From Academic Kids

Missing image
A harmonica

A harmonica is a free reed musical wind instrument (also known, among other things, as a mouth organ, french harp, simply harp, or "Mississippi saxophone"), having multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reeds, each secured at one end over an airway slot of like dimension into which it can freely vibrate, thus repeatedly interrupting an airstream to produce sound.

Unlike most free-reed instruments (such as reed organs, accordions and melodicas), the mouth harmonica lacks a keyboard. Instead, lips and tongue are used to select one or a few of the several holes arranged usually linearly on a mouthpiece. Each hole communicates with but one, two or a few reeds. Because a reed mounted above a slot is made to vibrate more easily by air from above, reeds accessed by a mouthpiece hole often may be selected further by choice of breath direction (blowing, drawing). Some harmonicas (known as chromatic harmonicas) also include a spring-loaded button-actuated slide that, when depressed, further redirects air blown or drawn through a single hole, from one reed to an adjacent reed, usually a semi-tone sharper.

The harmonica is commonly used in blues and folk music, but also in jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll and pop music.


Parts of the harmonica

The harmonica consists of a "comb" made of wood, plastic or metal which creates the holes into which a player blows or draws to make distinct tones. The metallic blow and draw reedplates are riveted (rarely screwed) onto either side of the comb. Over the reedplates, there is a metal or plastic cover which projects the sound out of the open back. Chromatic harmonicas also have a button-activated slide.

Harmonica types

The diatonic harmonica

The diatonic harmonica is most likely what you think of when you think of a "harmonica." It has ten holes which offer the player 19 notes (10 holes times a draw and a blow for each hole minus one repeated note) in a three octave range. The standard diatonic harmonica is designed to allow a player to play chords and melody in a single key. Because they are only designed to be played in a single key at a time, diatonic harmonicas are available in all keys. Here is a standard diatonic harmonica's layout in the key of C (1 blow is middle C):

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C | 
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 

See also: image of the above diagram

Note that although there are 3 octaves between 1 and 10 blow, there is only one full major scale available on the harmonica, between holes 4 and 7. The lower holes are designed around the tonic (C major) and dominant (G major) chords, allowing a player to play these chords underneath a melody by blocking or unblocking the lower holes with the tongue. The most important notes: C-E-G, the tonic triad, is given the blow, and the secondary notes: D-G-B-F-A, the draw.

Bending and other techniques

In addition to the 19 notes readily available on the harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch. This technique is called "bending", a term borrowed from guitarists, who literally "bend" a string in order to create subtle changes in pitch. Using bending, a player can reach all the notes on the major scale. "Bending" also creates the glissandos characteristic of much blues harp and country harmonica playing.

The physics of bending are quite complex, but amount to this: a player can bend the pitch of the higher-tuned reed down toward the pitch of the lower-tuned reed in any given hole. In other words, on holes 1 through 6, the draw notes can be bent and on holes 7 through 10 the blow notes can be bent. Hole 3 allows for the most dramatic bending: in C, it is possible to bend 3 draw from a B down to a G#, or anywhere in between.


Howard Levy developed another technique in the 1970s that allows players to force a reed to vibrate faster, resulting in a higher pitch. This technique is called overblowing or overdrawing and is much less frequently used. For the few who master this technique, the diatonic harmonica can function as a fully chromatic instrument.

List of Modern Overblow Masters:

  • George Brooks
  • Carlos del Junco
  • Larry Eisenberg
  • Joe Filisko
  • Howard Levy
  • Chris Michalek
  • Michael Peloquin
  • Jason Ricci
  • Jason Rosenblatt
  • Rosco Selley
  • Greg Szlapczynski
  • Sandy Weltman
  • Frederic Yonnet
  • Otavio Castro
  • Thiago Cerveira

Making the overblow is a complex technique. To make overblowing easier, Levy and some other harp player use specially modified harmonicas. To make these harmonicas, they start with a harmonica with a plastic combs and large holes like the Hohner Golden Melody, Hohner Special 20 and Lee Oskar and then press the reed closer the comb.


In addition to playing the diatonic harmonica in its original key, it is also possible to play the harmonica in other keys by playing in other "positions", either by playing in another mode (playing in D dorian or G mixolydian on a C Major harmonica) or by bending notes to achieve a scale not otherwise available on the harmonica (playing in E mixolydian on a C Major harmonica). Harmonica players (especially blues players) have developed a set of terminology around different "positions" which can be somewhat confusing to other musicians.

  • 1st position (or "straight harp"): playing the harmonica as it was intended, in its main major key.
  • 2nd position (or "cross harp"): playing the harmonica in a key a fifth above its intended key. Playing just the unbended notes, this position gives you the mixolydian scale between 2 draw and 6 blow. However, bending the 3 draw allows the player to play a minor third (or a blue third), allowing a player to use a C harmonica to play in G mixolydian or G minor. Blues players can also play a tritone in this position by bending the 4 draw. See a more extensive discussion of this position at the article on blues harp.
  • 3rd position (or "slant harp"): playing the harmonica a full tone above its intended key. This gives you a dorian scale between 4 draw and 8 draw, though once again bends and overblows give players a variety of options. Blues players can achieve a tritone by bending the 6 draw.

The terminology for other positions is slightly more varied, though it is possible of course to play in any of the modes and, using overblows and bends, it is possible to play in all 12 keys on a single harmonica (though this is very rarely done).

Special tuned harmonicas

A number of people have made specially tuned variants of the diatonic harmonica. For example, Lee Oskar Harmonicas makes a variety of harmonicas to help players used to a "Cross-harp" style to play in other styles. Cross-harp players usually base their play around a mixolydian scale starting on 2 draw and ending a 6 blow (with a bend needed to get the second tone of the scale; a full scale can be played from 6 blow to 9 blow). Lee-Oskar special tunes harmonicas to allow players to play a natural minor, harmonic minor, and major scale from 2 draw to 6 blow. Below are some sample layouts (notice that the key labor describes the scale from 2 draw to 6 blow.

Natural Minor (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow) / Dorian (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow):

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 
blow: |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |
draw: |D |G |Bb|D |F |A |Bb|D |F |A |

Harmonic Minor (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow)/

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 
blow: |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |Ab|B |D |F |Ab|

Major (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow), Lee Oscar "Melody Maker"

blow: |C |E |A |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F#|A |B |D |F#|A |

The "Melody Maker" is a particularly interesting evolution of the harmonica, since it allows player accustomed to playing "cross harp" (in mixolydian) to play in a major key (which is what the standard layout is designed for in the first place). Rather than providing the standard C major and G dominant chords, the Mixolydian provides a G Major 7 (2-5 draw), a C Major 6th chord (1-4 blow) and an Am or Am7 chord (3-5 or 3-6 blow), a D major chord (4-6 draw) and a C Major chord (6-10 blow). If we are in the key of G, then, the melody maker provides the I chord, the IV chord, the V chord and the II chord, allowing II-V-I progressions as well as I-IV-V progressions.

It is also possible for a harp player to tune his harmonica himself. By making small marks on the reed, you can change the note it plays. It is possible to either get a higher or a lower note. Some harp player make extensive use of these techniques and one of the most famous exemple is the harp solo on 'On the road again' by Canned Heat, on which the harmonicist gets the minor 3rd crossharp on the sixth drawn reed, which is normally the minor 2nd crossharp.

The 14 Hole Diatonic

The Hohner Marine Band 365/28 14 hole harmonica is not a standard diatonic harmonica. It has 14 holes and its general dimensions are a bit bigger, so its structure is different from the normal diatonic harmonica and, in the key of C, is pitched one octave lower than the standard 10 hole C diatonic. Thus, hole 4 blow is one octave below middle C. Hole 7 blow is middle C. The Marine Band 365/28 in G is similar to a usual G diatonic, having it's higher register expanded. Holes 1 through 4 and 6 are draw bendable, and holes 8 through 14 are blow bendable. Special attention to the extra holes 11 - 14 where the bending capabilities are, in theory, extended a lot (from A down to E in whole 14, for example).

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14 
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 

The chromatic harmonica

The chromatic harmonica has a button-operated slide that allows the player to change the pitch of any given hole. This means that each hole has 4 pitches rather than 2. The slide typically shifts the pitch of any given note by a half step. The note layout on a chromatic is traditionally the same as the note layout on holes 4-7 of the diatonic harmonica, and is repeated over its length. This is known as "Solo tuning." Chromatic harmonicas are usually 12 or 16 holes long.

Because it is a fully chromatic instrument, the chromatic harmonica is the instrument of choice in jazz and classical music. In traditional harmonica bands, the chromatic harmonica plays the lead part.

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
blow: |C |E |G |C |C |E |G |C |E |G |  key out
draw: |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |d |f | 
       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
blow: |C#|E#|G#|C#|C#|E#|G#|C#|E#|G#|  key in
draw: |d#|f#|a#|b#|d#|f#|a#|b#|d#|f#| 

Note that b# is the same as c and e# is the same as f.

The bass harmonica

The bass harmonica is a special harmonica mostly used in ensemble playing. It usually consists of two harmonicas held together, one above the other, by an adjustable bracket. the lower harmonica has the natural notes of the chromatic scale, while the upper harmonica has the accidental notes. The bass harmonica has only blow notes.

See the fuller description at: www.bassharp.com (http://www.bassharp.com/bh_101.htm).

The chord harmonica

The chord harmonica has 48 chords: major, minor, augmented and diminished for ensemble playing. It is laid out in four-note clusters, each sounding a different chord on inhaling or exhaling. Each hole has two reeds for each note, tuned to one octave of each other. This gives the harmonica a more powerful and rich sound.

The Tremolo Harmonica

Tremolo harmonicas have two reeds per note. The two reeds are tuned to be very slightly out of tune relative to each other. This produces an interesting warbling tonal variation on the very simple waveform of the basic ten- or twelve-hole diatonic. The playing is somewhat different, because each note is a vertical pair of holes, and each hole works either draw or blow, but not both.

Missing image

The tonal variation of the tremolo harmonica is not truly "tremolo"; the word is more accurately defined as a kind of volume change, and the tremolo harmonica really exhibits a slight change in pitch, not volume. But since no one has yet come up with a better word, "tremolo" must do.

The most significant characteristic of the tremolo harmonica may be its ability to work well within ensemble. The ten-/twelve-hole diatonic is excellent for solo work, but not so good for blending with other instruments. This is easily demonstrated by trying to use a ten/twelver as an accompaniment instrument for vocals or pipe-organ or horn; you will find that it just doesn't work too well. But try the same thing with a tremolo, and you'll find a natural fit.

Many tremolos' notes are set up in a manner similar to ten/twelvers. The usual ten/twelver note setup (tuning) is sometimes called "Richter" tuning, which delivers only one complete scale, plus several select notes above and below. But on the order of half of the tremolos available in the world are set up differently. This setup has a few different names, including "solo tuning" and "scale tuning". Scale tuning delivers as many complete scales as possible given the number of notes built into the instrument.

For more detail on tremolo, see the fuller description at: http://joshuacorps.org/friends/thetremolo

For more info on tremolo and other double-reed tunings, see: http://www.patmissin.com/ffaq/q15.html

The Octave Harmonica

Octave harmonicas have two reeds per hole. The two reeds are tuned to the same note a perfect octave apart.

Toy harmonicas

Because of its simplicity, the harmonica is often the first real musical instrument children encounter. Toy harmonicas include tiny four-hole instruments and simple plastic models of a conventional size.


The ancestor of the harmonica is generally accepted to be a Chinese wind instrument called the cheng. Although the shapes of both instrument strongly differ, the free-reed mechanism is very similar. It is believed that it was brought back to Germany by voyagers around 1850. It would have then fallen into the hands of a young instrument maker named Mathias Hohner, from Trossingen, Germany. To this day, most harmonicas are still made by Hohner Company and the factory is still located in Trossingen.

The harmonica wasn't very popular in Europe. The harmonica was essentially used in first position then, which makes it a very limited instrument. It was eventually imported to America by a relative of Hohner with a lot more success around 1900. The harmonica then became very popular because of its simple construction (you can easily learn it alone) and because of its practical size. People also began to call it a harp.

The first recordings of harmonica were made in the US around 1920 and 1930. These recordings are mainly 'race-records', intended for the black market of the southern states. They consist mainly of solo recordings (DeFord Bailey), duo recordings with a guitarist (Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry) or recordings featuring the harmonica in some kind of novelty act called the 'Jug Band', of which the Memphis Jug Band is the most famous. But the harmonica still represented a toy instrument in those years and was associated to the poor. It is also during those years that musicians started experimenting new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the 2nd poition, or cross-harp.

The harmonica then made its way with the blues and the black migrants to the north, mainly to Chicago but also to Detroit, St. Louis and New York. The music played by the Afro-Americans started to become increasingly different there. The main difference is the electric amplification of instrument: first the guitar and then the harp, bass, vocals, etc. The original Sonny Boy Williamson is the most important harmonicist of this era. Using a full blues band, he became one of the most popular act of Chicago. He also installed for good the cross-harp technique, opening the possibilities of harp playing to new sky. It is hard to imaginate how much influence he would have on the blues, if he would have lived longer. Unfortunately, Sonny Boy liked to bring woman from the audience on stage and dance with them as he played, but he eventually got stabbed by a jealous husband.

But the harmonica didn't die with him. A young harmonicist by the name of Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs would completely revolutionize the instrument. He had the idea to play the harmonica near a microphone and cup his hands around it, thus tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, sometimes reminiscent of a saxophone. This technique, combined with a great virtuosity on the instrument made him arguably the most influencial harmonicist in history. It is almost impossible nowadays to find a harp player who wasn't influenced by Walter. Unfortunately, Little Walter also died at young, from injuries suffered in a fight.

Little Walter's only contender was perhaps Big Walter Horton. Relying less on the possibilities of amplification (altough he made great use of it) than on sheer skill, Big Walter was the favored harmonicist of many Chicago leaders, including Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. He graced many sides of Waters in the mid-fifties with extremely colorful solos, using the full register of his instrument as well as some chromatic harmonica. The only reason he is less known than Little Walter is because of his taciturn personnality and his inconsistence, and his incapacity of holding a band as a leader.

Other great harmonicist have graced the Chicago blues records of the 50's. Howling Wolf is often overlooked as a harp player, but his early recordings demonstrate great skill, particularly at blowing powerfull riffs with the instrument. James Cotton is also a household name of the Chicago Blues scene. He used a less amplified tone, relying on hand effects, giving his playing a country blues feeling to it. Sonny Boy Willimason II also used the possibilities of hand effects to give a very talkative feel to his harp playing. Number of his compositions have also became standards in the blues world.

The sixties and the seventies saw the harmonica become less prominent as the electric guitar became the favourite instrument for solos. Paul Butterfield is perhaps the most well known harp player of the era. Heavily influenced by Little Walter, he pushed further the virtuosity on the harp. Sadly he rapidly fell into drugs and alcohol, and after his first two album, his career became stagnant.

You can also hear some good harp parts on records by Canned Heat, The Rolling Stones and Cream, but there is little or no inventivness in the harmonica playing on these records.

Recently, two harp players have had major influence on the sound of the harmonica. Heavily influenced by electric guitarist, John Popper of the Blues Travelers as developped an incredible virtuosity on the instrument. His electric and highly distorted solos are going at a breakneck speed. His influence is heavy on modern blues and rock harp players, who are trying to reach new heights with the instrument.

Jazz harmonicist Howard Levy (who has often recorded with Bela Fleck and Rabih Abou-Khalil is perhaps the most innovative player since Little Walter. He has perfected the bending technique to use with more precision the notes it produces. He has also introduced a technique called overblowing, which enables the diatonic harmonica to play fully chromatic, while retaining the particular sound of the harp. Although he has been performing this technique for quite a while, it has been displayed more and more in the 90s, and player a starting to integrate it in a more blues or rock oriented music.

Related instruments

The unrelated glass harmonica is a musical instrument formed of a nested set of graduated glass cups mounted sideways on an axle and partially immersed in water, and played by touching the rotating cups with wetted fingers, causing them to vibrate.

Harmonica community

There is an active harmonica community on the internet and in real life, with conferences, cruises and everything. SPAH (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica) is one society with a particularly amusing acronym. A Harmonica Mailing List (http://harp-l.org/mailman/listinfo/harp-l/) is avalible with searchable archives.


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