Harmonica Scales for Beginners (While Learning to Play Something Cool)

By Luke

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

In this lesson, I’m going to help you learn a scale so that you can more easily learn your favorite songs faster. Plus I’m going to show you how to play The Lion Sleeps Tonight right away. We are using a 10-hole C harmonica, and we’re playing in 1st position, in the key of C.

This lesson assumes that you already know how to hold a harmonica, and how to put your lips on the harmonica. It does not require any bending. If you’re not feeling 100% secure in isolating notes, check out this awesome lesson on how to play single notes.

Why Learn Harmonica Scales?

I love learning scales. But some people seem to have an almost allergic reaction to learning any music theory at all, preferring to say, “I just play what I feel, man.” They seem to think that gaining knowledge about how music works could somehow kill the magic they feel in music. Other people become very rigid about the “rules” of music, all obsessed with scales and theories, but they seem to have forgotten how to relax and have fun.

I think the most fulfilling path is in the middle of these two extremes. In the final analysis, music is an art, not a science. Music is about expressing emotions and connecting with people. The best way to play music is to relax and have fun.

You can think of a scale as a tool, just like an artist’s color palette. Each note in the scale is a different color on the palette that can convey a different emotion. The more easily we can access each of these colors, the more easily we can express ourselves and create the art that we want to express.

Playing the harmonica is different from playing the guitar or the piano because we cannot look at what we are doing with our eyes. Learning a scale can be a helpful way to help us to visualize what we are doing when we play.

What is The Major Scale?

The major scale is a group of 7 notes that can be easily heard and seen by playing the white keys on the piano from C to C. From C we go up 7 notes D,E,F,G,A,B and then we get back to C again, in a new octave. The first note of the scale is also sometimes called the “root.”

In my experience, it’s much easier and more helpful to replace the note names with numbers.

The reason that I like to use numbers is because it helps me to learn the sound of the intervals of the scale. The word “interval” simply means the distance between two tones. From 1 to 1 is called “unison”. From 1 to 2 is called a “second.” From 1 to 3 is called a “third.” From 1 to 4 is called a “fourth” and so on until we reach a higher version of the root note which is called an “octave.” 

Learning the major scale this way will be super-helpful for you because:

  • Once you have it memorized, then, when you are learning first position songs, you’ll be able to “see” how what you are playing fits within the scale.
  • You will, in turn, be able to memorize songs more easily.
  • Your ear will begin to recognize the intervals of the scale, which will help you over time be able to:
    • learn new songs by ear without any tabs;
    • make up your own improvised solos and songs.

The Major Scale on the Harmonica

One of the awesome things about the harmonica is that, although it is such a small instrument, it actually has a 3 octave range. That’s a bigger range than your average singer! How amazing that we can get so many notes out of such a small and portable instrument.

It turns out that the middle octave, beginning on the 4 blow, is the easiest place to play the C major scale because it doesn’t require any bends. The lower octave, beginning on the 1 blow requires two different draw bends (holes 3 and 4) and the highest octave requires a blow bend (hole 7).

The middle octave, however, with a little patience, is a very easy scale that a beginner can learn to play.

What are the Harmonica Tabs for the Major Scale?

Here are the harmonica tabs for going up the major scale:

4  -4  5  -5  6  -6  -7  7

Notice that when we play the scale going up, we blow and then draw on each of the first 3 holes (holes 4,5, and 6) but then it switches and we draw before we blow when we get to hole 7. 

Here are the harmonica tabs for going down the major scale:

7  -7  -6  6  -5  5  -4  4

Once again, the most challenging part of the scale is switching the order of blowing and drawing between holes 7 and 6. But, over time, it will start to become natural.

So, when I play this scale, I’m visualizing the scale step that I’m on:

TabInterval
4One
-4Two
5Three
-5Four
6Five
-6Six
-7Seven
7One

Here are some backing tracks you can play with up and down the scale. I encourage you to think about which number interval of the scale you’re playing as you play each note.

Harmonica Tabs for The Lion Sleeps Tonight

The Lion Sleeps Tonight is a perfect example of a cool first position tune that fits in the major scale. For this song, we are using just the first five notes of the major scale. Can you see how having played the major scale a lot would help you to be able to play this song more easily?

You can play along with the video to help learn it. Once you’ve got it, try playing along with me on this track.

And then you can play along with just the backing track.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight
4  -4  5 -4
In the jungle,

5   -5  5  -4 4
the mighty jungle,

-4  5 -4 4      5 -4
the lion sleeps tonight.

6  5   -4 5
In the jungle,

6   -5  5  -4 4
the mighty jungle,

-4  5 -4 4      5 -4
the lion sleeps tonight.

To conclude, are you able to visualize the intervals of the major scale that you’re playing while you’re playing this song?

The Lion Sleeps Tonight
4   -4  5     -4
One Two Three Two

5     -5   5  -4 4
Three Four Three Two One

-4  5     -4  4   5     -4
Two Three Two One Three Two

6    5     -4  5
Five Three Two Three

6    -5   5     -4  4
Five Four Three Two One

-4  5     -4  4   5     -4
Two Three Two One Three Two

If you’ve completed all this, congratulations! You’ve learned the major scale and a cool song!

By the way, here is the original version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight released by The Tokens in 1961. They are in the key of F, so you will need an F harmonica to be able to play along with it. The melody we learned today first appears about 30 seconds.

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