How to Read Tab

Harmonica tablature tells you which hole to play, whether it’s a blow or draw note, and whether a bend or other effect is required. In the system I use with my students, plain numbers are blow notes and numbers with a minus sign are draws.

Blows & Draws
1 means blow on hole 1
-1 means draw on hole 1

Double Stops
1,2 means blow on holes 1 and 2 together
-1,2 means draw on holes 1 and 2 together

-3′ means draw on hole 3 with a half-step bend
-3″ means draw on hole 3 with a whole-step bend
-3″‘ means draw on hole 3 with a step-and-a-half bend

Same idea for blow bends, except the number won’t have a minus sign.

Chromatic Harmonica
For chromatic harmonica, parentheses tell you to push the slider button:
(-1) means draw on the first hole while pushing the button.

Overblows and Overdraws
On the diatonic harmonica, I use parentheses to indicate overblows and draws:
(4) means play an overblow on hole 4.
(-7) means play an overdraw on hole 7.

There are a number of harmonica tab systems out there, but I prefer this one because it uses only ASCII keyboard keys, which makes it easier to type up songs and transmit them online. Other systems use up and down arrows, or circles around the numbers to communicate blows and draws.

Rhythm & Your Ear
Simple tab systems don’t give you rhythm instructions, so they work best to get you started on songs you’re already familiar with. It is possible to learn new songs using tab, but you’ll need audio examples to demonstrate how they’re supposed to go. It’s also not a bad idea to get used to listening closely to songs, tapping your foot, and singing along with melodies to develop your ear.

Standard Notation
I’m all for learning to read traditional music notation, since it communicates rhythm and articulations better than tab, and in the long term it’s a great investment in your musicianship. In the short term though, it’s probably more important just to get started playing music immediately, so you can get thoroughly hooked on playing your harmonica. In my experience, numeric tab requires less translation by your brain and gets the basic idea across more quickly.

How to Play Single Notes

single_notes_icon-300x272Download my 58-minute lesson on single notes.

To play clear melodies, you need to learn to isolate one hole at a time. There are several useful embouchures or mouth positions, but I believe the simplest and most flexible one for beginners is a pucker.

1. Push your lips out and make a vertical oval.

2. Place the harmonica between your lips and press in slightly.

3. Keep your pucker firm!

Blow into the harmonica and listen. Are you getting a clear single note yet? If not, adjust VERY SLIGHTLY left or right while keeping the harp in your mouth. Remember to press the harp in a little bit and keep your pucker and your cheeks firm.

Experiment with this and you’ll get it. Once you have a clear single note, try alternating between blow and draw on the same hole, then doing the same thing on the next hole over. Have fun!

What You Need

What do you need to get started learning with me? Pretty much just a harmonica and the interest.

The Harmonica
I recommend getting a Hohner Special 20 diatonic harmonica in the key of C or G. It’s around $35 and it’s a huge step up from the $5 cheapos – trust me, you’ll thank yourself.

The Interest
This is your instrument. Make some noise on it. Blow through it, draw through it. Slide right and left. Make some train noises. Cup your hands around it and flutter one of them to get a wah-wah sound. I’ll bet that as you blow and draw, moving left and right, you’ll start to find some simple melodies on your own.

We’ll add to that, but this basic sense of freedom is a gift you can give yourself. You don’t need me in order to start making music, or to start having fun. You can’t play a bad-sounding note on the harmonica. Mess around.

Possibly Technology
For Skype harmonica lessons, you’ll also need a computer, high-speed internet access, a webcam, and the free program Skype. More info on that here.

And of course, you’ll also need a harmonica, and the interest.