Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

July 14, 2015

Harmonica Basics

And I do mean basics, my friends. I'm a raw beginner, but in the course of blowing some serviceable notes on my record and just learning to play guitar and harmonica together, I've discovered a few tips I'd like to share with you. First off, as far as I can see, 99% of the harmonica instruction available online assumes that you want to play the blues. If this is you, read no further; I've nothing useful to impart. Google "blues harp lessons" or something and off you go.

As for the rest of us, welcome to the wonderful world of first position. Here you'll find Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the vast majority of folk music. In first position, key of song equals key of harmonica. Simple, right? Yes, as long as we're talking major keys. Playing in minor keys is trickier. I've been adding three semitones to the song key in order to find the harmonica key (example: song in E minor, harmonica in G). That's correct as far it goes, but it appears I have only half the picture as there are two minor-key modes. This page explains things better than I currently can.

Two advantages to first position: one, it's hard to play a wrong note; two, you have access to the three building-block chords of popular music—namely I, IV, V. The I (root), is simply the key of the harmonica, and if you blow (exhale) anywhere on the instrument, you'll obtain the root chord. For illustrative purposes, let's assume your harmonica is in C. Your blow notes, low to high: C E G C E G C E G C. Anywhere you blow, you're guaranteed to get some inversion of a C-major triad.

If you draw (inhale), the notes you get depend on where your mouth is positioned on the harmonica. On a C harmonica, your draw notes, low to high, are D G B D F A B D F A. Now, the V (fifth) chord is easily identifiable here. In the key of C, the fifth is G. Going low, any of the first four draw notes will give you a G-major triad, and up on draw holes 7, 8 and 9, you've got a G7 chord minus the G root. The IV (fourth) is a bit harder to produce, but it can be done. In C, the fourth is F, and you can't get the full triad but the root and major third (F and A) occur twice, at holes 5 and 6 and 9 and 10. I find the high pair a bit shrill so generally I'll go for the 5- and 6-holes, which are conveniently located in the middle of the instrument.

Much of the time, of course, you'll want to play melodic lines (single notes instead of full chords). Again, I'm hardly in a position to advise on technique, but I've found that pursing the lips will usually produce a single note, though sometimes I get two. Hey, I'm still working out the kinks. But because the harmonica is a diatonic instrument, you'll be picking out notes in the major scale of the harmonica key—which, as we discussed earlier, is the same as the song's key in first position. So, you really can't lose, and it's quite easy to stumble upon the melodies of greats that have come before. And by improvising or riffing on those, you can write your own killer lines, tailor-made for your songs. (Example: tonight I chanced on the opening to Dylan's "With God on Our Side" just by messing around.)

One more tip: everyone will tell you that your first harmonica should be in the key of C, as most instructional material for beginners is written in C. If you're learning from a book, that's probably wise counsel. However, if you're using harmonica to colour your own songs, the song key determines the harmonica key. Your song is in F? Then the harmonica should be in F, and so on for all 12 keys. (Again, if you're a blues player, I can't help you other than to note that you're generally playing in second position, so song and harmonica keys will differ. See 99% of online harmonica instruction for more.) Based on the songs I've written and am covering, the most useful harmonicas for me have been G, D, Bb, A, B and E. In fact, I've yet to use a C harmonica in any of my music. Maybe that tells you something about my music. Point being, "Buy a C harmonica first" is not always the best advice.

Now let me climb up on my soapbox for just a moment. I've found scant online material on first-position playing—hence this post—and what little I did find is dismissive at best. In one video, the instructor did a desultory run-through of "Oh! Susanna" to demonstrate first position, immediately contrasting that with a flurry of lightning-fast blues licks in second position. I won't diss the guy completely because he's clearly knowledgeable, is more skilled than I'll ever be, and in another video helped me decide which harmonica to buy. But let it be known that first-position music is still music and damn fine music at that, whether or not it evinces dazzling virtuosity. First-position players have made stellar contributions to popular song (see Dylan, Bob among others) that go far beyond cornball folk standards.

Oh ... and for those of you wondering, my harmonica of choice is the Hohner Special 20, though I'm not expecting a juicy endorsement deal anytime soon.

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