The Top 7 Mistakes Beginner Harmonica Players Make

A couple months ago in one of my newsletters, I shared my list of the top 7 mistakes on harmonica that beginners make. I’ve expanded on it a bit, and wanted to share it here too (since I know not everyone gets my newsletter.) Here they are:


1. Playing too hard

I played too hard for YEARS. I blew out sooo many reeds. Improve your tone and the life of your harp. Don’t be like me and take years to learn that less is more. Here’s a tip I learned from John Mayall: Practice playing QUIETLY. See how quiet you can play. According to John, you want to be able to play EVERYTHING at a near whisper volume. This is GREAT practice (PLUS your family, pets, and neighbors may thank you! :wink:)

Next time you’re practicing try playing with the minimum effort and incrementally increase it until you find that sweet spot. You’ll be surprised how little effort you actually need.

2. Playing in the wrong key

If you play in the wrong key people’s ears will bleed and dogs will start wailing. No one wants that. Friends don’t let friends play harmonica in the wrong key. If you’re playing in 1st position (like Neil Young and Bob Dylan) this is pretty simple: just choose the same key harmonica as the song you’re playing. If you’re playing bluesy stuff, it’s a bit more challenging. Learn about keys here.

3. Playing with a poor lip seal on the harmonica

Got a weak or airy tone? The Deep Relaxed Mouth Position, along deep diaphragmatic breathing, is the single most important foundation to playing the harmonica.

Until you have mastered the deep relaxed mouth position, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Stay right there until the technique becomes automatic. Your top lip is nice and deep on the harmonica, only the bottom lip is puckering to get single notes. Everything is built on this foundation, along with proper breathing.

4. Playing with no POCKET, which stems from lacking rhythmic accountability.

I was not born with good rhythm. I had to develop it. But gaining the skill of being able to play in time and with groove (aka “in the pocket”) has changed my life. It’s a key design concept behind my Beginner to Boss course.

A few tips here:
-Practice with rhythmic acountability as much as possible (i.e. play along with video, jam track, record, or metronome, or best of all other musicians who have great time.) There are lots of great metronome apps out there that are cheap or free. Practice playing “back on the beat.” Make a vow not to rush. Rushing is #1 trait of a hack.
-Learn the [yardstick of the groove](Anthony Wellington teaches rhythm using the rhythm yardstick. - YouTube) Understanding this visual grid for 16th notes changed my life. Learn how to count and feel where all the 16th notes are.
-Learn the difference between [Straight Time and Swung Time.](THE SHUFFLE - Swung time vs. Straight time - Let's SWING!)
Learn how to FEEL longer phrases: 4-bar, 8-bar, 12-bar, and 16-bar phrases.

5. Blowing too often when playing in 2nd position

When most beginners solo in 2nd position, they draw blow draw blow… To sound like you know what you’re doing , you wanna draw draw draw draw… Check out this video and you’ll see what I mean.

6. Not allowing enough space between notes

You know that guy who talks too much because he’s insecure? Let’s not be like him when we play. The BEAUTY lies in the SPACE IN BETWEEN the notes.

The less notes you play, the more powerful each note will seem, and vice versa. “Play the rests.”

7. Not Listening

All of these problems could be avoided if we practiced the #1 most important skill. It’s fundamental to all musical activities.


Listen even more closely. There’s so much more happening than we are hearing.

We can practice listening on so many levels. Here’s a kinda weird example: I like to listen to the person I’m talking to, but also at the same time I like to listen to the music playing in the background, the car driving by, and the birds chirping in the tree all at the same time. At the beginning, I this practice would hinder my ability to absorb the conversation. But it’s gotten easier and easier. It’s fun to practice opening our ears more and more.

On a related subject: record yourself and listen back as often as you can. From 2009-2016, I was working only as a gigging musician and I recorded myself religiously and forced myself to listen to the recordings. Often it was SO PAINFUL!

Interestingly, sometimes I was so excited to listen to a performance I thought I’d nailed, only to be disappointed (and sometimes depressed! lol) and other times I’d dread having to listen to something, and then be pleasantly surprised! Our emotions are so fickle and can wildly color our experience of playing in the moment, but recordings don’t lie! Others can lie to us, we can even lie to ourselves, but recordings don’t lie!

Recordings give us the opportunity to listen to ourselves under a microscope. I’ve found over the years listening to recordings of myself has helped me to hear myself a little bit more objectively in the present moment.

If you’re not playing out, record yourself playing along with a jam track, or practicing. This exercise is always valuable and eye-opening.

When we play and hang out and jam with other musicians, let’s always try to hear the WHOLE. The beginner hears himself, and MAYBE the band in the background, but the pro hears the whole band of which he or she just plays one small part.

God gave us 2 ears and one mouth, so let’s listen twice as much as we talk (or play.) Let’s remember that listening is the most important skill we can develop as musicians.

Hope this list of common mistakes that beginner harmonica players often make, gave you some new ideas to kick around. As always, please shoot me comments and questions.

Rock on,


Hallo @Luke, danke, danke für die vielen wirklich hilfreichen Punkte!
Mir war bis jetzt Vieles nicht bekannt.
Aber aus meinem “Bauchgefühl” heraus, gehe ich seit meinem Harmonica Start Step by Step genau so vor und es hilft sehr, die Lust am Lernen nicht zu verlieren. Ich bin mit allen Punkten von dir voll einverstanden :+1: :+1: :+1:.
Was ich direkt beim Spielen höre (*1), ist nicht das Gleiche, wenn ich Aufnahmen von meinem Spiel mache (*2).

  1. Beispiel: Die Melodie klingt flüssig zum richtigen Rhythmus
  2. Beispiel: Die Töne klingen stark einzeln, Fluss fehlt und / oder der Rhythmus ist wechselhaft

Auch wenn viele vor allem wir Mädels ♀️behaupten, wir könnten Multitasking.
No way beim Harmonica spielen. Volle Konzentration auf das eine.

Und genau das leise :shushing_face: Spiel. Wer wie ich Nachbarn und Haustiere hat, wird es von Anfang an versuchen. Ich möchte an niemanden :anguished: :money_mouth_face: zahlen… :joy:
Es kommt wie bei vielen Dingen auf die Sensibilität beim Spielen an.
So, liebe Community, das war meine Meinung dazu. :slightly_smiling_face:
Gute Zeit wünscht euch Astrid


Very valuable tips @Luke ! :slight_smile:


I can see myself coming back to these tips often…thanks Luke!