Why You Should Clean Your Harmonica & Best Method

Young man playing harmonica closeup

When it comes to picking and learning an instrument, the harmonica is undefeated. Its ease of use, complete portability, and generally low cost for beginners make the barrier of entry to the instrument practically non-existent. If you’ve gone ahead and purchased a harmonica, you might’ve been stumped by the prospect of having to physically clean your instrument. After all, a harmonica is unique in the sense that because of the nature in which it’s played, germs are a constant reality that needs to be confronted.

Harmonicas should be cleaned because it extends the longevity of the instrument. Cleaning your harmonica can also make it sound better. Harmonicas are prone to accumulating particulates or dirt, so for the sake of the user, it’s also good to eliminate that possibility of unsanitary usage.

If you own a harmonica or are simply interested in getting one soon as a hobby, knowing when and how to clean your harmonica is pivotal to your success with this instrument.

Should I Clean My Harmonica?

Worn out old chrome harmonicaHarmonicas are exclusively mouth-blown instruments. If that sounds unsanitary, that’s because it is. Harmonicas require you to blow into them to make sound, so as a result, the instrument can become quite susceptible to germs and become unsanitary.

Residue from acidic drinks or food you’ve recently consumed can get stuck to the reeds of your harmonica. In addition, their portable nature often leads to people putting their harmonicas in their pockets, for example, or in easy to reach places that may accumulate dirt.

After some time, the sound of the harmonica may not be as pure as it once was because of the built-up gunk. The gunk can solidify on the parts of your harmonica that are responsible for creating its sound, and as a result, cheapen the pitch of your instrument.

How Do You Know it’s Time to Clean a Harmonica?

When deciding whether you should clean your harmonica, assess whether you’ve recently cleaned your harmonica and whether it sounds as clear as you’d expect it to. Ask yourself:

  • Does my harmonica sound as clear as it used to? Does the tone’s brilliance sound off?
  • Have I previously used my harmonica after eating or drinking, even if only briefly?
  • Is there any corrosion inside the harmonica?
  • Is there any gunk building on the exterior of my harmonica?

How to Clean a Harmonica

Blue harmonica being taken apartCleaning your harmonica is crucial. A dirty harmonica is not likely to sound as well as a clean one. If your harmonica isn’t cleaned regularly, the vibrating reeds that cause the sound won’t move as much, and your harmonica can feel less powerful. The best method of cleaning your harmonica depends on the frequency in which you use your harmonica.

If you’re hoping to keep it clean between uses, it’s good practice to rinse the harmonica in lukewarm water. The mouthpiece should be facing down during this process so that the water can flow through and out, taking any deposits of saliva build-up and residue with it.

However, when giving your harmonica a thorough cleaning, the steps require a significant time commitment and more work. To do so, you’re going to need to dismantle your harmonica so that you can clean the individual components. The primary components consist of the:

  • Comb: This is the main body of any harmonica. Nowadays, it is typically made of plastic or metal, and it contains the air channel.
  • Reed Plates: Every harmonica has both blow and draw reeds, which, in tandem, are responsible for creating the sound you hear when you blow into a harmonica. Reed plates are simply the grouping of several reeds.
  • Cover Plate: The cover plate’s job is to cover the reed-plates. Depending on the type of cover plate on the harmonica, the instrument can sound different. There are two types of cover plates: plastic cover plates and traditional stamped metal cover plates.

Here’s a step by step guide on cleaning your harmonica:

  1. Disassemble your harmonica. Remove the cover plates and reed plates.
  2. The cover plates can be washed with tap water and dried with a soft cloth.
  3. Place the reed plates in a lukewarm, acidic solution. Water and vinegar are recommended because the acidity of it is just high enough to remove the gunk on the reed plates, while just low enough not to cause any damage to the material of the plates. Lemon juice works well too.
  4. Make sure that the reeds are facing upwards. Let them soak for half an hour.
  5. After they’re done soaking, take a toothbrush and brush off the reed plates. Once done, run warm tap water over the reed plates and dry them with a cloth.
  6. For the comb, take a toothpick and scrape out the comb to remove any solidified substances or residues of saliva.
  7. Reassemble the harmonica after all the components are dry.

Mistakes to Avoid When Cleaning Your Harmonica

Giving your harmonica the deep clean it deserves can feel like a surgical task. When taken apart, the harmonica is surprisingly delicate as it’s composed of very thin pieces of material. It’s surprisingly easy to ruin your harmonica, so here are some simple mistakes to avoid while cleaning it:

  • Leaving the reeds in a lukewarm solution for too long. If you forget about the reed plates in the acidic solution, the material might lose some of its durability. This will deteriorate the quality of the metal, and as a result, your harmonica won’t sound as healthy.
  • Brushing across the reed plates. After your reed plates have dried from the solution, the next step is to brush off the reeds. When doing so, you want to brush in the direction of the reeds, not across the plate. If you brush across the plate, you run the risk of ruining its notes, which will permanently ruin your harmonica’s sound.

How Often Should You Clean a Harmonica?

bald UK musician playing harmonicaEveryone’s mouth contains germs and saliva. Depending on how dirty your mouth is and how often you use your harmonica, you’ll definitely be depositing all sorts of particulates inside of it. It’s an unavoidable fact of life for harmonica players: Your harmonica will get dirty, and it eventually needs to be cleaned. But how often?

It’s difficult to recommend a blanket routine of cleaning for all harmonica players because all harmonica players have different habits of play. Some play first thing in the morning every day, while others may play once in a while.

At the end of the day, how often you should clean your harmonica depends on how you are as a person. If you routinely wash your mouth before playing, then you likely won’t have to give your harmonica a thorough cleaning very often.

With that said, it’s never a bad practice to make sure your mouth is cleaned before playing. That prevents saliva build-up, and any other deposits of your mouth from damaging the reeds in the long run, keeping your harmonica in better shape for long term usage.

In general, you should get into the habit of rinsing your harmonica with lukewarm water between each use, ensuring that your harmonica stays consistently clean. Depending on the frequency in which you play, give your harmonica a more in-depth inspection, and clean every few weeks or months.

However, it doesn’t hurt to experiment with different cleaning routines to see what works well with your playing habits.

In Summary

Cleaning your harmonica should become a regular activity you partake in for the maintenance of your instrument. When your harmonica has residue from your mouth and foods you’ve consumed, it can be prone to corrosion and solidified particulates. This will eventually ruin the quality of your harmonica, forcing you to buy another one.

This process can be negated or reversed with routine cleaning. Using lukewarm water and an acidic substance is best for maintaining a pristine harmonica.


An ardant fan of acoustic music, I played the clarinet in high school band and even competed in Disneyland. As the son of a music teacher, I know firsthand the importance of keeping instruments clean and maintained. I now enjoy sharing information with others and providing answers where I can.

Recent Posts