Put the low/bottom notes on your left (where the key of the harmonica is written or Hole 1).
Hold the covers of the harmonica between your left thumb (bottom cover) and left index finger (upper cover) on the BACK of the harmonica leaving as much space as you can for your lips.
Your right hand’s thumb can now rest on the far right of the harmonica, but this is not necessary.
There are three main techniques we commonly use to play the diatonic harmonica. Each technique may require several months or years to master but
they are easy to understand and should be practiced often.
The learning harmonica player will often repeat the same mistakes and disregard basic moves and recommendations. We suggest you keep things simple and practice the right moves until you get them down.
1 – The One Note Technique
The harmonica is mostly played one note at a time. Even though you can and will play several notes at the same time, once in a while. Most of the time, however, you will hear players play only one note at a time.
There are two techniques to achieve a single note: plucking and tongue blocking.
Plucking is by far the most common technique and the one we recommend to use in most contexts:
Open your mouth to make an “A” or “O” shape.
Push your lips forward as if you were to kiss a mirror (don’t do it though).
Aim at Hole 4. Do Step 1 again but, this time, insert the harmonica until the upper cover is about to touch your upper teeth.
Do step 2. Pushing your lips forward will push the harmonica back a little but make sure the inner part of your lips surrounds the covers.
Blow a long note slowly if you are playing on a “C” harmonica. You should hear a C note.
If you play two notes or a blurry note, repeat the steps slowly.
You should feel relaxed when you play. If you feel pain or tension in your lips after playing it means your position was not correct
Once you have blown the right note, try to draw Hole 4 to get a D
Repeat this technique until you get only one very nice note and feel relaxed. Do not play tunes until your position is right.
If Hole 2 and 3 notes don’t come out nicely, it simply means you need more practice. Some people have issues playing register notes. If a note doesn’t sound right, it is usually – and most certainly – because your lips are not positioned, as we’ve explained.
Your jaw, nose, cheeks, throat, shoulders and lips should remain relaxed at ALL times.
First practice exercise:
Try to play the full C-major scale starting at Hole 4.
2 – Bending
The diatonic harmonica is only able to produce 19 natural notes. Twenty reeds making a note when vibrating.
Holes 2 and 3 produce the same sound, which is why we have 19 natural notes.
Bending, which was probably developed at the beginning of the 20th century by musicians trying to play blues or country tunes, adds 12 notes for a total of 31. We produce bends by drawing from holes 1 to 6 and blowing from holes 7 to 10.
Before attempting to bend, your plucking technique must be very good. If it’s not, attempts at bending will result in no bends to bad-sounding bends.
The bend can be produced by using only the very far tip of your tongue and nothing else.
Even though bends sound big they can, and should, be performed with very little effort. Here are a few things to try:
To understand where the bend should happen, gently squeeze the tip of your tongue between your teeth and make a “th” sound, like in think. This is the area where you have to trigger your bends.
Start at Hole 4 and position your tongue in a neutral “A” position. Use the word “eye” in slow motion, do a long natural D on the “A” sound and try to bend on the “YE” sound. That’s all there is to it but it can take months or years to get it perfectly right. The key is to NEVER force your playing. Forcing can cause reeds to break or go out of tune and will NEVER give you a good bend note!
Bending is not reaching one spot; it is a motion you can bend more or less on the same reed from very little – and too high pitched – to too low. Try to feel the spot where you trigger the bend. This spot is very important. Try to improve the quality of your bend by getting this spot easily with NO effort at all.
Blow bends are done in the same way but you will blow Hole 8 first and then try to bend.
Depending on where you bend, you might have several notes available. Check the harmonica diagram for reference.
3 – Overbends (overblow/overdraw)
The overbending technique will give you seven additional notes; the ones that are actually missing once you know how to bend. With those extra notes, your diatonic harmonica becomes fully chromatic!
You should not try to overblow until your bending technique is accurate, because overbending uses almost the same technique as bending:
Blow air out of your mouth using the plucking position in neutral (“A” sound)
Very gently, push the tip of your tongue up in a short “I” sound position (like in lip). While doing this, push air out as if you were saying a “sh” sound without actually saying the “sh” or as if you were shooting an arrow through a blowgun. The amount of air expelled is very soft. The explanation helps you understand the move.
Blow Hole 6, holding a long note.
Redo step 2. Overblow happens with a triggering movement much clearer than the bending technique because there is a break point that you can clearly hear and feel. Overall, the overblow technique is extremely close to bending:
If you can bend Hole 8, blow a half tone down. Try to do the same at Hole 6.
If you can bend Hole 6, gently draw air in, keeping your tongue in the same position and try to switch to the overblow as the tongue stays in the exact same position.