In the 1970s, Billy Joel released his phenomenon single “Piano Man” and turned himself into a legend. Today, people are still mentioning Billy Joel as one of the best-selling artists of the time with his biggest hit. There have been countless covers which have taken inspiration from the song, from vocal covers to instrumental ones. Speaking of which, harmonica is one of the most utilized instruments in terms of covering the hit. However, there are numerous people who want to perform the song themselves but are still struggling with their harmonicas. If you are one of them, then you are lucky as this instruction is going to be all about how to play piano man on harmonica.
I have been in the music industry for more than ten years and I understand the struggle of getting used to new instruments. Yes, it is difficult but no, it is not that difficult. Based on my experience as a music expert and vocal trainer, I am sure that I can help you play the song on harmonica successfully even if you are just a beginner. I guess we are ready now so let us get started!
The blog contains head points including:
- What you need to know before learning how to play piano man on harmonica, divided into two main parts:
- What you need to know before learning how to play piano man
- How to play piano man on harmonica
What you need to know before learning how to play piano man on harmonica
The origin of the harmonica
There are a few different theories on who invented the harmonica. Christian Friedrich Buschmann, a Berlin-based instrument manufacturer, is one of the contenders. Buschmann invented a flute with an iron reed for tuning organs when he was 16 years old, and he obviously flaunted his invention everywhere he went by playing melodies on it. Various people are said to have experimented with changing the shape of this flute, which eventually evolved into the harmonica we know today.
In 1896, the harmonica was first introduced to Japan from Germany. It was classified as a “Western transverse flute” at the time. The “mouth organ” and “mouth harp” were two letter names for the instrument. Eventually, the modern term “harmonica” became popular around 1900.
Actually, when Germans say “Harmonica,” they may be referring to either a Japanese harmonica or an accordion. Another type of reed instrument is the accordion, which creates sound by pushing and pulling air via bellows.
Facts on the harmonica
- In practice, the harmonica is ranked as one of the best-selling music instruments worldwide and surprisingly, guitars are just the runner-up. For instance, up to now, there has been a consumption of about forty million harmonicas in the United States (US) only. In another way, probably, almost every single family has at least a harmonica in their home.
- After the invention of the instrument brought by Christian Buschmann in 1821, the harmonicas started to travel across Europe in diverse shapes. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, it arrived in the US and arose as a major role in blues music.
- The original material of the harmonicas was wood. Nevertheless, if you purchase a wooden-made harmonica today, it would be really expensive.
- The renowned harmonica manufacturer, Hohner, was originally a clock business. Back then, Matthias Honer was a clockmaker in Germany and then he switched to the harmonica industry and started to rise since then.
- The world’s smallest harmonica that is playable comes from Hohner and its name is Hohner Little Lady. Interestingly, Hohner Little Lady was the first music instrument that was played by an astronaut in a spaceship.
- In 2009, there was the largest harmonica ensemble in Hong Kong which involved nearly six thousand participants to break the world record.
- Blues music was extremely viral back to the 60s and so did the harmonicas. Since that era, the instrument gradually invaded rock and folk genres.
- Playing the harmonica can actually be super beneficial in terms of health. It makes you practice your exhalation and inhalation; therefore, you take control of your respiratory system much better.
- Presidents of the United States such as Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge were enthusiast harmonists.
- The instrument had its chromatic version after ninety years of its initial invention.
Types of harmonica
If you are not familiar with the harmonicas, then basically you should know that the harmonicas are classified into two categories:
Diatonic – used mostly in Blues, Rock, Country, and Pop music, and only includes the notes of a particular scale.
Chromatic – used mostly in Jazz and Classical music, and capable of playing all notes in the chromatic scale.
Diatonic versus Chromatic
So what is the difference between the diatonic and the chromatic types?
- The diatonic scale is a musical scale that only includes the notes in a single key. Diatonic harmonicas are limited to playing only the notes of a single scale. If you want to be able to play all of the notes in the chromatic scale on this harmonica. You will need twelve harmonicas in all, one for each chord.
- The chromatic scale includes all notes, including tones and semitones. Chromatic harmonicas are available in all twelve keys, much like diatonic harmonicas, but since they are chromatic and therefore capable of playing all notes by definition, most players prefer the C tuned ones.
Objects of use
As written above, the harmonicas are one of the most popular music instruments in the world, it means it is friendly to most people usage-wise. As long as you have enough interest and passion for this wonderful instrument, no matter whether you are a youngster and an oldster, you shall have fun with it eventually.
Regularly, many players will choose diatonic harmonicas over the chromatic ones and pick the metal-made type as they are simpler to use. When the players are experienced enough to go for a more professional instrument, they can pick the chromatic harmonicas which even are made of wood and of course the price will be more expensive.
Methods of choosing positions of harmonica and keys.
The most challenging element is deciding the proper harmonica keys and positions. In this part, I will address the most different harmonica positions, the definitions and the way to pick between them. Overblowing and alternative diatonic harmonica tunings may also be briefly discussed.
Positions of harmonica
Harmonica players are still saying odd things like “harp with no bends,” “fifth place,” “cross harp,” and so on. Doesn’t it sound a bit amusing? These words apply to the various harmonica playing positions. Positions of harmonica are the terms used by harmonica players to explain how they play various scales on the instrument.
Since diatonic harps have a variety of keys of harmonica, the word “position” is useful. Each key has the same relative note style. This explains that after you have mastered a harp tune in one key, you can play it in some other key utilizing the identical holes.
As a result, the word may be used to communicate with other harpists. However, when it comes to other instruments, this word is not used so much. You would have no idea what you are talking about if you told a guitarist who plays another instrument that you’re playing a C harmonica which handles cross harp!
Here is the regular C harmonica:
The lowest note on the harmonica of type C is a C note. This note can be considered to be the central tone. As a consequence, we can assume that this harmonica is tuned in C Major.
On a single harmonica, we can play in a number of keys due to various playing positions. There are (in theory) twelve different positions on a harmonica and there are twelve keys. If you want to play on the C key, then start and end the scales which all have to be on the C note.
Regarding the note structure mentioned, we can see that we can begin hitting the scale of C from one to seven blows. The tonic C will be the main point of our songs. To perform in various keys on the harmonica, just use a different note.
We would have to begin and end all scales on the note G, as well as chords of G if we want to perform in the G key on a C type harmonica (cross harp). (A G chord is formed by drawing notes one, two, three, and four!)
As a consequence, the G note becomes the current tonic. A key causes a different effect or mode. The term “playing music in the key labeled on the harmonica” refers to the act of composing music in the specified key on the harmonica.
- First position
Straight harp refers to performing with the key indicated on the instrument. Folk tunes, ragtime, and a number of other melodies are played in this position with the expressive upper register. In the 1920s and 1930s, harmonica magician Gwen Foster had a variety of absolutely excellent first-place songs on her list. His songs are fascinating to listen to and analyze. Two other straight harp players worth listening to are Rhythm Willie and Jimmy Reed.
- Second position
This position on the harmonica is a perfect fifth (seven semitones) above the labeled key. On a C tuned harp, the second position would land on G. This is the most common place for striking blues, rock, and country music. Drawing notes on the harmonica’s low end (holes 1–5) is the main focus of this job, and mastering bending is essential.
- Third position
Henry Whitter was the pioneer artist to record in a role which was cross harp. Whitter was born in the 1890s, Virginia, and released several tunes for the Okeh label in early December 1923 and the first one was his standard “Rain Crow Bill Blues.” On a C harp, there will be another seven semitones from G to D.
In third place, D becomes the main stage, and we play a whole step above the key written on the harp. Little Walter was a natural in this role, as shown by the various songs in which he played it. In this position, the harmonica is played one tone above its straight harp chord, and the fourth hole draw serves as an easy starting or stopping point.
- Fourth position
The key of A is played in fourth position on a C harp. Fourth position produces minor music that can be used to perform minor key melodies, similar to third position. The basic beginning and stopping point in fourth position is the three pull bent down ⅖ steps. Keeping this note in tune all of the time is exceedingly difficult, making fourth position extremely difficult.
To play a single harmonica in several keys by changing positions is completely fine. This does not, though, suggest that you can only play a harmonica while not playing with other keys. What is the reason for this? Let’s presume you’d like to play blues in the key of C. Isn’t it accurate that you should play a type C in the initial position? You definitely will. Many people, however, tend to play it in second place on a F harp (second position on a F harp is C). (See the table below for positions.)
The advantage of performing with second place is that you can use the harmonica’s highly expressive bendable notes in the bottom register to create a genuine bluesy tone. I’m not implying that playing blues is tough in the first place. Most people will say if we were not playing cross harp, we were not performing the blues,”
That is not the case. First position is an integral part of the blues culture, and it allows you to do a lot of things that you can’t do in other positions. Different keys produce different sounds, and different locations produce different results. As a result, I strongly advise you to play with various keys and positions.
The song of “Piano Man”
Reasons why we should play piano man on harmonica
Piano Man by Billy Joel is a good place to begin comprehending the blues harmonica since it is a famous song that has basic yet unforgettable melodies.
The song has a three-fourths time signature, and the support is done in triplets, as in a traditional waltz.
Before I get into the melodies, there are a few common factors to note about the harmonica bridge in this album. The signature licks are a super uncomplicated but effective method of utilizing the harmonica on sung parts, as they remember the singer’s melody.
How possibly a song gets so amazing if all we need to play it is three hole notes? The response is that you will hit almost any note of the major scale of C. You can create a lot of miraculous licks with these notes, and they include the three vital notes in the key: G, E, C.
Really, if you have a chance to listen to Billy Joel, you will notice that he raises his voice one octave right after the few initial words. Give it a shot! Many players are unable to play the high harmonica holes, so be bold and experiment with your instrument!
Let’s talk about harmony a little more now. The song is based on three basic chords: G, C, and F major. Since the fifth degree chord resolves on the first, when dealing with big tunes, these are the most essential chords to know, particularly the C and G..
Another feature of the melodies to remember is that they almost always perform in pairs, functioning as a traditional call and response song; the 2nd melody always terminates with the main note which is C, as if to emphasize a “sentence conclusion.”
The key chord progression for Piano Man can be found in the below part:
C C/B Am C/G, F C/E D7 G
C C/B Am C/G, F G7 C
To bring these ideas together, we will learn how to deal with the harmonica in the first place using a popular chord harmonic continuance and a couple of licks that normally end on the most essential keynote. Now you understand why the song is considered to be one of the most famous musical products for harmonica beginners to learn!
More facts on the song
After getting a new deal with Columbia Records with the iconic Clive Davis in 1973, Billy became known to the general public thanks to songs like Captain Jack, The Ballad of Billy the Kid, and Piano Man. Those songs are still famous in modern days, and Piano Man’s single reached number twenty on the charts, earning the singer his very first honourable prize which was a golden disc.
Do you have any idea who played the harmonica on this track? Kevin Spacey, a vocalist and performer, admitted that he wasn’t a particularly skilled harmonicalist when Billy invited him to be in charge of the intro, but he vowed to improve his technique for the case. He as well stated that during that time, he had to put in a lot of practice time!
People who successfully covered the song on the harmonica
- Jose Vzla
Jose Vzla is just a random Youtuber and I came across his video which has received numerous compliments from the audience. In the video, he literally dressed as a piano man and played the harmonica excellently.
- Monica J
Monica J is a gorgeous young girl who has a great love for the song and Billy Joel. She played the harmonica in harmony on the ear-worming piano background beat.
- Ariel Wu
Ariel Wu was super creative when she came up with the idea of imitating two men in her video. One of her “clones” was smashing that piano with talent and the other “clone” really nailed the harmonica performance.
- Nathan Lippiatt
Nathan Lippiatt was sitting in a simple chair vibing his own fantasy through his acoustic guitar and harmonica. Nathan was quite different from most of the other performers. He chose to play the guitar with the harmonica.
- Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey is a famous American football player and he definitely has a huge passion for music. That is because he used to play piano man on harmonica gracefully.
- Billy Joel performs “Piano Man” with Kevin Spacey, Boyz II Men, Natalie Maines, Josh Groban, Gavin DeGraw, Tony Bennett, LeAnn Rimes and Michael Feinstein
What could blow your mind better than the group performance of the song starring famous names such as Tony Bennett, Kevin Spacey and many more?
- Billy Joel (himself)
Last but not least, no one can exceed Billy but himself on playing the song on the harmonica. A legend is still a legend.
Piano Man with other instruments
I have proved that playing the hit song with the harmonica is not that difficult. But if you ask me the question “what about other instruments?”, then I must say that I don’t think it would be challenging to learn how to play the song with your favourite instruments. As long as you keep your disciplines in practicing hard and keep your fire burning, you can rock the song from the guitars, drums, piano or even flutes.
The music sheet of Piano Man
Before you head into the steps which instruct you to play “Piano Man” on the harmonica, you should have a quick look at the music sheet of the song played on the instrument and of course I have already brought it here right below.
How to play piano man on harmonica without hesitation
Now, we will head into the most important yet interesting part of the blog: easy steps to follow when playing piano man on harmonica.
In general, most beginner harps would be in this key, so play along with a song you know is in C to see if it sounds right and see if you’ve got the right kind of harp. Marine Band harmonicas can cost upwards of $30, but they are long-lasting and deliver a high-quality sound, while other starter harps can cost much less.
Obtain a C harp. You’ll need a harmonica if you want to really kick the production of the song into high gear. You can’t just play every song on a harmonica, either. If you don’t have a harmonica in the key of C, it won’t sound perfect.
Get yourself a harp rack. Place your harmonica in a harp rack around your waist, as Joel, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan did, to free up your hands so you can play piano and harmonica at the same time to finish the tune. Harp racks are typically sold for a few dollars at guitar shops and other instrument stores. They are useful instruments to have on hand if you want to add some harmonica color to your music.
Correctly place your lips on the harmonica. As if you were about to whistle, place your lips on the central holes of the harmonica, which are about the fifth counting from the left. Blowing through (exhaling) this hole is the only way to make the E note.
Experiment with different harmonica sounds to figure out how to do them. By inhaling from this or another keyhole, you will create a sound one note higher than the blown note. Notes such as G, C, E, are the blown notes to the right of E, while F, A, B, and so on are the inhaled ones.
During the harmonica pause, play the melody. Billy Joel will be the first to tell you that playing the harmonica does not involve a rocket scientist. You won’t be able to blast a wrong note on the harp because it’s in C, but it’s just about messing with blowing and inhaling in the right places to make the melody close. Basically, you’ll alternate breathing in and blowing out while playing E, G, E, C. After a few tries, you’ll be able to understand the tune.
All in all, these are the things you should know about how to play piano man on harmonica
I hope you find this instruction helpful enough to start your own gig at home. As an experienced musician, generally, I do not think playing hit songs on harmonica is that difficult. From my perspective, you just need motivation, passion and a little bit of hard-work to achieve something that you want with any instrument.
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