Advice for beginners…

I have often been asked advice on where to begin when learning the harmonica.  Here are my recommendations:

1.  Keep a harmonica on you at all times.  No matter where you go or what you are doing, put a harp in your pocket.  Why?  Because you would be surprised how many little opportunities you will find throughout your day to pull out your harmonica and blow a few notes.  Play when you’re waiting for a bus, when you’re walking across a parking lot, when you’re sitting in traffic, or any other time when you have a few minutes and no one is in earshot.

2.  You want to know which harmonica to start with, right?  C is a pretty safe start.  It’s right in the middle of the range… not too low and not too high.  For your second harmonica, I always recommend dropping to an A.  It’s easier to learn to play single notes on a lower harp.  For your third harp, I generally recommend a D.  You’ve done the middle and you’ve approached the lower end of the harp range, now try something a wee bit higher.

3.  Go on a walk every night and play a little.  Play songs from your childhood, church hymns, or any easy songs you know.  Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or Mary Had a Little Lamb are good places to start.  It may sound ridiculous, but it will get you familiar with the position of notes on the harmonica and strengthen your confidence in making simple notes.  Playing while walking is not only great exercise, it is the ultimate in privacy.  No matter how bad you are, by the time anyone cares enough to look out their window to see who it is, you’ll be long gone!  The anonymity of the street will give you the confidence to play out loud, whereas playing in a house can make you timid and keep you from playing to your full potential.  Plus, it will slowly give you confidence.  You are playing in public, after all.  And trust me when I tell you that the vast majority of people who hear you playing harmonica in the street love you for it!  Sure, there will be one or two that give you a cross look or tell you to shut it down, but in 5 years of harmonica walks I can only think of 3 people who were displeased.  On the other hand, I can tell you dozens and dozens of stories about people laughing, smiling, dancing in the street or applauding as I passed by.

4.  Watch lots of YouTube videos.  You don’t have to take lessons, necessarily, but you can find lessons on all sorts of techniques.  More so, you can find people playing music you like and you can listen to it over and over and try to emulate it.  My first video I fell in love with and learned to play was by Ronnie Shellist.

Some suggested searches:

  • blues harmonica
  • harmonica lessons
  • harmonica solos
  • harmonica jam
  • awesome harmonica
  • Sonny Terry
  • Little Walter
  • Buddy Greene
  • etc.

5.  Listen to a LOT of harmonica music throughout your day, in your car, on your ipod or at the office.  I suggest Blowing the Blues: A History of Blues Harmonica.

6.  When you’re first starting out, a book isn’t a terrible idea.  I went to the library and checked out John Gindick’s, Rockin Blues Harmonica.  It was a great introduction to the basics of playing..

7.  Cruise online harmonica forums and see what other people are talking about.  Offhand, I recommend Reddit’s Harmonica community.  They’re a pretty good group and you can find lots of good discussions, links to songs and tabs, and it’s a good place to ask questions.

8.  Play, play, play!  The more you play the better you get.  You’re going to go through an awkward phase where you don’t think you sound good but it’s not as bad as you think it is!

Good luck!

6 comments

  1. lamontjackpearley

    Dig!

  2. talkingbouttheblues

    Reblogged this on talkingbouttheblues.

  3. Ws bluesbox

    I am backing advise number two whole heartedly.

  4. I bought my first harmonica today, the Count V made me do it… 🙂

  5. Raluca

    Hello Parker, I’ve listened to your playing today at the subway station – see, I did remember the website! Thanks for showing me your Lee Oskar and I’ll definitely take your advice of playing while out and about. I was a little worried about what the neighbors would say anyway, anonymously practicing in public seems safer.

    Maybe next time I see you I’ll be able to boast with my very own version of Itsy Bitsy Spider or something.

    Anyway, take care and good luck with your awesome hobby!

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