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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Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs

When starting out with blues harmonica most people start with second position. This is a very forgiving position. It means that we can start playing without knowing many riffs. However having a few beginner blues harmonica riffs can go a long way in building a foundation. Repetition is so much easier if the riffs are first internalized. The best riffs to use sound bluesy and are easy to play. As bending skills take time to develop it is also good if the riffs are free of bends. Bending and advanced techniques can always be incorporated later. In this article I give you 6 different riffs to get you started. I have tried to use as many draw notes as possible as they are the foundation of solid second position blues.

Types of beginner blues harmonica riffs

It is a good idea to learn a few different types of riffs, 1-bar riffs, 2-bar riffs, maybe 4-bar riffs and at least one V-IV-I-turnaround riff (which will be a 4-bar riff). The reason it is a good idea to have riffs of different lengths is that it will make it easier for you to compose a 12-bar blues chorus on the spot. An important skill when playing solos. I find 2-bar riffs to be especially useful. To learn more about the tab format you can read this article.

All of the recordings below are in a shuffle groove. Also note that I have not notated any techniques. Some of the recordings do have tremolos for example but that si up to you to add.

1-bar riff

First we have a simple 1-bar riff with mostly quarter notes. It is in the mid range of the harmonica starting on 4 exhale goes up to 6 exhale and ends up on the 5 draw. 5 draw is the minor seventh of the I chord which is a blue note that creates a bit of tension.

1-bar beginner blues harmonica riffs

1-bar riff

You can listen to how it sounds by blicking below.

Repetition focused 2-bar riff

This 2-bar riff is focused on repetition in the first bar before resolving on the 2 draw. The repetition in the first bar builds anticipation and tension that is then resolved by the long 2 draw.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs rpeptition focus

Repetition focused 2-bar riff

Listen to it here:

Boogie inspired 2-bar riff

This 2-bar riff is inspired by the boogie rhythm bass line you might here in a boogie song. It moves between 2 draw and 6 exhale which both are the tonic of the I-chord.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Boogie Inspired

Boogie inspired 2-bar riff

Listen to it here:

2-bar riff with pick-up note

Starting on the downbeat of beat one all the time will be boring. It is quite common to start on the upbeat of beat four in the preceding bar. This riff is an example of that.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Pickup

2-bar riff with a pick up note

Listen to it here:

2-bar riff with triplet

A triplet is three eight notes played over the duration of a quarter note. It is a good pfrase to have in your vocabulary, that is why I included this riff.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs triplet

2-bar riff with a triplet

Listen to it here:

A note on 2-bar riffs

You might have noticed that the 2-bar beginner blues harmonica riffs above all have a more actice first bar and a more stationary second bar. I would say that this is quite common but not a strict rule. There can be much more movement also in the second bar. Another thing you might notice is that the second bar is not filled, there is space at the end. This is very common and allows for a bit of space between riffs. If both bars were filled up it would be a problem playing a riff with a pick-up note right after a riff with no space at the end.

4-bar V-IV-I-turnaround riff

The V-chord in the 12 bar blues (bar 9) can cause less experienced players some problems. The reason is that the most of the chord tones of the V-chord are not in the blues scale and not as easily accesible on in the lower and middle octave. The notes played over the I and IV-chord may sound less cool over the V-chord. A good way of solving this for beginners is learning a solid V-IV-I-turnaround riff to play over bars 9-12. As you gain more experience you can improvise more here.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs V-IV-I-turnaround

4-bar V-IV-I-tunraround riff

Listen to it here:

V-IV-I-turnaround riffs are in a class of their own. They generally to be kept for bars 9-12 but can also be reused often from songs to songs. At least when toy are starting out. When you become more skilled, bars 9-12 and especially bars 9-10 give you an opportunity to shine.

Applying beginner blues harmonica riffs

When you have a few beginner blues harmonica riffs in your arsenal you have a good foundation for playing. The next step is to try these riffs over different parts of the 12-bar blues to see where you think they work best. Also try to combine them together to create longer riffs. If you have some bending skills you can try incorporating a few draw 3 half step bends instead of hole 3 draw unbent and hole 2 draw whole step bend instead of hole 2 exhale. This can increase the blues horse power of your playing. Also try some ornamental bends and techniques like vibrato, shakes and tounge slaps to spice things up.

I hope you find these riffs helpful and I am very interested to hear your thoughts. Comment below and don’t forget to like and share if you enjoyed the read! Sign up to my newsletter below.

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