It’s conventional for beginner harmonica players to start with a C harmonica. There are some good reasons for this, which I’ll explore below. Often people get confused when I ask them to get an A harp instead. Even more common – people already have a C harmonica and quite naturally want to use that.
Here’s the important thing. All harmonicas, regardless of key, have the same interval layout. In practical terms that means that if you play, say, the melody for Oh Suzanna on a C harp, then pick up any other key harp and play the same holes and breathing pattern, you’ll still get Oh Suzanna, but it will sound higher or lower pitched, depending on the harp you pick up.
The recording below demonstrates this. The first part is played on a C harp, the second on a G. I’m playing the same holes and blowing and drawing exactly the same way.
Put more simply still, it doesn’t really matter which key harp you start with because they all play the same. But of course there are other factors which come into play.
The key of C has many advantages. It’s pretty much in the middle of the range – not too high and not too low. C is a common key for guitar players so it’s handy for getting started playing with others. In terms of music theory C is the most simple key to start with because it’s major scale contains no flat or sharp notes, just plain old C D E F G A B C. The key of C will most likely be the first you look at if you’re learning piano, for instance.
As a consequence, there’s absolutely loads of beginner harmonica material for a C harp. It’s almost like an unwritten rule. Just the way it’s done.
So why, in Walter’s holy name, am I confusing people by asking them to get a harp in the key of A? I’m not just trying to be awkward, I promise.
Blues harmonica players spend a lot of time in the key of E because guitar players favour it so much. Many of the classic blues harmonica recordings are in the key of E. The harp we most commonly use for playing along to blues in E is the A harp (the reason for this confusing state of affairs is a whole other subject for a different day). It makes sense that you’d want to be most comfortable playing the most common key.
In addition, with it being a relatively low sounding harmonica it’s less shrill sounding than a C. A large part of learning the harmonica involves developing a solid “fat” tone which is more readily achievable on a lower harp.
Lastly and importantly. I’m a student of David Barrett, probably the most respected harmonica teacher on the planet. I’m accredited by David to teach using his methods and materials, including all of the study songs he’s developed. To begin with, these require – you guessed it – an A harmonica.
So that’s why I favour key of A for beginners. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a C harp – or any key for that matter. You can get going – and get very good – no matter what key you happen to have access to. And in any case if you get serious about playing you’ll be buying lots of different keys before long anyway. Such is our curse.
I hope that’s gone some way to clearing up this issue. And I need to thank “Adrian” for his email query which was the genesis of this rambling post.