A diatonic harmonica has come into your possession. You know that blowing into it produces sound and that there’s a way to make melody with it. However, you are new to this instrument, and you would like to know how to play a diatonic harmonica.
Maybe your harmonica was a gift, or perhaps you decided to buy one. No matter how you ended up with your diatonic harmonica, learning how to play it correctly will help you to truly enjoy this instrument. In this guide, we will share the basics to start you playing tunes before you know it.
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How to Play a Diatonic Harmonica
Harmonicas, also known as mouth harps, are one of the easiest wind instruments to play. The diatonic harmonicas are also the most popular type of harmonica available. Diatonic harmonicas play the notes of a single scale.
Familiarize Yourself with Your Harmonica
A diatonic harmonica in the key of C is considered the beginner's harmonica. It is used by beginners and professionals alike. The very first thing you need to do is become familiar with this amazing little instrument.
Your harmonica is made up of:
- A top plate with numbers 1 to 10 and a bottom plate.
- 20 “reeds”. These reeds are made from 2 brass plates with slots cut into them.
- Between the reed plates sits the comb. The comb creates the chambers that you blow air into or suck air through.
As you blow air through your harmonica, the air causes the top reed to vibrate. When you draw air by breathing in the air causes the lower reed to vibrate. The vibration of the reed causes sound.
How to Hold Your Harmonica
Before you begin practicing notes, let’s take the time to discuss the proper way of holding your harp. Here’s how to properly hold your harmonica.
- First, pick the harmonica and make sure the numbers are on top and facing you 1 through 10.
- Take the harp in your left hand, place your index finger on top and your thumb on the bottom. Make sure your fingers are close to the backside, so you have room for your mouth.
- Take the middle finger of your left hand and place it behind the harmonica so that it rests on your thumb. This works as a brace and ensures the harp will not go anywhere while you are playing. Let your other fingers naturally line up with your middle finger.
- Now place the thumb of your right hand over the edge of the harmonica. The fingers of your right hand will be facing up. This allows you to cup your harmonica.
- There are two types of cupping. One is where you are loosely holding your left hand over the harp while playing, allowing more airflow. The other is a closed cup. For a closed cup, you try to seal any openings between your fingers and hands by holding them tightly together.
You can see video instruction of that here:
Producing Notes from Your Harmonica
How do you produce melodic sound rather than noise? You need to know what holes produce what notes, and how the direction of airflow changes the chords. In other words, you need to know which notes are caused by blowing and which are caused by sucking.
The notes correspond to the chamber:
C E G C E G C E G C
C 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
D G B D F A B D F A
Learning How to Isolate Single Notes
Let’s practice single notes on your harmonica. Take your harmonica and hold it like we discussed earlier.
The reason we were unable to produce a nice clear sound when we first picked up the harmonica is because we were not isolating a single chamber. Instead, we were blowing into a few chambers all at once. This causes a distorted, rattly sound as you can see here:
It takes time and practice to produce clear and clean notes. Do not become discouraged if you don’t get it right away. Keep practicing. You will get it.
There are a couple of ways to isolate the note you want to play, but most people suggest lip pursing or puckering. This is what we will have you do. Pucker your lips as though you are going to whistle. Doing this helps you direct air through a small space and into a single chamber on your harp.
Blow into your harmonica. Did you hear a clean note? You may have the right mouth shape, but you were not lined up with the hole on the harmonica. Adjust this by very slightly moving your mouth to one side or the other.
If you just can’t seem to find that “sweet spot,“ wrap your lips around the harmonica and while you blow through it, pull back until you find that resonating single note. Pay attention to how your mouth is shaped when you find it. This is the shape you want to use.
Harmonicas are designed to play with pushed air and sucked air. Gently blow air into your harmonica. Then draw air back into your mouth. Again, do this gently. It should feel like relaxed breathing.
Learning the Scales
Once you have learned to blow and draw a single note it is time to practice this across the harp. However, you need to move the harmonica, not your head. This helps you concentrate and control where you are blowing/drawing.
Start on hole 4. Gently blow into your harmonica, then draw air back. You’ve just played the notes C and D. Now carefully move your harmonica to the left, blow into the 5th hole and draw air back. These are notes E and F. Move the harmonica to the left again and again, blow air into the 6th hole and draw air back through the 6th hole. These are notes G and A.
Do not worry if it sounds a little shaky. You are just learning. Try to adjust the pursing of your lips and center your harmonica. Remember, you want to move the harmonica and not your head.
Practice Playing Your Diatonic Harmonica
There is truth in the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” This is true in anything new we decide to learn. The more you practice, the better you will become at performing. So, how often should you practice playing your harmonica?
This depends on how quickly you wish to advance. You should block out some time every day for practice. Taking 10 to 30 minutes a day to practice what you have learned will keep you familiar with your instrument and help you advance. The longer you can practice the quicker you will learn.
Beyond Learning Single Notes
Don’t stop at learning the notes. The mouth harp is one of the most popular instruments with a lot of instruction available to you. Try watching youtube instructional videos or search for beginners’ songs with harp tabs as you progress.
As you progress you will learn about
- Bending which is when you learn to bend a particular key to lower it an octave. This can be done on draw notes and blow notes.
- Over blowing is a more advanced step that you will likely learn after you learn bending
- Positions is another more advanced step. It allows the harmonica player to play in other keys on their harmonica.
A Song to Learn on Your Diatonic Harmonica
Here are harp tabs for the popular but relatively easy song “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King. You will notice there are only numbers, some with a – symbol next to them. These correspond to the numbers on your harmonica; the -symbol means you should draw air instead of blow air on that note. Listening to the song you are learning to play helps as well. Christelle Berthon plays “Stand by Me” beautifully: