For any guitarist who has every thought of expanding their musical abilities I have a story for you. When playing guitar by oneself it sometimes does not sound complete. Perhaps another instrument is sometimes needed to give a fuller sound? But wouldn't it be great if you could play that second instrument at the same time as the guitar to make yourself into a one man band? Well I felt the same way so I decided to learn how to play the harmonica
Throughout my entire life I have loved music. I grew up listening to the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen because of my Dad. I then developed my own style of musical taste. I have played guitar for about six and a half years now. I love writing music, jamming, and singing (not that it sounds good, but man oh man is it fun). I am always looking for ways to improve myself not only as a guitarist, but as musician in general. About two summers ago I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Philadelphia and at one point during the show he was playing the harmonica, while still playing his guitar.
I thought to myself, wow that's incredible. That would be wonderful if I could someday learn how to play two instruments at once like that. Because of sheer laziness I never thought of it after that concert. But recently I decided that I was going to try the harmonica; not only because I thought that it was amazing to see The Boss play it in concert, but also because of the complete randomness of playing a harmonica. I cannot say I know anyone that actually plays the harmonica. All my life all I knew about it was that it was featured in some songs and it looked like some kind of toy.
So I set out within a few days after my revelation to a local music store with some friends. They came along for the ride because they thought that the harmonica was such a funny thing to want to learn how to play. We got a Bob Dylan in the making, they laughed at me in good humor. I walked in the store and searched for the harmonicas. I talked with one of the workers there and basically said, I want to learn how to play the harmonica, but I know absolutely nothing about it. Do yall have anything for starters like myself in the form of a kit or something? So after a few minutes of talking to one of the employees I was walking out of the store with a harmonica, a self-teaching book, and a lot of questions. I bought a diatonic 10-hole harmonica in the key of C. I was surprised how cheap the harmonica was. I paid $20 for a harmonica, a self-teaching book, and a cassette tape with the songs on it. Perhaps this was not a good idea to buy such a cheap harmonica because my research later said that you should spend anywhere from $17 to $25 on the harmonica alone, but I am a college kid and therefore I am cheap in everything I buy.
The clerk at the music store told me that there are twelve different diatonic harmonicas since there are twelve different keys. I did not realize this when I went out to buy my harmonica. Fortunately the employee informed me of this and recommended that I buy the harmonica in the key of C, this is the most commonly used one. Consequently if you learn how to play the harmonica and then use it in a band, for each key your band plays in, that is how many harmonicas you will need. As soon as we were in the car I took the harmonica out and just blew into it for a few minutes. I kept sliding it back and forth and it sounded like when a little kid runs his fingers across piano keys really fast. I continued to do this until my friends threatened to kick me out onto the side of the road. So as any wise man would do, I put it away for a week until I did some more research.
I read through the harmonica book and then went to many different harmonica web-sites; many of which were very helpful with tips, techniques, and brief lessons. It is very easy to find information on the internet about the harmonica. To my surprise there were a lot more people out there who like and play the harmonica with a passion. My favorite site is HarmonicaLessons.com. For further reading and lessons on the harmonica I recommend you visit the site. It is a good site for harmonica players of all levels. It had just as much helpful information or more than the book that came in my harmonica kit. So I sat down on a Friday afternoon and actually tried following the lessons I had gotten through the internet and the book. I first started out by practicing my breathing. I figured you just blew into the harmonica as hard as you could to make sound, but the lessons said that one should neither blow into it nor suck air through it. The lessons told me to put the harmonica deep into my mouth and then exhale (for blow notes) and inhale (for draw notes). So once I figured the breathing out to a certain degree I started playing single notes as the book instructed.
Diatonic harmonicas have ten holes, each with two notes. Each hole is labeled one through ten. So when you exhale at hole two that is a separate not from when you inhale at hole two. To make a clear single note you have to make sure you exhale or inhale merely in one hole. If you do more than one hole at a time, then you are playing a chord, which is similar to the guitar. Chords on a harmonica only need two notes whereas on the guitar three notes make up a chord or two notes for a power chord. It took me some time at first to play single notes because it is hard to only get air into just one hole, but as I practiced it became easier. According to InfoWeb the harmonica itself is a wind instrument which emits sounds by the vibration of little blades or metal reeds. If you have any curiosity about the technicalities of the harmonica visit InfoWeb and search for the harmonica. There is another type of harmonica called a chromatic harmonica in which one can play into several octaves, which you cannot do with a diatonic. Chromatic harmonicas are not recommended for beginners. The sounds coming out of my harmonica were very interesting. It was like the sounds of a Mario Brothers video game gone terribly wrong. Guys in the hallway of my dorm came walking by and laughing. I kept practicing.
So I put aside my pride and moved on to the most famous beginner song: Mary Had A Little Lamb. I think the last time I played that song may have been in the fourth grade band. Then I played Good-Night Ladies. I kept playing those two songs over and over again to improve my technique of breathing as well as playing clear single notes instead of chords. Even though these songs are very childish and easy, I was still filled with excitement that I was playing music through this foreign instrument. Then after about a half an hour of actually playing by the book (and online sites), I just began to wail as they say. I played single notes and chords and completely improvised and just had a bunch of fun. It probably sounded ridiculous, but I felt like I was in Hootie and the Blowfish.
The harmonica is much more interesting than I thought. I cannot believe how many different techniques there are. There are more advanced techniques that I have yet to learn. There is a technique called bending in which one can move the harmonica a certain way as you are blowing into it so that it drops either half a step or a whole step. It is the same idea as when one bends strings on the guitar except instead of going up a half or whole step, it goes down. This means that if you are playing the single note of D, you can bend it to a Db (D flat) or if you are playing a G, you can bend it to an F. I am continuing to practice in order to become a better harmonica player so hopefully in a few short months I will be able to simultaneously play my harmonica with my guitar and be Dylan and Springsteen wanna be's.
Playing the harmonica is a wonderful experience. When I slowed down, played proper technique, and used the correct breathing, it sounded beautiful. I felt like I was around a campfire. I recommend the harmonica to fellow guitar players, or any musicians for that matter, if they would like to broaden their musical abilities. It takes a little extra time out of your day, only about five to fifteen minutes, but it is very much worth it. Hopefully it will not be too long before I play my harmonica with my guitar. Perhaps I will be writing music in the not too distant future that will not only include guitar and vocals, but harmonica parts as well. I wish you all the best of luck in expanding your musical abilities.
A fellow guitarists and aspiring musician, -Brendan Regan