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This post was updated on March 16, 2021
There are many instruments that overlap in surprising ways so, if you play one you can typically play the other more easily and vice versa.
In that regard, the harmonica and the guitar are two great examples of where your musical skill can overlap.
If you are thinking of picking up a new instrument however you might still be wondering whether one is simpler than the other and which you should start with.
Knowing the harmonica vs. guitar difficulty levels can help you make that decision more effectively.
There are of course many factors to consider when it comes to the difficulty level of playing a new instrument and in this guide we will explore all of those factors so that you can make an informed decision when you set out to invest in your next instrument.
So, to help you with that, we have put together this informational guide to explain the basics of each instrument, where they are different, where they are similar, and which one you might consider starting with based on your level of musical skill.
Harmonica and guitar: How do they compare?
The harmonica is an acoustic instrument, one that you play with your mouth.
You literally blow into the instrument the same as you would any other wind instrument and use the separate air holes and your breathing technique to generate music and play different notes.
The guitar is a stringed instrument and it has guitar strings that you play in order to generate different notes.
How are harmonica and guitar similar?
In terms of difficulty compared to other instruments, learning the harmonica is not as difficult as initial aspects of more complicated instruments that require two hands like the piano where you have to coordinate between your left and your right hands to do different tasks at the same time.
It is more comparable to the level of skill required to play the guitar because you have to move seamlessly between chords without any delay.
This is tricky at first but once you can get beyond this particular requirement, you will find it much easier to advance.
The next stage is to be able to play complicated Melodies without any squealing noises or hesitation.
This is very similar in some ways to learning a guitar solo or you don’t have any of the high-pitched feedback from the strings.
Guitar and harmonica tend to have the same scales especially for blues music and since they are both common instruments used for blues music, there is a lot of overlap for popular pieces.
The differences between an average player and a great player are not just in the complexity of the music that’s being played but the speed at which it can be played without any errors.
This is very similar to becoming competent on a guitar where you are able to, once you become advanced, string together impressive and complicated musical pieces at lightning speed without any imperfections.
How are the harmonica and guitar different?
The main differences you will find in playing the harmonica versus the guitar is a course the size of the instrument, and the fingering.
When you play the guitar you are technically using both hands the same as with a harmonica but with a guitar one hand is holding the chords in question and moving seamlessly up and down the bridge while the other hand is using fingers or a pick to strum the relevant strings.
Similarly with a harmonica, you might use one hand to create a different overblow technique as you become more advanced while the other serves mainly to hold it and your mouth does the majority of the movement back and forth quickly.
Obviously breathing becomes more important with the harmonica because it is a wind instrument in effect whereas with a guitar your dexterity becomes more important.
A bigger part of your investment will be deciding between which model you want after you have made your choice.
For example, if you decide to go with a harmonica, your first step will be deciding whether you want a diatonic or a chromatic harmonica.
One offers a standard 12 note scale while the other offers all of the twelve chromatic scales you would get on a piano.
One is not necessarily better than the other, it just comes down to what type of music you’re going to play and of course your level of experience.
If you are brand new, you should probably start with an easier diatonic harmonica.
But if you already have musical experience and now you’re simply trying to add to your repertoire, you could easily invest in both especially if you’ve already played harmonica.
If you decide to go with a guitar, you get to make the initial choice between an acoustic or electric guitar.
If you go with an acoustic guitar, your investment is pretty limited just like a harmonica, you just have to buy the instrument and possibly a case in which to store it.
But if you go for the electric guitar, you’ll need things like an amplifier so that you can reduce sound.
The difficulty of these two instruments comes down to your experience, what instruments you’ve already played, and what your skill level is.
While it can be argued that the harmonica is less difficult than the guitar at the onset, they each require time and practice to perfect.
For example: the differences between an average player and a professional player have to do with the complexity of the music, how quickly one can play, and how error-free the final piece can be. This applies to guitars and harmonicas equally.
Who should play the harmonica vs. guitar?
They’re different situations in which one instrument might be better suited to your needs than another.
If you are trying to join a rock band, a guitar might be better than a harmonica simply because there aren’t a lot of rock songs that integrate a harmonica.
But if you are trying to do blues music or country music, then you don’t really have to decide between which of these two instruments you want based on relevance but rather based on personal preference.
Maybe you like the sound of a harmonica or the flexibility of being able to easily carry it in your pocket from one place to another.
Which should I learn as a beginner?
If you are a beginner with no musical experience and you want something that you can learn quickly that isn’t too difficult, the harmonica actually has a less extreme learning curve, there isn’t nearly as much to understand, the music is somewhat easier to learn, and you can find beginner based harmonicas that are diatonic with just 10 holes so you’re limited to just one key.
In fact, harmonica manufacturers go out of their way to provide a range of instruments for beginners all the way through professional musicians, which is not really something that a guitar offers.
You will be able to master a harmonica much faster because it is simply less difficult but if you already play a stringed instrument like an upright bass or a violin, being able to switch to another string instrument might be much faster for you.
There is no right or wrong answer, it really comes down to your personal preference and what your history with music is.
Which should I learn as an intermediate or advanced musician?
If you are an intermediate level musician, you already understand music theory, you can read music really well, and you have played a musical instrument before, rest assured that the same comparison between the harmonica and the guitar in terms of difficulty is going to apply.
The harmonica is going to be faster and easier for you to master and the more experience you have, the faster that process happens.
But all the same, you can almost as easily learn the guitar with very little difficulty if you already have musical experience.
What if I play a different instrument already?
If you already play a different instrument, you might find that there are similarities to one of these over the other.
For example, if you already play the piano, you have to use both your hands and coordinate between your left in your right hands, making them do different tasks at the same time.
That type of skill is going to come in handy for both the harmonica and the guitar in that with the harmonica you have to use both hands to move and to maybe cup the outside whereas with the guitar one hand has to play the right chords and notes while the other has to pick the right strings.
If you already play a stringed instrument like a violin, picking up the guitar might prove less difficult for you than picking up the harmonica because you have familiarity with a string instrument, how to properly hold it and how to play it.
The same would be true if you play an upright bass, you can easily switch to the guitar without too much difficulty.
Similarly, if you play a wind instrument like a flute, you already have the breathing techniques you need and must apply to a harmonica which would make the harmonica the less difficult of the two choices.
If you play any other instrument you are already a step ahead because you have some musical experience which will make it easier to pick up the coordination you have to do for either of these instruments, help you to familiarize yourself with holding the instrument properly.
A lot of the issues that beginners have with harmonicas have to do with playing complicated melodies without any squealing noises and a lot of beginners who are learning guitar want to play the right strings without any high-pitched feedback and musical experience with a similar instrument respectively will help avoid these rudimentary mistakes.
Learning on your own or with lessons?
One of the things that can influence how difficult it is to learn any instrument guitar or harmonica is whether you are learning by yourself or with lessons.
Lessons can come in many forms.
You can get private lessons, group lessons if you are learning with a music class in school, or you can do online lessons by yourself at home.
Having any type of lessons will increase your ability to learn the guitar or the harmonica much faster and much more efficiently.
Having a teacher is slightly more advantageous than trying to learn something on the Internet because a teacher is there in person and they can amend things like your hand placement on the guitar, or simply move a finger up or down the strings when you are stuck in the middle of a song.
They can help you change the way you hold the harmonica in person, and this can prevent you developing bad habits immediately.
That said private lessons are of course more productive then group lessons because you get individual help so for some people the biggest level of difficulty might be learning to read music in which case private lessons can afford a tutor who helps more often with reading music than with other parts of playing the guitar.
In other cases you might have a really big issue with certain cords or with the minor keys, or if you are playing the harmonica you might have a problem with a certain blowing technique.
Again, having private lessons will give you the exact help you need when you need it.
Group lessons such as those you would get in a music class are perfectly fine especially for beginners because they do lay out the basics, the progress will simply be slower compared to individual lessons.
If you are learning online at home you have to be very careful not to develop bad playing techniques but there are plenty of resources both free and at cost that you can access which give you beginner, intermediate, and advanced lessons based on where you are.
Some programs are designed to scale so that you can work with the same program going from beginning to end learning everything that you need for any instrument.
Existing musical background
Having some sort of existing musical background will of course make it easier to learn a new instrument whether it is the guitar or the harmonica.
If you have studied music before or you have played any other instrument before, this can help you.
If, for example, you have studied the piano and you play piano, you might find it easier to switch to a harmonica because of the scales but if you play the upright bass you will find it switch to the guitar because the fingering is very similar.
These are all things to take into consideration when you are trying to determine whether you should pick up the harmonica or the guitar and which is more difficult.
What can I do to make the harmonica or guitar less difficult?
The biggest thing you can do to expedite how quickly you can master either of these two instruments is to take lessons and to practice.
Taking lessons is very important with any new skill, and whether you pick the harmonica or the guitar, lessons come in many forms.
- You can get online lessons with a virtual teacher who teaches you one on one.
- You can take online lessons that are pre-recorded from any number of websites that give free tutorials so that you can follow along.
- You can take lessons in person with an individual teacher who will help you develop skills like proper posture while playing, how to hold the instrument, how to apply the right pressure and so on.
Lessons with a teacher can help you move at whatever pace is best, and it’s significantly easier to know what pace is right for you when you have a professional who is watching you every rehearsal, seeing how quickly certain concepts are being mastered and perhaps house sluggishly other concepts are coming along, and altering the curriculum to help you with that.
If you are using something like pre-purchased online courses that have been recorded and are disseminated for a mass audience, that can be very effective and is certainly a financially appealing auction but it can be difficult for you as the beginner to know which “beginner” courses are best, and of course they can’t be catered to your progress.
Whichever of these two instruments you choose, or if you choose both, practice will make perfect.
Practice is the most important thing whether you have lessons or not it’s up to you to use your instruments, to practice different blowing techniques with the harmonica or practice faster fingering with the guitar.
If you dedicate regular practice time you will take out the difficulty associated with learning a new instrument compared to if you forget to practice for weeks at a time and then try to cram it all into one afternoon.
Like any new skill or exercise it’s something you have to do in small amounts on a regular basis.
Learning the proper fingering or the right pressure for the guitar has to be developed physically, you have to develop that muscle memory and you have to develop the calluses on your fingers to help you play more effectively, but if you don’t practice that on a regular basis you will lose it and you will never quite develop what you need to master the instrument.
Similarly if you are trying to master the harmonica and you don’t practice the breathing techniques, especially if you don’t use any other wind-based instrument, you won’t develop the cardiovascular skills or the lung capacity that you need to make the most out of more complicated music.
Harmonica vs. guitar difficulty: How do they compare?
Now that you understand more the harmonica vs. guitar difficulty, you have a better idea for which one you might want to play depending on your skill set, depending on what instruments you have played before and you might even be so bold as to learn to play both instruments and be able to play them together.
When it comes down to it, harmonica vs guitar difficulty are about the same.
The things you will find difficult with the harmonica like being able to coordinate the music you are playing at higher speeds without any hesitation or squealing sounds is very similar to what you would face when you try to advance as a guitar player.
Breathing is going to be more difficult for harmonica because it’s a wind instrument but fingers and dexterity are going to be more difficult with guitar because of the string instrument that you play with your hands.
It really comes down to understanding that the harmonica has a less extreme learning curve so early on it’s going to be much easier for you to master the instrument but the guitar might be similarly easy to master if you have any familiarity with other stringed instruments.
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