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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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