circles (around the number), to indicate whether that hole on the harmonica is "blow" or "draw". Each number relates to a specific hole on the harmonica and each hole plays specific notes on the musical scale....so if you can't read music you can just read the numbers.
The C Major Diatonic Harmonica has 10 holes....each hole plays two notes, one note when you "blow" and a different note when you "draw" (draw means to suck in air).
Picture #1 below shows the blow notes in capital and the draw notes as lower case.

Picture #1

(Example: Hole #4 plays the note of "C" on blow...and the next note up the scale which is "d" on draw)

 

Picture #2 shows which hole (blow/draw) on the harmonica equates to which note on the music scale. Beneath the music scale are the wonderful Harmonica Tablature numbers with little arrows telling you which hole to use and whether you "blow" or "draw"!!!

Picture #2

Some tablature methods use +4 and 4 (instead of up/down arrows) to illustrate blow and draw. Other methods use 4 and -4 to illustrate blow and draw. One harmonica tablature method uses a circle around the number. No matter which method is used....all harmonica tablatures work in a similar fashion. After seeing a few harmonica tablatures you will feel right at home with them.   All beginning harmonica books that I've ever seen use some variation of harmonica tablature.
The sheer number of beginning harmonica books and songs in each book should keep you busy for quite a while before you reach the point of wanting to (or being able to) play stuff that isn't written in harmonica tablature.

Having just said that you can learn to play without knowing anything about music notation, let me re-state the obvious that playing the harmonica is music after all, and therefore knowing something about music notation (notes,rests, beat, tempo, etc.) will come in pretty handy. You don't need to become a music major, but understanding a few musical basics will prove immensely helpful.

    Music Basics You Should Learn
  • Understand how to count the beat for each song
  • Determine how long each note is held (eight/quarter/half/whole notes)
  • Figure out the tempo (how fast or slow the song goes)
  • Understand the concepts of "rests" and "tie notes"...and how they are counted

It is much less important to be able to "sight read" the musical notes and determine solely from the music staff which note equates to which hole (blow/draw) on the harmonica. You can rely on the Harmonica Tablature numbers for that. You will however, either need to understand enough musical basics to figure out tempo, rhythm, etc.......or have a recording of the song so you know how it sounds.     (Now you see why I STRONGLY urge you to only buy harmonica instruction books with a cassette or CD).     Eventually you will reach a point in your harmonica playing where you will need/want to know more about music....but that is another topic.



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Which Harmonica Instruction Books Should I Use??

There are a fairly large number of beginner books to choose from. Most of the ones I've looked at seem OK, but I strongly suggest only buying books that come with a CD so you can hear how the songs should sound. I've prepared a list of "best in class" books that not only look good to me, but have recieved good reviews from other folks learning to play the harmonica.
You may be able to find these books at any well stocked local music store that handles music instruction materials, however if you don't have such a store in your rea or just want to order now....you can order online by going to the
    BOOKSTORE

 

All of the beginning harmonica books listed have something useful to teach.     Different people will find different authors and approaches more (or less) helpful. Look them over and see what works for you.
One last time....I strongly suggest you select books that come with CD.   There is no substitute for hearing how a song should sound. The harmonica is an expressive instrument and it's difficult to absorb the possibilities from a written page.


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