The harmonica is a small and seemingly easy to play wind instrument. They’re also pretty cheap, and in the right hands, can wield incredible power, not to mention masses of expression. This humble little instrument is sometimes referred to as a blues harp and has managed to weed its way into a broad array of genres, and in this blog, you’ll learn about the illustrious history of the harmonica, the various forms a harmonica can take, as well as some of its essential playing techniques.

The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique

A Mysterious Instrument

You may not think it, but the harmonica was once shrouded in mystery. Halfway through the last century, virtuoso harmonica players would do anything to keep their signature playing techniques secret and ensure that their breadwinning musicianship was safe from poachers. It’s still said that harmonica god Little Walter (the stage name of Marion Jacobs) would often turn his back to the audience while he played to make sure that no one would be able to see how he did it all. Until the close of the twentieth century, if anyone wanted to get the same sound and notes out of this little instrument as the masters, they just had to figure it out themselves.

“I spent hours and hours with nothing but a harmonica and my record player”, admits harmonica player Ben Bouman. “It was an endless quest to find out how those guys were doing it. When the internet arrived in the nineties, the world might as well have opened up. Harmonica players from all over started to share their knowledge over the internet, and that was immense progress.”

The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique
Ben Bouman

Fingers in Every Pie

Mysterious or not, at the very least the harmonica has natural charm. Small, manageable, affordable, and amazingly expressive once you get the hang of it, the harmonica feels at home in many genres, including blues, rock, country, pop, and jazz. Big names are associated with it, like Steve Wonder of the pop universe, and Toots Thielemans of the jazz universe. And, while we’ll look at a few different kinds of harmonicas in this blog, it’s the ‘blues harp’ that’s probably the most played of them all.

It’s the fact that the harmonica can be played in so many different ways that makes it slot easily into so many different styles. Simple chords can be thrown in between vocal lines, as demonstrated by Bob Dylan and Neil Young back in the Summer of Love (and they’re still at it to this day). The harmonica can be deployed as an accompaniment to other chord-based instruments, including but by no means limited to the guitar, and last but not least, it can be wielded as a lead instrument, since it’s no secret that the harmonica lends itself beautifully to a good, melodic, banging solo.

“You could say that the harmonica has a finger in every pie,” says Ben. “Even if you just pick one up and blow into it, it’ll sound good, which is also why it’s so underestimated. Because it seems so easy, many people see the harmonica as a toy, but this is yet another harmonica-based myth, since as soon as you go any further, you’ll immediately realise that this instrument demands a lot of skill and actually takes years to master. I know that some of the top American players of all time would spend a good six hours a day rehearsing. There is also the fact that a few of those players had plenty of time on their hands, since they were in prison at the time.”
The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique
The great-great-great grandmother of the harmonica is the sheng: an instrument played in China as early as 3,000 BC. This is the first instrument to ever use the ‘free reed’ principle.

Before German Folk

The origin story of the harmonica starts in China as far back as 3,000 BC when the first ‘free reed’ instrument was designed: the sheng. The ‘free reed’ principle is where a stream of air (breath) causes a ‘tongue’ to vibrate and produce a note. The sheng was first written about in Western Europe in 1636, and in 1776, the first shengs were imported to Europe. Their appearance immediately inspired instrument builders to start experimenting with the new ‘free reed’ principle until finally, in 1821, German craftsman Christian Friedrich Buschmann had the idea of building a sort of mini-accordion. The accordion (known back then as the squeezebox) is still a classic German folk instrument, and the squeezebox, accordion, and harmonica, all share the same ‘free reed’ principle to produce sound and note variation. The first ever harmonica has brass reeds tuned in a major scale, so a C-major harmonica could produce notes C, D, E, F, G A, B, and C, which were played by both blowing out and drawing in air. Drawing air produces a different note than blowing, since it vibrates a different reed. This way, with a specific number of holes to push and pull air through, harmonicas can be used to play a number of different notes. There are also various different methods you can use to produce different notes, which we’ll take a look at later.
The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique
A blues harp tuned in C-major. The upper row shows the notes that can be played by blowing air. The lower row shows the notes that can be played by drawing air.

Before the Cotton Fields

In 1825, another German musical instrument builder, Richter, developed what we now know as the diatonic harmonica, with Richter tuning. This is now commonly known as the blues harp. This version of the harmonica has ten holes and is tuned so that on the left, chords can be played, while melodies can be played on the right at the same time. By adopting specific tongue techniques, you could play the rhythm, chords, and melody all at the same time. Of course, the Richter harmonica was also invented for German folk music, especially since it brought the harmonica even closer to the sound and scope of an accordion, with which you can play both chords and melodies. But in 1868, it was Hohner who introduced Richter-tuned harmonicas to America, where this cheap, pocket-sized instrument was picked up by some of the poor ex-slaves who were scraping a living in the cotton fields and who discovered some as-yet untapped features of this revolutionary instrument. Namely, that you could bend notes down to a slightly lower pitch, enormously expanding the note range, and that, by bending the right note in the right way, you can hit beautiful blue notes: the diminished thirds and fifths that would characterise blues. Along with the discovery that notes could be bent, the blues harp was born, and besides the ability to bend notes, the blues harp presented a number of playing techniques that were previously unthought of. Anyone able to master the instrument at the time had set themselves up with an extra source of income, and until sometime during the 1930s, blues harp battles were held on the streets where combatants would challenge each other to mimic the sound of a train leaving or pulling into the station. An entire harmonica-based culture had erupted.

Little Walter

The blues harp grew up alongside the blues to the point where, blues got so big during the 1940s and 50s, many jazz musicians switched to the blues simply because it made more money. The particular blend of skill and (in some cases) formal musical education of some of these former jazz musicians took the harmonica and the blues harp to a higher level while also introducing the harmonica to jazz. As part of the jazz orchestras of the time, the harmonica was often played as if it were a clarinet or saxophone and throughout the forties and fifties, as these bands grew bigger and bigger, they started to feature amplified guitarists, inspiring the legendary blues harp player, Little Walter.

As the first to amplify his harmonica, Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs) is still the most important harmonica pioneer there’s ever been. In the fifties and sixties, Little Walter would almost always play through an amplified setup and at the time, microphones had a crystal pickup connected to a valve amplifier, which would give the sound a very specific quality, where the louder you played, the more you would get of that now-familiar characteristic distortion, which treated the sound of the harmonica just as beautifully as it did the electric guitar. Little Walter also pushed things further by experimenting with the reverb and tremolo effects that were built into many of the guitar amplifiers of the time. This, combined with Little Water’s technique, is why he still serves as the benchmark for any amplified harmonica player, and is exactly why you can still catch harmonica players crooning into a crystal-pickup microphone and a valve amplifier.

To Pop & Rock

Blues and jazz quickly gave birth to pop and rock, and the harmonica moved with the times. The harmonica was a mainstay of Chicago blues (amplified blues) which was a big influence on bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, whose early work often featured a harmonica. One of the many legends about The Beatles is that, in 1960 when the band were on their way to Hamburg, they stopped at the Bergmann music shop in Arnhem, where John Lennon nicked the harmonica that would soon feature on their first ever single, and first hit of many, ‘Love Me Do’.

In the age of flower power and hippies that followed, singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Neil Young popularized the harmonica all over again. “From a technical point of view, the playing wasn’t incredible, but it supported and fitted the simplicity of the music,” according to Ben Bouman. Then, as the amplifiers that backed up rock and blues-rock got bigger and bigger, and the sound got harder and more raw, the harmonica went along with it and players tried to find the absolute limits of what this little instrument was capable of. In the eighties, the harmonica was still a feature of the pop and rock scene and was heard on tracks like Suicide Blonde by INXS, where it was played by the legendary Charlie Musselwhite (featured further below in this blog), and many hits by Eurythmics. Stevie Wonder is also considered one of the harmonica greats. In blues, the harmonica (or more accurately, blues harp) is still a prominent fixture, and is now considered a pre-eminent blues instrument.

The Overblow

During the decades that saw the rise of pop and rock, within which the harmonica found its own neat slot, there were a few other important harmonica-themed developments. At the end of the sixties, the so-called ‘overblow’ was discovered. This technique was uncovered and developed by Howard Levy, a classically trained American pianist who also happened to play the harmonica. Because he was used to the vast note range of a piano, and missed a few notes when playing his harmonica, he consciously sought out a playing technique that would pull even more range out of the instrument. The overblow technique involves literally forcing a higher pitched note by blowing harder. This does the opposite of the bending technique, which pulls notes down in pitch. The technique also makes it possible to play every note on a harmonica, making it a much improved instrument when playing classical and jazz music. The overblow technique also found its way into blues, where it was seen used more and more. However, the overblow technique is not all that easy to master, especially if you want perfect intonation (meaning a precisely pure note). “It can’t really be used as a trick. If you do it at all, you have to do it technically well,” remarks Ben Bouman.

A diatonic harmonica:

The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique

A chromatic harmonica:

The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique

An authentic forties bass harmonica:

The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique

A Vineta chord harmonica:

The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique

The Various Forms of the Harmonica

Harmonicas come in a vast range of different shapes and sizes, but here, we’ll make a list of the most important. We’ve already taken a look at the Richter tuned diatonic harmonica – more commonly known as the blues harp, which, as we’ve already mentioned, was originally designed for playing chords and melodies at the same time. After the introduction of this harmonica, a mass of variations followed. For example: long harmonicas for playing a greater number of chords, and bass harmonicas. But, one of the most important and most-played is the chromatic harmonica. This is the same harmonica that Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder played and is distinctive because it features a slide fitted on the right. The slide can be pushed in, literally sliding a different set of reeds into place to shift the pitch up by a semitone. This instrument is quite complex to play and demands a lot of study.

Besides the standout models, there are quite a few in-betweeners. More unique models include the tremolo harmonica, which produces two notes at the same pitch at the same time, but one of the notes is very slightly detuned to result in a wavering effect – the same kind of wavering effect you get with an accordion. Many of the other forms that the harmonica has taken over the years are largely used in German folk music.

During the period between 1900 and 1920, full harmonica orchestras achieved immense popularity. The major advantage of the harmonica is that it’s so cheap, so it costs very little to kit out the entire orchestra with instruments, and these orchestras could play anything. Brilliant things were achieved by acts like the Harmonicats, an American harmonica band that caused a sensation in the mid 20th century. In Asia, many harmonica orchestras still perform at a high level.

From Brass to Steel

The image of the harmonica as just a toy was only reinforced by the fact that they break so easily. Early harmonicas had a short lifespan because the reeds were usually made out of a copper and zinc brass alloy which would fall out of tune after a while and eventually just break. So, if you were an intense player, you were likely to go through a harmonica a month – or at least a set of reeds every month. Thankfully, the harmonica has been improved over the years and only gets better. Pioneered by German instrument builder Seydel (in collaboration with Ben Bouman), as well as other big harmonica names including Hohner, Suzuki, and Lee Oskar, the old brass reeds have since been replaced with stainless steel reeds. These last longer, while still keeping harmonicas cheap. “Personally, I find steel reeds have a better sound. The overtones are more enhanced,” says Ben Bouman. “You won’t necessarily hear the difference if you’re playing with a band, but you’ll definitely notice it when playing acoustically, or when you’re recording in the studio. These days, I only play harmonicas with steel reeds.”

The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique
A harmonica with the upper cover plate removed to expose the top reed plate, or blow plate. This is the part that ensures notes are produced when you blow into the instrument. In the middle of the ‘sandwich’ sits the comb which has the line of holes that air is blown and drawn through. Below these two sits the draw plate which ensures notes are produced when you draw air through the instrument. Most harmonicas now have steel reed plates instead of brass, since they are more durable.

Bloody Mouths

As well as the introduction of steel, there have been a few more improvements made to the general design of harmonicas which not only make them more durable but more comfortable to play. The reed plates are better installed to reduce air loss and the wooden frame and comb is now sealed in a layer of varnish to waterproof the wood, preventing it from taking on moisture and expanding as you play. Traditionally, the metal cover plates were fitted using staples, but are now usually secured with screws, making maintenance much easier. The previously sharp metal edges at the sides are now more rounded, putting an end to bloody mouths, where the edges would cut into the corners of players’ mouths and cause them to bleed. By the way, buying a harmonica can still be a pretty arduous quest. For understandable reasons (hygiene), you can’t try every harmonica in the shop – for this, you use a special set of bellows. “But you can only really know how it sounds when you play it,” according to Ben. “Luckily, you don’t lose out too much by making the wrong choice, since you can pick up a good harmonica for about twenty quid.”

Most amplified blues harp players use an old bullet crystal microphone combined with a valve amplifier. Here, you can see the familiar Shure Bullet, which was the same model used by Little Walters.

Playing Amplified

We’ve already mentioned Little Walter, who was a pioneer of the amplified harmonica sound. Combining a crystal microphone with a valve amplifier, the colourful sound of this distinct recipe is still the go-to setup for amplified harmonica players today. But playing amplified isn’t as easy as it looks, as Ben Bouman knows only too well. “Because of the risk of feedback, you’re quite limited in terms of volume. If you turn your amp up too high, you get feedback immediately, but if you use the right cupping technique, you can stretch the boundary a bit. By cupping technique, I literally mean cupping your hand around the harmonica and microphone. The more closed your cupped hand, the fuller your sound gets. The distortion will also sound better and there’ll be less chance of feedback. But this demands a combination of good playing technique and a good cupping technique.” In practise, this can easily go wrong, and feedback can follow. The alternative could be to remove the valve amplifier and just play straight through the PA system. “But this has a much cleaner sound to it, and you have less control over your sound. The harmonica is a really dynamic instrument, so there’s a big difference between the loud and the quiet. This makes many sound engineers adjust the volume differently – which is understandable, but it means that you never know how you sound out in front of the stage. I prefer to play over my own amplifier, then I have full control over my sound and volume. When I’m playing a solo, I’ll turn the amp up a little bit,” says Ben.

Playing the Harmonica in a Band

Ben knows that playing the harmonica in a band can be difficult and frustrating, largely because of the amplification problem we just talked about, “Just like the vocals, the harmonica is limited in volume because of the feedback problem, and there’s only one sure solution for that: at the moment that the harmonica player performs a solo, the rest of the band take the foot off the gas.” The other difficulty is that harmonicas don’t tend to be a big feature in the band, so harmonica players don’t actually play that often, and most of the time, there’s not that much to do. Maybe they’ll play a solo or two, but not every song is going to include a harmonica solo. “A lot of harmonica players start singing, just to have something to do,” notes Ben. “But it’s not necessarily an artistic choice.” Also, harmonica players are not always that popular at jam sessions, as Ben experienced when he turned up at a jam session in a pub that was covered in signs, warning harmonica players to steer clear. “That’s to do with the feedback problem, and that some players have a habit of ‘honking’ through everything, which is understandable, since we just want something to do. But of course, you need to learn to dose what you add and make it tasteful to keep things interesting – which are skills in themselves and require a really good player.”

Distorted Sound

The harmonica usually has a distorted sound to it, especially in blues and rock. “A good player will be able to get that out of the instrument,” says Ben. “And if you can’t, then you can enlist the help of microphones and amplifiers.” The most popular stage equipment for blues harp players include amplifiers built by Marble, Vox, Sonny Junior, Harp King, and Harp Gear, and when it comes to microphones, an old-school style bullet crystal pickup microphone like the Astatic JT30 and the Shure Green Bullet is a must. When it comes to the harmonica itself, it’s likely to be a Seydel, Hohner, Suzuki, or Lee Osckar model. Then there are some rules that need to be followed in terms of maintenance: knock it out immediately after playing, let it dry out then store it in a dust free place. If you want to know more about keeping your harmonica healthy, there are plenty of more in depth instructions for cleaning your instrument to be found online.

A Lot of Training

So, yes, you can easily pick up a harmonica and play a tune, even if you’ve never seen one before, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got it nailed. If you want to play the blues (or pop or rock for that matter), then you’ll need to learn to bend notes, otherwise you’re playing will never have that bluesy edge and you’ll only ever be able to play a ‘nice tune’. “You can actually learn to bend fairly quickly,” says Ben, “but that’s when the real work starts. Because then, you need to learn how to bend with flair, when to bend, and the right way to bend. A badly played harmonica is just irritating. If you want to learn to play good blues harp, and want your playing to sound brilliant, then you’ll need to commit a lot of hours of practise. It’s that simple. I actually always call practise training myself, because that’s exactly what it is. I know from experience that people often drop out because of the amount of time it takes to get good – it demands a lot from you.” Switching between blowing and drawing air can also prove a challenge, since physically, it just doesn’t feel logical. Drawing breath so rapidly can also cause hyperventilation. “But once you’ve mastered the harmonica, the possibilities are endless,” according to Ben. “You can do everything with this instrument.”

Good to Know

Essential Harmonica Players

DeFord Bailey (1899-1982) was a blues harp genius and is described as the ‘godfather’ of the blues harp playing technique.

Larry Adler (1914-2001) was a pioneer of the chromatic harmonica and was a big influence on Toots Thielemans’ playing (see below).

Jerry Murad (1918-1996) was the lead harmonica player of the harmonica trio, The Harmonicats and is one of the few harmonica players to ever get a massive number one hit in the United States with ‘Peg O’ My Heart’ in 1947.

The Belgian Toots Thielemans (1922-2016) became one of the biggest harmonica players in jazz. He’s known all over the world and his work can be heard on the soundtrack of the film, Turkish Fruit.

Little Walter was the artist name of Marion Walter Jacobs (1930-1968), a blues singer, harmonica player, and guitarist. He is still the most innovative player there has ever been in terms of both technique and amplified sound.

Charlie Musselwhite (1944) has received many awards and nominations for his innovative and idiosyncratic style.

John Lagrand (1949-2005) was part of the blues outfit Livin’ Blues and is probably the best blues harp player that the Netherlands ever produced.

The astonishingly versatile talent of Stevie Wonder (1950) helped make him one of the greatest harmonica virtuosos of all time. He plays in a swinging, pop style, and has a really recognisable flair when playing the harmonica.

Howard Levy (1951) discovered the ‘overblow’ technique at the end of the sixties, where a note could be forced to raise in pitch.

The Harmonica as Medicine

The harmonica is also used as part of therapy for people suffering from asthma, COPD, and other breathing problems. Following positive research carried out in the USA, some doctors recommend playing the harmonica to help strengthen the diaphragm, lungs, and the respiratory muscles between the ribs.

Playing Crossharp

The notes of a harmonica depend on the key the instrument has been tuned in. How does this work exactly? So far, we’ve mainly focussed on the blues harp, since it’s not only the most-played harmonica, but there’s something particularly special about it. In blues, the harmonica is almost always played in the ‘second position’, which is also called ‘crossharp’. Any blues harp is always labelled with the key that it’s been tuned in, and will always be tuned to a major key (unless it’s marked otherwise, of course). In the illustration of a blues harp included earlier in this blog you can see all of the notes that you can get out of each of the ten holes of a blues harp tuned in C-major. This set of notes is referred to as the first position. When you play the blues, you’ll be doing something different than just blowing through those ten holes. Say you’re playing the blues in G. Most players won’t play the blues in G using a blues harp tuned in G, but with a blues harp tuned in C – which is a perfect fifth lower. The illustration makes it clear why this is the case – it’s so that those essential blue notes can be played. These are the diminished thirds and fifths that are played by bending the notes. You can reach the blue notes by drawing (so not blowing) the lowest six notes. You can also get there with the highest four blown notes, but this is harder. When playing the blues in G, the B (third) and the D (fifth) need to be bent, and these notes make up the lower segment of a C-major blues harp, and need to be drawn. This is why the C blues harps fits really well with the blues in G. Playing the blues in C with a C blues harp is difficult. The notes that need to be bent when playing the blues in C are E and G. In the illustration, you can see that (in the lower segment) with a C blues harp, these are the blown notes and cannot be, or are at least very difficult to bend. So, it’s much easier and tends to sound much better to play a blues harp tuned a perfect fifth lower than the key that you’re playing in. When playing the blues in C, you use a blues harp tuned in F. When playing the blues in E, you use a blues harp tuned in A, and so on. This is called playing in the second position – otherwise known as crossharp. You can also go a few steps further and, for example, play in the third position, but you won’t be making things easy for yourself. Charlie Musselwhite got away with doing this sometimes.


Here are a few common harmonica related terms:

  • Crossharp playing, or playing in the second position: using a harmonica (usually a blues harp) that’s tuned a fifth below the key of the song you’re playing.
  • Bending: bending notes down in pitch. Both blown and drawn notes can be bent. With a blues harp, drawn notes 1 to 6 can be bent, and blown notes 7 to 10 can be bent. Bending notes in this way produces those all-important blue notes.
  • Overblow: a technique where a blown note is ‘forced’ by blowing very hard in order to raise the pitch of the notes. Notes 1 to 6 of a blues harp can be overblown.
  • Overdraw: a technique where a drawn note is ‘forced’ by drawing very hard in order to raise the pitch of the notes. Notes 7 to 10 of a blues harp can be overdrawn.
  • Tongue slapping: a technique (originating in German folk) that enables harmonica players to accompany themselves with chords while they play a melody.
  • Tongue block: a technique that creates different sounds.
  • Vibrato: a really important skill to learn. This is the signature of any harmonica player. Vibrato is achieved with breath in the same way that a vocalist achieves vibrato with breath.

See also…

» Chromatic Harmonicas
» Diatonic Harmonicas
» Tremolo Harmonicas
» Octave Harmonicas
» Other Harmonicas
» Harmonicas for Children
» Harmonica Accessories
» Harmonica Books
» Harmonica Microphones

» What’s the Best Harmonica for Me?
» The top 10 most well-known harmonica solos
» Meet the Kazoo!
» Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low

1 response
  1. Al "Bugmouth" Cosnett says:

    A nice article about my first instrument and still my greatest love…
    When I started playing, I realised how many songs I liked/owned had the little gobiron within… Charlie Mussekwhite being the okayer on suicide blonde was a pleasing revelation. Someone I’ve enjoyed greatly. Keep hairpin on!

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