[Home] [Up]

Instruction in How to Play the Harmonica, or Mouth Harp

David Raleigh Arnold

or “harp” for short. Print out this document as well as the two text and three PDF documents linked in the “Downloads” section below:


Text File introduction

Please download and print these two:

Page 1 ( rename: i ) Page 2 ( rename: ii )

The Good Stuff

This isn’t finished work, and won’t be for a while, but it is very usable. Please download these three:

Get No. 1.

Get No. 2.

Get No. 3.

The duplication is unfortunate, sorry about that. The three files comprise eight pages. Please staple them in verso-recto order, so that pages 1 and 2 face one another, and then renumber the pages 1 through 8.

Have the Right Harp: Ten-hole in C

The following is for a ten-hole harmonica, with 20 single reeds. This is the simplest and most common type. You want to learn on one that is as generic as possible, because they are much cheaper. A harp on a card may be fine, but a Hohner or Oskar or one from some other known maker will last much longer. Your first harp should be in the Key of C. It probably has “C” printed on the upper deck somewhere.

Four Ways to Blow It: Tone Production.

You blow half the notes and draw (as in draw breath) the rest. A common way of indicating a draw is to circle the hole number so: ➂. In text, parentheses have to suffice: ( 3 ). The holes are numbered 1 to 10, but it is convenient to use 0 to stand for 10. The hole numbers are usually stamped right on the harp.

1. The Pucker Method

According to the books I have seen, it’s the only way to go, but I have never met anyone who plays for money who plays this way. It is the only method which permits the bending of high notes,[1] but few players, even few blues players, ever do that.

You make your mouth the same shape as the harmonica’s hole and there you are! If you can do that, by all means do it. All those books can’t be wrong. The folks who write them probably play very well.

Pushing the harp into your mouth a bit harder helps with this.

2. Tongue

If you are among the 80 % of people who can do it, curl you tongue into a “U” and cover around the hole with tongue and upper lip. This is the easiest way to get started. If you play for many hours you can get a sore tongue, but you can’t do that yet anyway. There is no problem with bending low notes. After playing this way for a while, you might want to add other methods if you have a playing situation which requires endurance.[2] A disadvantage is that you can’t “tongue” notes like the trumpet players do.

3. Upper Lip

If you can do a half pucker by curving your upper lip, and hold the harp so that you are blowing downward more, that will work quite well.

4. Lower Lip

If you can do a half pucker by curving your lower lip, and hold the harp level or in such a way that that you are blowing up into it a bit, that will work quite well too.

What About Hohner’s Way?

Blowing out the side of your mouth? There must be somebody who plays that way.

How to Hold the Harp

In both of these methods, you want to use the right hand to reflect sound back to your ears so you can hear yourself. Holding it like a sandwich is not a good choice.

The Campfire Method

You’ve seen it in the movies. Hold out your left hand, put the harp between your thumb and index, cup your right hand around the back and you’re ready to blow.

The Miking Method

Hold the harp as if it were conical, with the thumb at the point. This is exactly the same way the left clave is held to hit it with the right one. Cup your right hand to reflect the sound which comes from the opening of your left hand back to your ears. This method is best for holding a microphone when you are playing.

Use a Holder to Play No Hands


Harp Tab Sites

If you copy the texts with your mouse, most of these will have the lyrics to the right of the holes. The best thing to do is find the piece elsewhere and copy in the time, or count the time out and write it in yourself below the hole indications. For most or all of them the draw is a minus sign.

Link to some Jazz Tabs.

Link to some Spiritual Tabs.

Link to Blues Tabs.

Link to General Song Tabs.

Link to HarpTabs Site.


§1 Bending high notes is a very advanced technique. Please put off learning to do it for many years. Don’t confuse this with bending low notes, which you might well begin very soon.

§2 Harmonica player’s hemoptylsis is a named medical condition consisting in wearing off the tip of the tongue from jamming all night while drunk. Google it to find the news article or JAMA article if anything remains available. ☺

[Home] [Up]
©2007 David Raleigh Arnold - http://www.openguitar.com