Baby Steps

There are a few simple steps that I can give to help guide you through these wonderful (yet painful) days as you begin to play the harmonica. First off, you need a harmonica!

Ah, if only harmonicas bred and thrived in the wild, you could easily capture one and tame it. But things don't work like that (Not anymore, at least). You must do what the rest of us do: endure the long heavy trial that is harmonica hunting.

harmonica hunting

The Harmonica Hunt

Buying a harmonica is not something you want to approach lightly. If this is something you're taking seriously, then you should do the research. Don't pick up a harmonica at a gas station, or at somebody's garage sale. If you want a harmonica that will treat you well, remember the saying "You get what you pay for."

For your first harmonica, I reccomend buying one with a plastic comb, not wood. This helps you avoid some obvious jokes ("Sounds like your harmonica has some real bad termmites in there!"), but I also suggest plastic because wooden ones are a bit more finicky. And the splinters are killer.

Second, don't go above your pay grade. Start modest. Don't go out looking at a $100 chromatic with gold filigree and a jewel-encrusted rim. That's just silly. A 10-hole diatonic is what you need.

Stay basic. Don't go off and grab a B♭ harp, for crying out loud. You'll sound like a goose in mating season, and people will give you funny looks. C major is nice.

Beginner's Follies

Now that you've got a decent harmonica, you're probably going to be bursting with excitement. "I can buy the world!" you'll think. Not so fast. There's still a lot to cover, so pay attention:

  1. Pucker up, buttercup.
  2. When you start playing, you're going to have a hard time hitting just one note. Pucker your lips like you're whistling until you can hit each note without overflowing into the other ones.

  3. Be gentle.
  4. You are supposed to be holding the harmonica as close to your teeth as possible. That's why it's called a tin sandwich. But please do not leave bite marks.

  5. Use your diaphragm.
  6. This one confuses a lot of new harmonica players, and has kept me puzzled for ages. I always thought the diaphragm was some random thing in your body like the spleen, which is in there just to mess with surgeons who practice for brain surgery by playing that old "Operation!" board game.

    Turns out most people need a diaphragm, unless you've had an accordian surgically inserted into your chest cavity. It's the muscle that pumps the lungs, so you're actually using it all the time. Use it carefully to control your airflow. Airflow is everything to a harmonica player.

  7. Fluids are good.
  8. Work the tune together as it's supposed to sound. Move from one note to the next in seamless transition, like a Canadian goose in flight (I'm really bad with cheesy metaphors, aren't I?).

  9. Übung macht den Meister.
  10. A bit of German seemed appropriate. Those guys did invent the harmonica, after all. This phrase means "Practice makes perfect." I not sure whether they were talking about playing the harmonica or throwing massive beer-themed parties every year. They've had a lot of practice at both.

The Expert's Advice

I talked to James Young, a harmonica player who works at Lipham Music Co., Inc. in Gainesville, Fla. about an issue that most beginning harmonica players neglect: harmonica maintenance.

Taking care of your harmonica isn't all that difficult, he said. Most harmonicas come with a case. Whenever you aren't playing it, it is important to keep the harmonica in the case. Some harmonica players use a foam case as an added precaution.

As you may have noticed, the harmonica does not have a spit valve. This can make it very difficult to clean out without a repair kit. There are a few things you can do to help though.

Although getting saliva in the harmonica is unavoidable, it is important that your mouth is clean when play. Don't play right after eating, or even drinking Coke, beer, or other flavored beverages. You do not want your harmonica to taste like a mildewing minivan.

Eventually, your reed plates will get blown out, Young said. When this happens, you can take advantage of the harmonica modular system. Lee Oskar offers replacement reeds, as does Hohner.

However, the Hohner Big River, Marine Band, and Pro Harp all use the same reed plates, and can be easily disassembled with a small screwdriver. It is a simple operation to buy a cheap Big River Harp, take out the plates, and put them in your busted Pro Harp. That's a bit of insider harmonica knowledge for you, so guard it wisely.