Got any suggestions for harmonica tunes I could learn?
July 23, 2004 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I've just acquired a harmonica and would like to learn some tunes. Any suggestions? I know how to read music, if that helps, and my harmonica is in C.
posted by Orange Goblin to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
If you can read music then it's relatively straight forward, you just need to find some easyish sheet music. Most music stores will have some of this stuff. Note that the largest difficulty with harmonica, compared to other instruments, is that you've got no accidentals (unless you have a chromatic harp, which you don't) so you really do need to play songs in the key of C (or transpose) and without too many accidentals (although you can bend notes when you get good. But still, not all of them, and probably not a half step)
posted by RustyBrooks at 3:57 PM on July 23, 2004

The only thing I know about harmonicas is that most blues is played (in?) cross harp. I think that means you'll be playing in G.
posted by Eamon at 4:13 PM on July 23, 2004

Cross harp gives you the notes of the tonic chord (G, in this case) on the draw notes (instead of the blow notes) where they are much easier to bend, i.e., flatten.
posted by timeistight at 4:15 PM on July 23, 2004

most songbooks you'll find will be in some form of pidgin notation centered around the numbering of the holes.

The most common is "Number" = blow... "Circle around Number" = draw...

Here's an example of another method of notation... arrow 'away' = blow, arrow 'towards' = draw. (I'm looking at the link now... and some of those songs are in "second position" [playing your C harp in G]... sort of an advanced lesson. The curved 'towards' arrow is a bent note... and might have to save that for when you're a bit more comfortable with the instrument).

The most important thing that a beginner should concentrate on is being able to play clear single notes without using his or her tongue. Make the skinniest oval you can with your lips (skinny... vertically, the long dimension is up and down) and get a good tight (and deep) seal on the harmonica and practice moving from note to note.

Keep the upper lip very pliant... it often helps to tilt the harmonica 'up' to train yourself away from the more natural "stiff upper lip."

Playing in "first position" (ie. playing your C harp in the key of C) is fairly intuative after mastering fluid transitions between clear single notes... you'll be suprised how easy it is to play a song by ear.
posted by cadastral at 7:05 PM on July 23, 2004

Yeah - cross harp is really a blues/jazz thing. Cross harp gives you a flat 7th for free and makes the 3rd of the scale a draw note, which is much easier to bend downwards. Flat 7th + flat 3rd = blues scale.

If you do not want to be moaning the blues but instead want to play old timey stuff, then you should be playing straight harp, ie in the same key as the harmonica.

If you want to emulate Larry Adler, then you will have to shell out for a chromatic harmonica, which comes with those extra in-between notes.

So: I prescribe blues in F. If you want to stay in blues mode, St James Infirmary would repay some effort. Worried Man Blues ("It takes a worried man...") paradoxically works quite well in straight harp. Wayfaring Stranger and othe old tunes of that kind are easy and sound suitably mournful. ("Before I die, son, play me a tune on that harmonica...")

There are two techniques for playing clean notes. One is as cadastral prescribed above. Some people find another approach easier: have your mouth open enough for three holes, and block one side and the middle hole off with your tongue, leaving one open. The all-important seal is much easier this way.

Bending (ie lowering the pitch of a note as you play it) requires you to drop your jaw and suck hard. The more you bend a harp, the more broken in the reeds get and the easier it will be. You can bend blow notes by breathing extra hard, but it's much more difficult.

Your harmonica is a wind instrument, and all winds benefit from what they call "tonguing", which is simply blocking the air flow with your tongue at the start of the note to provide a sharp attack. So when you play, try saying ta ta ta or dit dit dit as you blow/draw.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:32 AM on July 24, 2004

Response by poster: I can already do single notes and bends - I should have mentioned I play clarinet, so that has helped in learning. That Amazing Grace link was useful - funnily enough it was one of the songs I tried playing by ear earlier. Is there anyway I can get more sheet music like that for free?
posted by Orange Goblin at 3:27 AM on July 24, 2004

I first thought you were talking about this Amazing Grace link, but then I realized you weren't.
posted by emelenjr at 6:46 AM on July 24, 2004

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