January 8, 2008

Choosing a Harmonica

The combination of guitar and harmonica has a well established history. From folkies to rockers, blues players to jug band stompers, the harp offers a sound that far surpasses its diminutive size.

It's no wonder that a number of musicians want to try out the harmonica for themselves. It's small, affordable, and as long as a prospective player's expectations aren't virtuosic, the harmonica's diatonic nature makes it hard to play a bad note.

The question we most often field in regard to harmonicas - "Which key should I buy?"

This is a question that can be difficult to answer for a number of reasons. While it is true that the harmonica is only capable of playing a full major scale in the key that it is sold in, there are work-arounds.

First off, the harmonica can be used to play in other keys, albeit with some missing notes, in the various positions. Bending and over-blowing can help to fill in some of the missing notes as well.

Secondly, a player may be interested in playing a melodic "straight harp" style, or a bluesy "cross harp" style full of bends and overblows. (Yes, you can bend notes rather accurately on a diatonic harmonica. To hear this done to good effect, and with a virtuosic accuracy, check out the stylings of Howard Levy.)

Most new players will likely be looking at the harmonica from the perspective of the first two positions to start with.

To play a harp in first position, you simply match the key of the harp to the key of the song that you are playing. If you are strumming a country ballad in the key of G, you will likely play a harp in the key of G.

For people exploring the bluesy "cross harp" style, you choose the harp based on the second position which places an emphasis on the draw, and as such, facilitates easier bending. In this case, you choose a harp that is in a different key than the song is written.

Here is a chart that will help you to determine the key to choose:

Many new harp players might want to begin by using a book, CD, or other learning tool. In that case, the most common key is C, though you should check with the materials first to be sure. Having the right key harp will make it possible to play in tune with the lesson materials.

For the price of a few packs of strings, giving the harp a try is a pretty low risk investment that could open up a world of fun.

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