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Harmonica Playing Tips

Here is a collection of instructional one liners. They include rules of thumb, playing tips, and common sense rules of physics and nature that apply to harmonica playing.

The tips, songs, and instruction on this website are samples and exerpts from Harmonica Lessons.com. Many of the links below will lead to additional information at HarmonicaLessons.com.




Starting Out:
  • The further you can put the harmonica into your mouth without losing the single note, the better.

  • Listen to as much harmonica as you can. Make a tape of your favorite players and songs and listen to it over and over again. Drive time is ideal for this.

  • If you are just starting out on harmonica, don't try to "play music" right away. Spend a couple of weeks just concentrating on the basic techniques; establishing good habits with single notes, holding the harmonica, etc. The "music" will come soon enough.

  • Stay as relaxed as you can when you play and practice. You will use your energy much more efficiently and ultimately be able to play faster and last longer. The trouble areas for tension are usually: the shoulders, the neck, and the whole face in general, but especially the eyes and mouth area. Watch yourself in the mirror.

  • There is no such thing as cheating in music. Do the best you can to follow the rules and steps in learning the basics, but foremost, try to make things work. Bending is a great example. Do whatever it takes to make the note bend; you can clean up the technique later.

  • If you find your lips sticking to the harmonica when you slide or move from hole to hole, lick your lips and the mouthpiece part of the harmonica before playing. Do this whenever necessary. Click here for Additional Beginning Harmonica Tips.


General Tips:
  • Get in the habit of frequently rapping the harmonica (mouthpiece side down) against your leg or palm to knock out the excess saliva and condensation from your breath. Do this before and after you put the harmonica into your mouth. If the reeds are stuck together with saliva, they can't vibrate and make sound.

  • To get the best results from your practice sessions, "don't over do it and don't under do it". There is no need to work on something so long that you get so fatigued that you can't play again after a reasonable amount of rest. It's easy to burn out mentally if you frustrate yourself by expecting results and perfection too soon. On the other hand, don't give up too quickly. Sometimes persistence, quality repetition, and a little sweat, are the best ways to gain improvement.

  • Whenever possible, be in a standing position if you are playing or practicing. Especially when you are working on your breathing technique, stand erect with your head up, back straight, and body relaxed so that you have a fighting chance of getting the airflow to originate from your diaphragm and not your mouth.

  • Generally speaking, on a standard diatonic harmonica, holes 1-6 draw and holes 7-10 blow are capable of being bent (to a lower note).

  • Whenever you do a basic draw or blow bend on the harmonica, it will always go down in pitch (lower). Bending notes on a stringed instrument like guitar, the note will always go up in pitch. Different rules of physics.

  • Your body remembers whatever it repeats. This is called muscle memory. Every time you play something, right or wrong, your body is learning it. Take your time when you practice, do it slowly and correctly, and then play it as many times as you can. This creates what is referred to as a "good habit".



SAMPLE VIDEO:  How to Play Harmonica for Beginners
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A simple playing tip to speed up your movement and add accuracy in single notes.
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Dave gives a general overview of what you can obtain from both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas in regards to harmonica chords.
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In this excerpt, Dave discusses some of the reasons for playing in either 1st Position or 2nd Position.

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Harmonica Technique Tips:
  • Correct breathing for the harmonica means N O T sucking and N O T blowing into the harmonica. Sucking and blowing occurs with your lips and at the front of the mouth. Put the harmonica further into your mouth to avoid this problem. More Breathing Tips and Info.

  • The first thing, physically, that should happen when you play a note on the harmonica, is that your stomach (diaphragm) moves. This movement creates the airflow that ultimately makes the sound come out the harmonica.

  • The secret to good hand effects is understanding what makes them, and when to use them. The object is to trap the sound into the largest and most airtight cup you can make with your hands. The perceived change of sound is actually a change of volume. Opening and closing your bottom hand rapidly will create what is called "hand tremelo". You can apply this effect to long held notes which tend to fall at the ends of phrases. Visit this link for more detailed info.

  • Always try to move the harmonica and not your head when you play. This will allow you to play faster and more efficiently in the future. Watch yourself in the mirror to REALLY check.

  • Avoid "over-single noting". Always try to use 100% of the hole, that is, the whole hole, when making single notes to gain better volume, tone, and so that you use less effort when you play. For more information. Click here for Single Note Lessons.

  • To get better tone, more volume, and better intonation when you play, focus your airflow through the hole of the harmonica and not just into it.
    *NOTE- Angled airflow is why so many beginners cannot get a good sound out of 2 and 3 draw. If there is any angle to your airflow, then you will be unintentionally bending every note you play and some of the high notes may not come out at all. More Breathing Instruction.

  • Bending is only two things: 1. Breathing & 2. Shifting. Breathing is what makes the sound come out and shifting is what actually makes the note change pitch. Shifting is accomplished by changing the angle of the air flow.
    *NOTE- this angle of the shifting is not the same on every bendable note. Each reed based on how far it is capable of bending, determines where its own "sweet spot" is. It sometimes seems like it takes different techniques on different holes to make them bend , but the only thing that should change technically is the "sweet spot". Click here for Detailed Bending and Harmonica Technque Instruction.


Becoming More Musical:
  • All great players have two things in common: good tone (sound) and good timing (rhythm).

  • To be able to play longer riffs and phrases, you need to string together some shorter riffs (i.e. triplet patterns). Don't be afraid to commit your own riffs/melodies to memory.

  • One of the first things you should do after playing a new song or riff a few times, is to close the book, turn over the sheet, or look away from the monitor and then try to play it from memory. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will commit it to memory and put some "feel" into the song or riff. You may not get it perfect the first time when you're not looking, but that's ok. You can always take another peek and correct your mistakes. This is also a simple, easy way to do some ear training, if you don't give in too soon and look at the notes. Try to sound it out, it gets easier as your ear gets better.

  • Get the music in your head first. If you can't hum, sing, or whistle a riff or song, you don't have it in your head, and therefore, don't really know it yet.

  • To make your soloing more melodic; use more repetition of single riffs and use longer pauses between riffs. The repetition keeps your playing simpler and more memorable. The longer pauses (or rests) gives your listeners time to take in and digest what you just played. Click here for Blues Riffs and Jamming Instruction.

  • All harmonica players and musicians need to continue working on their timing, regardless of their level. The best way to do this is to practice 1/4 notes and whole notes to an amplified drum machine. With a drum machine, you can hear and FEEL the beat. A metronome is a second choice, but if you use one, make sure you can really hear it at your best playing volume. Avoid using the blinking lights that come with some metronomes because it doesn't simulate a real musical situation.

  • The basic beat of most music, 1/4 notes, can be divided into 2 types of 1/8 notes. Straight 1/8 notes are 1/4 notes exactly divided in half and give you a "rock" feel. Shuffled or swung 1/8 notes are really the first and third notes of a triplet, and this is the most common groove or feel in blues and early rock and roll. Click here for Music and Harmonica Theory.

  • It's always better to learn 3 songs (or riffs) well, then it is to learn 10 songs not as well. Put another way, it's better to sound good on only 3 songs then to sound mediocre on 10.

  • Fills vs. Leads vs. Backup- make sure that when you are playing with people, at any given moment, you know your role. Should you be playing a solo, or playing fills between vocal lines, or playing backup, or nothing? Avoid over playing and under playing. If you don't know whether you're doing one or the other, ask the people you're playing with. Or better yet, tape yourself, let it sit a day or two and then judge for yourself.

  • "Don't follow in the footsteps of the masters, walk where they walked".



SAMPLE VIDEO:  Advanced Harmonica Tips
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Dave explains how the concept of "Follow Through", as found in many sports, also applies directly to your breathing and airflow.
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Dave explains the value of not just learning a scale up and down, but dividing it into smaller "bite-size" chunks, which can then be used as blues riffs.
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Dave demonstrates how you can use the "Tonguing" technique to create interesting sounds such as the "Chicken Call".

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 Attend up to 12 Live Classes per Month

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at
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 * Dave Gage - 30 Year Teaching Pro







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