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 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.

Benefits of Practicing Harmonica Fast and Slow

When practicing harmonica it is very easy to get too comfortable. When this happens we tend to practice the same things over and over and not challenge yourselves. I find that this is especially true when it comes to tempo. We all seem to have a tempor range which is where we feel most comfortable. For me it is usually between 85 bpm and 110 bpm. If I just start playing something, this is the range I end up in.

The dangers of middle ground

when we end up in this middle ground we seem to fool oursleves that everything is going according to plan. We stop listening to what we are doing and everything sounds right. What is really happening is that we fall back into assuming things are good because we are relaxed. For practice, being relaxed is not always good. We want to practice until we can do something in a relaxed fashion but to get there we need to be challenged.

Practicing harmonica at “very” low tempo

Not everyone knows this but to become really fast, practicing a really low tempo is the key. The reasone for this is that the very low tempo will reveal all errors and you can adress them with full attention. Then when you speed things up it is much easier to keep the precision you are aiming for. This in itself is a very nice reason to practice with the metronome set at a low tempo. It gets even better because when you practice like this you really have to mind the tempo.

At sort of medium to higher tempos you can rush the beat without it becoming apparent. Doing so will retract from the groove but it can be hard to pin point. You just won’t sound as good as you might. When the metronome (part of my essential gear list) is set at 42 bpm there will be lots of space between the swing eigths. You will become painfully aware that you are rushing.

A metronome is a great tool when practicing harmonica

You don’t need an expensive metronome.

Practicing at high tempo

Even though low tempo practice is important to playing fast with precision high tempo practice is still important. The thing I find it helps me the most with is changing my mind’s perspective of what fast is. If I am studying a song that I want to play at 120 bpm, I will start out at very low tempo to get the precision as mentioned above. Then I increase the tempo to get closer to the target. However I often find that I get stuck at somewhere around 110 bpm if the target is 120 bpm.

What I do then is set the metronome or jam track to well above the target tempo. Practicing this fast will make me miss a lot of the riffs and kind of stress me out. The magic happens when I then reset the tempo to 120 bpm. Now the target tempo will feel much slower than before and I can get pass the plateue.

Make it routine

If you make it part of your practice routine to both practice at very low tempos and use high tempos when appropriate you will super charge your practice sessions. Never let a good idea pass you bye when you are practicing harmonica.

Let me know how this works out for you. If you have any other tempo hacks, I am very interested in hearing about them.

I just recently published my “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Skillshare, sign up through this link to get a great deal on the Skillshare membership fee.

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.

 

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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Bass line studies paying off!

My bass lines studies at Bluesharmonica.com are starting to pay off big time! Really pleased with that. If fits well in with my studies of improvisation, I now understand how important the chord tones are to soloing/improvisation and the bass line studies are ingraining the chord tones very well.

I used to think that “blue notes” were the real killers in soloing, how wrong I was. Blue notes are just for spicing things up and without a lot of chord tones around them they will simply just sound akward. I guess I have been playing more chord tones and scale tones than I have realized before but becoming aware of what you are doing is always a good thing.

Another great benefit is that the V-IV-I or specifically the V-chord which has caused me troubles before I now have a plan for. It is a great chord to introduce some new tones and some freshness in the riffs. Quite powerful stuff.

Are you studying bass lines?

Studying bass lines

Part of the LOA program at BluesHarmonica.com is music theory study and accompaniment playing. Right now I am studying how to use various tones in soloing and bass lines for accompaniment playing. I have had quite a few revelations in the process. My mix of chord tones vs other tones have been completely off and now I know why. Also, the V-chord is much less mysterious now.