Wilbur's Beginning Harmonica
Lessons and Tips
Before you start to seriously learn to play the harmonica, pick up your harmonica and
just fool around a bit. Run your mouth up and down the harmonica blowing and
drawing (sucking in) air and listen to the sounds. Even though you're not playing
music you'll notice you do get notes.....usually multiple notes...but notes none the less.
Start at one end and blow all notes up and down, then repeat by drawing all notes.
You should notice right off that you play multiple notes on each breath. You'll
also notice some holes play easily...other holes don't. You may run out of air
on blow notes and get too much air in your lungs on draw notes. Remember all
these things...they'll come up again.
How To Hold The Harmonica
Hold the Harmonica in your left hand with the numbers on the
harmonica body facing up.
The number 1 hole should be to the left. (See Holding Harmonica)
Holding the Harmonica
Mouth Position (Embouchure)
Beginners tend to approach the harmonica timidly, putting their
lips on the harmonica in a little pucker
like they were kissing Aunt Betty. Your mouth needs to be up on
the harmonica, touching the metal case with the wood (or plastic)
body just inside your mouth. You must form a complete seal
with your lips and you can't do that with a "delicate" pucker.
Blow a few notes to make sure you have a good seal and can
get sound out of the harmonica before proceeding.
While playing the harmonica, your mouth and jaw must be relaxed.
This will feel a little strange at first...keeping your lips
puckered for a good seal while at the same time keeping your jaw
You will also need to drop your jaw slightly to create an open
cavern in your mouth. This "cavern" creates a full rich tone.
The ability to play one note at a time is critical to
playing the harmonica. Two techniques (Lip Blocking and Tongue
Blocking) are generally used to play single notes.
You'll need to learn them both...but I suggest learning
Lip blocking first.
- LIP BLOCKING: (or "lipping") is the preferred method for melody
and blues bends. Lipping is a technique where you cover all
holes on the harmonica with your lips EXCEPT the one hole
you want to play. You do this WITHOUT using your tongue
to block any of the holes. Your pucker should be about
the size of a pencil eraser.
Your lips have to be open enough to allow room for one
complete hole. If you pucker too much you will lose volume
and tone. If you don't pucker enough you will get multiple
notes.........This takes practice!!
- TONGUE BLOCKING: is another technique for playing one
note. In tongue blocking you put the harmonica deeper into your
mouth than in lip blocking. Your lips are more open and
allow 2-3 holes to be open inside the pucker.
You use your tongue to cover all but the one hole you want to play.
Typically you cover the notes to the left of your mouth and
leave the note on the right open....but you can cover which
ever side you like. (See Tongue Blocking below to play the 4 hole)
The tongue blocking is also used (in a different form)
to cover center holes and leave holes on each end open.
This form of tongue blocking is called "tongue splitting"
and comes in handy for playing multiple notes and even octaves.
Play around with whichever blocking technique you chose until you can
make one note sound good. Then practice moving from one hole to the next.
Alternate blow/draw notes along with the mouth movement up and down
the harmonica. Play the "C" scale up and down until it becomes
smooth and you consistently hit one note and ONE NOTE ONLY.
Blowing/Drawing Notes....Breath Control
"Blow and "Draw" are the terms used to describe
playing notes on the harmonica. To get really good tones
you need to think of "blow" and "draw" as "exhale" and "inhale".
You don't puff at a harmonica....you exhale though it. You don't
suck air through a harmonica...you inhale though it.
Good harmonica notes (like singing) come from the diaphragm.
WARNING: Don't over blow or overdraw!! Beginners often
go overboard and use way too much air. It really doesn't
take a lot of air to get a good sound. The harmonica
is an expressive instrument and responds well to medium amounts of
If you want more volume than the harmonica naturally provides....get a
microphone and amplifier.
- BREATH CONTROL:
General Rule of Thumb:
- In classical instruments (flute, trumpet, etc.) breath control
is a big issue because the instrument is played completely
with blown air. Classical musicians are taught early on when to take
a breath and beginning classical musicians often mark
these "breathe points" on their sheet music.
- The harmonica has the advantage of playing both inhale and
exhale notes, and it is sometimes possible to "breathe" through your
instrument. However, you will find times when you need to
recover your breath before playing the next note.
- As you play more complex songs where the melody (or the
blues riff) doesn't alternate blow and draw notes,
you will notice yourself either running out of air or having too
much air in your lungs
(beginners may have this problem even on simple tunes).
Songs that have long sequences of blow or draw notes
together will either expend all your air or acquire too
much air in your lungs. This means you have to pause playing
for a split second to either replenish your air by breathing in
or relieve the expansion in your lungs by exhaling.
So...When do you take these "pauses" without messing up the song????
You can safely take a breath (without
disrupting the flow of the song) at the end of each musical phrase.
For those not familiar with music terminology, a musical
phrase is any series of notes played together
as one subset of a song. A musical phrase usually covers several
measures. On many songs musical phrases
often (but not always) end on a measure boundary.
If the preceding paragraph just confused you, perhaps a
simpler way to illustrate the point is to time your
breathing as though you were singing the song.
You would take a breath playing the harmonica at the same place you
would take a breath if you were singing the song.
For example...if you were playing the Irish tune
"DANNY BOY" you would play the notes and take a breath,
at the same place you would sing the song and then take
(Harmonica Tablature.....+4 means blow on 4 hole)
(........................ 4 means draw on 4 hole)
"Oh Danny Boyyyy" (breathe)
7 +7 8 +8
"The pipes the pipes are calling" (breathe)
8 +8 10 +9 +8 8 +7 6
"From glen to glen (breathe)
7 +7 8 +8
Playing this little snippet of a familiar song should
give you the idea of musical phrasing and when to breathe.
Playing Tips for Beginners
Most of the beginning harmonica instruction books
are incremental...that is, they start you out with easy
songs and build in difficulty level as you go.
The easy songs usually don't sound very exciting and
you will be tempted to skip them and move on to
better sounding stuff.
DON'T SKIP OVER THE EASY SONGS.
Play each song a couple of times. Record yourself on tape.
If you sound OK then move right on to the next song...otherwise
spend an hour on the piece and learn what the author
intended you to learn. Skipping the easy songs early in your
harmonica learning cycle only means
you'll struggle longer with harder (better sounding)
songs, and perhaps get so frustrated you quit.
The flip side of this advice is...don't spend
forever on each easy song. These are training songs not performance
pieces. Each one teaches you something you need to know but
polishing each song to performance level probably
isn't necessary. Pick the songs you like and spend extra
time on those.
I hope this lesson page helps you. Good Luck....and may your
harmonica reeds never break and your sound always be great.
- Get a tape recorder and use it: -
Nothing helps refine your technique like hearing
yourself on tape. No matter how
good you THINK you sound.... check it out on tape.
A tape recorder doesn't lie.
- Learn New Songs Progressively:
- Learn and practice each new song in increments.
- Learn the notes first...
- Learn the rhythm of the song
- Learn the dynamics (soft/loud/mute hand/vibrato)
- Practice the song (notes/rhythm/dynamics) using a slow tempo....
- Last of all bring the song up to performance speed
- Use a metronome to keep the beat.
- Beginners in all musical instruments tend to wander all
over a song, playing some parts faster or slower than others.
A metronome will keep you in time.
(This may be my classical piano training coming through
but believe me...a metronome really helps your music)
- Start your harmonica training playing melody
- Play popular songs, ballads, or whatever sounds good to you.
Don't try to start out learning blues riffs, bends, and
all the hard stuff. If you can't play a basic melody..you
won't be able to play good blues. Sorry.....but you gotta
learn the basics first.
- Take a few Harmonica lessons:
- If you can afford it and have access to a qualified
teacher....spend a little money on harmonica lessons.
Even a short time spent with a pro can shorten your
- The only way to learn good harmonica is to master
single note playing...and that takes practice.
Play simple songs...play the C scale...play whatever
you like, but play. Early on you will find that your
mouth tires rather quickly. Don't worry...your lip
muscles will get stronger and your playing
time will increase. However, this muscle fatigue
does mean that you probably won't be able to do
marathon practice sessions....so plan to play a little
(to Wilbur's Blues Page)
Please send comments, questions, and suggestions to