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Harmonica position chart

Harmonica position chart – If you want to play Harmonica, you need to learn the basics of Harmonica. One of those pieces of information is the note and position of the notes on the Harmonica. Our today’s article will clarify this matter for you to understand.

Harmonica position chart

About Keys and Positions

Although it is possible to play in many keys of music on any one harmonica by using various positions and techniques, most players use only site directories . two positions; 1st Position (also known as Straight Harp) and 2nd Position (also known as Cross Harp).

NOTE: It crucial to know that 1st Position (starting from BLOW / EXHALE) plays in a different key from 2nd Position (starting from DRAW / INHALE).
It is were required to determine which style of playing will be used to know which key of harp pick. To determine the correct key of harp to use, refer to our Notation chart samples below and review the Resources section of such a website.

For each harmonica tuning (the Standard tuning and our three Altered tunings), essential points are explained below can be used regardless of the key chosen within each tuning.

Harmonica Positions

Harmonica Key, Position, and Music Key

Position/

Harmonica Key

1st

Major

2nd

Mixolydian

3rd

Dorian

4th

Aeolian

5th

Phrygian

6th

Locrian

7th

8th

9th

10th

11th

12th

Lydian

C

C

G

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

G

G

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

D

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

A

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

E

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

B

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

E

F#/Gb

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

E

B

Db

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Ab

Ab

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Eb

Eb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Bb

Bb

F

C

G

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

F

F

C

G

D

A

E

B

F#/Gb

Db

Ab

Eb

Bb

Harmonica players frequently talk about what position they are playing in.  The position specifies the “where/how” of the root note in the scale being played.  By “where” I mean “which hole”, and by “how” I mean how the hole is played, i.e. blow, draw, bend, or overbend.  Position is a useful term because diatonic harps come in all keys, but the relative note layout for each key is the same. 

This means that once you know a song on a harmonica in a certain key you can use the same pattern of “where/hows” on any other key and still be playing the same song, or phrase or lick or riff, just in a different key.  The consistency of patterns associated with scale types (e.g. the blues scale) makes the term position useful for communicating with other harp players, though musicians who play other instruments will have no use for the term–it won’t tell them anything!

Positions are numbered according to the circle of fifths.  First position is where you start in the circle, and each step clockwise is one position higher.  That is, as you add sharps to the key of the harmonica you increase the position number by the number of added sharps.  For example, on a key of C harmonica playing 1st position puts you in the key of C. 

To figure out which key is 2nd position, go one step clockwise from C in the circle of fifths (i.e. add one sharp to the key) and you get G.  3rd position is another step clockwise (i.e. 2 sharps added to the 1st position key) which is D, and so on.  Rather than memorizing a table of positions for each harmonica key it is much preferable to learn the circle of fifths, which is far more useful.

Since there are 12 distinct notes in a chromatic scale and in the circle of fifths, there are 12 different positions on the harp.  When numbering the positions based on going clockwise around the circle of fifths we are essentially talking about “sharp” positions, since each clockwise step gives us a scale with one more sharmonica than the previous scale.  It is pretty unnatural to think about a key having 12 sharps however! 

For this reason, some players talk about “flat” positions as well as regular positions.  The flat positions are named and numbered according to a progression counterclockwise around the circle of fifths.  So first flat on a key of C harmonica is the key of F.  In terms of the “where/how” of playing, 1st flat is identical to 12th position.  Similarly, 2nd flat is identical to 11th position, etc.

There is a natural mode associated with each position.  By this I mean that by using just the natural non-bent unaltered blow and draw notes on the harmonica, when you start at a different where/how note you are playing a different mode.  Here are the natural modes associated with some common positions.

  1. First position is a major scale. The mode name for the major scale is called Ionian.
  2. Second position is a major scale variant with a flatted 7th.  The mode is called Mixolydian.
  3. Third position is a minor scale.  There is more than one minor scale, and the mode for this one is called Dorian.
  4. Fourth position is the natural minor scale whose mode is called Aeolian.
  5. Fifth position is another type of minor scale.  The mode for this one is called Phrygian.
  6. Sixth position has a sort of major scale feel and is called Locrian.
  7. Twelfth position, also called First Flat, has a major scale type feel and is called Lydian.

Here is a table of the positionassociated with the root note of each scale mode showing the starting place and how the hole is played (i.e. the “where/how” talked about above). For example, first position starts on the hole 1 blow; second position starts on the hole 2 draw, and 12th position starts on the hole 2 draw whole step bend.  (Each tic mark ‘ represents a half step bend.)


Position Designation of Tonic Note


Blow1521521521Blow
”’  9    1076
 124      11
87118 9     
Draw326312463124Draw


The “sets” (with matching colors) show different 4-harmonica sets that will cover all 12 keys if you play in all 3 positions. In other words, with an A, C, Eb, and F# harmonica you can play all 12 keys by playing positions 1, 2, and 3.

1st position, also called “straight” harp, is the natural key of the harmonica. In other words, if you have a key of C major tuned harmonica, first position utilizes the scale tones of the C major scale, which starts on the C note.

2nd position, commonly called “cross” harp, starts on the 2 draw and uses a scale a 5th higher than the natural key of the harmonica.  2nd position is the most commonly used harmonica position for Blues, Country, and Rock music because it makes use of draw notes much more than 1st position. 

This is important because the draw notes for holes 1-4, and 6 can be bent, allowing all the notes for the blues scale to be played, as well as being able to be played with more variety and nuance. For a key of C harmonica, the 5th scale tone is G (C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5), so playing 2nd position on a C harmonica is playing in the key of G (technically the G “mixolidian” mode).

3rd position, sometimes called “slant harp” or “double-crossed”, is the scale starting another 5th up from 2nd position, e.g. for a C harmonica, D. (2nd position G=1, A=2, B=3, C=4, D=5.)

To be able to easily determine the music key associated with any key harmonica in any position, the harmonica key needed to play in any position for a particular music key, or the defacto position you are using to play a particular key music on a particular key harp, see the section on the Circle of Fifths.

Understanding 1st / 2nd Position

Major Diatonic Harmonica


Labeled in 1st Position

MAJOR DIATONIC - Harmonica position chart

The Major Diatonic Harmonica was originally intended for playing simple Folk music of the nineteenth century and its notation layout was adequate for that purpose. The original style of playing, known as 1st Position (Straight Harp), is suitable for playing simple melodies, Folk music and various other types of music that call for melody lines, along with some chords.

1st Position (Straight Harp), is still used by many players today, but due to its simplicity of sound, it is not as popular as 2nd Position (Cross Harp).

The evolution of music introduced Blues, Rock and Country and along with these new forms of music came the need for greater expression. Harmonica players began to experiment and found that when they primarily used the inhale (draw) notes, a different kind of sound was provided. This resulted in a new and more fluid style of playing, known as 2nd Position (Cross Harp). 90% of today’s players use 2nd Position for Blues, Rock, Country & Pop music.

2nd Position (Cross Harp), is a Blues scale that offers a more expressive and soulful sound. Many of the draw reeds can be bent (a technique used to change the pitch of a note.)

MAJOR DIATONIC (1st Position plays the Major Scale)

  • Begins on #4 Blow
  • Accents the Blow Notes
  • As examples, use a C Major Diatonic to play in key of C; or use an A Major Diatonic to play in key of A, etc.

OR…

MAJOR DIATONIC (2nd Position plays the Mixolydian Scale / Blues)

  • Begins on #2 Draw
  • Accents the draw notes and bending impotenciastop.pt
  • As examples, use a C Major Diatonic to play in key of G; or use an A Major Diatonic to play in key of E, etc.

Please refer to the Major Diatonic Key Guide Chart to learn more.

Major Diatonic
Example: Key of C

Harmonica position chart - MAJOR DIATONIC (2nd Position plays the Mixolydian Scale / Blues)

Melody Maker™ Harmonica

Labeled in 2nd Position

Harmonica position chart - Melody Maker™ Harmonica

The Melody Maker™, with its three altered notes, is intended for playing Major scale melodies in 2nd Position (Cross Harp). In 1st Position (Straight Harp), you can play: Irish, Clave/Afro music. In 2nd Position (Cross Harp), you can play: R&B, Country, Reggae, Pop, Jazz, Latin.

(The Melody Maker™ is NOT recommended for Blues).

MELODY MAKER™ (2nd Position plays the Major Scale)

  • Begins on #2 Draw
  • Accents the draw notes and bending
  • As examples, use a G Melody Maker™ to play in key of G; or use E Melody Maker™ to play in key of E, etc.

OR…

MELODY MAKER™ (1st Position plays the Dorian Scale)

  • Begins on #3 Blow
  • Accents the blow notes
  • As examples, use a G Melody Maker™ to play in key of Am (Dorian); or use an E Melody Maker™ to play in key of F#m (Dorian), etc.

Please refer to the Melody Maker Key Guide Chart to learn more.

Melody Maker™
Example: Key of G

Labeled in the 2nd Position Key (shown in blue as #2 Draw)

Harmonica position chart - MELODY MAKER™

Natural Minor Harmonica

Labeled in 2nd Position

The Natural Minor, with its five Altered notes, is a natural choice for playing minor music in 2nd Position (Cross Harp), such as: minor Blues, Reggae, Ska, Latin, Funk, R & B and Hip Hop.

Harmonica position chart - Natural Minor Harmonica

NATURAL MINOR (2nd Position plays the Natural Minor Scale)

  • Begins on #2 Draw
  • Accents the draw notes and bending
  • As examples, use an A Natural Minor to play in key of Am; or use a G Natural Minor to play in key of Gm, etc.

OR…

NATURAL MINOR (1st Position plays the Dorian Scale)

  • Begins on #4 Blow
  • Accents the blow notes
  • As examples, use an A Natural Minor to play in the key of Dm (Dorian); or use a G Natural Minor to play in key of Cm (Dorian), etc.

Please refer to the Natural Minor Key Guide Chart to learn more.

Natural Minor
Example: Key of Gm

Labeled in the 2nd Position Key (shown in green as #2 Draw)

Harmonica position chart - Natural Minor

Harmonic Minor
HarmonicaLabeled in 1st Position

The Harmonic Minor, with its five altered notes, is ideal for playing World Music, typically played in 1st Position (Straight Harp). It offers a soulful, Eastern European sound, perfectly suited for playing traditional ethnic music spanning many different cultures, including: Eastern European, Gypsy, Yiddish, Asian, Tango and Reggae music.

Harmonica position chart - Harmonic Minor Harmonica

HARMONIC MINOR (1st Position plays the Minor Scale)

  • Begins on #4 Blow
  • Accents the blow notes
  • As examples, use an Am Harmonic Minor to play in Am; or use a Gm Harmonic Minor to play in key of Gm, etc.

NOTE: The Harmonic Minor is a unique “modal music” tuning with different Minor/Major scales. Please refer to the Harmonic Minor Key Guide Chart to learn more.

Harmonic Minor
Example: Key of Cm

Labeled in the 1st Position Key (shown in orange as #4 Blow)

Harmonica position chart - Harmonic Minor

Refer: https://leeoskar.com/ufaqs/understanding-1st-2nd-position/


Circle of Fifths

About the Circle of Fifths

The term fifth refers to an interval between notes.  Consider all the notes in the key of C, namely C D E F G A B C.  Now number the notes going up the scale and you get C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7 C=8.  The term up a fifth just means the note numbered 5, or G.  Up a forth just means the note numbered 4, or F, etc.

If we think about the key of G major scale instead of C major, the notes are 1=G, 2=A, 3=B, 4=C, 5=D, 6=E, 7=F#, 8=G.  Up a fifth from G is the note numbered 5 in the G scale, which is D; up a forth is the note numbered 4, or C.

This is really simple–there’s nothing mysterious about it.  These terms like a fifth, forth, third, seventh, etc. just talking about where the note falls in the scale if you number starting at the root note in the scale.

Now if we number the notes going down the C scale we have C=1, B=2, A=3, G=4, F=5, E=6, D=7, C=8.  If we pick the note down a forth from C we get the note numbered 4, in this case G.  Notice that up a fifth yields a G, and down a forth also yields a G. This is a general principle: up a fifth is the same as down a forth.  Well, what about vice versa?  Up a forth in C major is an F, and down a fifth is also an F.  Yep, it’s another general principle: up a forth is the same as down a fifth.

We’ve seen that up a fifth in C is G, and in G is D.  What if we keep going?  The major scale for the key of D is D=1, E=2, F#=3, G=4, A=5, B=6, C#=7, D=8, so up a fifth is the note numbered 5, which is A.  For the key of A we get E, for E we get B, for B we get F#, which is the same note at Gb.  Traditionally we go to flat names at this point, up a fifth from Gb is Db, then Ab, Eb, Bb, F, and C.  We’re back at C, and we’ve covered all 12 notes in the scale.  This is great!  We don’t get back too early–before all the notes have been used–and each note appears one time in the circle of fifths–there are no duplicates.

This is where the idea of the circle of fifths comes from.. the mathematical relationship that allows us to go up in fifths and get each note exactly once before we get back to the beginning.  Of course, we can also go up in fourths and have the same relationship, since up a forth is the same as down a fifth–the notes just come out in reversed order. This circle of key names is symmetrical, and really only a circle of fifths if you go clockwise.  It’s a circle of 4ths if you go counterclockwise.  But by convention and tradition, the circle of key names is called the circle of fifths.

An interesting thing about the circle of fifths is that as you step clockwise, the number of sharps in the key signature increases by one. Since the circle is symmetrical, as you step counterclockwise the number of flats in the key signature increases by one.

And, for diatonic harmonica players the circle of fifths is great for figuring out positions, harp keys, and the key of the music.

  • When playing first position, you are playing in the key of the harp.
  • If you want to play a particular key in 2nd position, pick the harp key 1 step counterclockwise from the music key.
  • If you are playing in 2nd position, just look one step clockwise from the key of the harp to determine the key of the music.

This technique works regardless of what position or key you are playing in.  To play in a key using third position, pick the harp key that is 2 steps counterclockwise.  If you want to know what key you are playing in when you’re playing 3rd position, just look 2 steps clockwise from the key of the harp.

Given the key of the harp, each step clockwise on the circle of fifths is the key of the music for the next higher position.

Given the key of the music, each step counterclockwise on the circle of fifths is the key of the harp to use for the next higher position.

To figure the music key and position for any diatonic harmonica key, just number the harp key as 1, and consecutively number the other keys stepping clockwise around the circle. You don’t need a big table. Just the Circle of 5ths.

We often play I, IV, V chord progressions in blues, country, rock, pop, and classical music. If you pick a key/root chord from the circle, the chord one step clockwise is the 5th, the chord one step counterclockwise is the 4th.  So, it’s easy to figure out I IV V by looking at the circle.

Most western music uses chord progressions from the Circle of 5ths, and mostly the chords are in the range from tonic plus 1 step (i.e. clockwise: the 5th) to the tonic minus 4 steps (i.e. counterclockwise). And, most often songs resolve by stepping directly clockwise back to the tonic.  Examples help.  Let’s pick the key of C as the root, or tonic.  Looking at the circle, the chords from C – 4 to C + 1 are Eb, Bb, F, C, and G.  You want to find a good sounding chord progression?  Well, try some of these, which just follow the above 2 rules: stay in that range, and step clockwise back to the tonic.

Examples: C, F, C, G, F, C

Well, that’s cheating.  It’s “just” a blues progression.  The blues form is the most basic progression that follows the rule!

Okay, lets extend it: C, F, C, G, Bb F C or how about C Eb Bb F C G C etc.

For improvisation, thorough familiarity with the Circle of Fifths is almost indispensable.

By the way, I never have to dig through a box to find the harp key I want. I keep my harps arranged according to the circle of fifths. I think this is a really good idea–extremely useful when jamming to music and trying to find the right key and position.  Changing position is just a matter of picking the harp to the right or left.. you don’t have to think about it.  If the harp you try isn’t right in any position you’re comfortable with, it’s easy to skip 2 or 3 to the right or left and get a harp where none of the keys in your comfortable positions overlap.  This way, I usually find the right key within 3 or 4 tries at most.  And, with your harps arranged this way the circle of fifths becomes well ingrained, second nature, and it’s much easier to pick a particular key harp than when I had them arranged in “sequential” order (C, D, E..).

Chord Substitution

A common technique found in a lot of different kinds of music is to substitute the relative minor chord for the major chord found in the circle of fifths.  The relative minor chords are a (minor) 3rd lower than their relative majors, and the relative minor circle of fifths is rotated 4 steps counterclockwise from the major keys.  Consider the IV V I chord progression.  It’s a very common, ordinary “pop” sounding progression.  Now, substitute the relative minor of the major IV chord in place of the IV chord.  The 4 (IV) chord’s relative minor is a (minor) 3rd less than major chord, or 4-3=1 note higher than the root I chord, which is the minor ii chord.  The resulting chord progression is ii V I.  (Minor chords are written as lower case roman numerals instead of upper case as for major chords.)  The ii V I progression is the most common chord progression found in jazz!

Think about the triads built on the notes of the major scale, for example the key of C.  The first 3 triads are C E G, D F A, and E G B, which are the C major, D minor, and E minor chords.  Look at the circle of fifths for minor keys and find the relative major keys for Dm and Em, the ii and iii chords in the key of C.  The relative major for the ii chord is the IV chord, and for the iii chord is the V chord.  The I IV V progression is just the first three chords of the scale with the relative major chords substituted for the minor chords!

Familiarity with the circle of fifths and chord substitutions will greatly enhance your understanding of music and your ability to improvise and write music.  The more you dig into it, the more sense it will make!  The great thing is, if you understand just a few basic concepts, everything falls into place and much of the confusion about music theory is demystified.


Chromatic Harmonica Notes Layout

Chromatic Harmonica notes layout – Many beginning players are confused about harmonica notes, particularly since some of them are missing. This articles shows the notes on a harmonica, and the reasoning behind their layout.

Chromatic Harmonica Notes Layout

Note Positions

The purpose of this article is to cover one and only one topic: what the NOTE POSITIONS are on a 16-HOLE CHROMATIC HARMONICA.

While there are 16 holes on a 16-hole chromatic harmonica, they don’t number the holes from 1-16 on the cover of the harmonica. Instead, they number the first FOUR holes with numbers 1-4, then start over again with #1 at hole 5 and go up to #12 on the 16th hole.

Why do they do this? For many years, Chromatic Harmonicas had 12 holes, and many of the books were written explaining technique on a 12-holer.

Let’s give the 16 hole chromatic harmonica a QUICK GLANCE, before we get into detail on the notes available on each hole. Each hole has 4 reeds, so there are 64 tones total, and some are duplicates. You access those 4 notes per hole by the DRAW and the BLOW, with and without the slide in.

Pushing the slide in always raises the given note by one half tone.

The Notes Repeat The Same Pattern….4 Times

The single line chart below provides you the BLOW ONLY notes on a 16 hole chromatic. You’ll notice right away that the identical pattern of C E G C repeats itself 4 times. Because the pattern repeats every 4 holes, it makes it simpler for you to find notes.

Chromatic Harmonica Notes Layout

4 Note progression, Blow Only

CEGCCEGCCEGCCEGC

What Are Those Notes…what Is The Range Of This Instrument?

The 16 hole chromatic harmonic has a larger range than a flute, a trumpet or a guitar, but less than a piano. Some of you have musical training, and you may be curious what the note range is on a 16-hole chromatic harmonica, in terms of a piano keyboard.

A 16 hole chromatic harmonica has a range from C3 which is the C below middle C on a piano, up to a D7. So it’s 4 octaves plus a C# and a D. That’s 4 octaves.

Harmonica’s makes sound both BLOWING and DRAWING IN AIR, these are called BLOWS and DRAWS. Here’s a complete note layout chart, I’ll explain it in detail.

Blow

C

E

G

C

C

E

G

C

C

E

G

C

C

E

G

C

Slide Out

Hole

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Draw

D

F

A

B

D

F

A

B

D

F

A

B

D

F

A

B

16 Hole Chromatic, Key of C

Blow

C#

E#

G#

C#

C#

E#

G#

C#

C#

E#

G#

C#

C#

E#

G#

C#

Slide In

Hole

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Draw

D#

F#

A#

C

D#

F#

A#

C

D#

F#

A#

C

D#

F#

A#

D

To read the top part of the chart above, start by reading the words, “Slide Out” which are in white letters on a black background on the second line. Next to the words “Slide Out”, you’ll see the word “HOLE” then numbers in the following sequence: 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. That center line of numbers tell you what hole to play on.

All the NOTE LETTER NAMES after the word BLOW are the notes you get when you blow in that numbered hole, again with the slide OUT, and down below, you get the NOTE LETTER NAMES you get on those same hole numbers when you DRAW breath in.

The chart just under this is similar, but it gives you the NOTE LETTER NAMES when the slide is pushed in. When you release the slide it moves back to its original position because it’s on a spring.

So: if you BLOW on hole #1 with the slide out, you get a C.

If you DRAW on hole #1 with the slide out, you get a D

If you BLOW on hole #1 with the SLIDE IN, you get a C# (also called a Db)

If you DRAW on hole #1 with the SLIDE IN, you get a D# (also called an Eb)

Then, if you blow on the 2nd hole with the slide out you get an E, and so on.

The chart below has the same information in another layout, with all combined into one chart.

Hole12345678910111213141516
HOLE°1°2°3°4123456789101112
Blow, Slide InC#FG#C#C#FG#C#C#FG#C#C#FG#C#
Blow, Slide OutCEGCCEGCCEGCCEGC
Draw, Slide OutDFABDFABDFABDFAB
Draw, Slide InD#F#A#CD#F#A#CD#F#A#CD#F#A#D

Let’s go over the harmonica’s notes ONE HOLE AT A TIME.

HOLE #1…all the way at the left of your harmonica

On hole #1, which is all the way to the left side of the harmonica (if you hold it so the slide, thing you can push it and it comes back) is on the right, and the numbers visible on the top of the harmonica’s cover, you get 4 notes:

When you BLOW you get a C.

When you DRAW you get a C# (also goes by the name Db, same tone, different name)

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET A C#

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET A D

BIG HINT….. WHEN YOU PUSH THE SLIDE “IN” YOU GET THE NEXT TONE ½ STEP ABOVE WHERE YOU WERE…BLOW OR DRAW, all the way up and down the harmonica!

HOLE #2…the second hole

On hole #2 you get 3 different notes, 4 total:

When you BLOW you get an E.

When you DRAW you get an F.

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN F, (yep, same as the draw just above in this list)

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN F#/ also called a Gb

Why did they do that? Well, it means you can play an F on a blow or draw, and that comes in handy.

HOLE #3…third hole

On hole #3 you get 4 different notes:

When you BLOW you get a G.

When you DRAW you get an A.

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN G#/ also called an Ab.

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN A#/ also called a Bb.

HOLE #4…fourth hole

On hole #4 you get 3 different notes, 4 total:

When you BLOW you get a C.

When you DRAW you get a B.

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET A C#/ also called Db

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET a C

Why did they do that? Well, it means you can play a C as a blow or a draw, and that comes in handy.

THIS IDENTICAL PATTERN is found on actual holes 5-8, 9-12, and 13-16, with the exception that the draw with slide in on hole #16 is a D…they didn’t want to repeat the C as in the other octave groupings…you might need the D for something.

So, that’s the note layout chart for a 16 hole CHROMATIC HARMONICA.

HOW TO PLAY THE NOTES

You can play each note and say the note name, all the way up and down the harmonica. Or hunt for all the C’s, then all the D’s, etc.

One way to play all the tones is to play what’s called a CHROMATIC scale with all 12 tones.

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C

Again, getting a half tone higher of any given note is easy on a chromatic harmonica…just push in the slide.

We will discuss this in another article and video, but some notes have more than one name, and are called ENHARMONIC.

C#/Db are the same tone, D#/Eb are the same tone, E#/F are the same tone, F#/Gb are the same tone, A#/Bb are the same tone, and B#/C are the same tone.

If you look at a piano keyboard and have someone give you the note names this will make sense, because those shared notes share the same physicial piano key.

That’s the 16 HOLE CHROMATIC HARMONICA note layout.

Also you can read more:


The Harp Reference: Note Layout

Harmonica notes layout – Many beginning players are confused about harmonica notes, particularly since some of them are missing. This articles shows the notes on a harmonica, and the reasoning behind their layout.

Harmonica notes layout

Chromatic Harmonica Note Layout

NOTE POSITIONS

The purpose of this article is to cover one and only one topic: what the NOTE POSITIONS are on a 16-HOLE CHROMATIC HARMONICA.

While there are 16 holes on a 16-hole chromatic harmonica, they don’t number the holes from 1-16 on the cover of the harmonica. Instead, they number the first FOUR holes with numbers 1-4, then start over again with #1 at hole 5 and go up to #12 on the 16th hole.

Why do they do this? For many years, Chromatic Harmonicas had 12 holes, and many of the books were written explaining technique on a 12-holer.

Let’s give the 16 hole chromatic harmonica a QUICK GLANCE, before we get into detail on the notes available on each hole. Each hole has 4 reeds, so there are 64 tones total, and some are duplicates. You access those 4 notes per hole by the DRAW and the BLOW, with and without the slide in.

Pushing the slide in always raises the given note by one half tone.

THE NOTES REPEAT THE SAME PATTERN….4 TIMES

The single line chart below provides you the BLOW ONLY notes on a 16 hole chromatic. You’ll notice right away that the identical pattern of C E G C repeats itself 4 times. Because the pattern repeats every 4 holes, it makes it simpler for you to find notes.

4 NOTE PROGRESSION, BLOW ONLY

CEGCCEGCCEGCCEGC

WHAT ARE THOSE NOTES…WHAT IS THE RANGE OF THIS INSTRUMENT?

The 16 hole chromatic harmonic has a larger range than a flute, a trumpet or a guitar, but less than a piano. Some of you have musical training, and you may be curious what the note range is on a 16-hole chromatic harmonica, in terms of a piano keyboard.

A 16 hole chromatic harmonica has a range from C3 which is the C below middle C on a piano, up to a D7. So it’s 4 octaves plus a C# and a D. That’s 4 octaves.

Harmonica’s makes sound both BLOWING and DRAWING IN AIR, these are called BLOWS and DRAWS. Here’s a complete note layout chart, I’ll explain it in detail.

Blow

C

E

G

C

C

E

G

C

C

E

G

C

C

E

G

C

Slide Out

Hole

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Draw

D

F

A

B

D

F

A

B

D

F

A

B

D

F

A

B

16 Hole Chromatic, Key of C

Blow

C#

E#

G#

C#

C#

E#

G#

C#

C#

E#

G#

C#

C#

E#

G#

C#

Slide In

Hole

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Draw

D#

F#

A#

C

D#

F#

A#

C

D#

F#

A#

C

D#

F#

A#

D

To read the top part of the chart above, start by reading the words, “Slide Out” which are in white letters on a black background on the second line. Next to the words “Slide Out”, you’ll see the word “HOLE” then numbers in the following sequence: 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. That center line of numbers tell you what hole to play on.

All the NOTE LETTER NAMES after the word BLOW are the notes you get when you blow in that numbered hole, again with the slide OUT, and down below, you get the NOTE LETTER NAMES you get on those same hole numbers when you DRAW breath in.

The chart just under this is similar, but it gives you the NOTE LETTER NAMES when the slide is pushed in. When you release the slide it moves back to its original position because it’s on a spring.

So: if you BLOW on hole #1 with the slide out, you get a C.

If you DRAW on hole #1 with the slide out, you get a D

If you BLOW on hole #1 with the SLIDE IN, you get a C# (also called a Db)

If you DRAW on hole #1 with the SLIDE IN, you get a D# (also called an Eb)

Then, if you blow on the 2nd hole with the slide out you get an E, and so on.

The chart below has the same information in another layout, with all combined into one chart.

Hole12345678910111213141516
HOLE°1°2°3°4123456789101112
Blow, Slide InC#FG#C#C#FG#C#C#FG#C#C#FG#C#
Blow, Slide OutCEGCCEGCCEGCCEGC
Draw, Slide OutDFABDFABDFABDFAB
Draw, Slide InD#F#A#CD#F#A#CD#F#A#CD#F#A#D

Let’s go over the harmonica’s notes ONE HOLE AT A TIME.

HOLE #1…all the way at the left of your harmonica

On hole #1, which is all the way to the left side of the harmonica (if you hold it so the slide, thing you can push it and it comes back) is on the right, and the numbers visible on the top of the harmonica’s cover, you get 4 notes:

When you BLOW you get a C.

When you DRAW you get a C# (also goes by the name Db, same tone, different name)

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET A C#

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET A D

BIG HINT….. WHEN YOU PUSH THE SLIDE “IN” YOU GET THE NEXT TONE ½ STEP ABOVE WHERE YOU WERE…BLOW OR DRAW, all the way up and down the harmonica!

HOLE #2…the second hole

On hole #2 you get 3 different notes, 4 total:

When you BLOW you get an E.

When you DRAW you get an F.

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN F, (yep, same as the draw just above in this list)

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN F#/ also called a Gb

Why did they do that? Well, it means you can play an F on a blow or draw, and that comes in handy.

HOLE #3…third hole

On hole #3 you get 4 different notes:

When you BLOW you get a G.

When you DRAW you get an A.

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN G#/ also called an Ab.

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET AN A#/ also called a Bb.

HOLE #4…fourth hole

On hole #4 you get 3 different notes, 4 total:

When you BLOW you get a C.

When you DRAW you get a B.

When you BLOW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET A C#/ also called Db

When you DRAW WITH THE SLIDE IN YOU GET a C

Why did they do that? Well, it means you can play a C as a blow or a draw, and that comes in handy.

THIS IDENTICAL PATTERN is found on actual holes 5-8, 9-12, and 13-16, with the exception that the draw with slide in on hole #16 is a D…they didn’t want to repeat the C as in the other octave groupings…you might need the D for something.

So, that’s the note layout chart for a 16 hole CHROMATIC HARMONICA.

HOW TO PLAY THE NOTES

You can play each note and say the note name, all the way up and down the harmonica. Or hunt for all the C’s, then all the D’s, etc.

One way to play all the tones is to play what’s called a CHROMATIC scale with all 12 tones.

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C

Again, getting a half tone higher of any given note is easy on a chromatic harmonica…just push in the slide.

We will discuss this in another article and video, but some notes have more than one name, and are called ENHARMONIC.

C#/Db are the same tone, D#/Eb are the same tone, E#/F are the same tone, F#/Gb are the same tone, A#/Bb are the same tone, and B#/C are the same tone.

If you look at a piano keyboard and have someone give you the note names this will make sense, because those shared notes share the same physicial piano key.

That’s the 16 HOLE CHROMATIC HARMONICA note layout.

Diatonic Harmonica Note Layout

Here are pictures of a harp comb that shows where the notes are in a C and an F diatonic harmonica.

The holes are numbered 1-10, and the position of the hole number indicates the low note in each hole.  The blow notes are shown in the hole chambers toward the front edge of the comb, and the draw notes are shown at the rear of the chambers.  The notes in between the blow and draw notes in the chambers are the normal bent notes available in each hole.  The notes shown outside the chambers are the overbends, consisting of overblows in holes 1-6 and overdraws in holes 7-10.  Note that overbends are available in all holes, but only those that add unique notes have been shown.

The discontinuous line of hole numbers is shown to emphasize the point that the note relationships invert at hole 7.  That is, on holes 1-6 the blow notes are lower than the draw notes–but on holes 7-10 the draw notes are lower than the blow notes.

Here are pictures of a harp comb that shows where the notes are in a C and an F diatonic harmonica.

The holes are numbered 1-10, and the position of the hole number indicates the low note in each hole.  The blow notes are shown in the hole chambers toward the front edge of the comb, and the draw notes are shown at the rear of the chambers.  The notes in between the blow and draw notes in the chambers are the normal bent notes available in each hole.  The notes shown outside the chambers are the overbends, consisting of overblows in holes 1-6 and overdraws in holes 7-10.  Note that overbends are available in all holes, but only those that add unique notes have been shown.

The discontinuous line of hole numbers is shown to emphasize the point that the note relationships invert at hole 7.  That is, on holes 1-6 the blow notes are lower than the draw notes–but on holes 7-10 the draw notes are lower than the blow notes.

Harmonica notes layout
C Diatonic Note Layout

Most players who advance beyond the beginner level play in 2nd position 80%-95% of the time. (Playing in 2nd position means the tonic note is the 2 draw, which is a 5th higher than the key of the harmonica.) So, to think in the generic key of C when playing in 2nd position, you use the key of F harmonica.  Here is the note layout of a key of F harmonica.

Diatonic Harmonica Note Layout

F Diatonic Note Layout

Another nice thing to see explicitly, instead of digging it out of other
charts, is how to play the same note at different places on the harp. The
range of a 10 hole diatonic is 3 octaves, so I’ve divided the table into
Low, Mid, and Hi to correspond to these octaves.

 

C Harp Note Location
F Harp Note Location

NoteLowMedHi
C1>4>7>/10>
Db1′4′7#/10#
D148
Eb1>#4>#8>’
E2>5>8>
F2″59
F#2′5>#9>’
G2|3>6>9>
Ab3″‘6′9#
A3″610
Bb3′6>#10>”
B3710>’

NoteLowMedHi
F1>4>7>/10>
F#1′4′7#/10#
G148
Ab1>#4>#8>’
A2>5>8>
Bb2″59
B2′5>#9>’
C2|3>6>9>
Db3″‘6′9#
D3″610
Eb3′6>#10>”
E3710>’

These next tables show the holes, blow and draw, and the associated
notes on C and F harps.

 

C Harp Notes by Hole
F Harp Notes by Hole

HoleBlow

Note

Draw

Note

1CD
2EG
3GB
4CD
5EF
6GA
7CB
8ED
9GF
10CA

HoleBlow

Note

Draw

Note

1FG
2AC
3CE
4FG
5ABb
6CD
7FE
8AG
9CBb
10FD


The Harp Reference: Embouchure

The embouchure (ahm’ ba sure) is the method of applying the lips and tongue to the mouthpiece of a wind instrument, like the harmonica! If you are just learning to play I recommend you start with the Lip Block.

1) Lip Block – A variant of the pucker (see below), it’s also called lipping. Tilt the harp up at the back about 30 to 45 degrees, and open your mouth pretty wide, enough to cover about 3 holes, with your upper lip about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way over the top cover.  Let the harp nestle into your lower lip. What happens is that quite naturally, without really trying and without forcing it, the lower lip blocks the 2 side holes and lets the center hole sound cleanly. The open mouth position helps improve your resonance, which in turn helps in getting bends correctly, and improves your overall tone. The harp needs to be well in your mouth… Don’t be shy! You can’t just peck it with puckered lips and make it work right.  You should be relaxed, without tightening your lips or pinching in your cheeks.

2) Pucker – The lips are pursed and pushed out, and the harp is positioned deep back into the mouth (but not are far back as for tongue blocking or U-blocking. See below).  The air stream is “directed through the pucker to one hole”.  (Note: This is as described in many beginning harp books, ala John Gindick’s.  In my opinion, the pucker does not direct the air stream through the hole so much as the deep position of the harp in the mouth brings the lips into contact with the side holes not to be played.)

Note: I believe that for experienced players the pucker and lip block evolve so as to become nearly indistinguishable.  In my opinion, it is easier to reach this “pucker/block” embouchure starting with the lip block than with the “pucker” mental image.

3) Tongue Block – The mouth is opened to cover 3 or more holes, and the tongue blocks the holes that are not intended to sound.  The tongue block pretty much must be used for octave and split interval play . Tongue blocking also facilitates various harp playing techniques and effects, such as “slaps” and “flutters”.  The tongue normally blocks the holes on the left and leaves a single note on the right unblocked to sound, but the tongue can also block holes on the right leaving a single note on the left to play.  It’s best to learn to block and play on both sides to facilitate quick jumps and easy access to holes on both ends of the harp.

4) U-block – A variant of the Tongue Block where the tongue is (normally) rolled into a “U” shape, though the tightness of the curve varies a lot from player to player. The tip of the tongue is placed just beneath the hole to be played or even down onto the lower cover. The mouth is open to cover about 3 holes, and the tongue curves up, or is pushed up to block the left and right holes.

All bends and overblows/draws are available using any of these embouchures.  There is no clear evidence of which I am aware that any embouchure allows faster or cleaner play than any other.  The consensus best approach is to learn them all and use the ones you like.

Note: The tongue block is the only embouchure that offers split intervals and certain “slap” effects.  (U-block techniques easily extend to become essentially tongue block techniques for blocking multiple holes.)  In my opinion, for most people if only one embouchure were to be used, the tongue block would offer the most versatility.  However, as mentioned above, there is no need to stick to only one embouchure, and it’s best to learn as many as possible.

Also note: It is possible to “pucker/block” out of either corner of the mouth, and it is possible to lip block on either side of a single hole to be played.  These modifications to the “standard” embouchures can add speed and accuracy since less harp/head movement is required to jump to a non-contiguous note. For the pucker/block, the harp is “twisted” from side to side to bring either corner of the mouth into play.  For the tongue block, the tongue is moved left or right to cover/expose the proper notes.  For U-blocking, the tongue can be moved from side to side to select individual notes with little or no movement of the harp relative to the mouth.


Which Harp Should I Get?

There are a zillion different diatonic harp models to choose from, some of which are shown above.  So how do you decide which to get?  There are two basic classes of diatonic harmonica: ones that basically work okay, and ones that don’t.  Here’s the main thing–look for harp models that come in all keys, and not just one or two (typically C, or C and G).

Cost is not the determining factor, but expect to pay somewhere around $15 to $35 at a store, or from $10-$25 mail order, plus shipping and handling.  This is just a rule-of-thumb range.. the point is, you usually won’t get a good harp for $5.00, and you don’t need to pay $50.  Pro’s play everything from Huang’s that can be had for $6.00 mail order to custom Filisko models that cost about $200 and require a year wait.  Click here for price comparisons.  The most popular models used by pro’s are:

  • Hohner Marine Band
  • Hohner Special 20
  • Lee Oskar Major Diatonic
  • Hohner Golden Melody
  • Hohner Big River (an inexpensive relatively new model that is gaining in popularity)

Other good harps include:

  • Hohner Meisterklasse (expensive and very nice)
  • Suzuki ProMaster (moderate price and very nice.  Option for partial valving.)
  • Hering Blues (looks like a Lee Oskar)
  • Hering Master Blues (looks like a Marine Band)
  • Hohner Blues Harp
  • Hohner Cross Harp
  • Huang Silvertone Deluxe (inconsistent quality)
  • Huang Star Performer (inconsistent quality)

One distinction in harmonic types is the material out of which the comb is made.  Comb materials come in:

  • Plastic
    • Special 20, Lee Oskar, Golden Melody, Big River, Herings, Cross Harp, Huangs
  • Wood
    • Marine Band, Blues Harp, Huang Bac Pak
  • Metal
    • Meisterklasse, ProMaster

Some people believe certain tonal characteristics are associated with different comb materials, but there is little or no objective evidence to support that belief.  I have heard Big River harps made out of everything from light foam to lead to concrete to balsa wood to titanium, and any difference in tone due to the comb material is minimal at best.  My advice is not to select a harmonica based on comb material with the idea that the material will have a “warm” or “mellow” or “bright” sound.

The purpose of the comb is to hold the reed plates and direct the air over the reeds,  The most important characteristics are stability and geometric integrity–in other words, they need to be able to be manufactured accurately so that there are minimal air leaks between the comb and the reed plates.  Plastic works fine for this.  So does metal.  Wood is more iffy in that there is much moisture involved in breathing through the harp, and wood can swell, crack or split.  That aside, the wood comb Marine Band is the most popular harmonica out there, and often chosen for that classic Chicago Blues sound.  The Marine Band has slots in its covers, which contributes to its characteristic sound.  Probably many people attribute the sound to the wood rather than the design of the covers.  Plastic body harps with Marine Band reed plates and covers also exhibit the same characteristic sound–but are only available by harmonica customizers.  The Hohner Big River harp has slots in the covers similar to but smaller than those in the Marine Band.

One of the main factors that determine whether a harmonica’s tone is characterized as warm or bright is the tuning used.  Equal temperament tunings, such as used on Lee Oskar harps, are typically described as brighter sounding than more justified tunings such as used on most Hohner harps.  For more information about tunings and temperaments than you knew could exist, see Pat Missin’s “Altered States” at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~patm.

I recommend starting with a plastic body harp.  Wood combs can swell and be rough on the lips, and tend to be less air tight and more difficult to play than plastic or metal comb harps.  Here are my top 5 recommendations, in no particular order:

  • Hohner Special 20
  • Lee Oskar Major Diatonic
  • Hohner Golden Melody
  • Hering Blues
  • Hohner Big River

Eventually you’ll probably want to try many of the different models to decide which you prefer.  One approach is to buy different models for different keys, but remember that different keys have their own individual characteristics, so not all differences you notice may be attributable to the harp.

Also remember, all harps can be (are!) less-than-perfect out of the box, and all will sometimes break reeds (where they go flat), especially for beginners learning bends, or more advanced players learning overblows.  Many people find that Lee Oskars last longer than just about any other model, and I’ve personally never had one go bad.  Many people prefer the sound of Hohner harmonicas, however, so you’ll have to figure it out for yourself!  In my opinion, the better the player the less difference there is in the sound of the model of the harp.  I don’t know anyone who can listen to a CD and accurately tell you what model harp is being played based on its sound.

Which Key Should I Get?

The correct answer is, of course, it depends on what music you want to play and what position you want to play in.  For blues, rock, and country you’ll usually be playing with guitar players, who prefer sharp keys.  Most of the time 2nd position (cross harp) will the be position of choice.  Guitar players often play in the keys of G, E, A, and D, so for playing along in 2nd position 
the harp keys to get first are:

  • C,
  • A,
  • D, 
  • G.

After that, keys Bb and F are used pretty often. The last keys to get are Ab, Eb, Db, E, B, and F#/Gb.  You should get all 12 keys so you can have the flexibility to play with any song, regardless of key, using whatever position works best.  If you want to play horn parts, or play mostly with keyboard players, you’ll be playing in flat keys more often, so you might want to get F, Bb, and Eb before A and D.


The Diatonic Harp Reference: How a Harmonica Works

A harmonica consists of two reed plates, the top one for blow reeds and the bottom one for draw reeds, which are attached to a comb and shielded with top and bottom covers.  Each reed plate has different length slots over which reeds of corresponding length are fixed at one end.  An air stream passes over the reeds into or out of chambers in the comb and causes the reeds to vibrate.  This configuration of reeds puts the harmonica in the class of so-called free reed instruments.

The reeds vibrate, but interestingly it is not the reed vibration that causes the harmonica sound.  You can verify this for yourself by removing the covers and plucking a reed.  It makes a tiny ping sound, nothing like what you hear when you play the harmonica. The sound of the harmonica is created by the action of the reed vibrating through its slot and chopping the air stream.  This is similar to the way a siren works.  There is very little clearance between the edges of the reeds and the sides of the slots in the reed plates, so when the reed is actually within the slot during its vibrations the air stream is essentially shut off.  When the reed emerges from its slot on either side of the reed plate the area through which the air stream can pass opens up, so the air stream starts up again.  It is this vibration of the air stream that makes the harmonica sound.  The reeds are not like guitar strings, which vibrate to make the sound which is amplified by the acoustics of the guitar body.  They are just springs that cause vibrations in the air stream.

The tiny harmonica does not have any resonant body like a guitar or violin, or a sound board like a piano.  Nothing in the harp appreciably amplifies its sound or resonates.  The resonance comes from the player, which is largely why the harmonica is such a personal instrument.  Many people will tell you that the material out of which the body of the harmonica is made determines how it will sound.  While there may be very small differences in tone due to materials, any such difference is essentially negligible to all but the most advanced players.

The top picture above shows the harmonica parts in their proper orientation.  Notice how from this angle you can only see the slots in the reed plates on the other side of the plate from where the reeds are attached.  Both plates have their reeds facing down.  You can see that when the harp is assembled, the upper reeds are inside the comb and the lower reeds are outside the comb.

Normal blow notes are caused by the upper reeds crossing their slots when the air stream enters through the holes in the comb, flows over the inner reeds, and exits through the slots.  The reeds move into their slots, stopping the air stream, and then out the other side of the reed plate, which lets the air flow again.  As the reed deflects it gains energy like stretching a spring or a rubber band.  When the air pressure is released after the reed passes through its slot the energy in the reed causes it to spring back toward its starting position, once again crossing its slot and cutting off the air stream.  This process repeats while the air stream is maintained.  Normal draw notes work similarly but are caused by the lower reeds crossing their slots when the air stream flows over the outer reeds, enters through the slots, and exits through the holes in the comb. This action of the reeds where they first move into their slots is traditionally called a closing note.  Bends to change the pitch of closing notes are called closing bends.

During normal draw or blow bends, both the draw reed and the blow reed can participate in making the note.  As you start with a draw note and bend it down to its limit, initially the draw reed makes the note as above, then both reeds vibrate through their slots to make the note, and finally, at the deepest part of the bend, only the blow reed is making the note.  You can verify this by removing the covers and using your fingers to stop the vibration of the upper and lower reeds at various times during a bend.  The reverse happens during blow bends: the blow reed starts, both reeds participate, and finally only the draw reed makes the sound.

The range of bending available for a pair of reeds is determined by the pitches of the natural notes of the reeds (i.e. the unbent notes).  The pitch can be bend down from the high note to just lower than 1 semitone (one half step, e.g. B to C) above the low note.

The opposing reed, i.e. the blow reed during a draw bend, starts by moving away from its slot.  This deflection adds energy to the spring that is the reed.  When resonance factors are just right the opposing reed can gain enough energy that when it springs back it goes all the way through its slot.  The action of the reeds where they first move away from their slots is traditionally called an opening note.  The physics of exactly how all this interplay between the reeds, air stream, and slots works is largely unexplored, unintuitive, and not well understood.

The point to understand is that during a normal bend, one reed is operating in a closing note fashion while the opposing reed is operating in an opening note fashion.  The closing reed’s pitch gets lower while the opening reed’s pitch gets higher than their corresponding natural notes.

During overbends, i.e. overblows and overdraws, the resonances and air flow characteristics are such that the closing reeds don’t participate in making the sound, and only the opening note is played.  (It is possible to play in such a way that the closing and opening reeds both play and produce different pitches.  This is usually caused by poor overblow technique, but can be used to achieve two-note double stops that can’t be achieved any other way.)  The action of stopping the closing reed from sounding is often called choking the reed, which forces the closing reed into its slot with very little energy so that it neither crosses its slot nor has enough energy to spring all the way back to its normal position. With the slot blocked the air stream cannot flow that way, and with the little energy in the spring the reed remains in position to block the slot, so the closing reed vibration never takes place.  Overbends are opening notes, so their pitch is higher than the natural note of the reed–just the opposite of normal bends.

How does the harmonica work?  You inhale through it or exhale through it and it makes notes.  You change the shape of your mouth, move your tongue around, open and close your throat, breathe with different pressures and attacks, and the notes it makes changes.  You do it enough and you figure out what makes what happen. 


The Diatonic Harp Reference: Getting Good Tone

Tone is a frequent topic among harp players, but it is not a simple concept that is well defined.  Tone is the Holy Grail of harmonica.  It is related to the musical timbre of the instrument, but most often encompasses other playing elements as well.

Tone is about 
Notes 
That sound: good. 
Notes 
That sound: Clean and full and Big and fat and 
Round and warm and Sweet and clear.  or 
Notes that sound: 
Bitter and shrill or Light and airy or Bright and piercing or 
Powerful and edgy… 
Notes: 
That aren’t weak and wimpy or tentative, but that 
Speak out and Sing, 
Confidently, with 
Your voice
Or softly whisper 
Your secrets
Notes: 
That rip through you and 
Grab your insides and 
Tear the emotions out of you. 
That’s good tone.

Tone production relates to the whole of playing a note: how it is attacked, how it is sustained, what (loudness variation) dynamics are applied, how it ends: abruptly or smoothly or tailing off, and what effects are used on it when, such as vibratos and/or tremolos, or slurs or other combinations with other notes.  A player with good tone uses many different techniques, timbres, effects, and varieties of note shaping to produce his/her notes.  Notes shouldn’t just happen.  Notes should be willfully created.  All of them.

Phrasing relates to how notes are played in succession, whether smoothly with legato or abruptly with degrees of pizzicato or staccato, how dynamics and musical space are used to frame notes and passages and set them apart from other phrases in the music.  In grammar, a phrase is a related set of words formed to express an idea.  In music, a phrase is a related set of notes used to express a musical idea.  Phrasing, while distinct from tone, is not unrelated to it.  In much improvised play, it is the musical idea that is maintained from instance to instance of a song, not the precise notes and timing.  Just like when you have an opinion or idea to express in words, you don’t always say it the same way, using the same words in the same order with the same emphasis–so it goes with musical ideas too.  Musical ideas can be replicated in phrases using different notes and timings, so long as the feel remains consistent.  What has this got to do with tone?  Well, if you take away specific note sequences and timings for the basis of a musical idea, you have reduced the number of musical elements left to worry about.  Tone (strictly timbre) is one of those remaining musical elements.  Rhythm is another that is partially left.. the groove–the underlying beat pattern and beat emphasis is normally kept consistent to maintain the feel of a phrase, even if the rhythmic patterns of the note durations is not kept the same.  The vibrato element of tone is one element that can be used in setting the feel to a phrase.  The tone of the notes should be appropriate for the phrase being played–the tone should augment the musical expression.  The tone can work together with the other phrasing elements–including dynamics, note durations, and rests–to enhance the musical statement that is a phrase.

Tone comes from the entire musical system that produces the note, from the instrument to the player to the setting to the amplification.  Of this sound production system, the player is by far the largest most dominant factor when it comes to tone.  Through out these pages I talk about techniques that enhance your ability to make different sounds with the harp, and provide a basis for overall good tone.  Here are some elements to pay particular attention to, to pick up on when you see them associated with other topics and techniques:

Common Elements of Good Tone

  • Good harmonica tone sounds good with the rest of the music, and changes according to the demands of the musical expression.
  • Clean single notes.  Sloppy play is an enemy of good tone.
  • Playing in tune.  This includes draw bends, blow bends, intermediate bends, and overbends–all the note types.
    • Also, the tuning system used, such as equal temperament or just intonation or some compromise between the two, affects the tonal characteristics of passages and chords.
  • Breathing from the diaphragm helps produce a big fat full tone.
  • Resonance works with breathing to produce a loud or complex full bodied tone.
  • Effective use of vibrato works with the rhythm of the music to add variety and life to the sound of a note.  Consistency of vibrato through the different note types can be a key to maintaining a cohesive tone through a passage, and mask the playing techniques used to create the note.
  • Consistency among note types in a passage contributes to the sense of a controlled and motivated tone.
  • Draws
  • Blows
  • Draw Bends
  • Blow Bends
  • Full bends
  • Intermediate bends
  • Overblows
  • Overdraws
  • Single-reed “valve” style closing reed bends.
  • Open airways, including the mouth and throat help get the thick round tone.  Pinching of the air stream makes a note weaker and thinner and less confident.
  • Effective hand cupping techniques add resonance and variety and shape to the note.  For amplified play, a tight hand cup fattens up the sound, makes the note louder, adds compression, and contributes to a powerful, edgy distortion.  A leaky seal makes the note thinner, softer, more shrill, less biting.  A poor cup around the harp and mic can be like playing an electric guitar with the amp turned off.  A good tight cup is like turning the amp on.
  • Proper equipment for amplification enhances the sound production system–but the player is still the key.  If you have poor acoustic tone, expect to have poor amplified tone as well.  If you have good acoustic tone you have a chance to get good amplified tone, but you have to master those additional amplified tonal elements as well.
  • Proper amplification and electronic effects to work with the player’s tone to enhance the intended feel of the music.  For example, if you’re going for a big fat full tone, don’t use amplification that emphasizes high notes and brittle or piercing sound.  If you want to sound like a distorted electric guitar, don’t play through a clean rig like an SM57 through the PA.  If you want a clean acoustic sound, don’t hold a bullet mic cupped tight and play through an overdriven guitar amp using effects pedals.
  • Even, consistent, and controlled volume (loudness) for all note types, blown, drawn, bent, or overbent.  If your notes are not consistent or controlled as to how loud they are relative to each other, the result will sound chunky, choppy, and strained, and the sense of good tone will be greatly diminished.
  • Good use of dynamics consistently for all note types contributes to an overall sense of good tone.  Dynamics is about controlling loudness, softness, and pulsing of volume, and about changes to the loudness–gradually, or suddenly, playing louder or softer, while keeping any pulsing heartbeat intact.
  • Good phrase-related tone adds a sense of cohesiveness and consistency to each phrase and to the music as a whole.
  • Effective use of variety, especially among musical phrases, to add interest, add spice, add color, and convey different feelings works together with the effective use of consistencywithin musical passages to become the work of musical art painted by the tonal palette and different tonal colors.  If you can’t maintain tonal consistency within a passage, you cannot paint a smooth red stroke; if you can’t add variety to your tone, you can only paint in blue.
  • Effective use of the strengths of the differences among the note types–their individual voices and character adds variety and provides expressive capabilities.  Elements you may wish to downplay for the sake of consistency sometimes, you may want to emphasize for the sake of expression or variety at other times.
  • Attention to the details of note attack, formation, sustain, and shaping is the key to controlling your tone.
  • Tongue slaps for note articulation can help thicken up the sound with brief chords and add punch to the rhythmic heartbeat of the music.
  • Controlled use of slurs to let in small amounts of air and sound from adjacent holes can thicken up the sound and add tension.
  • Effective use and control of difference tones generated with double-stops (2 notes at a time) can add to the overall sense of musical harmony or dissonance, and thicken up the sound with these created, extra notes.  This is an advanced technique that requires very precise control over the bends of both notes when two notes are played at once to “tune” a third note that is automatically generated as a function of the frequencies of the notes being played.  Control over difference tones is especially important for amplified play, where the created difference tones are much louder than during acoustic play.
  • Good musicianship in general contributes to the overall sense of good tone.

Effect Combinations

Though the elements of tone are described individually, they are often used in combination to produce the final sound.  Just because they are discussed separately doesn’t mean they are used in isolation.  There are lots of examples of effects used in combination.. here are a few:

  • Note articulations (including slaps) start a note, but don’t impact the use of dynamics or vibrato.
  • Hand “wahs” are often used in conjunction with bends that are released, which emphasizes the “wah” effect.
  • Tremolos and vibratos can be merged, or transformed into one another.
  • The depth of tremolos and vibratos can be associated with dynamic changes to the loudness of a note.  As a couple of examples, a note could start out soft and straight (no vibrato), increase in volume adding a tremolo wavering of the volume, and end with a loud, pitch-wavering vibrato; or a note could start loud and straight, then fade out with a little vibrato.
  • Dynamic pulsing of the volume of vibrato oscillations can work with phrasing, rhythm, timing, the groove, and legato passages to enhance and emphasize them.
  • Hand tremolo can be combined with throat vibrato and diaphram tremolo to produce a tone wavering volume wavering pitch wavering note.
  • Other examples are left as an exercise for the dedicated student.

Practicing Tone

Practicing tone means practicing all the elements that go into tone production, some of which are mentioned above.  It does not mean playing lots of notes.  It means playing each note for a long time, manipulating it with your mouth and hands and tongue and breath to try to make it sound as good as you can, in as many different ways as you can.  Practicing and playing with good tone is not hurrying to the next note, it is lingering on each note to show the details.

Practicing tone means listening to the sound of each note, and being aware of the details.  The more you know, the more you will notice, the more details you will hear.  You can actually practice tone by learning what different playing techniques sound like, and listening to identify what techniques of note formation and shaping are being used.  The songs Misty and Stormy Sea II are full of examples you can try to identify and analyze to see how the techniques contribute to the tone and the music.  The section on diatonic techniques includes sound samples (in Real Audio format) to help you learn to identify and understand what the player is doing.  Once you can hear and know and think about what can be done, only then can you try to do it.

What the player is doing.  Is doing.  Try to do it.  Doing.  Do.  Something active, not passive.  Good tone is active.  It is willfully produced, it is not something that just happens because of the harp you use or the amplification equipment you play through.  Tone is something the player puts in the note. Something the player does, actively, willfully, by exercising control over him/herself, his breathing, her playing, their music.

But the timbre of different instruments, amps, and mics does vary.  The degree or possibility of certain kinds of tonal manipulations can be different on different equipment and under different conditions.  But remember, good tone is not passive, not just something that happens.  Good tone is control over notes that is done by the player.

Practice playing one note for a long time, listening to its sound, its voice, its nuances.  Change it subtly, change it dramatically, play it soft, play it loud, play it gradually softer and softer, play it gradually louder and louder.  Play it straight, play it with vibrato, change the depth of the vibrato, waver the pitch, oscillate the volume, let it fade out, make it end abruptly.  Hold it for a long time.

I think it is good to practice tone–especially a big fat full round horn-like tone–on lower key (pitch range) harps (say, key of A or lower is better).  The lower notes require a larger resonance chamber, and you have to open up and get big on the inside more for low key harps than on higher key harps (say key of C and higher).  I even suggest working on extended-range low key harps, like a low D or even a “tenor” C like a Hohner 365.  Bends and vibratos on low harps require a tighter grip on the air stream, and larger mouth and muscle movements–and maybe I just like their sound.  Since different key harps have their own character, it is good to practice tone on a full range of keys, including low, medium, and high harps (say, D and higher).  Work on higher key harps requires smaller movements and more subtle control of the muscles.  You can’t really get a big fat horn-like sound out of a high key harp, and it’s harder to get a bright, brittle, piercing, or flute-like sound on a low harp.

Whenever you play, whatever you play, give each note its due.


The Harp Reference: Definitions

In order to learn about the harp, you have to know the language–harp specific terms and their meanings.  The following pictures show a disassembled diatonic harmonica with various parts indicated.  The bottom picture shows a reedplate with the reed side up.

Diatonic Harmonica Parts 

The following table presents some basic definitions used when discussing the harmonica and harmonica play.  Many other less basic terms are discussed in the section about diatonic harmonica techniques


Term
Meaning
BendA lowering of the naturally played pitch
of a reed caused by playing techniques.  Draw notes can be bent on
holes 1-6 and blow notes can be bent on holes 7-10.
BlowNotes played by exhaling.  The blow notes are created by the upper
reeds (numbers up) where the reeds open inside the harp.
ChamberThe area or cell in the comb into which the
reeds vibrate.  The player breathes through the outer holes of the
chambers to play the harmonica.  See figure above.
ChromaticA tuning that uses all 12 notes used in Western
music. Chromatic harmonicas have a slide activated by a button that alter
the reed that is sounded to enable fully chromatic play. Often refers to
the type of harmonica, as opposed to a diatonic harp.
Closing BendA pitch lowering bend where the reed initially closes into its slot.
CombThe body of a harp upon which the reed plates
are attached. The comb has the holes or chambers into which you play. 
Combs are made of wood, plastic, or metal.  See picture above.
CoversThe outer covers of the harmonica that attach
to the comb.
CupThe seal formed between the hands and the
harmonica or mic.
DiatonicA tuning that uses only the 8 notes from
a major or minor scale. This is the tuning for normal 10-hole “short” harmonicas,
also called diatonic harps. Often used to refer to the harmonica itself,
as opposed to a chromatic harmonica.
Discrete CombA diatonic harmonica comb with a separate chamber for each reed.
DrawNotes played by inhaling.  The draw notes are created by the lower
reeds (numbers up) where the reeds open outside the harp.
GapThe space between a reed and its slot in the reedplate.  See picture
above.
EmbouchureThe method of applying the lips and tongue
to the harmonica.  Often refers to any technique that manipulates
the air stream.
HarpHarmonica.  Seems to originate from
the early term “French Harp”.  Also called “Short Harp” and “Mouth
Harp”, as well as “Mouth Organ”, “Tin Sandwitch”, and “Mississippi Saxaphone”.
Opening BendA pitch raising bend where the reed initially opens away from 
its slot.
OverblowAn advanced type of bend that plays the opposite reed in an opening
rather than closing fashion.  Overblows raise the pitch of the natural
note, whereas normal bends lower the pitch.  Overblows are available
on holes 1-6 and overdraws are available on holes 7-10.
PositionRelates to the starting place (e.g. hole
number) and manner (e.g. draw or blow) in which the root note of the scale
is played.  The natural notes of the harmonica when played in different
positions yield characteristic modes.
ReedA thin rectangular metal strip (normally
brass) attached to a mounting plate that is activated by the players breath
to spring back and forth through its slot, which chops the airstream and
produces the harmonica’s sound.  See picture above.
Reed plateThe mounting plate for the harmonica reeds.
Normally brass.  See picture above.
ResonanceAn amplification effect due to sound waves echoing and superimposing
to reinforce certain audible frequendies.
SlotA rectangular hole in the reed plate just
slightly larger than its reed. The reed vibrates through its slot to produce
the harmonica sound.  See picture above.
TabShort for tablature.  A shortcut notation that indicates how to
play a note on the harmonica.  This is different from standard musical
notation, which indicates what note to play including its relative duration. 
TremoloPulsations of air pressure that cause a wavering effect to the loudness
of the sound.  Often referred to as vibrato, and often mixed with
vibrato to produce a note oscillation effect as used by singers. 
When both vibrato and tremolo are present, usually the term vibrato is
used.
VibratoSlight fluctuations of pitch produced by a slight wavering movement
of part of the embouchure affecting the air stream.  Sometimes referred
to as tremolo, and often used with tremolo to produce a note oscillation
effect as used by singers.  When both vibrato and tremolo are present,
usually the term vibrato is used.



Tribute to Little Walter


Blue Midnight

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2
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