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David's Tip of the Day: Why does BluesHarmonica.com incorporate the use of other keys of harmonica in its lessons fairly early on?

David Barrett Admin's picture

Instruments are commonly designed to play all twelve tones in music, and can thus play in all twelve keys. It takes time for instrumentalists to learn their scales (which notes are, and are not, associated with a given key) and ultimately master the ability to move around on their instrument fluidly within each key. This takes a lot of practice over time, but it’s a common necessity.

Harmonicas are designed to only play in one key, requiring you to purchase twelve keys of harmonica to play the full range of music. G, A, B♭, C, D and F (commonly Low-F) harmonicas are the most commonly used, and constitute what we consider to be a "standard set."

It may seem like a bummer to have to purchase multiple keys to play the harmonica, but here are three reasons why it’s not that bad…

1. Since a harmonica is tuned to the notes of only one key, all of the “wrong” notes have been removed, making it one of the easiest instruments to make music on quickly.

2. To change keys you just change harmonicas—playing the same blows, draws, movements and techniques. The necessity of memorizing the notes associated with each key no longer becomes pertinent, making it one of the easiest instruments to play music with other musicians.

3. A good quality harmonica (that’s also used by many pros) is the Hohner Special 20 and currently sells for $37, making your set of harmonicas $222. Using the cost of a trumpet for comparison (it’s right in the middle of the cost spectrum for a band instrument), a good quality entry-level trumpet made by Yamaha currently sells for $1,171. Even though you have to buy a set of harmonicas to play music, it’s still a very inexpensive instrument.

There are challenges to playing the different keys of harmonica, and its best to get used to playing these different keys early on. Some songs, and approaches to playing, simply sound better on particular keys of harmonica. The chordal style of solo harmonica playing (Solo Harmonica Study lessons) sounds great on the low keys of harmonica, and thus the G harmonica is a great choice. Lastly, it’s nice to have this common set in order to play along with the various songs you may have in your music collection.