The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary








A harmonica is a free reed musical wind instrument (also known, among other things, as a mouth organ, french harp, simply harp, or "Mississippi saxophone"), having multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reeds, each secured at one end over an airway slot of like dimension into which it can freely vibrate, thus repeatedly interrupting an airstream to produce sound.

Unlike most free-reed instruments (such as reed organs, accordions and melodicas), the mouth harmonica lacks a keyboard. Instead, lips and tongue are used to select one or a few of the several holes arranged usually linearly on a mouthpiece. Each hole communicates with but one, two or a few reeds. Because a reed mounted above slot is made to vibrate more easily by air from above, reeds accessed by a mouthpiece hole often may be selected further by choice of breath direction (blowing, drawing). Some harmonicas(known as chromatic harmonica's) also include a button-actuated slide that, when depressed, further redirects the air.

The harmonica is commonly used in blues and folk music, but also in jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll and pop music.


Parts of the harmonica

The harmonica consists of a "comb" made of wood or plastic which creates the holes into which a player blows or draws to make distinct tones. The metallic blow and draw reedplates are screwed onto either side of the comb. Over the reedplates, there is a metal or plastic cover which projects the sound out of the open back. Chromatic harmonicas also have a button-activated slide.

Harmonica types

The diatonic harmonica

The diatonic harmonica is most likely what you think of when you think of a "harmonica." It has ten holes which offer the player 19 notes (10 holes times a draw and a blow for each hole minus one repeated note) in a three octave range. The standard diatonic harmonica is designed to allow a player to play chords and melody in a single key. Because they are only designed to be played in a single key at a time, diatonic harmonicas are available in all keys. Here is a standard diatonic harmonica's layout in the key of C (4 blow is middle C):

        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
 blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C | 
 draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 

Note that although there are 3 octaves between 1 and 10 blow, there is only one full major scale available on the harmonica, between holes 4 and 7. The lower holes are designed around the tonic (C major) and dominant (G major) chords, allowing a player to play these chords underneath a melody by blocking or unblocking the lower holes with the tongue.

In addition to the 19 notes readily available on the harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch. This technique is called "bending", a term borrowed from guitarists, who literally "bend" a string in order to create subtle changes in pitch. Using bending, a player can reach all the notes on the major scale. "Bending" also creates the glissandos characteristic of much blues and country harmonica playing.

The physics of bending are quite complex, but amount to this: a player can bend the pitch of the higher-tuned reed down toward the pitch of the lower-tuned reed in any given hole. In other words, on holes 1 through 6, the draw notes can be bent and on holes 7 through 10 the blow notes can be bent. Hole 3 allows for the most dramatic bending: in C, it is possible to bend 3 draw from a B down to a G#, or anywhere in between.

Howard Levy developed another technique in the 1970s that allows players to force a reed to vibrate faster, resulting in a higher pitch. This technique is called overblowing or overdrawing and is much less frequently used. For the few who master this technique, the diatonic harmonica can function as a fully chromatic instrument.

List of Modern Overblow Masters:

  • Howard Levy
  • Chris Michalek
  • Joe Filisko
  • Michael Peloquin
  • Rosco Selley
  • George Brooks
  • Larry Eisenberg
  • Sandy Weltman
  • Greg Szlapczynski
  • Carlos del Junco

Special tuned harmonicas

A number of people have made specially tuned variants of the diatonic harmonica. For example, Lee Oskar Harmonicas makes a variety of harmonicas to help players used to a "Cross-harp" style to play in other styles. Cross-harp players usually base their play around a mixolydian scale starting on 2 draw and ending a 6 blow (with a bend needed to get the second tone of the scale; a full scale can be played from 6 blow to 9 blow). Lee-Oskar special tunes harmonicas to allow players to play a natural minor, harmonic minor, and major scale from 2 draw to 6 blow. Below are some sample layouts (notice that the key labor describes the scale from 2 draw to 6 blow.

Natural Minor (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow) / Dorian (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow):

        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 
 blow: |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |
 draw: |D |G |Bb|D |F |A |Bb|D |F |A |

Harmonic Minor (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow)/

        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 
 blow: |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |
 draw: |D |G |B |D |F |Ab|B |D |F |Ab|

Major (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow), Lee Oscar "Melody Maker"

 blow: |C |E |A |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |
 draw: |D |G |B |D |F#|A |B |D |F#|A |

The "Melody Maker" is a particularly interesting evolution of the harmonica, since it allows player accustomed to playing "cross harp" (in mixolydian) to play in a major key (which is what the standard layout is designed for in the first place). Rather than providing the standard C major and G dominant chords, the Mixolydian provides a G Major 7 (2-5 draw), a C Major 6th chord (1-4 blow) and an Am or Am7 chord (3-5 or 3-6 blow), a D major chord (4-6 draw) and a C Major chord (6-10 blow). If we are in the key of G, then, the melody maker provides the I chord, the IV chord, the V chord and the II chord, allowing II-V-I progressions as well as I-IV-V progressions.

The 14 Hole Diatonic

The Hohner Marine Band 365/28 14 hole harmonica is not a standard diatonic harmonica. It has 14 holes and its general dimensions are a bit bigger, so its structure is different from the normal diatonic harmonica and, in the key of C, is pitched one octave lower than the standard 10 hole C diatonic. Thus, hole 4 blow is one octave below middle C. Hole 7 blow is middle C. The Marine Band 365/28 in G is similar to a usual G diatonic, having it's higher register expanded. Holes 1 through 4 and 6 are draw bendable, and holes 8 through 14 are blow bendable. Special attention to the extra holes 11 - 14 where the bending capabilities are, in theory, extended a lot (from A down to E in whole 14, for example).

        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14 
 blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |
 draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 

The chromatic harmonica

The chromatic harmonica has a button-operated slide that allows the player to change the pitch of any given hole. This means that each hole has 4 pitches rather than 2. The slide typically shifts the pitch of any given note by a half step. The note layout on a chromatic is traditionally the same as the note layout on holes 4-7 of the diatonic harmonica, and is repeated over its length. Chromatic harmonicas are usually 12 or 16 holes long.

Because it is a fully chromatic instrument, the chromatic harmonica is the instrument of choice in jazz and classical music. In traditional harmonica bands, the chromatic harmonica plays the lead part.

        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
 blow: |C |E |G |C |C |E |G |C |E |G |  key out
 draw: |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |d |f | 
        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
 blow: |C#|E#|G#|C#|C#|E#|G#|C#|E#|G#|  key in
 draw: |d#|f#|a#|b#|d#|f#|a#|b#|d#|f#| 

Note that b# is the same as c and e# is the same as f.

The bass harmonica

The bass harmonica is a special harmonica mostly used in ensemble playing. It usually consists of two harmonicas held together, one above the other, by an adjustable bracket. the lower harmonica has the natural notes of the chromatic scale, while the upper harmonica has the accidental notes. The bass harmonica has only blow notes.

See the fuller description at: .

The chord harmonica

The chord harmonica has two reeds for each note, tuned to one octave of each other. This gives the harmonica a more powerful and rich sound.

The Tremolo harmonica

Tremolo harmonicas have two reeds per hole. The two reeds are tuned to be slightly out of tune relative to each other. This produces a tremolo effect.

The Octave Harmonica

Octave harmonicas have two reeds per hole. The two reeds are tuned to the same note a perfect octave apart.

Toy harmonicas

Because of its simplicity, the harmonica is often the first real musical instrument children encounter. Toy harmonicas include tiny four-hole instruments and simple plastic models of a conventional size.

History and related instruments

The unrelated glass harmonica is a musical instrument formed of a nested set of graduated glass cups mounted sideways on an axle and partially immersed in water, and played by touching the rotating cups with wetted fingers, causing them to vibrate.

Harmonica community

There is an active harmonica community on the internet and in real life, with conferences, cruises and everything. SPAH (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica) is one society with a particularly amusing acronym. [1] A harmonica list-serv is hosted at this web site with searchable archives.

Some famous harmonicists

Harmonica bands

  • The Harmonicats
  • Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals
  • A Troupe da Gaita

Blues players

Rock and roll

Rhythm and blues

Country music

  • Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
  • Phil PT Gazell
  • Buddy Greene
  • Kirk Jellyroll Johnson
  • Charlie McCoy
  • Terry McMillan
  • Mickey Raphael
  • Wayne Raney , known for his "talking harmonica"

Irish music

  • Brendan Power


Classical music

  • Larry Adler
  • Robert Bonfiglio
  • Tommy Morgan the guy you have heard but don't know
  • Tommy Reilly
  • John Sebastian, father of the rock musician
  • Douglas Tate
  • Yasuo Watani

Harmonica Festivals

Last updated: 02-09-2005 05:47:18
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55