Celebrating great American folk, ballads, light rock and blues.

About Harmonicas

At our gigs, kind people often ask me questions about harmonica. I thought this would be a good place to say a few words on the topic. But first, a caveat: Obviously, there are much better players than me.  For Vintage Fare's music, most of what I do is simple, and less is often more.

First off, if you're expecting insights about the fine art of playing blues or rock harp, look elsewhere. I'm not the guy to talk about playing second (or other) positions. Yeah, I play a little cross harp with Vintage Fare, but most of our music is best served with plain old first position (cowboy harp), so that's my main focus.

First position is the simplest. If a song is being performed in the key of C, you use a C harp. It's a very intuitive style, fairly easy to learn.

Second position is quite a bit harder.  Everything is "inside out."  Where you'd blow to get a given note in first position, you generally have to draw to get the same note in second position. This is far from intuitive, and it takes lots of practice to get good at second position. If a song is being performed in C, you'd use a harp in the key of F to play second position.

So why do people bother?  It's because the draw notes on a harmonica have two distinct characteristics.  First, they have a slightly different tone, one that lends itself to a nice, bluesy sound.  Second, it's easier to bend the draw notes. But don't let the simplicity of first position fool you.  Disparaged by many rock and blues players, you only have to listen to Jimmy Reed tearing up the blues in first position to realize it can be made to work, and work quite well. It may even be harder to play good blues in first position.

Bending is the business of altering the natural note from a given hole to another note. You can bend both draw and blow notes.  It's a funny characteristic of the harmonica that it's easier to bend down (to lower notes) on the lower holes, while it's easier to "overblow" (bend to a higher note) on the higher holes.

So how do you bend notes? I've read several books on harp, watched some tutorial videos. It seems each author has a different way of explaining how to bend.  I'll give you my take - I think it's simplest:

Set down the harp and whistle.  While whistling a particular note, you change the shape of your mouth cavity to "bend" it higher or lower.  Practice that, and pay attention to what you're doing.  Now pick up the harp and do the same thing. That's it.

On Tone: Different players will get a different tone from the same harmonica. I'm not entirely sure what's up with that. Part of it may be that their mouth is built differently than mine. But a big part is in technique. You might be tempted to think that having just the right microphone, amp, effects units, and speaker cabinet will take care of tone.  You'd be wrong. Tone starts at the harp, period. 

Yes, your musical reinforcement chain can build on your native tone - but it can't entirely overcome poor tone that might be feeding it.

Chatting with Norton Buffalo one evening, I learned he was using a Shure Beta 58. That is anything but a harp mike!

And think about this: Someday you'll find yourself in a situation where you're forced to use one of the ordinary vocal microphones.  Maybe the inputs of a venue's house PA are maxed out.  Maybe your favorite harp mike dies.

Whatever your reinforcement chain, one thing to bear in mind is that the harmonica can be a very "screechy" instrument. Like a violin string played with a bow, the harmonica generates a saw-tooth wave form. This produces louder, harsher, high harmonics than sine-wave sources.  You'll probably find that your harp sounds a lot warmer and smoother if you adjust your equipment to roll off the high frequencies, while adding some boost to the bass.

I start rolling off the high frequencies right at the microphone.  Because Vintage Fare performs mostly folk and ballads, I want a "clean" microphone. 

I found that the inexpensive Nady SP-1 does a nice job because of one of its "defects;" it has poor high frequency response.  So I cannibalized a SP-1, taking the microphone element out, and mounting it in a short length of PVC pipe. 

I also cannibalized an impedance-matching transformer - putting the little transformer into the tube too.  A 5K potentiometer gives me volume control at the mike. 

Pipe caps at both ends finish the gadget.  One is fitted with a 1/4" phono jack, the other drilled to let sound through to the mike element.

With the element deep in the tube, this microphone is practically immune to feedback, and its output, thanks to the transformer, is at "instrument level;" just right for plugging into a guitar amp or mixer.

 Tone Magic

A couple weeks ago, Cynthia and I went to Stockton, CA to take in a concert: Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Bob Dylan.  The show opened with a blues band that had a great harp player.  Willie Nelson also had a great harp player in his band. After hearing those guys, I wondered if Dylan would even bother with harmonica.

Well, he did, and he blew my mind.  He pulled tone and licks out of his harps that the earlier players couldn't touch. And he was doing nothing fancy; just pinching the harp between thumb and finger - and using his vocal mike. Believe me, you cannot do that without totally owning the instrument and your licks. It was a real eye-opener.

One particularly important fact: You do not have to play "hard" to get good tone.  Yes, it takes a certain amount of air to get a clean, quiet note. And you don't have to play much louder than that to get good tone.  Keep that in mind, and your harps will last a lot longer. We all get excited during various passages, and have a tendency to blow loud. It's  better to learn to turn the amp up than it is to blow your reeds out.

"Embrochure" is how you position the harp in your lips. It's important to find the embrochure that works best for you. Most people find that holding the harmonica with its back side tilted slightly down gets them the best tone.

Now here's a quick way to get a handle on embrochure.  It's a nasty little secret about ten-hole, diatonic harmonicas: No matter the model or key, the draw note on hole number 2 is the hardest one from which to get "clean" note. There is something perverse about #2 draw.

So work on the #2 draw note until you can consistently get a nice, clean note - without any bending.  Once you can get a clean, #2 draw, you've found the right embrochure.

The other thing to work on is playing single, clean notes on all holes.  Thanks to the design of the harmonica, if you blow through two or three holes including the desired note, you'll get away with it. In fact, this kind of "chord" is often what you want.  But many riffs, and most solos, if played with just chords, will sound muddy and inarticulate.  It's important to get a clean, single note whenever, and wherever, you need it.

There are a variety of techniques for getting single notes. Rather than describe any of them, I'll just suggest you practice until your mouth "knows" how to do it.

Practice is crucial. While first position is pretty intuitive, bear in mind that harmonica is different than virtually every other instrument in one way: There is no visual or tactile "feedback."  On a keyboard, you can watch your fingers.  On a guitar, you can do the same. With trumpets, saxophones, and the like, there's a fingering you can memorize. But with the harmonica, the whole instrument is in your face. You simply cannot see what you're doing.

So a big part of playing harp is "muscle memory." Regardless position (1st, 2nd, etc.), most harp players practice little "riffs" or "chops."  These are two, three, or four-note runs that don't come naturally. Those are practiced until the player "owns" them - they become licks in his bag of tricks.

Articulation is the business of playing each note distinctly from its neighbors.  Sometimes you want to "slide" into one note from another. But, just as often, you want to give each note its own, clear articulation.  There are several ways to do this:

Simple breath control.  The stop blowing (or drawing) one one note, then blow/draw the next. This works, but has its drawbacks. First, it can be a lot harder to do than it sounds.  Next, it's all too easy to "attack" the next note harder than you intended. You wind up with a very uneven performance. This is particularly troublesome with harps that are inconsistent, hole-to-hole, in the amount of air it takes to achieve a given volume.

Tongue techniques.  You can use your tongue to block the note you're finishing while simultaneously unblocking the next note. Depending on the shape of your tongue, and how well you can control it, this can be easy or hard. Either way, it's far from intuitive.

Throat control.  I find this the easiest way to articulate.  Think about what your throat does when you pronounce the letter "K." Practice that, including saying "K" backwards.  Your throat makes a distinct stop either way, and it's a stop your already use in normal conversation.  Use the backward 'K" to end notes; the forward "K" to start notes.

Whichever technique(s) you choose, it should be clear that practice is key. Jon Gindick (great harp player and author) says of the harmonica: "Learn to play it in five minutes; master it in a lifetime."

Brands and models.  Not all harps are created equally, which is a good thing; we get to choose from a plethora of makes and models.  One or more of them will wind up suiting you better than all the others.

I'll just say a few words about my experiences and preferences:

For the most part, I think the Hohner brand is overrated. Yes, they still produce some good harps, most notably their chromatic "64."  Tim Barron, a great harp player at Skip's Music (Sacramento) convinced me to use Hohner Golden Melody harps.  I bought a few, and have been generally happy with them.  I particularly like their ergonomic design. But I've found harps I like better.

I made the mistake of buying one Hohner "Pro Harp." It has replaceable reed plates, and everything else about it may be perfect, but I have one major gripe: The covers are finished with a matte-black something or other that's alleged to slide smoothly.  To my lips, it feels like sandpaper.

But! For the beginner on a budget, it's pretty hard to beat Hohner's Big River model. When (not if) you blow out some reeds, the Big River can be fitted with reed plates from Hohner's "Pro" line. When you do that, you might want to invest a little extra time sealing things up.  Then you'll have a real harp.

Lee Oskar harps are quite good. Made by Tambo of Japan, build quality is very nice.  Oskar tunes his harps just a hair higher than the indicated key - says it makes the harps brighter.  You may, or may not, notice the difference, and, if you do notice, you may or may not like it. Like the Golden Melody, Lee Oskar harps are priced reasonably low for a good quality instrument.

Huang is the brand Norton Buffalo recommended to me. They have to be the bargain of the century.  I bought a couple and I didn't like them at all.  It may be that Huang's quality control is inconsistent and I got a couple lemons. Before dismissing them, I'll say this: For the price, you could buy two or three identical Huangs, pick the best one, throw the others away, and still have a reasonable investment. July 15, 2010 Update: I recently took a chance and bought four more Huang Silvertones. At first, I was disappointed. But, as I "worked them in," they started sounding better and better.

Bushman is a brand not well known, but, like Hohner, Bushman harps are made in Germany.  Build quality is excellent. I like their Soul's Voice model for blues and rock work, but it does very nicely for folk and ballads, too. One notable thing about Bushman harps: Hole-to-hole volume is extremely consistent.  The same amount of air on hole 1 gets you the same volume as on hole 10.

Suzuki makes a whole slew of harp models.  Their Bluesmaster is a very nice harp with a smooth, ergonomic design and good build quality.  I can't find anything wrong with my lone Bluesmaster, but there's nothing exciting about it, either.

My (former) personal favorite harp was the Hering Vintage 1923.

Hering is a Brazilian maker, and their products can be hard to find.  For the Vintage 1923, Hering basically "knocked off" the Hohner Marine Band harp - but with the quality Hohner had in 1923. Hering uses heaver, phosphor-bronze reed plates, some exotic wood for the comb, and fits that harp with very attractive aged-brass colored cover plates.

But the big deal is this: Hering really knows how to seal a harp - and that matters a lot.  With many lesser harps, there are tiny gaps between reed plates and comb, and between the cover plates and reed plates.  These gaps cause "airy" noises when you play them. Many a harp player tears down his harps and carefully applies beeswax to seal things up. Sorry, I don't have the time for that - not when I can buy a great harp, properly sealed to begin with.

For a couple of years, the Hering Vintage 1923 was my hands-down favorite harp, but that's changed. I had two of them fall apart while playing gigs. Two more went south with stuck reeds and no amount of cleaning would rescue them. Those events soured me.

My current favorite is the Bushman Soul's Voice.

Attitude: Cynthia, Alan and I went to a local club to take in a pretty well known local act. I'm about to say something negative, so I won't mention the band name.

Their front man is a great songwriter, plays killer rhythm guitar, and some harmonica.

Midway through their first set, Alan turned to me and said, "Man, you have him beat in every way." I'd always considered myself a mediocre harp player, but I found I could honestly agree with Alan.

During their break, I approached the front man to introduce myself and compliment him on his great songwriting.  With respect to harmonica, he said, "Yeah, it's a handy cheater instrument."

Excuse me? Cheater instrument? If that's how you regard harmonica, no wonder you're not very good with it.

As instruments go, the harmonica is inexpensive, and relatively easy to learn - up to a certain level. But that doesn't mean it isn't a serious instrument. If you take it seriously, it'll reward you.  If you think it's just a cheap toy, well good luck.

Where to Buy Harps

I believe in supporting our local music retailers, even if it means paying a little more.  Problem is, at least in Sacramento, you'll only find a couple Hohner models, and Lee Oskar harps.  If you want Huang, Bushman, Suzuki or Hering, you'll be going on-line.

My favorite harp suppliers are:

Coast to Coast Music: Great service, great prices, and Coast to Coast sells the harp instructional CDs by Doug Puls. Coast to Coast's web site also features some very helpful, free, instructional material.

Harp Depot: Again, great prices and service. Although previously loyal to Coast to Coast, when I went to order my last batch of Herings, Coast to Coast didn't even list them anymore.

I'd encourage you to visit both sites and browse deeply. You'll find harmonicas you never knew existed. And take some chances: Order something that looks interesting and give it a try.  You might be pleasantly surprised.


It's next year already ☺ (2017) and Vintage Fare is going strong!

In 2016, in addition to our monthly appearances at several local venues we:

- Performed at the Nichelini Winery, the oldest in the Napa Valley,

- Performed private parties, and

- We're invited to perform, yet again, at A Taste of Carmichael, a great community event.


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