Cheat Sheet

Harmonica For Dummies

Learning to play the harmonica starts with playing a single melody with either a pucker or tongue block — and knowing how to read harmonica tablature (tab), how to play a harmonica in position, and knowing the positions for the 12 harmonica keys.

How to Play a Single Note on the Harmonica

To play a single melody note on the harmonica, use your mouth to isolate a single hole. Next, play the note by drawing or blowing air through the harmonica with either a tongue block or a pucker:

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Embouchure is what you do with your mouth when playing a musical instrument. The pucker and tongue block are the two most commonly used embouchures.

How to Read Harmonica Tablature

Knowing how to read harmonica tablature, or tab, isn't difficult. Harmonica tablature shows you which hole number on the harmonica to go to and indicates if you need to exhale (arrow pointing up) or inhale (arrow pointing down). When hole numbers are stacked, you play several holes. Holes you block with your tongue are shown as black rectangles.

Check out this sample tab:

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When you bend a note down, the arrow has one slash for each semitone you lower the pitch of the note. When you bend a note up (when you overblow or overdraw), the arrow has a circle through it. For example, check out this sample tab:

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Harmonica Positions

A harmonica position is the connection between the key of the harp and the key of the tune you play on it. Each numbered position plays the same way no matter what the key of the harmonica. The following chart shows the uses of some common harmonica positions:

Position Uses for Position
1st position Melodies in major keys; fiddle tunes; country tunes; folk songs; blues (top and bottom registers)
2nd position Melodies in major keys (but watch out for Draw 5 and 9); fiddle tunes with a flat 7th (the Mixolydian mode); major tunes that go below the home note; blues (all registers)
3rd position Minor key melodies (but watch out for Draw 3 and 7); fiddle tunes in the Dorian mode; minor blues
4th position Minor keys in the high and middle registers
5th position Minor keys (but watch out for Draw 5 and 9)
12th position Major keys (but watch out for Draw 3 and 7); the middle and upper registers

Positions for All 12 Keys of Harmonica

Harmonica positions are numbered 1 through 12. You reach the next numbered position on your harmonica by counting up five scale steps from the key of the harp. When you play more than one key of harp, the idea of positions is helpful.

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