5

I am a guitar player and I am thinking of trying some harmonica (mouth organ) as well. My guitar is tuned to half step down: Eb (D#, G#, C#, F#, A#, D#) and most of the songs I play using this tuning. I want to add a harmonica for some ordinary melody. Which key harmonica should I buy?
We usually play songs with chords (Not blues). For example, Heart of gold by Neil young. But we play it on our half step down tuned guitar. So, I am confused about it now.

  • How the guitar is tuned is only half the story. Establish what actual key each piece is in, then buy that key harmonica. Hence, if you're playing open A D and E chords in a song, with your low tuning, the song's going to be in Ab. So that's what to buy. Obviously other songs will be in other keys. – Tim Nov 14 at 15:53
  • @Tim don't harmonica pieces sometimes require the harp to be a 5th off of the key? – Legorhin Nov 14 at 16:17
  • @legorhin I think each harmonica can be played in several keys but you typically don’t want to play in the key the harmonica is named on because all the good notes are off to the side. The keys that is in the center is the harp is up a fifth or a forth if I remember correctly. So if you want to play in C don’t buy a C harp but a F Or G. Sorry I don’t know all the details. – b3ko Nov 14 at 16:26
  • @Legorhin - yes, particularly for playing Blues. Cross harp uses a harp in the sub-dominant key to that of the song. However, OP stated not Blues. – Tim Nov 14 at 16:44
  • 1
    @b3ko - cross harps need to be a 4th up from the song's key. Song in C, harp in F. – Tim Nov 14 at 16:45
3

Ahh the Neil Young classic "Heart of Gold". That is the song that inspired me to learn to play harmonica and guitar at the same time. It's just not the same without the harp solo.

Many folk songs are played in what's known as "first position" on the harmonica which is they key the song is in. Most blues are played in 2nd position which a 4th higher than the song key. Playing in second position is known as "cross harp" which often features a technique called note bending to play additional notes.

Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie songs (to name a few prolific harp/guitar players in the folk genre) often feature harmonica parts in first position (key of the song).

Heart of Gold ends on a G chord and all the chords used are in the key of G major so it can be argued that the key is G. It could also be considered the relative minor of G which is Em. Either way, Neil Young used a G Major Diatonic Harmonica in Heart of Gold and that is what I use as well. Several other songs I play also use the G Major Harp.

Just like you, I like to tune my guitar a half step flat because it's easier for me to sing in that key.

The problem you and I have if we want to play Heart of Gold (or any song in the key of G in first position) a half step flat is that if we use the same chord set as in standard tuning we will be playing the song in the key of F# (or you could call it G flat).

Unfortunately F# harmonicas that are a half step lower than a typical G harmonica are rare. With most harmonica manufacturers who do produce a major diatonic harmonica in the key of F# - that is their highest key and is therefore 6.5 steps sharp vs. 1/2 step flat and is very shrill sounding. What you need to play heart of gold using the Em, D, G and C chord shapes but tuned half step below standard tuning, is a Major Diatonic Harmonica in the key of Low F# (LF#).

I have found two harmonica makers who offer a major diatonic harp in Low F#.

Lee Oskar Lee Oskar Website
Seydel Sydel Website

For future reference, I have inserted a handy Key Chart for Major Diatonic Harmonicas below courtesy of the Lee Oskar website. Have fun learning to play harmonica - it's a relatively easy instrument to learn to play in first position.

Harmonic Key Chart

  • Para.6 - please check the enharmonics... – Tim Nov 14 at 19:46
  • @Tim Enharmonics corrected. Thanks Tim. Good catch. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 14 at 22:09
  • Thats it was very helpful! – Imrul.H Nov 18 at 9:23
  • @Imrul.H Glad I could help. Have fun with the harmonica and guitar. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 18 at 18:36
3

Sets of harmonicas can be purchased - all 12 keys in a big set! But big sets cost big money! You won't be able to use the 'standard' C, F, G, A harps well with your tuning - unless you capo or play barre chords for your songs, so you'll need the others out of the 'big set'.

I'm guessing (have to - sparse info) that songs will be in E♭, A♭ D♭ and G♭ mostly, in real terms. So those are what to go for.

A chromatic would cover all you need, but they take some time to get good at playing in other keys than diatonic C and D♭ (with the button in all the time). But that would only really cover single note playing.

For some chord work, you'll need harps in the appropriate keys, as explained earlier.

  • +1 for mentioning the economics of the situation. If the standard harps are C, F, G, and A, why not recommend the B, E, G♭, and A♭ harps? Or are the standard harps not the ones that usually go with the guitar? – user45266 Nov 14 at 18:18
  • Good answer. Interestingly, I have not found any G flat harps. The few harmonica makers who offer what equates to a G flat call it an F sharp (F# and G flat are same note). But usually the F sharp is the highest pitched major diatonic harp they offer. I have found two companies that make a LOW F sharp which is what I use to play Heart of Gold with guitar tuned half step flat. They make E Flat, A flat, D flat but none called G flat. And F# is the only sharp key offered. I have no idea why that is but I am sure there is an explanation. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 14 at 19:23
  • @RockinCowboy - there doesn't need to be an answer. F# is a far better known name than Gb. It probably occurs in music at a ratio of 10;1, and a lot of guitarists will have heard of F# instead of Gb. So buying an F# harp is going to be easier than buying a Gb... – Tim Nov 14 at 19:44
  • @Tim Sounds like a logical explanation Tim. You could expand on that as an answer to the question I just posted if you wanted to. I'll give you an upvote. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 14 at 22:14
  • @user45266 - If OP is downtuned, the B and E will be not a lot of use. All keys are available, but market forces say that the A, D, G and F will be most sold. And of course, C, which is the 'standard' - most chromatics are based in C (/C#). – Tim Nov 15 at 8:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.