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!

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.

If you sign up to my mailing list I will send you a coupon giving you a 75% discount for my “Learn to play and improve 12 bar blues harmonica solos” Udemy Course.

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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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Blues Harmonica Solo Course Live on Udemy

Everything moved quicker than I expected my course is already live on Udemy. I am very excited about this.

The course is for beginnig and intermediate harmonica players who want to improve their soloing skills. The course covers everything for simple 12 bar blues solo strategies up to startegies that include supporting the chord progression, dynamics, solo structure and creating excitement. This is what you need to take your solos to the next level and really integrate what you play with the music.

If you want to become better at playing blues harmonica solos, this is the course for you.

You will find the “Learn to play and improve 12 bar blues harmonica solos” course here.

If you sign up to my mailing list I will send you a coupon giving you a 75% discount valid until August 31st 2017.

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Working on blues harmonica course for Udemy

Forr the last month I have been working on a course to publish on Udemy. The reason I have chosen to go with Udemy is their great support in putting together courses. Now I have been able to focus on the material I want to tech rather than designing web pages. Hopefully everything will be up and running within a few weeks. I am very excited about this!

Harp on!

Friday night session at HMW 2016

After the instructor concerts Friday night at HMW 2016, there was a short session with a great band. I hadn’t really planned to play anything but I couldn’t resist playing with such a great band. I was very happy afterwards. Getting practice as a blues harp player is very important. Earlier in the week I had played in Joe Filisko’s class.

The band:

Guitar: Kai Strauss
Bass: Thomas “Gaz” Brodbeck
Piano: Christian Rannenberg
Drums: Bernhard Egger

Become a better blues harp player

If you ever get the chance to play on stage with professionals I suggest you take it! The experience will make you a better blues harp player. Just know that the first couple of times it will be quite intimadating. However this is how all great performers start. You have to practice to become good. To make things less intimadating I suggest you pick an occasion where you are surrounded by friends. Also make sure that you are prepared. Just knowing the song you are going to play is not enough. You need to prepare for the situation as well.

Joe Filisko’s has said:

If somebody asks you to play. Always say ‘Yes’ but always be prepared.

I think this a good quote to keep in mind. You never know when a good opportunity presents itself. If you are not prepared when it does, you will kick yourself later. As you become more familiar with the situation you will need less preparation. On this occasion for example I hadn’t planned to play. The opportunity however was too good to pass up.

Playing in class at HMW 2016

In order to grow as blues harmonica players we need feedback. We cannot develop in a vaccum. At HMW 2016 I took the opportunity to play in Joe Filisko’s class. It is always a challenge to play in front of so many great players but well worth it. I got some great feedback so now I know what to work on.

Study song

The song I played is my own version of a Sonny Terry tribute based on Joe´s study song “Chasin´ lost Sonny”. The study material is a collection of phrases often played by Sonny Terry. It is a great piece for anyone interested in Sonny Terry´s playing style. The challenge is to catch the sound of Sonny Terry and to not be too predictable.

Blues harmonica heaven

If you don´t know about Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen you really need to check it out. I have been coming to the event for many years and it keeps getting better. It is a great opportunity to develop you blues harmonica skills and meet great people. Every day is packed with hours of workshops and in the evening there are concerts and jam sessions. I have taken the opportunity to play on stage a couple of times. I have also played in class on a couple of occasions. You choose yourself how much effort you put in the classes vs the bar.

A lot of the participants come back year after year. I have made many great friends in Trossingen. The only thing we hate is that every fourth year the event is replaced by the World Hamronica Festival. WHF may be even bigger but for us harmonica nuts it is simply an interuption. In 2017 the WHF will take place instead of HMW but I will be back in 2018. Maybe I will meet you there? If you plan to come, let me know!