Stage Debut as a Harmonica Player

At one point or another in your musical career you will probably want to make your harmonica performance stage debut. Even if you are not aiming to become a professional player it is something I recommend. It can be quite a scary step to take but if you follow my little guide it will go a lot smoother.

Where to make your stage debut

First of all, in this guide I will focus on you making your stage debut as an individual. Doing it as part of a band is a whole other matter. The places you should look for should advertise either a jam or an open stage session. In these cases you will normally find a house band that provide the backup and a jam leader or keaper of the list that plan who goes on stage.

Another type of jam might be the informal jam sessions that sometimes happen in pubs and bars. In that case there is probably not a house band but the jam leader may play backup on guitar for example. These informal jams are good practice but do not really give give stage experience. There may not even be an audience.

To find a venue with a jam session or open stage you can either ask more experienced players or search online. If you live in a small town you may have to travel a bit.

Small stage for stage debut

When making you stage debut the stage doesn’t have to be huge.

Type of audience

Depending on the venue you will encounter different types of audience. It might be tempting to choose to play for an audience that is less experienced in hearing harmonica players but I think that is a bad idea. A more knowleadgable audience have probably heard lots of great players before but they are also more likely to appreciate what you do.

Consider three scenarios, you totally make a mess of everything, you make an OK performance or you make a spectacular performance. If the audience is not really interested in music and prefer to drink rather than listen they may boo you of stage in the the first case and probably not pay much asstion to you in the two other cases. However if it is a very knowledgable audience they will love you if you make a spectacular performance, they will appriciate you if you make an OK performance and they will give you points for trying in you mess it up. All in all I think a more knowledgable audience is the better option.

This type of audience is most likely found in blues clubs and venues with well established jam and open stage sessions. Workshops where musicians come to learn is another option for this type of sessions. I chose to do my stage debut at the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen. An event with some of the best teachers in the world and an audience of some of the best amateur, semi-pro and professional harmonica players in Europe (actually quite a few from outside Europe as well). See how I did below.

What to play

When you plan what you are going to play you are probably best off if you chose a song that is quite well known. This maximizes the chance that the band knows the song and plays it the way you expect. If it is an instrumental or you sing yourself you can choose the key quite freely but if you want the house band vocalist to sing you have to be prepared to adapt to his or her vocal range. You don’t wan to end up in a situation where you can’t play simply because you couldn’t agree on a key with the band. If you want to play a semi improvised instrumental you should probably stay as close to a standard 12 bar blues or one of the more common varations.

Communicating with the band

Once you know what to play you have to figure out what to tell the band. In this case less information is usually better. They must know the key, the groove and if the song doesn’t start from the top. It should probably be something like:

  • 12 bar blues, shuffle in E

  • This is “How many more years” in G

  • 12 bar blues, rhumba, in G, meet me on the V-chord

The song I chose for my debut may be stretching it a bit as it has an intro and is a 12 bar blues with two variations used (quick change and ii-V-I change). To make this work I had the intro and the chorus printed out so I could communicate it easily to the band.

Preparations

To be really prepared I recommend that you make your practice realistic. What I mean by this is that you practice the song as if the band was there. This means that you stand up, tell the band what they need to know, count off and so on. Everything you need to do on stage you do in practice. The reason for doing this is that when the pressure is on we default to what we are used to. If you are used to doing everything already you stand a better chance of doing things correctly on stage. If you miss some detail in your preparations you may experience the same thing I experienced in a gig some time ago. I didn’t prepare for the microphone setup so at the gig it didn’t work at all. It was a true harmonica rehersal gone bad.

One thing you can do if you plan to attend a regular jam session is visit it as part of the audience. This will give you a lot of information on how things are run. It is better to know beforehand to take the pressure off a little bit.

Arriving at the jam

When you arrive at the jam or open stage take a look around to find the jam leader or keeper of the list. Talk to him or her and say what you want to do. If they ask you about your experience level just be honest, it is always appriciated. When you have you place on the list, take a seat and make sure you can hear when you are called. Once on stage, do as you prepared and have fun. Don’t forget the audience, they are there to listen to you.

After your stage debut I suggest you hang around for a while. This is a great time to meet new friends and get feedback from other musicians. Who knows, maybe you find a new band or duo partner at the session. You will certainly make new friends.

Time to act

Now you know a little bit more about what goes into making your stage debut. Do you feel up for it? I may be a bit scary but I can promise that it is well worth it. Afterwards you will feel great and you will have grown as a musician and a human being. So get to it, start looking for the right session for you!

V-IV-I Blues Harmonica Riffs

Building a solid riff bank give you lots of options as a harmonica player and improviser. The third line in the standard 12 bar blues is known as the V-IV-I, this part is busier than the other parts when it comes to the chords. It also contains the V-chord which can trip people up. Knowing a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs can go a long way. In this article I present a few options you may consider that go beyond the beginner riffs I have presented before.

Why learn specific V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs?

As the third line changes chords more often than the first two lines and contains the V-chord it is a bit trickier to navigate. I have previously written about the V-chord as a place where you can show off your skills. Learning a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs is a great way of adding to your improvisation skills. If you combine them with a bit of blues harmonica theory knowledge you are in great shape. Let’s look at a few riffs to add your aresenal.

Tounge switching riff

First off we have a tounge switch based riff that mostly uses the tonic of the V and the IV, simple but effective. The tounge switch also adds an element of suprise that the listener will appriciate.

Tounge switch based V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Tounge switch based riff.

Triplet based riff

This riff I really like since it has a triplet feel, octaves and approches the higher ocatve of the instrument. All this sets it apart from many other V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs. I try to use this quite a bit myself. Notice that is starts one beat before the V-chord.

Triplet and octave based V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Triplet and octave based riff.

Chord tone riff

This riff is heavy on chord tones and takes advantage of the notes not normally played when playing the blues scale. It will freshen up the listeners ear.

Chord tone V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Chord tone based riff.

Descending riff

The final riff is a descending riff that also hints at the chord tones of the V-chord. I like the sound of a riff that start quite high up and works its way to the tonic of the I-chord.

Descending V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Descending riff

Applying the riffs

In order to work these riffs into your riff bank you should pick them up one by one. Make a decision to use one of them for all your improv for a while until it has really stuck in your head. That way you will make it permeanent. Then you go on to the next one. Having 3-5 V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs that are not the most common ones will make a big difference for how original you sound. Let me know how these riffs turn out for you!

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Learn from Great YouTube Videos

When I started playing harmonica it was really a challenge to find any information on how to play. It was a big job simply finding any information and then I had to gamble on it being good. Today we sort of have the opposite problem, there is so much information out there that it can be a challenge finding the right information for you. With this page I try to fill a place in cyber space and in this article I have collected a number of helpful YouTube videos. As you will find these are not all the “usual suspects” for blues harmonica, I have tried to broaden the horizon a little bit.

Learning to swing

Aimee Nolte is a jazz musician and teacher who has a bunch of interesting YouTube videos. The first one I ran into was on the topic of swinging. I think there is a lot of things blues players can take from this video.

Improving rhythm

Let’s be honest, everybody probably need to work on their rhythm. I know I have to and that is why I am learning to play rhythm guitar and cajon. This video by Adam Neely gives you a way to improve your rhythm by connecting to your ability to speak. Not a bad idea at all.

A bit of music theory

As you might know I am a big fan of learning at least a little bit of music theory. The circle of fifths is one part of music theory that can open a lot of doors. It is a tool for song writers and musicians and teaches you about relationships between keys in music. This video by Mark Newman takes you on a deep dive of the usage of the circle of fifths.

Effective practice

Part of what I try to communicate with Blues Harmonica Kaizen is how to practice effectively and to learn new with joy. This TedEd video teaches a lot of what I have come to understand about learning and practice. A real gem among YouTube videos.

Your favorit YouTube videos?

If you have any other favorite videos or hidden gems I would love to hear about them. Drop me an e-mail or comment below!

Improvise with more than riffs

Being able to improvise is a highly sought after skill among musicians. Some blues harmonica players even regard it so highly that they don’t want to learn music theory. I have noticed that the focus on riffs sometimes mean that other forms of improvisation are overlooked. It is important to understand which tools you have at your disposal when you improvise. In this article I outline some tools you shouldn’t forget.

Chorus forms

David Barret who runs BluesHarmonica.com and who has systemitized blues instruction for a long time teaches chorus forms. They are basically patterns for how you repeat riffs in a chorus. By understanding how they work you shift your focus from finding a new riff to play to thinking about if you should repeat what you just played or play something new. Chorus forms also make it easier for the listener to follow your improvisation.

Note presentation

If you think that you might repeat yourself too much (listeners often want more repetition than you might think) you should consider how you present the notes you play. Always playing notes the same way will eventually become boring. Switch how you present the notes either between riffs, between choruses or from start to finish in your solo. Try to use clean notes, dirty notes, chords, tounge slaps, pull slaps, octaves, fake octaves, partial chords etc to keep your listeners intreseted. If you worry about repeating yourself to much then changing how you present notes when you repeat a riff might make yourself feel a little bit more at ease.

Dynamics

Dynamics is probably the most underrated and perhaps misunderstood musical tool. By changing the dynamics, that is the volume you play at, when you improvise you will envoke much more feelings in your audience. Let’s be honest, this is your most important job as a musician. The book “Let your music sore” by Corky Siegel and Peter Krammer is an excellent book/CD combo that explains this concept brilliantly.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Improvise better

If you start paying attention to these tools you will notice bif improvements when you improvise. If you need more guidance you can either contact me for lessons or take my online course “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Udemy (signup below to get a better deal and the Welcome Package) or Skillshare (two free Premium months through the link) whichever you prefer.

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