The Harp: How to Play the Thing, Part 1
Updated: Mar 5
How to Play the Thing, Part 1
You can learn to play the harmonica like Paul Butterfield played it. Notice the “like” in that previous sentence. Will you be as good as Butterfield? Of course not. Neither am I, and I have been at it for a while. Neither were are any others, except for a very tiny few, as we will see in this section. But you can learn how to play the harmonica competently, and play it well, and play the blues.
The harmonica can be quite easy to play for the beginner. That’s why Hohner still sells over one million of them per year, and the harp usually comes with some basic instructions. You don’t have to read musical notation in order learn to play the harp. It helps if you can, and Butterfield could read music well from his training from his elementary-school years into his teenage years on the classical flute by the lead flautist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra . But you will find that harp players speak the same language that designates the hole numbers 1-10, and whether you should blow or draw – or bend, as we shall see further on in this chapter. This is similar to learning and playing guitar, when you determine chords and notes by the tabs that show finger positions.
Above is a diagram showing the notes on a C harp. The attentive observer will notice a couple of things: First, that there is only one complete DO-RE-MI-type scale, C to C, on the harp, and that that is from 4-blow through 7-blow. Second: that the 2-draw and the 3-blow are the same note. On this C harp, it is a G. Third: there are some notes missing from the harp, especially in the lower octave, from 1-blow through 4-blow. The harmonica is idiosyncratic. Get used to it.
The best way and place to get started playing the harp is with online tutorials. Two of the best: Adam Gussow’s site, https://www.modernbluesharmonica.com/home.html; start here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gEuED05biI. Adam is smart, funny, and talented. He also has the best job in the world, teaching Southern culture at the University of Mississippi. His series of lessons is excellent; you can’t go wrong. The other place: Tomlin Leckie’s site, at https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/free-harmonica-lessons/page/149/. That will take you to “The Complete beginner’s C harmonica lesson.” Neither Gussow’s or Leckie’s sites, unfortunately, is organized in an ascending order that starts with beginner, up through intermediate and then into advanced-intermediate and then advanced, but poke around on them a little bit and you will be able to find what you want. There are a half-dozen other online teachers of blues harp out there; I will be discussing some of them and citing their expertise later in this section, but please contact me and I will be happy to reply to you with recommendations as to who is best at what.
Here is what one of the tabs looks like, from one of Tomlin’s lessons on how to play “Love Me Do:”
Nice, isn’t it, and simple. Ignore the musical notation. But all the hole numbers of the harp are there. The down arrow means “draw,” and the up arrow means “blow.” I wrote that you should ignore the musical notation, but I didn’t mean it: look at the those notes to get a feel for the duration of each note. About a page below here – no, don’t go there yet, or else – I will show you how bent notes are shown using tabs.
For now, reader, do us a favor and go get that old harmonica that has been lying for years in the back of one of your desk drawers. The one that Uncle Dan gave you. It’s undoubtedly a 10-hole diatonic Marine Band, actually – the same exact make and model that Butterfield used. And that harmonica will be in the key of C. Why? Because that is what beginner harmonica players start with: C is comfortably in the middle range of music, whether you are playing piano, saxophone, or harmonica. And yes, there are lots of other keys of harmonica, twelve in fact. A little bit below in this section we will recommend which of those twelve keys you should purchase and use, I promise.
If you have come this far in this section, you might as well get the thing into your mouth so you can experience the harp at a level beyond simply reading about it. First, do try to play clear, sharp single notes; that is the initial skill that you have to practice and master on the harp. Let’s just play the chromatic scale, which resides in its entirety between holes 4-blow, and 7-blow. So blow on the 4, draw on the 4, blow on the 5, draw on the 5, and so on, alternating blow and draw. Whoops! What happened? The blow-draw pattern that prevails from the bottom of the harp, blow-1 through draw-6, follows the format in which the draw note is one full step higher than the blow note. After the 6-draw, however, that pattern is reversed, so that from 6-draw up to the highest end, the 10-blow, the blow note is one step higher as the player moves up the harp. This takes some getting used to, but here is the consolation: you will simply not be playing above the 6-hole very much, unless you want to perform “Red River Valley,” “Clementine,” “Frere Jacques,” “Home On the Range,” “Oh Susannah” and other melodic tunes.
Starting with the 3-blow you can play “Red River Valley.” “Frere Jacques,” starting on 6-blow, is even easier. Go slow: should you blow, or draw? Is it the 4-blow or 5-draw? You will be hunting and pecking around for the right holes to hit, and whether to draw or blow, but you will find them, and then it becomes a matter of repetition and ear and muscle memory. “You Are My Sunshine,” “On Top of Old Smokey” (venturing up to the 7-hole blow) are nice, as well, so practice those on the middle range of the harp.
When we say “middle range,” we mean an octave, which, as you can tell, encompasses eight notes. The diatonic harmonica has three octaves. On the C harp the first octave begins, of course, with C, on the 1-blow, and goes up to the 4-blow, another C. The second, or middle octave, starts with C again, at 4-blow, and finishes at 7-blow. The last and highest octave, the third one, starts at 7-blow and ends at 10-blow. See the diagram a couple of pages below. Yes, there are only three octaves on the harp, compared to many more on the guitar, saxophone, piano, and other instrument. No, you won’t be playing much in that highest octave, 7-blow and above. Those notes are indeed difficult to play, and even accomplished blues-harp players do not play up there nearly as much as they use the lower octaves effectively. Jimmy Reed and Charlie Musselwhite are exceptions to that rule, so get onto YouTube and find some of their stuff. You might learn from and enjoy it. But the blues harp’s range, those three octaves, are three gorgeous octaves that will provide you with all the notes and moods that you want and need. Why do you think that Paul Butterfield, after years of training on the classical flute, and then lots of time trying to play the blues on guitar, ended up blowing and mastering the blues harp? You know the answer to that question, and that is why you are here.
While you are at it, playing those folk tunes, practice again and master the first thing you have to do on the harp: blow clear single notes. At first your mouth and lips will be all over the place, the equivalent of what is inelegantly called “fat-fingering” on the guitar: imprecise handling of the strings. On the harp, that imprecision means that the player’s embouchure is too broad, blowing and drawing on multiple holes when he/she should be playing individual holes. It goes without saying – but I will say it – that this is a matter of practice, as well. When you initially want to play a clean, clear, crisp 4-blow, you are going to get some 3-blow in there, and probably some 5-blow, too. Purse your lips, kiss that harp a little, get it deep between your lips – don’t baby the thing – and get that nice single note. There, and up and down the harp – everywhere.
The harmonica is an idiosyncratic instrument. Let’s see why: try playing “Happy Birthday” on your C harmonica starting with 2-draw. You can’t. Why? Because you are missing some notes. Try to play “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” starting from the 3-draw: same problem. Where is the F? Where is the A? And where, for that matter, are the Ab, Bb, Db, Eb, and Gb? Well, here they are, and they are called bent notes:
As promised, here is tab notation showing a couple of bent notes:
Aha, you are ahead of me on this. Yes, the bent note is indicated by that little horizontal line on the arrow, with the tiny number to the right of it. Sometimes you will see the bent note with the arrow bent down and to the left with, again, that little number next to it. The number shows how much – how far down – to bend the note. ½ is the slightest bend, and you will find it (yes, this is jumping ahead a little bit, but big deal, this is near the end of “How to Play the Thing, Part 1) almost always on the 3-draw note. That is called the blue third, and yes, that is jumping ahead, as well, but I will clarify this in the next posting when we dig into what makes the harp the blues harp. Exactly what, in other words, made Paul Butterfield’s playing and performance so faithful to the blues tradition, and how he advanced that tradition with his and his bands’ work.
Back to the idiosyncratic harp, and the top diagram on this page: you find and play the F by bending the 2-draw down two levels, which is called a Whole Step bend, which is shown on the tab-diagram as the tiny “1” next to the arrow. You play the A by doing the same thing on the 3-draw, but only a ½ step bend, shown, of course with that little “1/2.” To bend a note, you adjust your embouchure by positioning your mouth and tongue so as to alter the stream of air coming into the harp as you play the note. Bending notes is fundamental and essential to playing the blues. What's that you say? You can't bend a note yet? Well, of course you can't: it is difficult, and takes practice and time, but it will happen, I promise. There: that’s your introduction to bending.