When you pick up any new instrument, you will find that you are hit with a wave of vocabulary that you are not initially familiar with. As you learn and get better at the harmonica, you will continue to uncover new knowledge, skills and terminology. However, it can be easy to be intimidated at first by all the new lingo you don’t know. In this article, we will cover the most common terminology you need to know when first starting out playing the harmonica.
Harmonica Parts Terminology
When you first start out playing the harmonica, it is important to familiarize yourself with the different parts that make up your instrument. This will not only help you understand the mechanics of the harmonica, but it will also help you with any repairs or tuning you may need to perform down the road. The Harmonica is made of these parts.
The first and main part we will cover is the comb. The comb is the main body of the harmonica, and when put together with reeds, creates little air chambers for the reeds, allowing you to blow through the mouthpiece and play your music. More advanced models are even more complex in the way they direct air out. These are typically made up of wood, plastic, or metal (1).
The reeds, are what sit inside the comb. They are typically made up of brass, and are the part of your instrument that vibrate with your breath to make music. Reeds that are inside the reed plates respond to air exhale, while reeds fixed on the outer side respond to inhale. You can read about the first reeds used in Harmonicas and other early developments of the instrument here.
Reeds are the part of the harmonica that you would adjust were you wanting to tune your instrument. But be warned: once you make an adjustment, there is no going back! Sometimes, you have to make that adjustment though, which is why we are willing to teach you how to tune a harmonica. Be sure to read thoroughly through the instructions prior to this surgical procedure on your instrument.
Harmonica Cover Plates
Cover Plates are what cover the reed plates. They encase your whole harmonica to keep the inside free from damage. While these are usually made of metal, they can also be made out of wood or plastic. Cover plates project the sound made by the harmonica, and can vary in tone and quality. Some are designed to project louder sound, while others are designed to give a distinct tone quality. The choice of cover plates its based on the musician’s preference.
Lastly, is the mouthpiece. This is very self-explanatory, as it is the piece of the instrument that you blow in to. It is the air chamber between the reeds and the musician’s mouth. Mouthpieces will vary depending on the make and model of the harmonica. Different mouthpieces are designed to fit the player’s needs, but overall add comfort to playing the instrument.
Harmonica Types Terminology
There are a many different kinds of harmonicas that all provide different playing options to the musician. Depending what style of music you plan to play with the harmonica will determine the type of harmonica that you will benefit from most.
The most common harmonica is a standard 10-hole diatonic harmonica. The diatonic comes in 12 keys and allows you to play a 7-note major scale. Skillful playing using different breathing and bending techniques can achieve additional notes on these harmonicas. While most professional musicians use a diatonic harmonica, they are also great for beginners.
Chromatic harmonicas are another common option for musicians. These harmonicas allow you to widen your major scale notes by providing a button on the side. When this button is not pressed, it plays like a normal diatonic harmonica, allowing you to play normal major scales. When the button is pressed, however, this allows you to play all missing half-step notes between the major scale notes, allowing you to play any key in any scale.
Lastly are the tremolo harmonicas. These are almost identical to diatonic harmonicas, except they are built with double holes, and sometimes even more holes (up to 12 holes, instead of the standard 10). They also have two reeds tuned to the same note, but one reed is tuned slightly higher. Typically this type of harmonica is not used to plays Blues or Jazz type music, and is only used for special effects.
Harmonica Playing Technique Terminology
As you continue to practice and advance your skill in harmonica playing, there are different techniques you can learn to improve your skill. Some of the most basic techniques are lip pursing, tongue blocking, and the tongue slapping.
Lip pursing allows you to play any single note on the harmonica. This is a great first technique to learn if you are a beginner. Avoid tensing your lips too tight, but rather keep them relaxed as if sucking a drink through a straw. When you create a small hole with your lips, you will be able to play single notes at a time.
Tongue blocking is another great trick to learn and a little bit more intermediate as you start to get more comfortable playing the harmonica. This is when you block certain holes with your tongue on the harmonica to create a more distinct sound. You will find this method used to create that soulful, blues sound.
The tongue slap technique is one of the more advanced techniques that requires lots of time and practice to achieve. This technique requires that as you inhale or exhale, to lightly reach out and slap your tongue against the mouthpiece to give it a unique sound.
In conclusion, as you continue to diver deeper into the harmonica world, you will uncover even more terminology, playing techniques, and different styles. It is important to know the basics of how your harmonica was constructed. This will allow for easier cleaning and tuning as needed, but will also help you better understand the instrument and how it works. It is also important to be familiar with the different types of harmonicas to know what type of music you would like to play and which harmonica would be best suited for you.
Lastly, it is important to understand basic technique terminology as you get started. There are lots of techniques out there that you will continue to uncover as you become more involved in the harmonica world, like the ones listed or ones to increase volume, but it important to know the basics when you first start out. Ultimately, this will give you a great base to build off of as you continue to advance your skill in harmonica playing.
It’s important to know that there is a difference between harmonicas and melodicas because knowing that difference will prevent some confusion when learning new terminology.