Guide to Harmonicas

One of the most popular instruments to fool around on, harmonicas have a long history; they have been played in one form or another since their invention in the Far East around 1000 BC. Early harmonicas used reeds and bamboo resonating pipes. The modern kind that makes such distinctive music in the hands of Chicago bluesman Little Walter or jazz legend Toots Thielemans usually has metal covers, a wood or plastic “comb,” and brass reed plates. Thielemans, incidentally, began his career as an accordionist; he took up harmonica as a hobby. This guide to harmonicas can help you find the right pocket-sized ax, just for you.

Harmonicas are wind instruments. They belong to the reed family of winds, along with single reed instruments (such as the clarinet) and double reed instruments (such as the bassoon). The harmonica, like the accordion and the reed pipe organ, is a “free reed” instrument, which means its reeds do not strike another surface to make sound.

Thanks in part to their ruggedness, the metal reeds can literally be blown this way and that to increase the instrument’s normal range. A standard, inexpensive “blues harp” has 10 holes, each of which can be blown (breathing out) or drawn (breathing in) to produce 20 different notes. Some notes on a blues harmonica can further be “bent” by changing the shape of the mouth to produce sharps and flats. Add to that advanced techniques such as cross harp, overblows, wah-wah, tongue slaps, throat vibrato, and miking and you have an instrument that is more than the sum of its parts.

The number of harmonica styles, brands, and variations on the market can be daunting for a beginner. What’s more, this instrument is still evolving, with new models offered every few years, such as the Hohner XB 40, the Tombo/Lee Oskar Melody Maker, or the Suzuki Overdrive. If you’re starting out, you should first choose the style of harmonica that suits the music you wish to play. If you’re a fan of bluesman James Cotton or jazzman Howard Levy, you’ll want to start out on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica. Fans of Larry Adler, will choose a chromatic harmonica (the one with the button on the side), while traditional folk music often employs the tremolo harmonica.

Once you have chosen the style of harmonica you need, you may have to choose a key to play in. Ten-hole diatonic blues harmonicas come in a number of keys—you may have seen Blues Traveler’s John Popper with his “gun belt” full of different harmonicas. For playing blues, it is recommended that you begin with a harmonica in the straight harp key of C.

Remember, with a little practice (especially in cross harp technique), you’ll be able to use this one harp to play in the key of G, D minor, and A minor. From there, you can explore the rich world of harmonica tunings—Tombo/Lee Oskar, for instance, offers 14 versions of its standard 10-hole diatonic harmonica alone!

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