A Beginners Guide to the Harmonica

In simple terms the harmonica – often referred to as harp – produces sound by air passing through a metal blade (reed) mounted on a comb so a vibration occurs which produces a note. Varying the reed length will enable variation of pitch; long ones low notes & short one high notes.

The holes on the harmonica will access the different notes from low pitch to high in a musical scale.

Both exhaling (blow) and inhaling (draw) will sound a note.

Diatonic harmonicas are 10 hole instruments tuned to specific keys which offer 20 notes; 10 blow and 10 draw tuned to one of the 12 musical keys.

Almost every diatonic harp sold these days will be played in what is known as ‘second position’ or ‘cross harp’.  Early players looking for a greater range of notes found that using the draw notes offered a more exciting edge to their playing by accessing a blues scale. They could then play with  more character and expression. To achieve this you will need a harp in a complimentary key to the tune.

For example, an easy key for guitar is G and with a harp in C the relationship of the notes works. C is the ideal beginner’s key as most play-along teaching aids use that tuning.

With practice, it is possible to bend draw notes for even more expression. All this combined can readily be applied to rock, folk reggae and more.

When you’re playing songs in different keys with other musicians you will require the correct key combination and the table below lists the second position options.


 G                          C

 Ab                       Db

 A                           D

 Bb                        Eb

 B                           E

 C                           F

 Db                        F#

 D                          G

 Eb                        Ab

 E                           A

 F                           Bb

Harmonica manufacturers employ a variety of materials and design features in the production of their ranges. This offers a number of options to the player. Experiment with different models to find out what works for you. 

With experience you may find varying models brings out other qualities in your playing. It’s quite usual for players to have quite a collection of harps built up over time not just to have the different keys!

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