The Best Harp Exercise

When it comes to practicing blues harp the top hurdle facing people is often time. In our effort to get the most out of our practice time we look for the optimal circumstances. However in doing so it is all to easy to end up not practicing at all. This was a challenge for me for a long time, I wanted to practice a lot but if I couldn’t find at least an hour of uninterupted time I just didn’t practice at all. This is of course very counter productive. For me the big change when I first learned about “kaizen” and then the best harp exercise you can do on the harmonica.

The word “kaizen” is a japanese word that means “change for better” and it is often used to describe that an organisation continuously improve all parts of its operation. What is very appealing with this is that even small improvements building on top of other small improvements will result in big improvements overall. Another way of looking at it is that if you become 1% better at something every day the formula becomes 1.01 x 1.01 x 1.01… and you wil be 2 times as good as when you started after 70 days (not 100 days) and 4 times as good after 140 days. The 1% gain is not added to where you started (day 1) but to where you were the day before. This is of course a very theoretical way of looking at things but at least it opened my eyes to the compound effect of small improvements. I personally reformulated this to “it is better to practice a little bit every day than to cram a long session once a week”. I touch on this as well in my article on great harmonica practice.

The exercise I mentioned before is known as “train imitation”. It is a very simple exercise in which you play two inhaling chords while articulating “ah-ah” followed by two exhaling chords while articulating “who-who” on holes 1-2 or 1-2-3. You start slow and accelerate and decelerate to create the sound of a steam train. You continue for as long as you like and for dramatic effect people often start and finish with a train whistle which you get by inhaling around holes 3-4-5 combined with a little bit of hand or throat tremolo. In the beginning this exercise is quite challenging and you may not get up to any great speed at all and you may find the tone weak. However this is exactly what this exercise will help you with. It will teach you to relax and balance your breathing so that you don’t fill up on air or run out of air. The rleaxation in your posture and your embouchure will greatly improve your tone.

Whenever I can I like to get instruction from my good friend Joe Filisko and he is a great proponent of the train imitation. In fact when I have taken his classes at Harmonica Masters Workshop in Trossingen he has talked about train imitations EVERY year. Unfortunately I ignored it the first couple of years but in 2012 (I believe) I made a comitment. I promised myslef that I would do train imitations every day for at least 30 seconds. The idea with 30 seconds was that it was so short that it would be almost impossible for me to skip it, you can always find 30 seconds. What happened was that it was quite easy for me to keep that promise and most days I actually practiced for quite a bit longer than the 30 seconds. Not only that I started noticing that my tone was improving and I was more relaxed than before. After about 2-3 months I felt that my tone was at least 100% better and my breath control was at a whole other level than before. I think this decision has been the single most effective for developing my own playing. When I teach people blues harp now the train imitation is the first thing I teach them and I tell them that this is something they can keep practicing for the rest of their lives.

A cool thing with the train imitation exercise is that it is actually an early blues song in itslef if you build it out a bit and add some effects. At HMW 2014 I had worked up the nerve to show my train imitation to Joe in class, see the video below.


The two main things here are the daily practice leading to smal continuos improvements and the train imitation exercise that lends itself perfectly to short practice sessions. To round things up I want to leave you with this little challenge, make time for practice every day even if it is just 30 seconds and spend at least some of that time doing the train imitation. Let me know how it goes! Stay in touch by signing up to my newsletter below.

Blues Harmonica and Cajun?

Blues has always been my number one type of music when playing harmonica. Sure I have played some rock songs and even some folk songs bur blues is really where my heart is. However a few years ago Joe Filisko mentioned a player by the name of Isom Fontenot in a class I was taking so I checked him out. It turns out he was a cajun harmonica player and I was fanscinated by the sound of his playing. I was hearing a lot of toung blocking techniques and I decided to learn more myself and hopefully improve my blues harmonica playing.

However it wasn’t very easy to find teaching material for cajun harmonica. I did get some material from Richard Sleigh and I used that to get started. In 2016 at Harmonica Masters Workshop in Trossingen Joe actually brought a cajun study song. It was actually a very nice mixture of blues and cajun making it a great study piece for blues harmonica players. This song allowed me to really work on my 3-hole blocks which have elluded my for quite some time. You can see the result below. If you are intereseted in purchasing the study material you can find it here.

Sometimes it is good to step outside of your comfort zone to find new challenges and grow as an individual, I know cajun music has made me a better blues player now. I not only had to figure out how to play the song, I also had to figure out how to practice my new technique effectively and not just in isolation. More on that in a later post.

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Black Friday Sale

The Black Friday Sale is a big thing, so also on Udemy where I published my course a couple of months back.I really enjoy teaching and this course is a way for me to reach people I normally cannot teach face to face. Online courses are also a great way for people to study at thier own pace.

The topic I chose for my first course is blues harmonica soloing, probably the main thing that gets people excited about learning to play harmonica but also difficult to develop systematically. In my course I focus on giving the right amount of information to allow people to set their creativity free on the harmonica.

You find the course “Learn to play awesome blues harmonica solos” here. I look forward to being your teacher. Take advantage of the Black Friday Sale to save on the tuition.

Exploring minor blues, third position and rhumba

A few years ago I got very interested in minor blues as it is something not we blues harmonica players tend to shy away from. Some people even think you cannot play blues over a minor chord progression.

This is of course incorrect but I can kind of see why people get the idea. If you are a player who always play in second position and have tried playing a solo when the band is in minor you probably noticed that some of the riffs you usually use weren’t working as well. This leads people to believe that blues and minor don’t mix or that it is too difficult to bother with.

When I started thinking about minor blues it was quite apparent that it wasn’t the fact that the chords were minor that was the problem. The blues scale is based on the minor pentatonic scale so a minor key should be no problem at all. After thinking about it for a while i realised that it was the minor third that was causing most players problems in second position. Playing a minor third over a major chord sounds really bluesy, even if the tone is not 100% in pitch. For example playing the 3-draw half step bend a little sharp (maybe just a quarter note bend) over the I-chord is perfectly alright. You can also play the 3-draw unbent which then matches the chord without being part of the blues scale. This means that you will rarely be really off in 2nd position.

Over the I-chord all blow notes are chord tones so that is pretty easy as well in 2nd position. The V-chord is trickier but most people handle it by using standard V-IV-I licks.

If we look at minor blues the minor third now becomes a chord tone as well as a blues scale note. Since it is a chord tone you really want it in tune, too sharp or even 3 unbent will not be any good and certainly not bluesy. Looking at the iv-chord the 2-blow will no longer be a chord tone, in fact unless you have mastered overblows the minor third is not available. This also means that all full blow chords are out which takes away some of the power of 2nd position. Even the draw 1-3 chord which is very commonly used won’t work because it is the major chord.

What you can do is stay away from the chords, 2 blow on the I.chord and make sure to play 3 draw half step bend in pitch. Or you can do what I did and opt for third position. Why is third position good for minor blues? Well simply put the minor third is quite easily accessible meaning that you won’t get in so much trouble playing it. In fact, the blues scale on holes 4-8 is dead simple and you only have to bend for the minor fifth. Here is what it looks like:

4 5 6+ 6′ 6 7+ 8 (Root, minor third, fourth, minor fifth, fifth, minor seventh)

It is a bit trickier in the low octave but it is not impossible:

1 2” 2/3+ 3”’ 3” 4+

Basically, if you stay above hole 3, third position is very easy and you can always develop the lower octve later.

Now, there are some misconceptions about third position. Some people think that third position is exclusively for minor songs and that is not true. You are playing the same scale so it’s not a specific minor scale you are playing. Third position works just as well over a major chord progression. I think this misconception comes from the fact that it sounds a bit darker playing in the third position but that comes from the fact that the minor thirds are more easily controlled.

Another thing I wanted to explore at the same time was blues rhumbas so I chose to write a rhumba in third position. You can check it out below. If I had written the song today I may have included a part where I play the very well known rhumba riff you often hear as backup.

Check out my “music video” on YouTube!

Reap what you sow blues harp in Dm on a C-harp.

All in all going outside what I usually play was a great learning experience and I recommend i to everyone.

If you sign up to my mailing list I will send you a coupon giving you a 75% discount for my “Learn to play and improve 12 bar blues harmonica solos” Udemy Course.

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Rules for Great Blues Harmonica Practice

As we all know, becoming a great harmonica player takes practice. Lots of practice. What suprises me sometimes is that how little thought some people put into how they practice. When I became serious about blues harmonica quite a few years ago I quickly found out that I was time constrained. It wasn’t because of lack of interest I wasn’t practicing 8 hours a day, it was simply because I had so many other obligations. Work, family, house, garden etc etc. You know how it is. This led me to thinking about how I could make the best use of the time I actually practiced.

Some time ago I took the time to record a few YouTube videos I chose to call “Hertzberg’s rules of practice”. It was my way of collecting the ideas I had developed over time that made my practice better than when I started. It turned out to be 9 rules for some reason, I don’t know why. Now I thought it would be a great time to summarize them here in this article. For full explanation of the rules watch the videos.

1. Quality & quantity
More is not always better, it has to be good as well. Rule #1 video.

2. Consistency is king
Improvements fade if they are not maintained. Rule #2 video.

3. End with a positive feeling
What happens after the practice is also important to end on a positice note. Rule #3 video.

4. Have your gear ready
Don’t waste time when you practice! Rule #4 video.

5. Set your intentions
If you know what you want, everything falls into place. Rule #5 video.

6. Record and review
We don’t always hear what we play when we are playing. Rule #6 video.

7. Make performance practice realistic
The way be pratice is the way we default to under preassure. Rule #7 video.

8. Check relaxation
The more relaxed you are the less you will fight yourself. Rule #8 video.

9. Let the metronome rule
Staying in time is much more difficult than many people think. Rule #9 video.

If you follow these rules I can guarantee you that your blues harmonica practice will be much more efficient. Not only will your progress be quicker but you will also likely spend more time practicing. Everything adds up!

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Blues Harmonica Solo Course Live on Udemy

Everything moved quicker than I expected my course is already live on Udemy. I am very excited about this.

The course is for beginnig and intermediate harmonica players who want to improve their soloing skills. The course covers everything for simple 12 bar blues solo strategies up to startegies that include supporting the chord progression, dynamics, solo structure and creating excitement. This is what you need to take your solos to the next level and really integrate what you play with the music.

If you want to become better at playing blues harmonica solos, this is the course for you.

You will find the “Learn to play and improve 12 bar blues harmonica solos” course here.

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Working on blues harmonica course for Udemy

Forr the last month I have been working on a course to publish on Udemy. The reason I have chosen to go with Udemy is their great support in putting together courses. Now I have been able to focus on the material I want to tech rather than designing web pages. Hopefully everything will be up and running within a few weeks. I am very excited about this!

Harp on!