Harmonica Gear or More Practice?

If you are anything like me I guess you are a harmonica gear head, most harmonica players are. Part of the fun of any hobby is to have a reason to buy new gear. No harm in that at all. There is however harm when buying harmonica gear becomes the main reason for the hobby. It is also a problem when we start blaming our faults as harmonica players on our gear. In this article I give my thoughts on what is essential gear and what improvements come best from practice (with or without harmonica). Not all our shortcommings can be fixed with gear, very few actually I would say. I will not mention custom and semi-custom harmonicas here, they deserve their own discussion.

Essential harmonica gear

First, a look at what I consider essential harmonica gear. These are things that help you become a better harmonica player and help you practice. Maybe some people will see this list as very boring and maybe it is. However essentials are rarely very exciting.

Metronome

The metronome is what keeps us honest when we practice, it is very hard to ignore being off the beat when the metronome is running. It is also a very good tool for practicing in the extremes, either really slowly or faster than we normally can handle. You can either use a stand alone device or a smart phone app.

Portable recording device

Critical listening while we play is extremely hard. Chances are that you are not hearing your mistakes, unless they are big, while you play. The ability to record and review afterwards is essential to pinpointing what you need to work on. I have been using Zoom Q3, which also records video, since a couple of years ago. I don’t think it is available anymore but I have heard god things about the Tascam DR-40 and Zoom H1 looks like a good option. If you have a smart phone it can likely work just as well.

Harmonica gear zoom Q3

My Zoom Q3

Jam tracks

Maybe not so much gear but jam tracks in different grooves, tempos, intstrumentations, etc is a great way to prepare for playing with other musicians. There are actually two ways to go about getting jam tracks. You can either buy individual or collections of jam tracks or you can invest in a computer program like “Band in a box” that can generate whatever kind of music you need. It can even create solos in the styles of famous artists. Quite an interesting tool, also useful for songwriters and home studio geeks.

Tounge block trainer

Learning the tounge block embouchure can be quite challenging due to the fact that we cannot see what goes on inside our mouths. The tounge block trainer created by Joe Filisko allows us to see what we are doing with our tounge and that really makes things a lot easier. You find the TBT here, where there also are instructions for how you make one yourself.

Service tools

A small set of tools with screwdrivers and tools for simple harmonica maintenance is quite handy. It is a good thing to know how to maintain your harmonicas yourself. Hohner has a nice set of tools with maybe more tools than you need at first. I have written about harmonica maintenance for cleaning in an earlier post.

Harmonica gear that can wait

Unfortunately this is probably the category most people are most interest in. A lot of the gear I got first definately comes from this category so, do what I say not what I do.

Amplifier

Unless you play regularly on stage you probable don’t need an amplifier. However if you do you a small 5W tube amplifier is probably what you need. It will be loud enough for rehersals and it can be amplified through the PA for larger venues. The amp will both be a way of being heard and a way of shaping your amplified sound. Before buying one you need to figure out what you need and what kind of sound you want. There is a big market for vintage amplifiers on eBay which can cost quite a lot. There are also a bunch of modern brands that specialise in harmonica amplifiers. Sonny Jr and Lone Wolf are two well known companies. I have a Gibson Kalamazoo Amp from the 60’s which I am very happy with but it did need some attention before being playable.

One thing that you should consider before spending a lot of money on an amp is that it will make everything you play louder. If what you put into the amp sounds band, what comes out will also sound bad, only louder.

Harmonica Gear - Kalamazoo Amp

My Kalamazoo.

Bullet microphone

If you buy an amp you will also need a microphone and the bullet style is the prefered style for many players. The same goes for mics as for amps, either you buy a vintage mic or a modern version from somebody who builds new mics often from vintage parts. BlowsMeAway Productions has both modern versions and custom wooden mics with vintage cartridges. I have the Bulletinin which I am very happy with.

Effect pedals

Effect pedals is a category I am not very interested in myslef actually. I have never come to grips with them. I would suggest that you hold off buying pedals until you know what you want from them. They can be great additions if you are looking for a specific sound that you are unable to create otherwise. I would also consider pedals icing on the cake and not something that will help your overall playing, if you don’t sound good acoustically pedals are not likely going to help you. Lone Wolf has a bunch of different pedals you can check out. To me delay and reverb pedals seem like a good place to start looking if you are experimenting with your sound.

The benefits of practice over harmonica gear

If you look back at the gear I list as essential you may notice that with the exception of the tool kit everything are practicing tools. The reason I think that practice is so much more valuable is that you will always take it with you. Sometimes you will not have access to your gear and sometimes you may want to play 100% acoustically. Even at those times when you have access to all your harmonica gear and all the best equipment in the world, what you have practiced will still shine through. There is no tool in a live situation that will fix bad timing or bad tone. They are such corner stones in every great players arsenal that they deserve to be put first at al times.

If you ever have to choose between new gear and more practice, I urge you to go for more practice. Hold off with the harmonica gear until you really need it. You will be glad you did. I am curious to hear any thoughts on this.

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Harmonica Practice without the Harmonica

You may already have figuered out that I am a big advocate for practice, especially efficient practice and excercises. The more you practice the better you become, it is as simple as that. In this article I will give some ideas about how to increase your harmonica practice sessions without even touching a harmonica. It is easy to become caught up in believing that only your pure scale practice time will make you better. Good news, although scale practice, bending practice etc is important there are other forms of practice you may have not considered.

Fill up on good ideas

It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself to be a modern player or if you don’t want to copy the masters. Learning from the great masters like Little Walter, Walter Horton or Sonny Boy Williamson is essential. An excellent way of doing this is to listen to them as much as you can. By constantly filling your ears with good ideas from the past, your future ideas will become better. Don’t fall in the trap of ignoring good riffs from the past in your effort of developing your own style. Your own style develops from you absorbe ideas from others and rework them. Ignoring good input will not help you. So, get those ear plugs in and listen to good harmonica players when you can’t practice yourself.

Creative MuVo MP3 player can be filled up with songs for harmonica practice

Load up whatever music player you use with great songs to learn from.

Mental model harmonica practice

Lee Sankey is a harmonica player and instructor who has done very interesting research into the mental models musicians use while playing. He calls these models Brainstruments. The idea behind the mental model is that the musician is not playing the physical instrument bur rather his Brainstrument and the brain then translates everything into the physical world. Developing a mental model of the harmonica of course requires quite a bit of harmonica practice but it is worth while trying to figure out what your mental model is. With a mental model in place, you can think your way to becoming a better harmonica player.

Myelin

A very closely related topic to the Brainstruments is the work of Daniel Coyle which he put forward in “The Talent Code”. My short explanation would be that while practicing you develop neural pathways that are insulated with myelin which makes them faster and thereby stronger. When the pathways are in place they can be fired without the muscles moving. This means more support for mental harmonica practice.

One additional note on mental practice, if you do not do the physical “normal” practice you will not develop the mental model and the myelin will not form. You cannot just think about playing, you have to do it too.

Study theory

Theory studies may not be the your favorite thing and I know some people see it as a little bit dirty for harmonica players. I don’t understand that view at all. I think you should make an effort to understand as much as possible about what you are interested in. Understanding more about music theory will not only make you a better player, you will also appreciate the music more. It is also a perfect thing to do when you are travelling and not really want to listen to more music. Take out a theory book or do some Google searches to elevate your knowledge. If you are a complete beginner then “Music Theory for Dummies” is a good starting book.

Conclusion

I hope I have opened your eyes about what harmonica practice is and how you can apply these ideas to your own practice. Even if you don’t adapt all of these ideas, try at least one. Let me know how it works out. If you have any other ways of practicing without touching a harmonica I would love to hear about them.

 

Harmonica Tabs and their flavors

Using harmonica tabs to learn new songs is a fairly standard approach. However a beginner can be a bit confused by the different systems. In this article I will go through the systems of tabs I have come across to give my view on them. They are fairly straight forward and once you have wrapped your mind around them they all make sense. You will however probably prefer one or two above the others.

Classifying harmonica tabs

I have divided the different flavors into a few classes depending on how they convey information. This division is based on how rhythm is notated (if at all) and how the pitches (or rather the hole of the harmonica) are notated. There is no real science behind this classification, it is a just a way to think about the different systems. Common for all systems is that the key you play in doesn’t matter. The same harmonica tabs can be used in any key. What matters however is what position the notation is in. This matters as the riffs you learn can become a part of your own riff bank for that position.

The elements I use for this simple classifications are:

  • Rhythm notation vs no rhythm notation
  • Arrows for air flow direction vs + or – for airflow direction
  • Standard music notation combination vs separate system
  • Technique notation vs no technique notation

Standard music notation based tabs

This type is very common for teaching and is used by David Barrett who runs BluesHarmonica.com. The importance of David´s work with harmonica tuition cannot be overstated in my opinion. I would consider this type of harmonica tabs to be the standard and the most common. The style consits of standard musical notation with the holes of the harmonica noted below the notes. Air flow is noted with a +-sign for blow notes and draw notes have no sign. This feels very natural to my as second position is very draw note centric. This type naturally notates the rhythm in the standard music notation. Even if you don’t like reading the notes you get a sense of the speed of the notes by distance between the numbers.

Notating techniques

Notation of techniques are done both above the notes and after the hole notation. This may seem a little bit confusing at first but you normally get used to it quickly. Bends are notated with one or more ´-signs after the hole number. Slaps are notated by small rings above the notes and dips in the pitch are notated by small a downward facing arrow above the note or notes. Bascally any technique can be notated in this system making it a very rich and poweful tabulature system.

Standard harmonica tabs

Small part of a trascription from BluesHarmonica.com

The complete listing of notation symbols are found in David’s books or as part of his transcriptions. A side benefit of using this types of tabs is that you may learn the full standard music notation without extra effort. At least it will make any further studies in music notation easier.

Filisko-style harmonica tabs

The style of tabs used by Joe Filisko is quite different from the previous style. Rather than notating rhythm in standard music notation this type has its own system. Every beat of a bar is divied into sub-divisions of the beat depending on the groove of the song. If the song is in a straight-eigth feel the quarter notes are notated by a horizontal line with two short vertical lines. One for each eigth note. If the song is in a shuffle feel each quarter note is notated by a horizontal line with three short vertical lines. Basically the quarter note is divided into triplets.

The air direction is notated by arrows, upward arrows for exhale and inhale arrows for draw. Note bending is notated by horizontal lines on the arrows and the harmonica hole(s) played by numbers next to the arrows.

These tabs also notate the techniques used such as throat tremolo or vamping. You find a complete listing of the notation symbols here.

Filisko style harmonica tabs

Tabs used by Joe Filisko.

I have used this style of harmonica tabs quite a bit now so I really like it. I think it visually works very well for me. The rhythm of the riffs can be worked out quite easily.

Simple e-mail friendly harmonica tabs

If you want to send harmonica tabs you a friend and use one of the two systems above you will most likely have to send a JPEG-image. To avoid this you can opt for a more e-mail friendly system. Some tabs-oriented sites use this type of system as well. These systems do not notate the rhythm at all but only notate the holes played on the harmonica. The sign used to notate the air direction can vary and so can the placement of it, before or after the number. The examples below show the same riff notated with different systems.

  • Draw notated as no sign, – or d
  • Blow notated as +, no sign or b
  • Half step bend notaded as ´

Using ´+´ for blow

2  3′  4+  4  2

USING ´-´ for draw (sign placed before hole number)

-2  -3′  4  -4  -2

blow and draw notated with ´b´and ´d´

2d  3’d  4b  4d  2d

To be honest, I am not a big fan of using ´-´ or b/d-notation but I guess it is a matter of what I am used to.

Simple tabs with rhythm notation

You will sometimes come across a combination of the standard music notation tabs and the simple e-mail friendly tabs. That is when the simple tabs are complemented with music notation that is not notating the pitch. See the picture for an example of the rhythm notation.

Rhythm notation for harmonica tabs

Rhythm notation

This type of notation is not very common from what I have seen.

Arrow based harmonica tabs

Sometimes you come across tabs that use arrows for airflow direction but with no exact notation for rhythm. For these systems the length of the arrows normally gives an indication of the length of the notes in relation to each other. Bent arrows notate nemt notes.

Arrow based harmonica tabs

Notation with arrows and numbers.

I find these systems to inexact to be really useful. They do give support when you also have a recording of the song or riff. This style of tabs is used in “A Sourcebook of Sonny Terry Licks for Blues Harmonica” by Tom Ball which also includes recording of the licks.

Combination of arrow based tabs and standard music notation

I have found a variation of the arrow based system in a few books. This variation looks a lot like the system used by David Barrett but uses arrows for air flow direction and bends. It also seems to have fewer notations of techniques making it less powerful in my opinion. See the picture below for an example. This method is used in “Blues Harmonica Collection” by David McKelvy.

Arrow harmonica tabs and standard music notation

Combination of standard music notation and arrow tabs.

Rhythm from song lyrics

Some tabs you come across combine harmonica tabs with song lyrics and when you do that you will get a sense of the rhythm without notating it. This is not a good option for instrumental songs for obvious reasons. There is an example here.

Conclusions

As you can see there are a number of ways of notating harmonica tabs and with a little bit of thinking you can navigate most of them now. For my part I really think that the systems used by Bavid Barrett and Joe Filisko are the most versatile, exact and useful.

I hope you find this articel useful, let me know if you have any questions. Don’t forget to share this and to sign up to my newsletter below.

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Using Your Voice to Make Sense of Blues Harmonica Rhythms

If you play blues harmonica chances are you play shuffles a lot. It’s a nice groove and typically the first groove you learn to play. Since you probably play it a lot it has been etched into your brain and you don’t have to think too much to follow the groove. But what happens when you run into tabs or musical notation that are a bit more complicated? What happen when you step a little bit outside what you are used to?

Using your ears

If you are lucky you will have a sound file where the riffs you are working on is played, either in isolation or in context with a backing track or a band. In that case it is a matter of listening to the music at the same time as you are reading the tabulature and try to sing along with the rhytmic pattern. If the recording is too fast for you, you can use a program like The Amazing Slowdowner to play it at a more comfortable speed. This step is quite important to make sense of what you are trying to learn. When the rhytmic pattern is in your memory you can start worrying about the pitches as well. The process becomes something like read, listen, read, sing or hum, play on the harmonica. Try to use your ears more than your eyes.

If you want to go the technical route you can use a MIDI sequenser or similar program to program the pattern and have the computer play it back to you. Not a bad choice but not always feasible.

Using your voice before the harmonica

However we are not always lucky enough to have a recording of what we are studying or a MIDI sequencer at hand. In this case you need another method of figuring out the rhytmic pattern if it is previously inknown to you. They way I usually do this is to use my voice and use articulation to get a sense of the rhytmic phrasing. The articulations that work the best for me are:

  • 1/4-note – ta
  • 1/8-note 1/8-note straight feel – ta-ka
  • 1/8-note 1/8-note shuffle, first 1/8-note on the beat – taa-ka
  • 1/8-triplet – ta-da-ka
  • 4 1/16-notes – ta-ka-ta-ka

This list definately does not cover all possible combinations but it is a good starting point for working things out. You have to pay attention to any rests in the pattern and put together the phrases you need to get the complete harmonica phrase you are working on. Don´t forget to use a metronom, rule number 9 of Hertzberg´s Rules of Practice.

Let me know if you have any questions on this and if it has been helpful to you. Stay in touch by subscribing to my newsletter below.

Harp on!

Maintenance for Clean Harmonicas

Maintenance may not be at the top of your mind as a harmonica player but it is something we all have to deal with. I bet that at least once you have experienced a stuck reed in one of your harp. Quite likely the reed was stuck either by a foreign object that came with your saliva. Sugar residue can also build up if your mouth is not clean when you play. In this article I will give you a few pointers on how to keep your harmonicas clean enough to avoid these mishaps.

Preventive maintenance

The first thing you should do is make sure that your mouth is as clean as possible before you start playing. What does not come into your harmonica will not have to be cleaned out. The best process is of course to always brush your teeth before playing. Although most people understand this, it is not always practical or feasible. Some people will flat out ignore this advice. I have to admit that I don’t always do this myself unfortunately. The second best thing you can do is to rinse your mouth with water before playing. I try to keep this as my minimum standard and it works quite well. Even if you don’t brush your teeth or rinse your mouth with water there are a few things you can keep in mind, especially during a jam session.

  • Don’t eat peanuts or chips/crips during a jam session, gig or practice session
  • Don’t drink sugary beverages
  • Drink water

When you have finished playing, don´t forget to tap the harmonica lightly to remove any moisture. To keep moisture build up to a minimum I have found that warming the harmonica in your hand before playing helps.

All of the above will help make sure that foreign objects don’t make it into your harps.

Simple cleaning

Even with the best preparations and intentions once in a while your will end up with a harmonica in need of some maintenance. The first thing you may notice is build-up of crud in the holes. See picture below.

Harmonica in need of maintenance.

The first sign you need to clean your harmonica.

To handle this I recommed tootpicks, gap toothbrush or a reed lifter tool. It is very easy to gently clean off the crud from the harmonica.

tools for simple maintenance

Reed lifter, tooth picks and gap toothbrush

Cleaning like this will keep your harmonica in good order for quite some time. If a reed seem to get stuck you can use a tooth pick or the reed lifter tool to gently put it in motion. If these actions don’t do the trick you may have to do some more cleaning.

Cleaning a disassembled harmonica

When you take a harmonica apart you get a whole lot more options for cleaning. Most likely you will find that both the reed plate and the comb are dirty.

Comb in need of maintenance

Dirty comb

reed plate in need of maintenance

Dirty reed plate

The first step to cleaning here is to use a soft toothbursh. Make sure you are not pressing too hard and brush in alignment with the reeds. You can also use water or some form of mild cleaning fluid on the reed plate. Make sure to wash it off before assemblying the harmonica. Do not use a lot of water on an unsealed wooden comb, the wood will absorb the water. If you are unlucky the wood will swell and warp. Id you have a plastic comb you can use a whole lot more water to clean it.

You might wonder why so much dirt make it in between the reed plate and the comb. It can di so because the reed plate and the comb are not 100% flat so there will be voids. If you buy a high end custom harmonica this will be less of a problem. These harmonicas have a tighter seal because of the flatness of the comb and reed plate. It will however not completely eliminate the problem.

Heavy duty cleaning

To get everything completely clean you need some more heavy duty equipment. I use a ultrasonic cleaner to clean reed plates, cover plates and screws. I do not recommend ultrasonic cleaning for wooden combs. The cleaner uses high frequency vibrations to basically shake the dirt off. It is very effective and can get everything more or less completely clean.

ultrasonic cleaner for maintenance

My ultrasonic cleaner

To make the cleaning even more effective I would recommend a cleaning liquid such as the EM-070 or similar which is normally used to clean dentures. Just make sure to clean it off with water after the ultrasonic cleaning.

Conclusion

As you can see there are many levels to maintenance and doesn’t have to be a bother. With a few tools you can come a long way. Let me know if you have any questions and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter below.

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 blues harp exercise you can do on the harmonica.

Icremental improvement

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.

Blues harp train imitation

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. For dramatic effect people often start and finish with a train whistle. You get this 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. 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 relaxation in your posture and your embouchure will greatly improve your tone.

My wake up call

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. 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. Also 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. I tell them that this is something they can keep practicing for the rest of their lives.

Another benefit

A cool thing with the train imitation exercise is that it is actually an early blues harp song in itslef. You just need to 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 small 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.

Going outside blues harmonica

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. Joe has a lot of other great study material on the site.

Sometimes it is good to step outside of your comfort zone to find new challenges and grow as an individual. For sure cajun music has made me a better blues player. 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. This will be elaborate more in another 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 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.

Understanding minor blues

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.

Second position challenges in minor blues

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.

Third position

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.

Exploring rhumba

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.

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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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