There is nothing so quite as soulful as a blue’s song played on a harmonica, and a bluegrass tune just isn’t complete without the distinctive twang of the instrument that we also call a French harp, blues harp, or mouth organ. Everyone knows what a harmonica looks like; with it’s comb like mouth piece and shiny plate, but playing it is another thing entirely. Who hasn’t picked up this reed instrument, put it to their lips, and blown a scale or two, only to chuckle at themselves and put it down later. It’s a funny little instrument, and believe it or not, there’s a whole lot more to learning how to play one than you would thing.
It’s an uncomplicated instrument, and doesn’t demand much from it’s player, but there are a number of harmonica chords that you can learn if you’re ready to take your abilities to the next level. Whether you are hoping to make a name for yourself in blues using the harmonica as an accompaniment, or you want to learn some harmonica chords to impress your friends with your skill in this unique little instrument, we’ve got you covered.
Harmonicas are seem like fairly simple instruments, but in fact they are a little more complex than they let on. If you are familiar with the reed family of instruments, then you likely already know how a reed instrument makes music: air from the player’s mouth vibrates the reed giving it a distinct sound. By manipulating the airflow, you can create musical notes. Would you be surprised to hear that the harmonica is also a reed instrument?
Instead of having one reed, as a clarinet or saxophone would, a harmonica has a reed for each of it’s holes; a basic, simple harmonica will have 10 holes, while some will have as many as 16. As you blow into one of the holes, the reed, which has been tuned to a note, will play that note. You can manipulate these sounds by changing airflow to “bend” the reed, or by playing harmonica chords. Even the most basic harmonicas can be used to make chords!
There are two main ways to manipulate air flow into a harmonica; by drawing or blowing. A draw is when you breathe in. Even if you are still only learning the basics of harmonica, you know that If you ever pick up a harmonica, you know that by placing it to your lips and taking a breath, you will still get a sound, unlike other reed instruments.
A blow is when you-surprise!-blow into the instrument, forcing air over the reed and producing a sound or note. You’ll find that there are two types of harmonica chords, just as there are two types of harmonica notes: blow chords and draw chords!
There are three basic parts to any harmonica, no matter which type you’ve got (and we’ll go over types in a moment); the comb, the reed plate, and the cover plates. Let’s take a look at what each part does:
- The Comb
The comb is what comprises the main body of a harmonica. When you look at the instrument, you’ll notice that it has small blocky holes that are evenly spaced and resemble a hair comb. Originally, harmonica combs were made of wood only, but nowadays you can find harmonicas with plastic combs and even titanium ones! You won’t find many combs made of wood anymore. The moisture from the player’s breath can cause the comb to expand and shrink, which will change the sound of the instrument over time.
- The Reed Plate
Your harmonica’s reed plate is mounted to the comb so that the holes line up with each reed. Unlike traditional reed instruments, you won’t find organic material here! Instead, reed plates are typically made of brass but can also run the gamut from plastic to higher-end metals. It’s the unique metal reed that gives harmonicas their distinctive twang.
- The Cover Plates
The cover plates are those two metal or plastic panels that enclose the entire body of the harmonica. The purpose of these plates can be extremely simple, and only serve to hold the instrument together, or you can purchase a harmonica with a more advanced set of cover plates which will alter the tonal quality of your instrument of amplify the sound.
Types of Harmonicas
Harmonicas come in three basic types, with thousands of variations. If you’re a beginner, you will likely start out with a simple diatonic harmonica, which has ten holes and is tuned to only one key. As you begin to progress to an intermediate level of harmonica playing, you may decide that you want to purchase one of the more intricate types of harmonicas, which we will go over here:
A chromatic harmonica uses a sliding bar either on the mouthpiece or on the back of the instrument to direct airflow across the desired reed. Many chromatic harmonicas will come with 12, 14, or 16 holes, which allow the player to produce notes and harmonica chords in different keys.
A tremolo harmonica or tremolo tuned harmonica has two reeds per hole as opposed to just one. One note will be sharp and one will be flat. The result of blowing air over both of these reeds will be the tremolo, or a sound that is distinct in it’s “warble” or wavering quality.
- Orchestral Melody
Both types of orchestral harmonicas are designed to be used as part of a larger ensemble, hence the name. The most common type of orchestral melody harmonica is also called a horn harmonica, and is distinctive in that they are “blow only” and will not produce a sound on the draw.
- Orchestral Chord
If you are only interested in using your harmonica to play harmonica chords, than you can’t get a better tool for the job than the orchestral chord harmonica, which is designed for that very purpose. Most orchestral chord harmonicas are capable of playing 48 harmonica chords and each set of holes can be used to produce a different chord depending on whether or not the chord is blown or drawn.
Know Your Harmonica Chords
Alright! Onto the good stuff-learning and practicing those harmonica chords. One thing to keep in mind is that while each hole represents a note, many harp tabs–which are tabs for harmonica music as opposed to a guitar–do not refer to the notes. Instead, they refer to the hole number, from left to right. On a harp tab, you will see either the number represented like this: 1, which will indicate the note is blown through the first hole, or like this: -1, which means that the note is drawn instead. Let’s take a look at how a simple diatonic harmonica is numbered first we will take a look at the blow notes.
You can see that each note on the harmonica has a corresponding number above it. It looks very similar on the draw notes as well, see?
If you know anything about chords, you know that they are a grouping of harmonious notes played simultaneously, and that certain chords sound differently depending on how they are played. This is true for harmonica chords as well. A major chord will sound bright and cheery, and can be very melodic. A minor chord, on the other hand, is a little more dark, and some describe the sound of a minor chord as “sorrowful” or “foreboding.” You can play both using a harmonica, and the sound of your harmonica chords will also change depending on whether or not you are playing a blown or drawn chord. Simple enough, right? Well let’s go ahead and get started, then. First we will look at some of the chords that you can play using blown notes by exhaling and forcing air over the reed plate.
Because different notes are played depending on whether you inhale or exhale, it makes sense that drawn harmonica chords, which you can achieve by sucking air in through the comb, will sound a little bit different. Why not experiment with some of the following common drawn harmonica chords?
And there you have it: a basic set of blown and drawn harmonica chords that you can experiment with until you feel comfortable adding more to your repertoire with some more advanced harmonica lessons.
Now you know a little more about the harmonica, including some harmonica chords that you can easily practice and master. From here, you might want to look into some of the fundamentals of music theory and music concepts. Or perhaps you’ll want to learn some more about playing the blues on the piano, using your new harmonica chords to give your riffs that perfect little touch. Either way, remember to practice, practice, practice. Stay cool, daddy-o.