If you’ve been hankering to try a new instrument, harmonica is an inexpensive choice that’s fairly easy to learn. Harmonicas have been played in one form or another since they were invented in the Far East around 1000 BC. Early versions used reeds and bamboo resonating pipes. Today they usually have a metal cover, a wooden or plastic comb, and brass reed plates.
Harmonicas are wind instruments that belong to the reed family (along with clarinets and bassoons). Thanks in part to their ruggedness, the harmonica’s metal reeds can literally be blown this way and that to increase the instrument’s tonal range. A typical, inexpensive “blues harp” has 10 holes, each of which can be blown (breath out) or drawn (breath in) to produce 20 different notes.
Some notes on a blues harmonica also can 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.
Beginners can start with harmonica “tab” that contains numbers corresponding to the harmonica’s holes, plus arrows indicating if each note is to be blown or drawn. Getting a feel for where the holes are located takes practice and will get easier as you learn what each should sound like.
There are many harmonica styles, brands, and variations on the market. Look for a harmonica that suits the style of music you play. Fans of bluesman James Cotton or jazzman Howard Levy may want to look for a 10-hole diatonic harmonica. Larry Adler enthusiasts should choose a chromatic harp, which has a button on the side to change tones. Traditional folk music often employs tremolo harmonicas.
You may have seen some players using so many harmonicas that they carry them in a “gun belt” across their chests—like Blues Traveler’s John Popper—or even in a tackle box. That’s because the instrument comes in a number of keys. To get started, you don’t need to buy a full complement. For example, if you want to play the blues, start with a diatonic harp in the key of C, D, or G, which are common keys for blues songs.
A “blues harmonica” is usually a 10-hole diatonic harmonica (though the blues can be played on other types of harmonica). A diatonic harmonica produces notes and chords in a single key, so manufacturers offer them in several different keys. Blues beginners should start out with a D or G model.
Each row of holes on an octave harmonica is tuned exactly one octave apart. When the two rows are played together it sounds as though two harmonicas are playing the same melody. This enables a single player to achieve a stronger, full-bodied sound not possible with a standard diatonic harp.
A chromatic harmonica has a button-operated slide that allows players to change the pitch of any given note upward by a half-step. This means that each hole can produce four different pitches, rather than two.
Tremolo harmonicas are somewhat misnamed. “Tremolo” usually refers to a wavering of pitch or volume, but the unique sound of tremolo harmonicas actually comes from an effect called “frequency interference.” The two reeds in each hole are tuned differently, one slightly sharp and the other slightly flat.