Harmonica/Basic Holding and Playing a Harmonica

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How to hold harmonica[edit]

For all harmonicas, the lower number should be on your left. If your harmonica does not have numbering system (usually in the case of East Asia Tremolo), the lowest note should be on your left.

  1. Diatonic
    1. Hold the body of the harmonica in the left hand between the thumb and index finger. The three remaining fingers will then be curved slightly, to form a small resonating space.
    2. Place the flat of your right hand over the harmonica (not the mouthpiece side!), and enclose it, forming a tight cup. Optimally, the cup should form a large resonating space.
  2. Tremolo
    1. With the left hand, hold the harmonica somewhere around the left of the center. If one has the strength, hold the harmonica with the thumb and index finger, and let the three remaining fingers curl together to form a resonating space.
    2. With the right hand, hold the harmonica somewhere around the right of the center. If one has the strength, hold the harmonica with the thumb and index finger, and let the three remaining fingerscurl together to form a resonating space. The fingertips of both hands should touch each other, while the palms face each other. Some players also recommended crossing the fingers to ensure a good resonation is formed, but this may hinder the movement of the harmonica.
  3. Chromatic
    There are quite a few variants for holding a chromatic. One is a deviation of the diatonic hold, using the right thumb to work the slide button. This is particularly used by Blues player, which often play Chromatic in 3rd position only.
    The other popular variant is very similar:
    1. With the left hand, hold the harmonica somewhere around the left of the center with the thumb, index and middle fingers.
    2. Then twist your right hand along the wrist, so that the fingers point to a two o'clock position and palm facing up. Place the right palm at the bottom of the harmonica (usually set right below the left thumb) and wrap all the fingers except the index fingers around the harmonica. If done properly, the right wrist will form a right angle. Your index finger will be touching the slide button, and will always be touching there, regardless if you use the button or not. If it's a 16-hole variant, hold it in similar manner, except your cup will be located closer to the center. Alternatively, break up the cup.

I personally have noticed that the cup would be most effecicent when it's formed around the higher register. This also have the benefit of forming a tighter cup, as little to no air will be leaked from that corner. The other corner matters less, since the lower register typically sounds full by itself. Thus, some players will let the cupping right hand cover the entire higher register of the harp: the entire cup will cover the right face of the harp (especially over the corner opening), while the thumb blocks the holes to prevent air loss, as well as providing a tight fit between the cheek and the cup.

Embouchure[edit]

While a player can always widen his or her mouth over several holes (usually at the physical limit of five) and play chords and intervals all the time, the music usually sounds better when the melody is played one note at a time; while intervals may sound great for most beginner songs (usually written in the key of C or G, easily played on a key of C harmonica) as it "thickens" the sound, songs that are just slightly more advanced will sound weird if the interval is done improperly.

In order to play single notes, numerous kinds of embouchure (mouth shape) are most commonly used:

Standard Tongue block[edit]

This embouchure is favored by many skilled players, as there are many effects that can only be done by using tongue block, and, in fact, necessary for jazz and classical playing. Simply put, it involves stretching the mouth over about four to five holes, and then using the tongue to block the holes.

This is the most difficult embrochure, but there are many methods of achieving it.

A few useful tips that will help greatly:

  1. Bring the harmonica deep in your mouth. If the mouthpiece hasn’t penetrated past the front teeth, you need to open your mouth wider and get the whole front of the harp pushed further back in the mouth. This has two effects: it gives you a fuller sound, and allows your breath access to several holes.
  2. Tilt the harmonica so that the mouthpiece is tilted downward; that way, you can use more of the tongue to block, and you will find the technique less tiring.
  3. Push the tongue to the harmonica. Don’t use the tip of your tongue to block the holes - instead, press it to your lower front teeth and gently push the tongue forward so that the top of your tongue contacts the harmonica. This will allow smooth transitions as you move from hole to hole.
  4. After you place your stretched mouth over the holes, jerk the tongue to the left on higher octaves, and to the right on lower octaves - then place the tongue over the holes, such that only one hole is opened for air. If you have problems doing both sides, try jerking the tongue to the left only.
If it seems like you are making more than one sound, either press the tongue wider on the harp, or narrow your lips.
  • Advantage
    • Allows playing of octaves, side-pull, pull, slap, self accompaniment, and many other techniques
    • Allows legato and fast phrasing
    • Louder volume; Lips can create higher pressure on the harmonica, which can create higher pressure in the cavity of the mouth.
    • Allow changing tonal quality through manipulation of oral cavity
    • Allow longer playing; tongue block allow air flow into the mouth
  • Disadvantage
    • Harder to bend with the tongue (but not impossible, if one can control airflow properly)
    • Harder to utilize free-tongue specific techniques (such as singing into the harp)

Pucker[edit]

This is probably the instinctive single-note playing most players adapted: the lips narrowed to a small hole, so that the breath was directed into one hole at a time.

  • Advantage:
    • Learning curve is small (as I said, instinctive embouchure)
    • Frees up the tongue for many other Blues-oriented effects, such as bending, tongue vibrato, and singing into the harp
    • Good for very short staccato passages
  • Disadvantage:
    • Difficult to play legato, since it actually involves moving the entire harmonica from side to side.
    • Lack or surplus of air can only be maintained through the nose.

Lip Block[edit]

In blues, a different lip block is used:

  1. Stretch your mouth across approximately 3-4 holes
  2. Tilt the rear of the harmonica upward (or tilt the mouthpiece-side downward) so that the lower lip touches the comb, which should properly block the non-playing holes on both sides of the current hole.
  3. Upper lip should be on top of the upper cover plate.
  • Advantage:
    • Same as pucker, but allows for even more throat techniques (e.g. throat vibrato) and bending (as now you can also use your lips to control the embrochure)
  • Disadvantage:
    • Same as pucker, plus difficult to control the proper tone, since bending is not very easy.
    • Not as loud since it's easy for the lower lip to get in the way, quieting the reeds.

U-Block[edit]

A complementation option require much greater dexterity on the tongue; curl your tongue into a "U", and use it to direct the airflow to the holes.

  • Advantage
    • provide fast speed when moving up and down the harmonica
  • Disadvantage
    • Require much more concentration; if one did not focus enough, there will be no airflow toward the hole.
    • Require throat bending
    • Unable to utilize tongue block specific techniques.

The U-block should be used mainly as a complement of the tongue block, as it allows rapid switching of notes that lies between the two outermost notes.

Playing (and proper way to breathe)[edit]

Quite a lot of people, particularly those that just bought a harmonica, will just blow into the holes. Remember that the Harmonica uses airflow in both directions to play notes! Try it! Hear the notes that are played with in each airflow direction! (If it sounds weird, don't worry: we will come back to it later.)

The key point is to breathe from the diaphragm. That is, you need to breathe past the chest and into your lungs; your stomach, not your chest, should be the one that expands and contracts as you breathe. Also, you don't need to breathe hard; just breathe like you usually do.

Vocaling[edit]

One unique way to modify the sound of the harmonica is by singing or speaking into it. The following lists a few words/methods to try:

  • Words
    • RU, DU, TU, in Persian(رو - دو - تو )
    • HUY in Persian(هوی)
    • Ta, Da, Ka, Ga
    • Ya, Gya, Tya, Kya - a bend that was released quickly, good for grace notes
    • Dow, Gow - make a note start natural before bending it slightly
    • pit - good for really short notes
    • Toil - produce an echo-like effect
    • Too-wee - for producing a train whistle style note
  • Other
    • Cough


Harmonica
Getting started: Why should I Play Harmonica? | Types of harmonica | Anatomy of a Harmonica | Harmonica Purchasing guide
Playing the harmonica: Basic Holding and Playing a Harmonica | Tablature | Basic Chords | Bending
Additional techniques: Advance Chords | Advance techniques | Self accompaniment
General harmonica theory: Chromatic Harmonica | Positions | Tremelo | Ensemble Playing | Music Style | Learning Songs | Improvising | Recording | Playing with Amp
Cleaning and maintainence: Basic Maintainence and Care | Advance Maintainence |Harmonica Modifications |Tuning
Appendices: Harmonica Layouts and Alternate Tunings| Harmonica Positions Chart | Blues | Writing Songs