Playing other Instruments to Improve Harmonica Skills

Most of us have one instrument as our main instrument. At the same time we have limited time for practice so playing other instruments isn’t a priority. Howerver by dedicating a little bit of time to learning and playing other instruments can reall make a big difference. I don’t mean you should aim for becoming a multi-instrumentalist but learn enough to grow as a harmonica player. In this article I list some ways other instruments can aid you.

Guitar

The first instrument that springs to mind is the guitar, I am treating lead guitar and rhythm guitar as one here. Playing guitar will give you another view of the scales you play. If you learn a few blues guitar licks you can use them to increase you vocabulary and learn them even deeper. If you practice rhythm guitar with a metronome you will develop your tightness against the beat which is always a good thing. I have started practicing metal rhythm guitar and my appriciation for those guys is now very high.

Electric guitar is a good choice when playing other instruments

You don’t have to buy an expensive new guitar in you want to start playing other instruments.

Electric guitar or acoustic guitar are both valid options, choose the one that suits you best.

Bass guitar

Playing bass lines is music theory in practice so learning to play bass guitar will make you a better player both on the theoretic side and the groove side. The bass guitar sets the groove together with the drums. If you learn to play a few groovy bass lines on the bass guitar that knowledge will transfer nicely on the harmonica. You can never have too much rhythm or groove!

Drums and percussion instruments

Playing drums is a great way of working on your coordination as well as your sense of rhythm. Even though the type of coordination for drums is different from the coordination needed for harmonica your brain will make use of the new knowledge by strengthening the neural networks you have built up before.

If am entire drum set seems like an excessive investment I can recommend a  cajon instead. It is basically a drum set in the form of a box and it is great fun playing it. You can even do what I did and buy kit to build it yourself. I can promise you that playing an instrument you have built yourself adds to the satisfaction.

Playing other instruments - cajon

Cajon is a great option if percussion is your choice.

Chromatic harmonica

Most people who start out with blues harmonica use a diatonic harmonica. Learning to play the chromatic harmonica may not strike you as learning another instrument but there are enough differences to make it a viable option. The great Swedish harmonica player Mikael Bäckman has written a Master’s Thesis on the subject of using two harmonicas when practicing a lick. He found great advantages of this appraoch when writing his thesis. The title is One Lick Two Harps well worth a read.

Violin or trombone?

Violind and trombone may not be the first thing that spring to mind for a blues player but the fact that you have to create the pitch yourself is very interesting. When we are bending we have to use our ears to determine when we hit the pitch and vilinists and trombonists basically do this for every note they play. These two instruments are great ear training instruments.

Ready to start playing other instruments?

I hope I have convinced you now that playing other instruments is a good idea even if you want to keep the diatonic harmonica as your main focus. It will add to your practice, not just steal your practice time. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.

 

Harmonica Song Covers

Anyone who has ever thought about making harmonica song covers has had to ask the question, “how exact should I be?”. This question is valid both for the harmonica parts as well as the backup. In this article I will discuss a few considerations you will have to make depending on what you are looking for.

Why are you making harmonica song covers?

A good starting point to look at is why you are making covers. Are you expanding your repetoir for your band? Is learnings new songs to challenge yourself your focus? Are you trying to pinpoint exactly what makes a player unique? Is it a tribute? When you understand why you make the covers it is much easier to figure out what to do with the song.

harmonica song covers

Harmonica song covers is a great way of challenging yourself.

A few suggested approaches

If you are studying an artist to learn the style or if you are making a tribute to the artist you should probably aim to capture the essence of the artist. Try to capture the tone of the artist by dialing how the texture of the tone changes in the song. Using the exactly same riffs as in the original is definately a very valid approach. If you choose to improvise instead then make sure that you follow the always do, sometimes do and never do of the artist in question.

If you want to cover a specific song (and the song is the focus) you may also have to consider the other instruments used in the recording. The closer you are , the closer your sound will be. Maybe also lok at the equipment the artist used.

To build repetoir you can freestyle a bit. Most likely you should keep something of what the artist would do in your interpretation. It is up to you and what you feel comfortable with.

Don’t touch this

If you are working with a song that has components that give the song a very unique quality you better keep that in your cover. An example is a song like “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Willimanson II. It should include the backup lick from the band, the chord bombs and be played in second position. The fact that this is a minor blues may tempt some players to go for third position. I think that makes the song lose part of its identity. The fact the SBW forces second position on this song makes it unique.

Just do it!

No matter which I approach you choose for harmonica song covers it is great fun doing it. If you haven’t done it before I think you should start now. Let me know how it works out for you!

Harmonica Practice Backlash

Have you ever experiensed unwanted backlash in your harmonica practice. I am pretty sure you have and you are definately not alone. It is quite natural to want to move forward all the time and when we don’t, we get frustrated. In this articel I will briefly tell you why you sometimes experience backlash and what you can do about it.

When does progress happen?

Even though it is the act of practicing that leads to progress it is actually not during practice that the real improvements take place. What we do when we practice is that we fire the neurons involved in the activity. The act of repeting something will make it permenent in the end. However, just like with exercising your muscles, the real growth happens between the harmonica practice sessions. When we sleep our brains clear out toxins that are the byproduct of our everyday thinking and at the same time the neural pathways we have fired during the day are stengthened. Our new pathways can also be connected to other networks of neural pathways and make use of their stored knowledge. On the flip side of this, pathways that are not fired are pruned after some time. This is why it is so important to be consistent in your practice routines.

Why do we expereince backlash in our harmonica practice?

From time to time we experience that what we are learning seems to go away. It doesn’t matter if you are learning harmonica songs or techniques, it will happen after some time. Basically what is happening is that after a new network has grown for some time and perhaps has been connected to several other networks in our brains that it benefits from it has become a bit of a mess. Our brains then figues out a more efficient way of building up that network or neural pathway. Before the network is rebuilt, it will be torn down. It is exactly during this time that we experience our backlash. Things that seemed easy a few days ago are near impossible to do. This is extremely frustrating.

What to do

Anytime you experience this kind of backlash the best thing you can do is acknowledge that it has happened and power through. When you acknowledge what is happening you will stop yourself from being too frustrated, it is just a part of learning. Continuing to power through will restate that the technique or song is important and that the neural pathways needs to be rebuilt. It will take some time but you will come back stronger than before.

Strategy for Learning Harmonica Songs Faster

Some time ago my first harmonica mentor, Dick Sjöberg, reminded me of a strategy we discussed in one of his workshops. The strategy originally comes from Carlos del Junco and is a way of learning harmonica songs efficiently. Without even thinking about it, I have been using this strategy and it is working great. This article will give you a short introduction to it and how to apply it when you practice.

The short version

The short version of this startegy is, start at the back. Saying it like that doesn’t make it sound all that impressive but bare with me for a minute. If you think about it for a while and consider always learning a song or a phrase from the beginning it is quite obvious that you always get to the part you don’t know at the end. By starting at the back, you always start with the part you know the least.

The slightly expanded version

When using this strategy for learning harmonica songs I have modified or expanded it a little bit. Here is usually how I use it for a song with for example 6 choruses of harmonica tabs.

  1. Is there a hook or very defining riff that is used a lot? If so study that first.
  2. Compare the first and the last chorus. It is quite likely that the first chorus, often referred to as the head, is repeated at the end of the song. The only difference then would be the the end riff. In up-tempo songs chorus 1, 2 and the last two may very well be head variations. If this is the case, the head is what you study first. Whenyou know it, you will have a big part of the songs memorized.
  3. Analyze your chosen chorus. Is there a part that seems especially tricky? If so, practice that in isloation first.
  4. Practice bar 12 in isolation until you have a good grasp on it. Practice bar 11 in isolation until you have a good grasp on it. Put bars 11 and 12 together and practice. Practice bar 10, put together with 11 and 12. Continue bar by bar backwards until you can play the whole chorus with confidence.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the next chorus. Keep going until you know all choruses.
bar 12 of harmonica songs as starting point for learning

Bar 12 is a good starting point when learning a new chorus.

It may seems like a lot of work but a lot of the small steps you are taking are actually very quick. A nice side benefit of this strategy is that for a song with a head that repeats at the end you can  chose to perform it already when you have learned the first and last chorus and then improvise for the other choruses.

Why it makes you learn harmonica songs faster

In my opinion the power in this strategy comes from the fact that you concentrate the mostat the beginning. You will constantly be repeating the part you know the least and move into parts that are more familiar. This also means that if you stumble and start over you instantly repeat the part that gave you troubles. You also avoid the trap of first playing what you know, then realixe that the unfamiliar part is coming up, panicing and having to start over.

Try this out for your next couple of harmonica songs and let me know how it works out for you. If you enjoyed the read please like and share. If you haven’t already sign up for the newsletter below!

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