Learning the Physical Instrument. (Chromatic Harmonica)

The Chromatic harmonica is a deceptively simple machine.  At times, complicated to accomplish things, but conceptually simple. You blow air in, you draw air out. You push the slide in, or, you don't. If everything goes as planned, you get a note either way.... and another (or sometimes, the same) note, either direction, if you push the slide in. Or not.

For some of us, the perfect world for chromatic harmonica players runs on this theory:


The main problem is not US, it's People who Compose Music, who insist upon composing lines that have intervals.

Intervals are the bane of most chromatic harmonica players, and some of them just resort to looking at the holes and counting. OR, better yet, looking at the numbers on the cover plates. More than  one "jazz" chromatic player will swoop up  to find the notes and call it "style". It is, of course a style, but not a Good one.

While this site is not really Instructional in nature, aiming at being mostly entertaining and confusing to those Avoiding Practice, here's the basic interval exercise if you want to practice a bit...... to be done SLOWLY. (not to mention smoothly.)


The Catch, is that there are quite a few holes available for blowing, or drawing, and they are pretty close together, except when they are several inches apart. And they all look and feel the same. I don't have a ruler here now, but I do have a twenty dollar bill handy, and its length is about that of my three-octave Hohner 270 deluxe. (If you want to, go get a twenty, and continue reading. If all you have is a single dollar bill, that's understandable, you're a harmonica player, and it'll be just fine, in fact, there'll probably be less cocaine dust on the bill. Good or Bad? Up to you.)

There is nothing really complicated about the chromatic harmonica.
That's why it's so difficult to master.

For a better understanding of the length (actually, 'width') that a chromatic harmonica player has to deal with to move quickly to go from one note to another, just line up your twenty dollar bill so that the zero on the top left is lined up with the first hole at the left end. (We'll call it The Bottom End). ALL the other notes are somewhere between the left bit of that zero and the start of the number 2 at the other end of the $20....except the low C#, D, and Eb, which are all in that first hole on the left.

So you blow into the first hole at the bottom, with no slide action, (don't push the button), and if:

  • the instrument is a three octave instrument pitched in the key of C, and if
  • there's nothing stuck in between the reed and the "not reed" parts (slots) and if
  • the valve is not stuck closed from yesterday's dried spit and if
  • you have warmed the instrument up so that your warm breath doesn't condense on the cold metal reed plates and just produce a Gurgle sound, and if
  • that reed isn't broken from your overly-loud blues playing the night before, and if
  • the wooden comb hasn't cracked or if 
  • a nest of spiders ...etc
THEN, you'll have a fair chance of playing (but not getting paid) a C note.

Compare that to an oboe, or a flute, which each only have one hole into which to put air...and it's ALWAYS air going INTO the instrument. You can inhale thru the instrument, sucking away like a  champ, and will never play a wrong note. A Plus.Your Error-Opportunity is down to 50% of what a chromatic harmonica player has to confront. That's just math.

That's probably why oboes, flutes, saxes and clarinets cost more than the harmonicas do.


I suggest never looking at those numbers. After 11 years of playing this instrument, I (really) STILL can't tell you what note is in, say, hole 9 blow, slide out. (I DO know how to figure it out, though, given time.)

Truth be told, the goal is to never think about the instrument. You do not play the harmonica, you play the music.

I have NEVER looked at the numbers to find The Note, although, in a pinch, and if I have to hit the right note or the whole orchestra goes into overtime, I'll use my tongue to count to the correct starting hole, after writing the number on the music. (Yes, I'm purposefully ignorant, I suppose.)

After all, time is, as they say, Money, and yet, you DON'T want Overtime, lest your Overtime become your "Last Time".

I HAVE missed notes, but fortunately, I have a part-time employee who takes blame for my errors.

NOTE: When I started playing chromatic harmonica, that part-time blame-taking job was a full-time job with benefits. As I got better, it became part-time. (No benefits, but more free time, I guess)


I've heard people talk about playing chromatic harmonica thinking about Positions. (For example : "Gruenling plays a tune on chromatic in 10th position" ....etc)

While I don't know what that means, I'm against it. Don't do it. You're playing an instrument that plays notes. You'll be playing music with those notes, and thinking about a certain series of Ins, Outs, slide in, slide out, is not necessary, nor is it helpful.

Think the notes that you want to hear and play them. Visualize a piano keyboard if you want, lots of jazz guys do that.

It's not even a good crutch, a learning step. It's Un-American. Don't do it. IF you're from another country, it's Un-That Country. Don't do it.

The way Tommy Morgan thinks about Positions on the chromatic harmonica is to not do it.

It wouldn't occur to him. I know this because I just called and asked.

Instead, you think of the pallet of notes you have available and play from that pallet. "Position" never enters into it. IF you're playing a figure in the key of D, you play those notes. Do not think of Position, whatever that is.

We play NOTES, not numbers, not holes, not nothing of that stuff, nohow. (No Way, Man.)

And Furthermore:

(send emails here)

end of rant.

ACCURACY, who me?

Can I pick up a harmonica from the messy desk and play whatever note I want to ?

Yes. Today. Tomorrow might be different, but the goal is to NEVER look at the holes.

Truth be told, the goal is to never think about the instrument.

You do not play the harmonica, you play the music.


Tommy Morgan's exercise for this is this:

  • Play a note on the instrument.
  • Put it down.
  • Pick it up and play that same note.
  • Put it down.
  • rinse, repeat.

NOTE: I suspect that this becomes more "interesting" if you are switching between instruments of varying range, and I'm not sure how They do it, it seems like Magic, but I only play the three octave instrument, so it's not my problem.


  1. Buy some flute music, basic stuff.
  2. Learn to play it.

Can't be much easier than that, can it?

APPARENTLY, iT CAN.  Here's a link that Tom Baehr sent, to make it even easier to find music that fits Chromatic harmonica:.

"More than four (4) years (yrs) of daily posts (around 1,500) of tunes, exercises, etudes, even an online metronome, and Absolutely Free. So much material for chromatic harmonica, so little time," Tom says.

If you have more ideas of useful music, let me know.


top of this page | next page>>>>>>