There are lots of books and videos aimed at those who want to learn to play the harmonica, some better than others. Below are some beginners books and videos that I particularly recommend, along with a few things for folks starting to progress beyond the rookie stage. All these books utilise harmonica tablature, so you don't need to be able to read music to learn from them. I have provided convenient links to Amazon.com to get more information about each item or to order them online. (Click here for more details about the Amazon Associates scheme.) If you live in the UK and would rather order from Amazon.co.uk, you may prefer to view the alternative version of this page. If you are looking for some more advanced material and perhaps wanting to break out of the more traditional styles, you might want to read this page.
Get Chugging: How to Play Rhythm Harmonica - Ben Hewlett and Paul Lennon
Ben Hewlett is a chum of mine from the UK and has a ton of experience in teaching harmonica to beginners of all ages and he has been especially active in getting the harmonica accepted as a musical instrument in the UK schools system. In this book he draws from his experience in getting people through what can be the toughest step in the learning process - that very first step. As the title suggests, this book and accompanying CD concentrate on getting the student familiar with the instrument by playing a variety of rhythmic patterns with playalong tracks in a wide range of musical styles. I've seen how exciting it is for Ben's students to get right into playing music within a couple of minutes of picking up a harmonica for the very first time and I can't think of any better introduction for the complete beginner. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Folk and Blues Harmonica - George Heaps-Nelson and Barbara Koehler
I bought a copy of this book more than 30 years ago, when I was a beginner myself. I learned a great deal from it, as well as getting a lot of enjoyment out of the beautiful photography scattered throughout the book. It concentrates more on the folk side of things rather than blues, although it does include some basics of cross harp and note bending. Concentrating mostly on the 10-hole diatonic, it also has some brief coverage of the double reed diatonics and the Chordomonica. Sadly, the Chordomonica is no longer available and some of the other models mentioned in the book have also vanished, but the book still contains some good tunes and useful advice. Availability via Amazon seems a little variable, but I believe the book "You Can Teach Yourself Harmonica" is a reprint of this title with a horrible new cover. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Harmonica - William Melton and Randy Weinstein
I must confess that any title that includes the words "idiot" or "dummies" tends to put me off right away, but if you can get past the idea that the publisher assumes that you are a complete idiot, this is actually quite a good book. However, a few notes of caution. First of all, although this is apparently a guide for a complete idiot, it is by no means a complete guide. For starters, it concentrates on the single reed diatonic harmonica, with only a passing mention of the other members of the harmonica family. It is also primarily concerned with blues style playing, despite the cover's promise of "simple instructions for playing all types of music on the harmonica". It does have a few tunes in a folky vein and one rock harp piece, but aside from that it is pretty much blues all the way. Still, it does a good job of covering the basics and beyond, including how to select a harmonica, how to keep it in good condition, how to read standard music notation, some basic music theory, as well as the usual technical instruction. All my quibbles aside, this is a excellent starting point. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Harmonica For Dummies - Winslow Yerxa
Again, I personally find the word "dummies" to be off putting - I'm not a dummy and if you are diligently reading these reviews, then clearly you're not a dummy either. Neither is author Winslow Yerxa, in fact he is smart enough to have written one of the best general harmonica books I have ever seen. As with the "Complete Idiot's" book, this one focuses primarily on the single reed diatonic (although it does have some brief introductions to some of the other types of harmonica), taking the reader from the absolute basics, up to some quite advanced stuff in a range of styles. Plus there's solid information on music theory, playing with a band, performing on stage, using microphones and amplifiers, maintaining and repairing your harps, etc., etc. More than 300 pages with an accompanying CD-ROM. I really can't say enough good things about this book. It would be an ideal introduction for a complete beginner, but there's also lots in there for people who've already been playing a while. I really wish there's been something like this when I first started playing. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Harmonica Power Video One Bag Of Tricks - Norton Buffalo
"Bag of Tricks" is an excellent description. Rather than a systematic set of "how to" instructions, this is a collection of tips and tricks useful for all levels of players, from raw beginners to seasoned veterans, covering many different musical genres - blues, folk, country, pop, etc. Buffalo covers breath control, rhythmic playing, various types of vibrato, improvisation, harmonica maintenance and much more, all in an extremely entertaining fashion. The perfect thing to watch when there is nothing on the TV! Click here for more information.
There is also a second volume called "Blues Techniques". I must confess that I haven't seen it, but I assume it is as informative and entertaining as the first. Click here for more information.
Anyone Can Play Harmonica - Peter Madcat Ruth
Madcat is one of my favorite harp players. This video is subtitled "An Easy Guide To Getting Started" and that's exactly what it is. Madcat covers the most basic stuff of getting clean single notes, then quickly leads the student into playing train rhythms and classic Americana such as "Down in the Valley" and "Camptown Races", throwing in additional techniques along the way and setting the groundwork for more advanced playing. Perfect for beginners of all ages. Click here for more information.
Blues Harmonica: A Crash Course and Overview - Tom Ball
Tom is the harmonica playing half of the duo Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan and in this book he gives an excellent overall picture of playing blues-style harmonica. All the basics are covered, along with the sort of tips you are only going to get from a pro player of Tom's experience, all in a very easy to read style. No standard music notation is used, everything being written out in tablature for the harmonica, with an accompanying cassette to help illustrate what is discussed in the book. An excellent starting point for the beginning blues harpist. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
John Sebastian Teaches Blues Harmonica
This was originally one half of a cassette/booklet set put out by Homespun Tapes some years back, now reissued in a nice glossy covered book with a CD. For those of you who don't know, John Sebastian is the son of a well known chromatic harmonica virtuoso who decided to get into blues and folk styles, rather than classical music. He was a founding member of sixties pop group The Lovin' Spoonful, as well as supplying blues harp for bands like The Doors (remember "Roadhouse Blues"?). Here he gives some great instruction in the basics and some intermediate techniques of blues harmonica, all with a pleasant relaxed delivery. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
For those of you who like to see their teacher face to face, there is also a video available of John Sebastian teaching blues harmonica. It is called, surprisingly enough, "John Sebastian Teaches Blues Harmonica". Click here for more information.
Paul Butterfield Teaches Blues Harmonica
This was originally the other half of the cassette/booklet set that went along with the John Sebastian material reviewed above, covering some more advanced techniques. It makes the perfect follow-up to the John Sebastian stuff, as well as giving an insight into one of the most influential harp players of his generation. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
First Lessons Blues Harmonica Book/CD Set - David Barrett
David Barrett is one of the most prolific writers on the topic of blues harmonica. This is his book for the complete beginner - a copy of this and a diatonic harmonica in the key of C will get anyone off to a good start. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Once you have got past the raw beginner stage, you may want to check out some of David Barrett's more advanced material, the titles being fairly self-explanatory:
Exploring 1st Position - Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Exploring 2nd Position - Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Exploring 3rd Position - Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Building Harmonica Technique - Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Learn to Play All-American Harp - Charlie McCoy
Charlie McCoy is probably THE most famous name in country harmonica. A veteran of literally thousands of sessions in Nashville, this man almost single-handedly defined the modern country harmonica style. This is a book and CD set that covers the full range of country styles, including influences from the blues, Cajun and Tex-Mex accordion playing, hot old-time fiddle and more. Written for beginners, but there are more than a few new tricks in here that some old dogs could learn. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Bluegrass Harmonica - Mike Stevens
Mike Stevens is a Canadian player who worked as part of the Jim and Jessie McReynolds band for some years, doing his bit to make the harmonica more accepted by purist bluegrass audiences. This book present some of the techniques he used to adapt his blues harp background to the challenges of virtuoso bluegrass playing, going all the way from the very basics of the diatonic harmonica, to some cutting edge use of overblows to play chromatically on the instrument. There's enough material in here to keep a harmonica player busy for quite some time. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Sadly, although there are a few books devoted to the chromatic harmonica, I have to say that I have not been too impressed most of those that I have seen. The best introduction to the chromatic is not available from Amazon:
Tommy Reilly Chromatic Harmonica Course - Tommy Reilly
This was originally published in the late 1960s and came with a set of LP records. One of the late Douglas Tate's last projects was to arrange a reprint of the course, this time accompanied by CDs with Reilly and pianist James Moody demonstrating the material covered. It is an excellent introduction to the chromatic harmonica, reading music and the basics of music theory. It is not available from Amazon, but can be ordered online using PayPal. For more details click here.
Chromatic Harmonica - Tommy Morgan
Another good basic introduction to the chromatic harmonica, although as it was written back in the early 1970s, some of the information is a little dated. It also gives a brief introduction to the bass and chord harmonicas. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
Basic Blues Chromatic for the Diatonic Player - David Barrett.
For the blues harp player wanting to add a little chromatic playing to his or her bag of tricks, I recommend this book from the prolific Mr Barrett. If you want to play like Larry Adler or Stevie Wonder, this perhaps isn't the book for you, but if you already have the basics of blues harp under your belt and you fancy having a go at playing chromatic in the typical Chicago blues style as played by guys like Little Walter and George Smith, or more recent players like William Clarke or Rod Piazza, then this book will get you off to a good start. Click here for more information from Amazon.com
There are a lot of good harmonicas on the market these days, a better selection that we have ever had before. I recommend that players try as many different models as they can, in order to try to find out which of them personally suit them best - check out my reviews page for my comments on recently produced models. Many of the cheaper instruments can turn out to be real bargains, particularly if you acquire the skills to adjust them to your personal taste. However I would recommend that those new to the harmonica stick to a reliable trustworthy brand, so that if you are having any problems, you can be sure that it is simply a matter of improving your technique, rather than something mechanically wrong with the instrument. Lee Oskar harmonicas are an ideal first instrument - they have moisture resistant plastic combs, corrosion resistant covers, readily available replacement reedplates (as a beginner you will probably wear out your reeds faster than more experienced players and with Lee Oskar harps, you can save money by replacing the reedplates, rather than having to buy a whole new harmonica) and I can personally vouch for their strict quality control. Most tuitional material for the beginner will require a C harp for you to play along with it. If you are into playing blues, an A harp will also be very useful, as will harmonicas in the keys of G and D. I have provided convenient links for you to order these harmonicas from Amazon.com:
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Key of C
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Key of A
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Key of D
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic Key of G
As you get hooked on playing harmonica, you will find yourself needing harps in all keys and perhaps trying out some of the alternative tunings. The full range of Lee Oskar harmonicas, spare parts and accessories is available from Amazon.com - click here for details of all the Lee Oskar products.
If you want to take up the chromatic harmonica, I would also recommend avoiding the many cheap instruments. The Hohner 270 has been the standard choice for players for many years, however it has a wood comb that is often prone to moisture-related problems and the mouthpiece does require careful adjustment in order to get the best slide action. The Hohner Chrometta series has a plastic comb and a fixed mouthpiece, which avoids these problems. I must confess that I am not a great fan of these harmonicas, but many people seem to love them. They do offer a serviceable instrument at a reasonable price, so here is a link for the 12-hole key of C model:
Hohner Chrometta 12 Key of C
If you don't mind spending a little more money, I would recommend the Hohner Discovery. It has the same reeds as the 270, but the comb is made of plastic. The mouthpiece is also made of plastic, but can be replaced with a standard metal 270 mouthpiece if required. Personally, I find the plastic mouthpiece comfortable enough and it might be just the thing for someone with metal allergies, although like the 270, it does require occasional adjustment for optimum performance:
Hohner Discovery key of C
My own personal favorite chromatic is the Hohner CX-12. It has both a plastic comb and a plastic cover, avoiding moisture and corrosion problems. The mouthpiece requires no adjustment and the instrument disassembles easily for cleaning and maintenance. Here is a link to purchase one from Amazon.com:
Hohner CX-12 Key of C
Suzuki also make some great chromatics (not to mention diatonics, tremolos and all other types of harmonicas) and their SCX series is a really good starting point for those new to the instrument:
Suzuki Chromatix SCX-48 Key of C
To learn more about the chromatic harmonica, I strongly suggest a visit to this website - HarpOn Chromatic Harmonica Reference.
|Return to Fairly Frequently Asked Questions||Return to Main Index|