Learn me some harmonica!
April 15, 2007 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone had any success trying to learn how to play the harmonica with online lessons?

What with YouTube and all that, there seems to be lots of people with "lessons" that just amount to them showing off that they can play... or teases to try to sell an instructional CD or DVD or book.
I don't mind parting with a few bucks to learn... I'd just rather not get shafted.
So any advice/guidance would be appreciated!
posted by Tbola to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I will teach you how to play the harmonic right now. (I've played harp for many years and am confident I can teach anyone to play in a half hour).

First thing is to understand that each harp is keyed differently - you're going to want to get the right harp for each song. It's complicated but suffice to say, you play "straight harp" when you play the same key as the song's written in, and "cross harp" when you count up three harps from the key the song's written in. (i.e. if the song is in G, you play a C harp. Count up, A, B, C, there ya go). Cross Harp = bluesy sounding and Straight Harp = uh...happier...sort of bluegrassy, folk sounding. That's all the theory you need.

Hold the harp in your left hand, highest note on the right. Sandwich the harp between your index finger and your thumb, as though the fingers are the bread and the harp is the fixins. These two finger hold the harp. Now take your right hand and cup it around the back of the harp. You don't want to hold it too tight - but rest your right thumb against the rightmost side of the harp. Now when you flap your right hand you get your vibrato going. Blow from deep in your diaphragm. If it gets too hard, you can breath through your nose a bit when you're blowing. Blow hard. You'll screw up more reeds but it'll make you sound like a rock star, and that's what you want. We're not playin the penny whistle here.

STEP ONE. Learn how to play one note at a time. It works exactly how you think it does. You make a kissy face and you blow or draw over a reed. Until you've learned to do this well, over and over again, all over the harp, don't practice anything else. ONE NOTE AT A TIME.
Did you learn how to play one note at a time? Good. Step two is to learn how to bend a note. Easier to do this on a draw than it is on a blow, and this is what makes you sound like a badass. Basically, bending a note forces the reed back on itself. Or something. You're going to take a nice big draw, and pull the back of your tongue up toward your soft palate, so the tip of your tongue is pointed at the bottom of your mouth. Do this (ONE NOTE AT A TIME) over and over again. Just keep sucking on that harp and moving your tongue to the back of your mouth until it happens. When it does, it'll be like a bolt of lightning and you'll never forget how to do it. You can bend on a blow, but it's much more difficult.
Beyond that, if you can say "tikka-tikka-tikkity-tikka-tik" you can do staccato stuff and punctuate your notes with rythm. If you want to sound good on stage, buy a Green Bullet and play it into a Fender tube amp or any other amp with a good distortion peddle.

THAT'S IT! Everything else is theory and you can leave that to the dorks at the music dept. You'll be too busy catchin' panties on stage and bangin roadies.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:26 PM on April 15, 2007 [25 favorites]

Buy an A harp, a C harp, a G harp....and maybe a D harp. Play along to your favorite songs. As with any instrument, it takes practice, but you can totally, TOTALLY learn how to do this without lessons or shelling out cash for some theory-laden dork book that won't make you into a rockstar any quicker than just learning yourself. It's really, really hard to sound bad playing the harmonica, as long as you're playing in the right key. (And that's easy).
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:29 PM on April 15, 2007

Ditto Baby_Balrog, and when your playing along to recordings, try to work out (by listening) how the notes the harp player plays relate to the lead singer or guitarist.
posted by signal at 1:44 PM on April 15, 2007

Baby_Balrog, as a "dork in the music dept." who wants to learn the harmonica, I thank you for your fantastic mini-tutorial. Going to go buy a harp or 2 tomorrow.
posted by rossination at 2:02 PM on April 15, 2007

I have a quick question.

"Blow hard. You'll screw up more reeds but it'll make you sound like a rock star, and that's what you want."

Okay: I have a Hohner Chromatic (in F) and when I blow hard, the notes on the lower half go flat and sound strangled.

The Hohner people say, yes, that's what it does, and with lower notes especially, you get a much better tone by blowing lightly.

Your thoughts?
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:10 PM on April 15, 2007

Listen to Baby Balrog, and practise bends on the second draw note. If you're shaped anything like me, get a D harp with a plastic comb to start out with - I always found they were most comfortable to bend, particularly the old style Hohner Pro Harps.
posted by springload at 5:31 PM on April 15, 2007

KtJ: if you want to play blues or rock, you should get a diatonic, not a chromatic.
posted by signal at 8:56 PM on April 15, 2007

KtJ: - I don't play chromatics (I'm not in a barbershop quartet) - but I'd imagine you're bending the reed - try blowing hard while making the inside of your mouth as big as possible (flatten your tongue against the bottom of your mouth as far down as it will go, creating as big a space in your mouth as possible. Your tongue is what bends the note.)
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:03 AM on April 16, 2007

Karlos, you're making the valves shut by blowing too hard; chromatics are vastly different from diatonics. Diatonics don't have valves, which means you can blow hard and sound like a rockstar with them.
posted by msbrauer at 10:54 AM on April 17, 2007

Cool, thanks all. The chromatic's a hand-me-down; I had no idea chromatics and diatonics were so different. Thanks again!

Tbola -- hope you don't mind my coat-tailing...!
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 2:31 AM on April 18, 2007

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