Harmonica For Dummies book cover

Harmonica For Dummies

By: Winslow Yerxa Published: 09-16-2020

Wail on your harmonica! 

The harmonica is one of the most popular and versatile instruments in the world. There are several reasons harmonicas are awesomeÂyou can play them anywhere, theyÂre inexpensive, and you can show off in dozens of musical styles. The friendly and pleasingly tuneful Harmonica For Dummies is the fastest and best way to learn for yourself! 

YouÂll find an easy-to-follow format that takes you from the basics to specialized techniques, with accompanying audio and video content included to make learning even more simple and fun. Before you know it, youÂll be playing jazz in your living room and the blues on your way to work or schoolÂand thatÂs just the prelude to mastering classical riffs. ThatÂs right, the humble harmonica has graced some of the grandest concert halls on planet Earth!  

  • Choose the right harmonica 
  • Enhance your sound with tongue technique 
  • Develop your own style  
  • Perfect your live performance 

The harmonica is awesome to learn, but even more awesome to learn well, and Harmonica For Dummies will get you on the road from being an occasional entertainer to becoming an accomplished live performer.  

P.S. If you think this book seems familiar, youÂre probably right. The Dummies team updated the cover and design to give the book a fresh feel, but the content is the same as the previous release of Harmonica For Dummies (9781118880760). The book you see here shouldnÂt be considered a new or updated product. But if youÂre in the mood to learn something new, check out some of our other books. WeÂre always writing about new topics!

Articles From Harmonica For Dummies

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80 results
Harmonica For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 03-12-2021

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.

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How to Play Familiar Tunes in the Middle Register of the Harmonica

Step by Step / Updated 03-27-2016

You probably already know how to whistle or hum dozens of tunes. So the best way to get started playing melody on the harmonica is to try to find some of those melodies in the harmonica. Here, you find several familiar tunes that are played in the middle register. The harmonica tablature (or tab) under the written music tells you the holes and breaths to play. By listening to the audio tracks and then reading the tab with the words to help guide you, you can get started playing these tunes. You don’t need to read the musical notation above the tab to learn these tunes. However, reading music is a useful skill, and you should learn it. Notation gives you one important thing that tab doesn’t: how long to hold each note. If you’ve never heard the tune and don’t have a recording for reference, you can learn the time values of a melody from notation. To help you understand how long to hold each note, the beat count for each bar is written above the notation.

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How to Bend Draw Notes Down in the Harmonica’s Middle Register

Step by Step / Updated 03-27-2016

The bends in the harmonica’s middle range — Holes 4, 5, and 6 — are shallow and not too difficult to control, so this is a good place to start. When you bend a note, you can isolate a single note either with a pucker (with your tongue off the harp) or with a tongue block (with your tongue on the harp). Each of the following licks has three versions — one for each of the draw bends in Holes 4, 5, and 6. Each lick helps you develop skill by placing the bend in the most important situations with the other notes. Play the notes of each lick as one fluid motion; avoid any pauses unless they are specifically identified. Any time you have two or more draw notes in a row (including bends), play them on a single, uninterrupted breath. For each lick, learn each version (Hole 4, 5, and 6) on its own. Then, after you’ve mastered all three versions, you can play them all in a row as a continuous line. As you learn a lick from the tablature that follows, listen to this harmonica bending notes and try to play what you hear:

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A Brief History of Bending Notes with the Harmonica

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Early in the 19th century, builders in Germany and Austria developed the harmonica to play songs and dance tunes popular in the German-speaking parts of Europe. They never dreamed that Americans in the rural South would find ways to make the harmonica slur, cry, and wail with bent notes. Harmonicas became widely available in North America in the 1870s, and soon harmonica instruction books were being published in Chicago and other northern cities. None of them mentioned bending. By the early 1920s, harmonica players in the South, both black and white, were making records using bent notes with an artistry and technical sophistication that suggests bending had already been around for a long time. Nobody knows who bent the first note (they forgot to have it bronzed), but the sliding pitches and deliberately lowered "blue notes" of African-American music suggest that note bending on the harmonica was an imitation of these vocal styles. Rural harmonica styles, complete with note bending used to imitate steam trains and fox hunts, came to country music through De Ford Bailey's Grand Ole Opry broadcasts from Nashville in the 1920s and '30s. The sound of bending notes came to urban folk music in New York in the 1940s and '50s through the playing of North Carolina harmonica wizard Sonny Terry and Oklahoma protest singer Woody Guthrie. When rural harmonica players arrived in cities like Memphis and Chicago, they started adapting their playing to the urban environment. Rural mimicry took a back seat to topics like sex and drugs (rock-and-roll would soon follow). In the early 1960s, urban harmonica artists like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II visited the British Isles and made a strong impression on British rockers, such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. When the British rock invasion reached American shores in 1964, British rockers with harmonicas introduced many young Americans to a sound their parents had either forgotten or never known. Meanwhile, American folk-influenced artists like Bob Dylan began making hit records with squalling harmonica inspired by Woody Guthrie. In Nashville, country music had become a big business and had lost much of its folksiness, until a young blues-inspired harmonica player named Charlie McCoy reintroduced the sound of bent notes where De Ford Bailey had left off decades earlier. Since then, note bending in rock, country, folk, and blues has become a permanent part of the sound of harmonica playing in popular music worldwide.

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Harmonica Novelty Tunes

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

You can have some fun and draw attention to your harmonica playing by picking up some of the tried-and-true harmonica tricks, which can be fun to play, fun to watch, and even fun to hear. Here are some of the best-known and loved: The talking baby. Say, "I want my ma-maaa." Now pick up the harp and try to say the words while playing Draw 3 or Draw 4. Start each syllable with your hands closed around the harp, and then open them quickly as you start the syllable. Try starting each note bent down slightly, letting it rise as you open your hands. Bend the note down again as you close your hands before the next syllable. This technique can be surprisingly effective at conveying all sorts of syllables — "water," "uh!-uhhh," "uh-huh," and so on. Dozens of old-time harp players recorded versions of "I want my mama." Trains and fox chases. Old-time rural harmonica repertoire includes dozens of tunes that mimic events like trains, hunting, and barnyard animals. You can learn some of these tunes or you can make up your own. You may even think of ways to use a harmonica to imitate sounds more typical of modern life — car alarms and ringing cellphones, for instance. Noisemakers and fast switches. Some harmonica players, like Peter Madcat Ruth, make several fast switches among different harmonicas, duck calls, party noisemakers that puff up or unfurl, and other items, while playing in strict rhythm. These fast switches and noisemakers are visually exciting, and the sounds of the different noisemakers playing in rhythm are sure to get a chuckle. The different harps can be identical or they can be in high or low ranges for dramatic contrast. They can even be in different keys to add excitement.

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More Than 10 Harmonica Albums You Should Hear

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The harmonica isn't limited to blues, folk, and rock music. You might be surprised to learn that several classical, pop, and world albums feature the harmonica. Check out the following albums to hear the various ways the harmonica can be used. It'll be an ear-opening experience. Classical The introduction of the chromatic harmonica in 1910 allowed harmonica players to tackle complex music, and pretty soon, famous composers were writing concertos for the harmonica. Here are two recommendations in the classical category: Robert Bonfiglio, Robert Bonfiglio with the New York Chamber Symphony, Villa-Lobos: Harmonica Concerto, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5: Aria (RCA Red Seal Records): Bonfiglio is the world's premier classical harmonicist, regularly playing concertos with symphony orchestras worldwide. This CD presents a concerto written for John Sebastian by 20th-century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos. Tommy Reilly, Tommy Reilly and Skaila Kanga Play British Folk Songs (Chandos Records): Canadian-born Reilly went to Germany to study classical violin just as World War II broke out. During his five years as a prisoner of war, he had ample time to polish his harmonica technique. This CD presents his silvery chromatic harmonica phrasing accompanied by stringed harp. Other names to look for in classical harmonica include Philip Achille, Larry Adler, Franz Chmel, Sigmund Groven, Jim Hughes, John Sebastian the elder (father of the blues/rock musician John B. Sebastian, who plays a mean blues harp), Douglas Tate, and Yasuo Watani. Pop Popular music is distinct from both rock and blues in its greater emphasis on melody. Here are some recommendations in the pop category: Larry Adler, Maestro of the Mouth Organ (ASV Living Era): Adler's trademark dark, throbbing tone and rhythmic high energy defined the sound of the harmonica for several generations in both the United States and Great Britain. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds and Smile (Capitol): Harmonica player Tommy Morgan was part of the Wrecking Crew, a group of Los Angeles recording studio musicians that backed many of the finest pop artists during the 1960s and '70s. Morgan worked with Linda Ronstadt, the Carpenters, and many others, but perhaps his most comprehensive and unusual work was with Brian Wilson, who underscored many of the vocal parts on Beach Boys records with harmonica, occasionally letting a harmonica note shine through or featuring a bass harmonica solo. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (Parlophone/Capitol): Paul McCartney, like Brian Wilson, felt that the harmonica helped audiences relate to music by giving it a certain warmth. Even after John Lennon gave up playing diatonic harmonica on such early hits as "Love Me Do," the band still managed to sneak bass and chord harmonicas into "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Fool on the Hill." The Harmonicats, Jerry Murad's Harmonicats: Greatest Hits/Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom White (Collectables Records): The Harmonicats were an all-harmonica trio that had a huge hit record in 1947 with Peg O' My Heart and continued to be a popular act for nearly 50 years. Interestingly, as of this writing, Amazon.com indicates that this record is ranked No. 28 in popularity for indie easy listening — even higher than it was when the first edition of Harmonica For Dummies was published! Lee Oskar, War, The Very Best of War (Rhino Records): In the early 1970s, War introduced a new synthesis of pop and R&B that featured Lee Oskar's blues-influenced yet non-blues harmonica both as part of the horn section and as a solo instrument (remember "Low Rider"?). Stevie Wonder, Eivets Rednow, Eivets Rednow (Motown): Stevie Wonder has made dozens of great harmonica recordings that dot the landscape of his and other artists' albums. This one, made under the pseudonym Eivets Rednow (Stevie Wonder spelled backwards), features some amazing playing that harp players are still enthusing about. World Around the world, musicians have interpreted the repertoire of their national traditions on the harmonica with great flair. Here are a few recommendations in the world category: Hugo Díaz, Tangos (Acqua Argentina): Hugo Díaz adapted the harmonica to both tango and Argentine folk music in an arresting manner that has never been duplicated, as heard in this collection. Isom Fontenot, various artists, Folksongs of the Louisiana Acadians (Arhoolie Records): Cajun harmonica player Isom Fontenot is prominently featured in some great down-home music with the true Cajun flavor and some really fine harmonica. Gabriel Labbé, Gabriel Labbé and Philippe Bruneau, Masters of French Canadian Music, Vol. 3 (Smithsonian Folkways): Gabriel Labbé was the last of the old-time tremolo harmonica players of Quebec. The buoyancy of his highly rhythmic style shows the true spirit of French-Canadian tradition in this collection of dance tunes. Sväng, Sväng (Aito Records): Sväng is a high-energy Finnish harmonica quintet whose repertoire encompasses tango, gypsy music, and a bit of Finnish folk music. Their music uses the traditional bass harmonica, chromatic, and chord harp, but they show influences from blues harp and other trends in modern music.

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Why Is a Harmonica Called a Harp When It Doesn't Have Strings?

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Both harmonica and harp are borrowed names, and neither one is the only correct name. The harmonica was invented during the Romantic era of Beethoven and Schubert, a time when garden décor included the Aeolian harp, a stringed harp that you set outdoors, where the wind makes the strings vibrate. Even though the harmonica has reeds sounded by a player's breath instead of strings sounded by the wind, some early harmonica makers referred to their instruments as Aeolian harps by way of poetic association. Early harmonica makers in German-speaking countries used the term mundharfe (mouth harp). Still others called it mundharmonika (mouth harmonica), borrowing the name of the glass harmonica, which is played with a moistened fingertip rubbed on the rim of a glass. Meanwhile, American books were comparing the harmonica to a harp as early as 1830, and the introduction of a model called the French Harp in the 1880s may have helped to popularize calling it a harp in the American South.

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How to Hold and Position the Harmonica

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Got a shiny new harp all snug in its box? You’re probably eager to crack the lid, pull out that harmonica, and start playing. Let’s start off with a tryout and some basic pointers. Here’s a quick preview. Picking up the harp Before you do anything, look at the harp and the printing on the covers. It has a top and a bottom. On the top cover you’ll see the name of the harmonica engraved or stamped into the metal. Some popular models include the Special 20, Lee Oskar, Blues Session, and Harpmaster. Just above the holes in the front of the harp are the numbers 1 through 10, from left to right. Locating these markings helps you get the harmonica right-side up and facing the right way. To get your harmonica ready to play, be sure to follow these steps: When you pick up the harp, make sure the name and hole numbers are on top. For now, pick up the harmonica by the right and left ends with your forefingers and thumbs, as if you were picking up an ear of corn and getting ready to eat it. Putting the harp in your mouth When you’re holding the harp by its ends, place it in your mouth with these steps: Open your mouth wide like you’re going to yawn. With your mouth wide open, use your forearms to bring the harmonica to your mouth. Don’t move your head; move the harmonica instead. Place the harp between your lips until you feel the harp touching the corners of your mouth, where your top and bottom lips meet. Let your lips close gently over the covers. Keep your lips relaxed, resting gently on the harp covers without any lip pressure. Don’t tense them up or curl them inward. To get a good sound without letting air escape, your lips should form an airtight seal around the harp. If you keep your lips relaxed and you can feel the harmonica touching the corners of your mouth, you should get a good seal. This video will show you how to get the harmonica in your mouth. When you first start playing a new harmonica, you don’t need to break it in. Just warm it up first by cupping it in your hands or putting it under your arm for a few minutes. If you’ve had something to eat or drink recently — especially a sugary or thick beverage or anything oily or with a lot of fragments (such as nuts) — you should rinse your mouth out or even brush your teeth before you try your new harmonica. Food residue can clog up your harp — not to mention make it smell and taste unpleasant. Breathing through the harp After you have the harp in your mouth, you can get it to make a sound simply by breathing in and out. For now, no special techniques are required. Just follow these steps: Try inhaling gently like you’re taking a normal breath. As you breathe, you should hear a chord, which is several notes sounding at once. After you’ve inhaled for a few seconds, gently exhale like you’re breathing normally. You should hear a different chord. You’ve just discovered one of the coolest things about the harmonica: You get notes and chords by breathing out and also breathing in. Leave the harp in your mouth for a while and gently alternate between inhaling for a few seconds and then exhaling for a few seconds. Feel the sensation of the harp in your mouth, focus on your breath moving in and out, and listen to the sound of the harp. You do this to get comfortable with the feeling of breathing through the harp. Moving through the holes Your mouth may cover two or three holes, but you’ve got ten holes to play around with. Try moving around by sliding the harp sideways in your mouth, so that you slide to the high holes on the right, back through the middle, all the way to the low holes, and back to the middle holes. The harp should glide easily in your mouth, with no friction, and without dragging your lips along with it.

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Tips for Buying Your First Harmonica

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

What do you need to know to buy your first harmonica? Your first harmonica doesn’t need to be gold-plated or encrusted with rubies, but it does need to be airtight, responsive to your breath, and in tune. Pricing a harmonica The cheaper the harp’s price, the more likely it will be leaky, unresponsive, and out of tune. But that doesn’t mean you have to take out a loan to buy a harp that plays well. A decent harmonica costs about $30. Use that price as your guide for what to pay. You can pay a little more or a little less, but be aware of the following guidelines: If you buy a harmonica that costs less than $8, you may get lucky and find a decent harp. But the odds aren’t good, and they get much worse as the price goes lower. If you pay much more than $30, you’ll get a good harp, but it may be more than you need right now. New players often damage harps from breathing too hard, so you may as well start with something economical (as long as it’s airtight, responsive, and in tune). Among the better-known manufacturers whose product lines include good-quality instruments are Hering, Hohner, Lee Oskar, Seydel, Suzuki, and Tombo. The following models are good-quality, reasonably priced starter harmonicas: Hohner Special 20, Lee Oskar Major Diatonic, Seydel Session Standard, and Suzuki Harpmaster. Determining where to buy a harp If you’re unsure of where to buy your first harmonica, remember that your local music store likely has some good harmonicas for sale. Its prices may be higher than you’d find online, but you’ll come to realize the following three advantages to buying locally: You don’t have to wait. You can walk in and walk out with a new harmonica in a matter of minutes. And the more you and your fellow harp players buy locally, the more likely your local store will stock harmonicas and have them available when you need one. You don’t pay shipping costs. Many online retailers charge for shipping, which can eat up any cost savings on the price of the harp. You don’t have to guess at quality. By buying at a local store, you get to see a harmonica before you buy it. You can sound the notes using the store’s harmonica tester, which is a bellows that lets you sound out individual holes or several holes at once without actually playing the harp. (Your lips will be the first to actually touch your newly purchased harp.) You push the bellows for the blow notes and let it spring back for the draw notes. This test allows you to determine whether all the notes work. And if you sound several holes at once, you can tell whether the harp is in tune. If it sounds bad, it’s probably out of tune. Even though you benefit from shopping at your local music store, remember that it may not stock all the models and keys you want. You may find a wider selection and lower prices from mail-order sellers online, especially the ones that specialize in harmonicas and related accessories. However, don’t forget that you may have to pay for shipping, wait for it to arrive, and then hope that it isn’t defective. Always check out the reputation of an online or mail-order seller. You want to ensure that the seller has quick delivery without long delays, is accurate in sending what you ordered, provides good communication with customers, and has a willingness to solve problems when they occur. To check a seller’s reputation, go to some of the online harmonica discussion groups and ask around or read the group’s recent archived postings.

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Sizing Up Intervals to Play the Harmonica

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Very few people have the ability to name what note they’re hearing. That ability is called absolute pitch or perfect pitch. But most harmonica players and musicians have a much more useful skill: They can hear and describe the relationships among notes using intervals. Those relationships create structure in scales, melodies, chords, and harmonies. When you know the structures, the specific notes are just details that you can figure out. Counting out the size of an interval An interval is the distance between two pitches. You measure the size of an interval by starting with the letter name of the first pitch and then counting up or down the scale to the second pitch. You already know two intervals — the unison, where two people sing the same note, and the octave, where they sing two pitches that are eight notes apart in the scale. You can memorize all the intervals, but it’s easy to figure out any interval just by counting: Choose one of the notes and give it the number 1. Count up or down to the other note. The resulting number gives you the interval. Seconds: Counting up from A to B (1, 2) gives you a second. So does B to C, C to D, and so on. Thirds: Count up 1, 2, 3. Fourths: Count up 1, 2, 3, 4. Fifths: Count up 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Sixths: Count up 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Sevenths: Count up 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. If you’re starting with a specific note name and want to know what note would be, say, a fifth above it, just start on the note name you know, count up 5, and you’ll arrive at the other note name. Here are all the intervals up to an octave counting up from any note name. 1 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th Octave A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G When you’re figuring out the size of an interval, only letter names matter. Sharps and flats have no effect. However, flats and sharps do affect the quality of intervals. Determining the quality of an interval While every interval has a size counted in letter names, it also has a quality measured in semitones. For instance, the second between C and D is a whole tone. However, the second between E and F is only a semitone. So one of those seconds is bigger and one is smaller. The bigger second is called a major second and the smaller second is called a minor second. All intervals have at least two qualities, even the octave. Here are the most widely used qualities of intervals. Interval Size Interval Quality Number of Semitones Second Minor 1 Second Major 2 Third Minor 3 Third Major 4 Fourth Perfect 5 Fourth Augmented 6 Fifth Diminished 6 Fifth Perfect 7 Fifth Augmented 8 Sixth Minor 8 Sixth Major 9 Seventh Minor 10 Seventh Major 11 Octave Perfect 12

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