By Gary Lee Joyner
Harmonica, mouth organ, harp, Mississippi saxophone—by any name this little instrument packs a wallop. It sounds great with a guitar, and somewhere along the way guitarists figured out that it was possible to play both instruments at once. Bob Dylan popularized the idea of using the harmonica in a neck rack, but it has been used before and since by bluesmen such as Jimmy Reed (below), Slim Harpo, and John Hammond Jr., as well as rockers Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Jeff Tweedy. In this article, I’ll show you some harmonica basics that will help you blow harp while you keep your guitar chords pulsing.
Choosing a Harmonica
Ten-hole diatonic harmonicas are the ones most commonly used in neck racks. They offer a limited number of notes in a specific key, although they can be used in related keys as well. The Hohner Marine Band harmonica was the benchmark for many years and continues to be a popular choice, but there are other viable options. Hohner makes a fine Big River model that is less expensive than the Marine Band, and the Hohner Blues Harp, Golden Melody, and Special 20 harmonicas also have devoted users who swear by the tonal differences they hear in their model of choice (there also are Hohner Bob Dylan signature models). I carry a variety of them, but my favorite harps are made by Lee Oskar. Like some Hohners, they have a plastic body, called a comb, that is impervious to insidious moisture problems. Their large holes make them easy to blow, they sound great right out of the box with no break-in period, they keep their exceptional tone for years, and they have unique replaceable reed plates.
Neck-rack prices vary, but you can expect to pay about $20. It’s worth shopping around for the right rack. It’s frustrating to have it slip, so make sure you choose one that is built with substantial wire and has strong clamp springs as well as pivot-point set screws that stay tight. The frames of my favorite racks narrow at the clamp so that it’s just wide enough to fit the harp.
You’ll need to experiment with precise positioning to find the spot where the instrument is easily accessible without straining your neck and it doesn’t get in the way when you sing. You might need to bend the wire to get a good fit.
We’ll focus on single-note playing, but it is both helpful and easier to start out playing and understanding basic chords. The ingenious layout of diatonic harps offers some distinct advantages as well as some challenges. Playing in “first position” means that you play a harmonica that is in the same key as the guitar, which is especially useful for melody playing.
For example, if you have a C harp and you exhale, or “blow,” on any group of holes, you will hear a C (I) chord. Try blowing in various spots on the harmonica as you strum a C chord on your guitar. Start with four-to-the-bar downstrokes on the guitar to ease the feeling of multitasking. To get a sharp attack on the harmonica, move your tongue as if you were saying t. Moving your tongue forward and backward while sustaining a sound on the harp creates a vibrato effect.
Inhale, or “draw,” on holes one, two, and three to hear a G chord, the V chord in the key of C. Blow on those holes as you play a C chord on the guitar and then draw as you change to a G chord. A full IV-chord triad isn’t available in first position, but you can draw on holes five and six for a partial F (IV) chord on your C harp. A ii chord, Dm, can be found by drawing on holes four, five, and six or eight, nine, and ten. Other chords in the harmonized scale of the key can be suggested by finding one or two notes from the chord or by playing notes from the extended upper voicings of a chord, such as C, G, and E for an Am chord.
Your guitar can handle most of the chording, so let’s look at ways to play single harp notes. A traditional way to play single notes is with “tongue blocking,” in which your tongue blocks three of the four holes that your mouth is covering. Usually the unblocked hole is on the right side of your mouth. You can start a major scale in the key of your harp by first blowing on hole four, then drawing on hole four, then following that pattern on holes five and six. Finish the scale by drawing and then blowing on hole seven.
Play the scale over a progression in C, such as C–F–G or C–Am–F–G. Neil Young played his popular guitar-and-harp song, “Heart of Gold,” using the chords Em, C, D, and G with a G harp. You can play it in C using the chords Am, F, G, and C. You can develop coordination by playing the single-note scale on your guitar along with the harp scale. These activities will not only help you learn breath control but will let you become familiar with the layout of the notes in the major scale.
You can also play single notes by pursing your lips as if you were going to whistle or kiss, leaving your tongue available for vibrato and articulations. Most importantly, you can use your tongue to play bent notes, which are notes that don’t actually exist in the harp’s tuning. Bending is easiest to get on “draw four.” Move your tongue toward the back of your mouth as if you were saying “ee-oh.” It’s a controlled version of the tongue vibrato described above. When you get it right you’ll hear the note pop down a half step. It takes time to get this technique, so don’t give up. There are also two possible draw bends each on holes two and three.
Draw bends are especially useful in “cross harp” position, which is popular for playing blues. In cross harp you play in the key that is a fifth above the harp’s key. For example, you’ll play in the key of G with your C harp. The G chord played by drawing on holes one, two, and three is now the I chord. Blow the same holes for the C chord, which now functions as the IV chord. The V chord is the elusive one in this key, but drawing on the four hole works well if you’re playing a D guitar chord. Try blowing a simple shuffle rhythm on each of these chords while pounding out a four-to-the-floor 12-bar blues rhythm using G7, C7, and D7 on your guitar. Any simple rhythm you can sing will translate well to the harp.
You can play a partial G-Mixolydian scale (the same notes as the C-major scale, starting on G) by blowing and drawing the three, four, and five holes successively and then blowing hole six. The missing second scale note can be made with the lower of the two possible bends on hole three. Don’t worry, you can get plenty of mileage playing blues in cross harp without bending. Practice over a 12-bar blues progression on your guitar with the same chords as before.
The keys of Em and Am can also be played on your C harp, but with more severe note limitations. Lee Oskar has developed harps with altered tunings, two of which, the Natural Minor and Harmonic Minor harps, allow you to play in minor keys.
The scales and chords I’ve discussed provide a framework to get started. Use them as an underlying structure for searching out melodies to songs you already sing. Be sure to improvise over the chord progressions. When you can’t find or bend to the note you’re looking for, find another note that works, or you may find the note you want by playing in another register. The harmonica is a wonderfully intuitive instrument.
Playing it with the guitar is as natural as singing and offers a rewarding new world of music to explore.