Playing and teaching the harmonica for over 3 decades, 
I’ve seen some students who overrate their skill level, 
and some who don’t give themselves enough credit.
Here’s a checklist of 15 things to know if you’re 
an intermediate harmonica player, 
or not.

I’ve broken up this 15-point checklist into 3 chunks to make it more digestible, starting with: 


1Deep Relaxed Mouth Position

First, to be an intermediate you need to able to use the Deep Relaxed Mouth Position.

Why does this matter? Because the harmonica is a small sounding instrument on its own and only sounds big and beautiful when resonating in our mouths and throats. 

Even the greatest riff won’t sound good with a shallow, tense mouth position.

Here’s the test: when you’re playing the harmonica, use your finger to untuck your bottom lip. If your bottom lip freely bounces against the harmonica, then you’re in the proper mouth position!

2Clean Single Notes

Can you play nice clean single notes?

One of the awesome things about the harmonica is that it’s harmonized and playing adjacent holes at the same time often sounds very good!

And in fact playing more than one note can increase the blues horsepower of what you’re playing.

BUT an intermediate player CAN play nice clean single notes when they want to. Gotta nail this technique. If you haven’t yet, check out my lesson How to Play Single Notes for Beginners.

3In the Pocket

Can you play slowly, in the pocket

One of the main things that makes a beginner sound like a beginner is they don’t have a good sense of time. “Playing in the Pocket” means really making the riff groove.

When we play a riff at a fast tempo we can kinda fake it, but when we slow the tempo down then our true colors really show (because there’s more space between each beat, so there’s more room for that error to be exposed).

Here’s a good test: can you play the Hoochie Coochie Man at 50 BPM with a metronome without getting off from the click? Record yourself trying this and listen back and see if you’re actually playing at the same time as the metronome:

-Being ever so slightly late is cool – that’s in the pocket

-But being early is not cool. You never wanna be early!

On the harmonica, your breathing and your rhythm are inextricably connected. Rhythm and breath control are a requirement for an intermediate player which is why…

4Groove Breathing

Can you play one of the following 3 grooves for several minutes without stopping or getting off the click?  

This tests both your rhythm and your breath control.

Developing great rhythm is cultivated by playing along with:

  • Records
  • Jam tracks
  • A metronome
  • Other musicians
  • While taking a steady walk.

Developing great breathing is cultivated by practicing two things:

Deep diaphragmatic breathing – is your belly going out when you breathe in, and vice-versa? Put your hand on your lower belly, and practice breathing! This is the foundation of everything.

Outgassing: are you able to quickly expel air out of your lungs when they’re overfilling. And Ingassing: are you able to bring some extra air in when you’re running out of air?

The biggest skill here is learning how to outgas with the nose push.

This skill involves pushing air quickly out the nose blowing on the harmonica at the same time, and it is vital for overcoming the asphyxiation reflex that comes when our lungs overfill with air.

A similar skill is making sure that we’re not inadvertently allowing air to come through the nose when we’re drawing notes.

On the other hand, sometimes we need to bring extra air in through the nose so that we can get more air in our lungs, because running out of air in our lungs also triggers the same asphyxiation reflex as when they overfill.

Some people figure this whole breathing thing out naturally, and some have to really spend time thinking about it. But the following 3 grooves in particular will show you if you need development in this area.

The real test here is to set a timer and see if you can play these intermediate level grooves for 5 minutes. 

➡️ Groove #1 The train rhythm

I teach this in my Beginner Harmonica Lesson #1, it’s staccato meaning the notes are short, using the articulations “tut” and “kut” and we’re accenting the draws. You can do this at whatever tempo is comfortable, perhaps 80 BPM.

-123 -123 123 123

tut  kut  tut kut

➡️ Groove #2 The BIG train rhythm

Here we are accenting the blows, the notes are legato (meaning long and sustained), instead of using articulations, we are using the coughing technique to play the chords. This is akin to the sound we make imitating a sheep baaaaa or the sound kids make imitating a machine gun. Again, you can do this at whatever tempo is comfortable, perhaps 80 BPM. 

123 123 -123 -123

That 👆🏼 is really the big daddy test. If you can do this one, then you’re doing GREAT with rhythm and breathing.

➡️ Groove #3 The Fox Chase

If you know a little bit of tongue-blocking, this is also a wonderful way to test your breathing and your ability specifically to do the Nose Push, expelling air out of your nose. 

You just block holes 1 & 2 with the tongue while breathing out on hole 3 out the right side of the mouth, and then lifting the tongue and drawing on -12, as I demonstrate here.

But being an intermediate is not all just about technique. You need to understand some critical theoretical concepts too. And this is one of the most important…

5Hear the Position

Can you hear the difference between 1st and 2nd position? Positions are one of the biggest areas of confusion for beginners. 

Intermediate players may or may not understand the theory of how 1st and 2nd position differ (namely, that 1st position has a major 7th and 2nd position has a minor 7th, which is why it’s easier to play the blues in 2nd position). But Intermediate players at least have gotten to know the “vibe” of each position, and know when a song calls for 2nd position’s bluesier, funkier sounds vs 1st position’s more major sounding or folksy kinda sounds.

This is the foundation for our next point, which brings us to our 2nd chunk of this lesson: 


6Know the Key

Do you know how to choose the right key harmonica for the song? 

I’ve already done a lesson on this, and it’s simple when you’re playing in 1st position, but it can be a bit confusing when you’re playing in 2nd.

So there’s really 2 components to this:

1st) Distinguishing what position a song calls for, and

2nd) If it’s in 2nd position, knowing how to count up 4 letter names to determine the key of the harp. And again, my Keys for Beginners lesson teaches this extensively.


BENDING is required by all self respecting intermediates. 

In my How to Bend Harmonica for Beginners lesson I distinguish between 2 skills:

  1. Being able to activate a bend (that’s your first step)
  2. Being able to play bends in tune

Learning how to activate a bend usually takes several days, weeks, or months.

Being able to play bends in tune often takes years, or,  in my case, decades. 😂

But in order to consider yourself intermediate – and I’ve polled several other professional harmonica players to see what they think, and everyone seems to agree that being able to do draw bends 1-6 is an intermediate skill.

Specifically the -1’ half-step bend

The -2” whole-step bend

The -4’ half-step bend, and

The -6’ half-step bend

Now the -3 is the final frontier of bending and I think we can all agree that we’ll spend the rest of our lives perfecting the -3 because there’s so much we can do with it. We can do:

  • a half-step -3’
  • a whole-step -3”
  • and a step and a half -3’’’

Now as an intermediate player you’re probably not gonna have control over all of those.

Here’s a couple licks that are good tests of intermediate bending skills. The first is starting the -4 in the bent position:

-4’ -4 -5 -4’ -4 -5

And this -4’ -4 -4’ -3’ -2

And hopefully this -1 -2” -1 -2” -2

Or even this -1’ -1 -2” -1 -2” -2


On the sometimes controversial subject of tongue-blocking:

  • I don’t think you have to know how to tongue-block in order to be an intermediate harmonica player (although it does open up a whole other world of colors to explore)
  • An intermediate harmonica player can at least play tongue-blocked splits like -14.

Splits are often also referred to as octaves, even though the technique can produce many different intervals besides octaves.

This technique is achieved by blocking holes with your tongue and play 2 non-adjacent holes out of either side of your mouth at the same time.

Even harmonica players who “don’t tongue block” still use splits. 

The easiest split to learn first is the split 14, which blocking holes 2 & 3 with the tongue, playing hole 1 out of the left side of your mouth and hole 4 out of the right side of your mouth at the same time.

The 14 is the easiest to learn because you don’t have to worry about sounding any holes on the left side of hole 1. This is the subject of all of Module 5 in my Beginner to Boss course.


Do you know basic rhythms? 

Can you play whole notes, half-notes, quarter notes, and 8th notes? Do you know the feel of basic time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, 12/8?

And importantly, do you know the difference between straight 8ths and swung 8ths ?

You need to know this stuff because this is how musicians communicate with each other about rhythms.

And you need to be able to play these rhythms accurately – even playing on the upbeat 8th notes. Upbeats are naturally weaker beats, and putting a strong accent on weak beats is something that’s called syncopation.

Playing established riffs is essential for intermediates but…


Can you improvise? 

When it comes to blues, I think you should have some kind of blues vocabulary you can put together to make up a solo. 

Like the 3 licks I teach in my Blues for Beginners lesson. So once you’ve learned a few licks, the test here is just type in ‘blues backing track in G’ into YouTube and play along with it! Ain’t nothing to it but to do it!


Do you have one or 2 full songs memorized? 

If someone asks you to play something, will you stare at them like a deer in the headlights while your heart races and your blood pressure rises? (My heart still races when someone asks me that. 😂) But you gotta have something to play. 

I’ve got tons of songs you could consider learning to keep in your back pocket: something from these 5 grooves and/or these 5 riffs might fit the bill, or Take Me Home Country Roads, Amazing Grace, Piano Man, or maybe your favorite classic harmonica hit from The Beatles or The Stones

And speaking of committing things to memory…

We are now ready for our third and final chunk of the checklist: 


12Scale Knowledge

Do you know at least a few scales? I think an intermediate harmonica player knows at least a few. 

If you haven’t learned any yet, you can check out my Scales for Beginners lesson.

Why do you need to know scales? Because every single melody or riff from a song is devised from a scale, even if it was written by someone who doesn’t know theory.

So if you wanna be able to understand how music is put together or be able to make up your own music, having some basic scale knowledge is a no brainer.

👉 1st position Major scale in the center octave requires no bends, and helps us to be able to play 1st position melodies. Here the harmonica tabs ascending, and descending:

4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7

7 -7 -6 6 -5 5 -4 4

👉 The 1st position Major pentatonic scale the same thing, just skipping 2 of the notes so you kinda get 2 for the price of 1, and there are many songs made up of Major Pentatonic scale:

4 -4 5 6 -6 7

7 -6 6 5 -4 4

👉 The 2nd position blues scale is a must for all intermediate harmonica players. This gives you a color palette from which to make up your own solos! Here are the harmonica tabs:

Ascending: -2 -3’ 4 -4’ -4 -5 6

Descending: 6 -5 -4 -4’ 4 -3’ -2

Continuing down to the lowest note available on the harmonica:

-2” -1 -1’ 1

And back up to the starting note -1’ -1 -2” -2

That’s👆🏼a great way to practice the scale!

👉 The 2nd position major pentatonic scale is a must if you wanna play Country, Gospel, Soul, or Reggae music. This scale does contain the challenging -3” but aside from that, it’s not a hard scale, and sounds GREAT! Here are the tabs:

1st Octave Ascending -2 -3” -3 4 5 6

The higher octave is tons of fun, and notice in the tabs that there are 3 draws in a row (-6, -7, and -8.) This takes some practice, but ultimately makes it easy to play some fast passages:

2nd Octave Ascending 6 -6 -7 -8 8 9 (the -10 and 10’ are also in the scale if you want to include them)

2nd Octave Descending 9 8 -8 -7 -6 6

1st Octave Descending 6 5 -4 -4 -3” -2

Continuing down to the bottom of the harmonica and back up to the root: -2 2 -1 2 -2

All these scales will serve you well! But they won’t do you good if you don’t know when to play what, which leads us to our next point…

13Blues Form Memory

Do you have the 12-bar blues form memorized? Harmonica and blues go together like a hand and a glove. But rock, country, soul, and just about any other genre have many songs that follow the blues form as well, so knowing it like the back of your hand is a must for any serious musician.

I teach it in my Blues for Beginners lesson.

14Ear Training

Can you tell the difference between a major chord and a minor chord? I ask this question to bring up the subject of ear training. Why is this important? Playing a major note on top of a minor chord sounds terrible!

Training your ears is a great investment of time and money. I’m sure you can search “ear training” on YouTube and find tons of great resources. 

I’ve gotten great value using Ear Master software. I don’t have any affiliation with them, but I’ve spent hundreds of hours growing my ears using their software at a tiny fraction of the cost I paid to take my Aural Skills classes at Oberlin conservatory.


Do you listen to who you’re playing with?

I addressed this in my 5 Beginner Mistakes video here. 

A beginner is so preoccupied with trying to execute what they have learned, that they can only hear their own efforts, and not the whole of how what they’re playing fits in with everybody else.

As an intermediate player you should be working on opening up your ears to hear the rest of the band, because it’s no fun to play with someone who isn’t listening!

So what do you think? Did I leave out something important? Did I include some things that really don’t matter? Leave a comment below.

And if you want to fast track your harmonica growth, check out my Beginner to Boss course.


Got something to say? Post a comment below.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments