What to Expect as a Beginner Harmonica Player

In my opinion the diatoinic harmonica is the best instrument in the world. It is especially suited for beginners which is both a blessing and and a curse. I do find sometimes that when don’t know what to expect when they take up playing harmonica. In this article I want to set your expectations as a beginner harmonica player.

Fast start

One of the best thing with the diatonic harmonica is that you can start playing very quickly. Within a few minutes you can start with a train imitation. Building on this you can also do simple accompaniment with rhytmic patterns. This means that you can actually start playing with other musicians right from the start. You just need to be aware that you won’t be playing any advanced solos or melodies just yet. The best way to make progress is to practice daily, even if this means short sessions.

Tone development

Most blues harmonica players are looking for the big fat tone you often hear in chicago style blues. When first starting out you will most likely have a thinner tone than you would like. This is because your tongue placement and throat relaxation have not been fully developed yet. The train imitation exercise mentioned earlier is the best way to getting a relaxed embouchure that

Getting into single note playing

To give you the most options for your later playing I recommend that you use the tongue blocking embouchure. Most people find tongue blocking more difficult that puckering to begin with. For this reason you will most likely have to expect that your single note playing will not be very clean to begin with. As long as you work on getting your precision up over time this is not a big issue as a beginner harmonica player. Learning tongue blocking is definately worth the time but it may feel like it takes a lot of time. Truth be told, you will be working on your embouchure as long as your play.

Developing your technique

Playing techniques as tremolos, vibratos and tongue blocking techniques such as tongue slaps are best added as needed when learning new material. You can always start learning new material without a certain technique and then add later. For example if a riff you are studing contains a lot of tongue slaps you can first learn it clean so that you are familiar with the sequence of notes. When you know the riff you can work on the sound of the riff with the techniques you need to add.

Playing solos

If you play over 12 bar blues and play in second position you can start playing solos pretty quickly. You may want to have developed a little bit of single note precision but second position and 12 bar blues is pretty safe for a beginner harmonica player.

Summary

I hope this gives you a fair understanding of what to expect as a beginner harmonica player. Don’t forget to check out the Welcome Package for becoming a subscriber to my newsletter. Click below to sign up!

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Recommendations for Buying Harmonicas

Before you start playing it is pretty obvious that you need a harmonica. Typically what you need if you play blues is a diatonic harmonica. This is the 10-hole version that is quite common in blues, rock and among troubadoures. Some people think this instrument is a toy but nothing could be further from the truth. Diatonic harmonicas from serious brands are serious instruments but suprisingly cheap compared to other instruments. There are a few things you need to know before shopping around for your harp. This article aims to give you a good start. For full disclosure, the links in the article are affiliate links and I get a comission if you choose to buy through these links, thank you for your support.

A pile of harmonicas, harmonica kit

First of some basic stuff, what you are looking for is a Richter tuned, major diatonic harmonica. Most often you can leave out the “Richter tuned” part when you search for a harp but you want to be sure it is a major diatonic. Most diatonics are major diatonic. Some brands offer other version such as melodic minor and harmonic minor variants. These are more suitable for playing folk music and melodies than blues.

Choosing the key

OK, so now you know the type of harmonica you need, another thing to decide is what key to choose. The key of the harmonica is which scale the harmonica is tuned to. A C-major diatonic harmonica is tuned to the C-major scale. It is basically a small piano with the black keys removed (and a few of the white keys as well). So what key to pick then? First off, it doesn’t matter what key you use when you play by yourself and learn to play. All keys work the same way. However if you play with other people you need to be in the right key.

Recommended key

If you choose a harmonica that is tuned to a very low key it can be more challenging to play at first. Very high pitched harmonicas can also be challenging to control. What you want in the beginning is key somewhere in the middle of the range. Traditionally G is the lowest key and F (or possibly F#) is the highest key. Nowadays many brands offer keys outside this range such as low F, or even down to low low F. I would recommend a C-major harmonica to start with. This puts you in the middle giving you a very workable harmonica without “extra” challenges. Also a C-major harmonica when played in 2nd position is in the key of G which works reasonably well for most guitar players. 2nd position is what you normally learn first.

Additional keys

If you choose to buy more than one harmonica I would recommend an A-major harmonica as well. This plays in the key of E in 2nd position and is also a nice key when you play by yourself. In fact if you get the following keys you are pretty much set for most situations: C, A, G, Bb, low F and D.

Choosing the brand

So, now you know what type of harmonica and the key to buy so now we have to choose a brand. There are a lot of brands out there and in the end it comes down to what you like and what suits your playing style. I make these recommendations based on my own preferences and what I use and have used. If you ask somebody else you may get other recommendations. One thing though, you basically get what you pay for. A cheaper harmonica tends to be less durable and in some cases not as well set up out of the box.

The list below is in order of preference from my point of view.

Hohner harmonicas

Generally speaking I recommend Hohner, their harmonicas have been the standard for many blues players for a long time. This is no accident, other brands may have gained ground at Hohner’s expence during the last few years but for me Hohner is still my choice.

Hohner Special 20

Hohner Special 20 is a plastic comb version of the popular Marine Band harmonica. It is a great beginner harp as it plays well out of the box and is very maintanable. The plastic comb makes it easy to clean and does not swell when getting wet. Many people who start playing these never change to more expensive models. If you are looking for an affordable, durable, maintanable, well setup harmonica with an OK tuning, this is the harmonica for you.

Hohner Marine Band Deluxe

The Marine Band Deluxe was the Hohner flag ship product for a number of years, it is an updated version of the classic Marine Band with a better sealed comb and reed plates that are screwed on rather than nailed. They play very well out of the box and also lend themselves well for repair work and custimization. The tuning of this harp works very well for blues and the chords are beautiful.

Hohner Marine Band Crossover

The Crossover is an updated version of the Marine Band Deluxe with even higher precision and bamboo composite comb that does stands up very well against moisture. As with the delux it is very maintainable and plays lamost perfectly out of the bos. The tuning is slightly different so the chords are not as smooth compared to the delux but it works over a wider range of keys and may therefore be a better choice if you not only play 2nd position blues but other styles and positions as well.

Hohner Marine Band Classic

Before Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover this was the go-to-harmonica for many blues players. An often copied harmonica and for good reason. It works very well out-of-the-box. It has a partially sealed pear wood comb. You may experience som swelling of the comb with this model which is a draw-back. It is not too bad though. The reed plates are nailed to the comb which makes maintenance of this model a bit more cumbersome.

Other harmonicas

The three harmonicas above are far from the only options but reallt what I prefer. Here are some other options to consider if you either don’t like these three, prefer platic combs or can’t get hold of them for some reason.

Hohner Golden Melody is a nice harmonica that is a bit thicker, it plays very well but is tuned to equal tuning which works better for melody playing so chord heavy music is not its strong point. Hohner Pro Harp is a plastic comb harmonica quite close to the Marine Band Classic but very maintainable as it is part of the Hohner MS system. Lee Oskar is a very custimizable and maintainable harmonica with lots of spare part options. They work better for melody heavy music due to their tuning. C.A Seydel & Söhne 1847 Classic is a really good harmonica that feels semi-custom to begin with. The only draw-back is that it is a bit pricey.

There are other brands out there and advanced players sometimes opt for custom harmonicas but that is a topic of its own.