Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Do you play harp UPSIDE DOWN - Why?
Do you play harp UPSIDE DOWN - Why?
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263 posts
Aug 16, 2012
7:32 AM
Until Youtube, I never realized how many harp players play with their harps upside down. Is it because they're left-handed and prefer a left-handed cup?

Lee Sankey states in one of his videos that holding a harp with the high notes to the right feels odd to him.

So what's the deal? Why upside down?

Last Edited by on Aug 16, 2012 7:38 AM
783 posts
Aug 16, 2012
7:51 AM
I don't play upside down, but I think most people who do just start out that way and then can't see any reason to change once they realize they're different.

It doesn't seem to hurt their playing: William Clarke, Sonny Terry, Paul Butterfield, and Billy Boy Arnold played upside down.

Last Edited by on Aug 16, 2012 8:09 AM
86 posts
Aug 16, 2012
7:51 AM
I'm right handed and i play upside down. It just always felt more comfortable that way. I don't even think i knew there was a recommended way to hold it at the start.
Jim Rumbaugh
773 posts
Aug 16, 2012
9:08 AM
I believe a right handed person has better control of the harp movement with their right hand. but....

One of our better local harp players playes right handed upside down. He sounds great.

I hold it in my right, but rightside up, and my sound suffers from not making a good cup on the low end when playing acoustically. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had learned upside down right handed. It's to late for me to re-learn that, though I am making slow change to left handed right side up.

theharmonicaclub.com (of Huntington, WV)

Last Edited by on Aug 16, 2012 9:09 AM
lumpy wafflesquirt
612 posts
Aug 16, 2012
9:13 AM
Are you sure it isn't reversed pictures in youtube vids?
"Come on Brackett let's get changed"
371 posts
Aug 16, 2012
9:22 AM
I'm left handed and have played upside down from pretty much the beginning. I was well aware there was a recommended way for holding the harp, but it entertained me to learn both ways. Eventually, I became more comfortable with the numbers to the floor and stuck with it.

It's always a good conversation starter when people notice!
2004 posts
Aug 16, 2012
12:39 PM
Here's something that Cham-Ber Huang, the great classic chromatic harp virtuoso had mentioned in an old instructional kit from the 60's called "Let Me Teach You To Play Harmonica," and that's "you must learn to play harmonica as if you were blindfolded."

There's more than a grain of truth to that because as long you know where you are on the instrument 24/7, playing it upside down and backwards is something that really shouldn't be worrying you, and many players too often don't take enough time to know where every single note on their instruments are.

Most of the players who play this way tend to be large left handed and self taught. Cham-Ber Huang also was left handed, but he did have all of his instruments made so that the slide assembly and the hole numbers on the cover plates were more like mirror image of what right handed players have, and the slide is on the left side rather than the right.

There are a number of guitar players who are left handed that never restrung their guitars and so they wound up playing upside down and backwards and two that come to mind are Albert King and Otis Rush.

In the end, as long as you always know where you are on the instrument 24/7, playing upside down and backwards is the last thing you should be worried about and that control thing of a right handed player vs. a left hand player, from players I've met over the years, really doesn't fly because I've seen tons of righties who have no control over ANYTHING and plenty of lefties who play upside down and backwards have far better control of everything than they did, so it sort of equals out in the end.
Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte
261 posts
Aug 16, 2012
1:23 PM
I saw and heard Joe Filisko and Eric Noden last fall and Joe flipped the harp mid-song a few times until he finally put it sideways into his mouth playing it no hands! Never took a wrong note. The song was called mountain dew I believe...
Pistolkatt - Pistolkatts youtube

Last Edited by on Aug 16, 2012 1:24 PM
98 posts
Aug 16, 2012
2:54 PM
If you play your harp upside down(numbers facing the floor), but play standing on your head, are you now playing the "right way"?????
Something to ponder! Things that make you go hmmmm.....

Last Edited by on Aug 16, 2012 2:55 PM
22 posts
Aug 16, 2012
4:54 PM

I started out playing only by ear at around the age of 13, and was not paying any attention at all to the holes or the numbers. I really didn't realize I was holding it upside for a long time. By the time I figured it out, it felt very odd playing it the "right" way...lol. I still generally play "upside down", although I do sometimes switch hit, and I play "regular" when I'm trying to follow a tab or learn a new song.


Last Edited by on Aug 16, 2012 4:55 PM
249 posts
Aug 16, 2012
6:50 PM
the problem with doing this is that all your notes come out upside down.

508 posts
Aug 16, 2012
7:25 PM
I noticed billy boy playing upside down a long time ago. I found it disconcerting at the time. Hand control: I'm right handed I guess, but my left is better- trained for some tasks, like forming guitar chord shapes, or holding a bicycle handlebar, steadying a rifle, steadying a billiard cue etc. Ben Hogan was a natural lefty, but learned to swing right handed because he bought the hype about needing to play right handed to get to the top. Later, he switched back to the left and was still a champion.
Personally I'm happy playing the way I do but I do struggle getting the high notes into the mic as strongly as the low end.
51 posts
Aug 16, 2012
7:42 PM
I normally play right side up, but i have occasionally thrown a harp in a rack upside down during a gig and just had to make due. I find the most fun part of performing dealing with the unexpected nuances and problems, like grabbing a harp in the wrong key...whoops!
926 posts
Aug 16, 2012
7:47 PM
kind of strange that upside down is based on numbers to the floor.. like anybody can see the numbers regardless of how they play!
265 posts
Aug 16, 2012
8:32 PM
I’ve always played with the low notes to the left and can’t imagine playing upside down. Playing a harmonica "numbers-up" was intuitive and has always felt very natural. It just seemed right when I first picked up a harp.

Keyboard instruments play left to right. All the early harmonica books I bought showed the 1-hole at the far left and the numbers on top. The numbers 1-10 were useless on the bottom side. Notice that the numbers go from 1 to 10, not 10 to 1. When I go "up" an octave, I move to the right, not the left. I read from left to right. There is nothing in my world that works from right to left except working downward on a keyboard or musical scale or unscrewing a screw. And, on top of all that I’m right-handed. All my left hand was good for was holding a harp or a mic. I can’t do a simple wah-wah left-handed.

I wonder how playing upside down affects tongue-blocking. I bury the harp into my right cheek when I want a tight cup around a bullet mic for those darker tones. I guess if you play upside down that would all reverse as well.

I don’t know if upside-down is the right terminology. Maybe calling it left-handed or better yet - inverted or reversed, would be more accurate. Then again, I’ve seen guys cup right-handed while playing upside down.

I don't think that playing a guitar upside down is really quite the same as playing a harp upside down. The flipped over guitar still has the low notes to the left and they get higher as one slides up the neck towards the center of the guitar. Notes get higher as one moves to the right on a guitar from the players' perspective looking down at the strings. To really be the same as an upside down harp, the guitarist would have to be playing the highest notes at the top of the neck and the notes would have to get lower and lower as he traveled up the strings, approaching the center point of the guitar near the bridge. In other words, a guitarist would not just have to play upside down, but backwards, (reversed).

I know it's not a big deal, it just seems counter-intuitive, even for a lefty. Maybe it's because I'm a linear thinker. I need straight lines and logical methodologies or nothing makes sense. Must be a result my math and engineering background-- which is ironic, because it means I'm left-brained.

Then there's Chromatic, but I've said enough.

Last Edited by on Aug 16, 2012 11:35 PM
1518 posts
Aug 17, 2012
6:32 AM
Unlike other instruments, playing a harmonica upside down should make no difference at all. All the same licks and techniques are there. No advantages or dis-advantages. Two hole draw is still the same. Just count from the right.
1984 posts
Aug 17, 2012
2:58 PM
when I first started playing,I played swanee river and on top of ole smokey by the numbers and arrows...it only seemed natural to go from left to right like writing a letter....I think sonny terry played upside down,being blind it probably was more natural to him and he was quite a legendary player
281 posts
Aug 17, 2012
4:13 PM

99 posts
Aug 17, 2012
4:38 PM
Because harp playing is so simple, not only do I play upside down, but I will also swap the blow/draw reeds while playing on the "gravitron" ride. For added challenge, i will administer to myself a pneumothorax so that i have very limited breath control. It's not a bad idea to have random people lash at your back with a bamboo rod and cats tail. Its real easy to do, not too sure what the fuss is all about?!?!

Last Edited by on Aug 17, 2012 4:44 PM
1 post
Aug 17, 2012
7:11 PM
I play my harp left to right, except my Klezmer harp, which of course I play right to left, and my harmonicas from the Far East, which I play from top to bottom.

(Actually, sometimes I do flip my harp. Playing the usual patterns in reverse sometimes helps break my brain out of brain lock when I'm trying to come up with new riffs, but I don't do it very often).
16 posts
Mar 15, 2020
4:25 PM
I was watching some current YouTube videos of Bobby Rush, and I noticed that e plays upside down as well.
I've known for about 40 years that Sonny Terry played upside down, and I only figured out recently that Butterfield did, too. I did not realize that Billy Boy Arnold did, too. William Clarke, too? Crazy. It's kinda like when a left-handed guitarist plays a right-handed guitar... some of them (Hendrix, Cobain) restring the guitar, but others (Albert King, Otis Rush) play them with the high-E string on top, the low-E nearest the floor.

Last Edited by chrisjaybecker on Mar 15, 2020 4:32 PM
171 posts
Mar 16, 2020
5:14 AM
It's sort of like the toilet paper/paper towel conundrum: over-roller or under-roller, there is no right or wrong, just which do you prefer. There will always be those who will argue until they are blue in the face that there is only one "right" way simply because they are just plain contrary. Whatever works for you is the "right" way for you. Like Noodles said, keyboards are always arranged low to high, so I personally prefer playing harp the same way. And whose dumb idea was it to put numbers on the cover anyway? If you're playing, the numbers are in your mouth and if you're tuning, the covers are off, so the numbers are of absolutely no value!
6546 posts
Mar 16, 2020
5:37 AM
I like the numbers. Easier than counting. Sometimes I have to take a quick glance and line up on the target.
I don’t care which way up you wanna play the harp, but there is only one right way to hang a dunny roll. There’s absolutely no question about that.
67 posts
Mar 16, 2020
6:15 AM
I'm lefty and play upside down. I've started with cheap no blues harp (without nunmbers), and I started with diatonics, I tried to play with nunmbers up, but without success. I've heard the late James Cotton could play on both sides. You may add Johnny Mars to upside down list, and the chromatic legends Johnny Puleo and some of the Sgro Brothers too.
2084 posts
Mar 16, 2020
6:45 AM
@Raven - the numbers on the cover are meant to be read with your eye teeth.

I play left low, right high.

I have seen people play in each orientation well and less than well. Some can switch and play in both horizontal orientations. I believe that the orientation is of little consequence: whatever works for you.

I don't know about playing with the harp held vertically...

Doug S.

Last Edited by dougharps on Mar 16, 2020 6:46 AM
775 posts
Mar 16, 2020
7:21 AM
I tried playing it upside down, but the blood rushed to my head and made me dizzy.

1722 posts
Mar 16, 2020
7:33 AM
Whichever way works for you. It's all good. I've seen Michael Rubin flip it "upside down" and still play at his usual high level.
1502 posts
Mar 17, 2020
1:17 PM
I have a number of Hohner Up-to-Date Model #1896 ½ harmonicas that some believe are the predecessor to the Marine Band 1896. Most of what I have are 20-Reed Diatonics. A couple are Octave harps, like the Marine Band Full Concert harps. All have a divided comb – like a tremelo – even the harps with only 20 reeds. Covers and reed plates have gone through some transitions over the years with a lot of the changes taking place in the 2-‘s and 30s’. For example, the earliest Marine Band 1896s did not have a groove on the reed plates to receive the leading edge of the covers. That was an innovation that was introduced in the 20’s (I believe). Of course, Hohner also changed the cover design from the “Mouse Ear” tabbed design to a single tab (like the present-day Marine Band). The numbers are another innovation, which can create some confusion or debate about which side is the right side up. All of the Hohner harmonicas I have ever seen have the numbers stamped on the cover that bears the name of the model. That cover also includes the Key. Marine Band, Special 20, Golden Melody, etc. etc. The bottom cover of the Marine Band has the famous crest in between the two hands. It stands to reason that the numbers are stamped on what is intended to be the top cover, so it is easy to see them. And the key is stamped on the same cover as the numbers so everything is in one place. The Up to Date harmonicas do not have the numbers stamped on either cover, but the key is stamped on the cover bearing the name of the instrument. Assuming that is the top cover, if you play the Up to Date that way, the low notes are on the right – or upside down by today’s standards. My guess is that this was intentional but at some point, as the harmonica gained more respect among musicians, manufacturers switched things around and put the low notes on the left – like they are on a piano(?). Hohner also added the A440 stamp on the top cover to let the real musicians know that the harmonica was tuned to Concert Pitch.
Tom Halchak
Blue Moon Harmonicas
Blue Moon Harmonicas
172 posts
Mar 19, 2020
6:03 AM
Did anyone ever stop to think of reversing the cover plates? They both fit identically, so if you're concerned about where the numbers are and you prefer playing high to low, just reverse the covers! There...all fixed.
1504 posts
Mar 19, 2020
7:31 AM
Raven - good idea.
Tom Halchak
Blue Moon Harmonicas
Blue Moon Harmonicas
341 posts
Mar 19, 2020
11:16 AM
I started right side up but using a right hand grip. I knew that was "wrong" because getting a great seal requires holding the low end into the thumb web. Unfortunately an old injury made the common left hand grip uncomfortable. So, I tried holding the harp upside down. That was confusing to my brain, like a backwards keyboard.

A year or two later I just forced myself to switch to the left hand grip (right side up). I switched cold turkey. The change wasn't that difficult. Now I hold left or right depending on the music. The right hold is still more comfortable but the left hold creates the classic low end seal. But either way I keep the low notes on the left.

Hank Shreve plays phenomenal harp using a right hand grip and up side down (low notes right). He is also a wizard on the keyboards. The thought of low note on the right side just seems too weird.

I don't really care about the numbers. I have several numberless harps. But the harp orientation has to marked somehow.

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