Harmonica Chords for Beginners

By Luke

Written by Luke on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Harmonica Lessons, How to Play the Harmonica, Learn About the Harmonica

In this lesson, I’m going to help you learn how to play harmonica chords so that you can accompany a singer or soloist, and I’m also going to show you how to play the cool chord progression riff in the song  I Want Candy. We are using a 10-hole C harmonica.

This lesson assumes that you already know how to hold a harmonica, and how to put your lips on a harmonica

We’ll learn about chords using 1st position in the key of C.

Then I’ll teach you the cool chord riff in 2nd position, in the key of G.

What is a Chord?

The word Harmony means 2 or more notes played at the same time.

The word Chord literally means 3 or more notes played at the same time

Chords are what we play behind a singer or soloist in order to accompany them.  Guitars and keyboards are the instruments that we most commonly hear playing chords in popular music, but the harmonica is unique in that it’s one of the few wind instruments that can also play chords.

Where Do Chords Come From?

You don’t have to know how to build a chord in order to play a chord. So, feel free to skip the theory part of this blog, and go straight to the section below “Harmonica Chord Progression to I Want Candy”.

On the other hand, if you’re really wanting to better understand what a chord is, I’ll explain a bit about how they’re built. 

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Harmonica Scales for Beginners, the word Interval means the distance between two notes. To make a chord, we play a note, which we’ll call the root (because it’s at the bottom of the chord) and then we stack the intervals of a 3rd and a 5th above it. Like this:

When these 3 notes are played at the same time, we have ourselves a C major chord.

By the way, when we play the notes one at a time, it’s called an Arpeggio, and when we play them at the same time, it’s called a Chord.

If we build a chord (using the same formula) starting from the note G, we now would call G the root, and play the notes a 3rd and a 5th above it. Like this:

And we have ourselves a G major chord.

Question & Answer

Music, like so many things in life, is all about tension and resolution. 

Notice that the G chord creates tension. It wants to be resolved. It feels like it’s asking a question that wants an answer.

We don’t feel a sense of rest. We want an answer to this question. And then the C chord answers the question. It resolves the tension.

Numbering Chords

We can replace the note names of chords with Roman numerals. Some people call this “The Nashville Numbering System” because studio musicians in Nashville use Roman numerals to make quick charts before recording a song.

In our example here, because we are in the key of C, we would call the C major chord “the one chord” and we write it as an upper-case Roman numeral, I. 

Because G is the 5th degree of the scale, we would call the G chord “the 5 chord” and use the Roman numeral V to write it.

1st Position Harmonica Chords I & V

The I chord in 1st position (C major chord) on the harmonica can be played in 3 places

First octave tabs: 123

Second octave tabs: 456

Third octave tabs: 789

(Here’s the good news about this: there are no wrong notes! If you’re trying to play a C major chord and you blow ANYWHERE on a C major harmonica, you are playing notes in the C major chord. This is one example of why I love the harmonica so much. It sounds great, and it’s so easy!)

The V chord in 1st position (G major chord) sounds best and is most often played:

-234

You could also play it in the top octave:

-8910

But it gets pretty shrill up there! So it’s most commonly played lower.

Also, it turns out that you don’t have to be exactly on -234. You can draw anywhere between 1 and 5 and be in good shape. (This is because draw 1 is the same note as draw 4 down an octave, and draw 5 is a color note that makes it a G7chord.)

Here’s a jam track for you to play along with to try going back and forth from I to V in 1st position, one bar on each chord.

2nd Position Harmonica Chords I & IV

Now, stay with me here. Because we are going to change worlds.

We are now going to think about these same chords from the perspective of 2nd position. So everything is changing…

We are now in the key of G. That means we will now call G major our I chord. Are you with me?

So in 2nd position, the harmonica tabs for our I chord (G major) are now:

-234

If we call G number one, and we count up, C will be the 4th note. So, now, in the key of G Major, our blow chord (C major) becomes the IV chord. 

As we discovered in 1st position that we can blow anywhere to play the I chord, now, applied to 2nd position, we can blow anywhere on the harmonica to play the IV chord.

Chords I & IV and I Want Candy

Whereas the V chord creates a lot of tension, the IV chord creates less tension. The resolution of IV to I  may be familiar as the “Amen” at the end of many gospel tunes.

A lot of hit songs have been written with I-IV as the primary riff, such as Take a Walk on the Wild Side, Feelin’ Alright, Groove is in the Heart, and For What it’s Worth, just to name a few.

The I-IV-I progression is also at the at the heart of I Want Candy by the Strangeloves.

By the way, here’s a fun version of I Want Candy

The rhythm of this riff follows a Cuban rhythm called a clave (pronounced KLAH-vay.) It’s just a group of 3 beats followed by a group of 2 beats.

For this song, the group of 3 beats contain the I chord, and the group of 2 beats have a IV chord followed by a I chord.

Harmonica Chord Progression to I Want Candy

Here are the harmonica tabs for this chord progression riff:

-234  -234  -234  345  -234

Here’s two jam tracks for you to play along with.

Congratulations!

If you’ve come this far, congratulations! You have learned A LOT about harmonica chords! And you learned a really cool chord riff. Have fun, and keep jammin’!

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