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 somewhat relaxed. 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!!

Lip Blocking

- 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)

Tongue Blocking

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 air movement. If you want more volume than the harmonica naturally provides....get a microphone and amplifier.

- 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????
General Rule of Thumb:
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 a breathe.

	(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.

  • 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 harmonica: - 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 learning curve.
  • PRACTICE/PRACTICE/PRACTICE - 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 every day.
I hope this lesson page helps you. Good Luck....and may your harmonica reeds never break and your sound always be great.

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