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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Start Tounge Blocking

One of the most infected debate in the harmonica world is the pucker vs tounge blocking debate that has been going on for ever. This article is not meant as fuel for that debate although I am a tounge blocking advocate since a number of years. What I would like to do with this articel is giving you a good foundation start tounge blocking for single notes. I find that some people stay with puckering just because they don’t know how to change.

Defining tounge blocking

First of, let’s just define what tounge blocking is. It is the embouchure where you place your mouth over three or four holes on the harmonica and then use your tounge to block the holes you don’t want to play. What you end up with is one (or more) holes that gets all the air throught the corner of your mouth. You can actually play out of both corners for the octave split but let’s save that for later.

First, no air

To get a good a start tounge blocking you need to be able to control your tounge. This is quite hard for most people as we use our tounges sub-consiously every day. I find that the best way is to start by blocking all the holes at once so that no sound comes out at all. It may sound counter intuitive but it is actually a very useful technique as a base for more advanced techniques. To effectively block all holes you will notice that the tip of the tounge is not wide enough, point the tip slightly downwards and let the top of the tip block instead.

Start tounge blocking, full block demonstration

Block all holes with the top of the front part of the tounge.

Slight leftwards slide

The next step is to open the air flow for one hole. You do this by ever so slightly slide your tounge to the left. This will open up a hole in the right corner of your mouth that will allow air to pass through one of the holes. Don’t worry too much if you get more than one hole to begin with but spend some time finding the sweet spot where you only get one hole. Basically that is it, this is how you start tounge blocking. The sound you hear should be unobstructed and relaxed, no bend in the pitch a full tone. Use the process I outlined before on how to learn new techniques.

Start tounge blocking, tounge position demonstration

Slide the tounge to the left to allow air to pass through.

Common problems

Here are a few problems people run into and how to remedy them

Unable to block all holes

You are probably using too much of the tip of the tounge, curve your toung downwards a bit more to use more of the top of the tounge. It is also a good idea to tilt the harmonica slightly downwards to more easily meet the top of your tounge. You may also be opening your mouth too wide, try narrowing it a bit to cover three or four holes. No more now.

Harmonica tilted against the cheek

In this case you are likely blocking with the side of your tounge, focus on holding the harmonica directly in front of your mouth no tilt. It is also likely that you have tried compensating for not curving your tounge downwards enough by tilting the harmonica. Go back to practicing the full block until you can hold the harmonica with no tilt.

Unable to control the tounge

If you feel that you are unable to control the tounge it is probably because you have no visual cues to build a picture of what is going on. In this case practice blocking all holes without the harmonica standing in front of a mirror and then sliding your tounge to the left. Seeing what you are doing will help you control your tounge and understanding how it should feel.You can also get the Filisko Tounge Block Trainer to get a more complete picture of what is happening.

Put it all together

Once you start tounge blocking I would recommend you to try to play as much as possible with this embouchure. You may need to relearn some songs you have played before but I think it is well worth the effort.

Harmonica Techniques – How to Learn

Extending your riff vocabulary and adding more texture to your playing is very important as a new player. Hower what might even be more important is knowing how to learn new harmonica techniques and riffs. In this article I will take you through a simple step by step process that will show you how to learn in the most efficient way. With this knowledge you will be able to progress much faster and also retain more of what you learn. The process is also useful outside blues harmonica practice, a nice little bonus.

How to learn with chunking

At the core of learning advanced harmonica techniques and concepts is a concept known as chunking. Basically it is the process of binding small pieces of knowledge into a new automatic movement or piece of knowledge. The reason this is important is that our short term working memory has limited space. Think of it as a box with around seven compartments and each compartment can fit one chunk.

How advanced a chunk is doesn’t matter, one chunk takes up one compartment. This is why new techniques require a lot of effort before they become second nature. To do a tounge slap before it is a chunk is individual movement you make is a chunk of its own. Your working memory is filled up quickly. I learned about chunking in the Coursera course “Learning how to learn” which covers quite a bit of other concepts as well. A very interesting course.

Breakdown of the how to learn harmonica techniques process

When explaining the process I will use the 3-hole block technique as an example (holes 6 and 4 played simulatenously while hole 5 is blocked). It is a technique I had to put a lot of effort into learning when I was studying Jerry’s Cajun Blues.

Get a mental image of the goal

In order to know if you have succeeded with what you are trying to learn you need a mental image to compare against. In the case of the 3-hole block I made sure I knew what it was supposed to sound like. You either do this by listening to an instructor, a recording or you make the sound yourself on the harmonica. Since I couldn’t do the technique properly to begin with I had to cheat a little bit. I basically covered the holes around the three holes I was working on with my fingers and used my tounge for the middle hole. If you want to, you can use scotch tape to block off the any unwanted holes.

Cheating is definately OK in this step as you are only aiming to hear what the finished product should sound like. This step is a high level step where you focus on the end result and not how it is achieved.

Break down the technique

Now we go from a high level perspective to a very practical low level perspective. Now we start thinking about how we can achieve the mental goal image, in this case the sound. We already know that we want to plat holes 6 and 4 at the same time while hole 5 is silent. We don’t want any sound from holes 1-3 or 7-10 either. With a little bit of thinking we can figure out that the opening in our mouth need to be small enough to only cover holes 4, 5 and 6. Our tounge needs to be thin enough to only cover hole 5. When we know this theoretically we need to transfer this to the harmonica.

Transfer mental image to the real world

A great way to do this is by using the Filisko Tounge Block Trainer in this case. It allows us to see what is happening with our embouchure. When it looks right using the TBT we make a mental note of how it feels. The next step is to tranfer this feeling when using the harmonica instead of the TBT. When it feels right we try breathing and check the sound against the mental image we formed before. If it does not sound right we make adjustements to try to replicate the sound we are after. As soon as it sounds right it is time to make a new mental note of how everything feels.

TBT - Tool for learning harmonica techniques

Tounge Block Trainer

Practice

There is now getting aroudn making repetitions to learning harmonica techniques. When it sounds right we practice over and over until it sticks. This is where most people stop. Unfortunately we are no where near finished. Even though praticing the technique in isolation is an important part of the process it is not enough. We have to know how to get to the position.

Setting harmonica techniques in context

One of the most important part of the process is getting context into the mix. A technique is never used in isolation. We never have unlimited time setting everything up and then play repeatidly. We are always coming from somwhere and we are always going somewhere. This means that we always have to practice moving into and out of the harmonica techniques. The beat way to do this is to put the technique we practice into a riff. In the song I was practicing I needed to move from a 7-4 split (4-hole split) to a 6-4 split (3-split). This became my riff.

More practice

When the riff sound right it is time to practice that as a riff or even as an individual technique. The embouchure and technique has become a chunk and moving between from the 7-4 split to the 6-4 split is the new chunk to form. The mental image also needs to be adjusted to take this movement into account. To make this practice even more effective we can add a second riff here where we move into the technique from another starting point. In my case this became another part of the song where I needed to move from 6-3 split exhale to 6-4 split inhale. Another chuck was practiced and formed. The brain then takes advantage of two similar chunks being formed in making the neural pathways as efficient as possible.

Widening the context

The next step is sort of obvious, set the technique in a wider context. When we get a short riff working we expand it. For me it was playing 4 bars instead of one of the song. When the 4 bars worked smoothly I then moved on to playing a whole chorus. All the time focusing on being as close as possible to the sound of the technique.

Spaced repetition

In the sections above where practice is mentioned, spaced repetition is an imortant concept. What it means is that you need to practice the same thing on separate occasions. The process of practicing and then resting allows your brain to make form the best neural pathways. You may even find that you can do the new technique better after you have had a pause for a few days. It is because your brain has optimised the neural network and pruned then unnecessary parts during sleep. To make this even more efficient it is a good idea to end practice on a positive note. Let the last repetition be a good one! This is part of the Hertzberg’s Rules of Practice.

The process in practice

Reading all of this may have you questioning if it is worth it. It may sound like a lot of work to learn new harmonica techniques. I know it sounds like a lot of work but no progress is for free. Also, as soon as this becomes a part of your practice strategy you will not eevn think about doing it. It will all come very natural to you. New techniques will be added to your repetoire as a part of your normal practice routine.

Let me know how this works out for you. If you have other tips or insights I would be very interested to hear about them. If you already ahven’t signed up to the newsletter you can do so below.

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Blues Harmonica Music Theory

Last I touched upon some arguments about music theory. This week I will give you a quick primer of the blues harmonica music theory you need to know to become an even better player. As you will see it is not very complicated and the benefits are well worth it.

Structure and chords of the 12 bar blues

The most common form of accompaniment you will come across when playing blues is the 12 bar blues. The picture shows the 12 bar blues outline with roman numerals and writing it like this means it can be used in any key.

Blues Harmonica Music Theory 12 bar blues outline

12 bar blues outline in roman numerals

  • I is the tonic chord of the key, based on the first note of the scale
  • IV is the sub-dominant chord of the key, based on the fourth note of the scale
  • V is the dominant chord of the key based on the fifth note of the scale

More on chords

A chord is two or more tones played together taken from a scale and the chords in a major key are based on the tones of the major diatonic scale. A G-chord is made up of notes from the G-major scale, a C-chord is made up of notes from the C-major scale and a D-chord is made up of notes from the D-major scale. What is often referred to as a chord is the first, third and fifth note of the scale played together. Stacking every second not of the scale is usually how it’s done (we won’t dive super deep into this). There is one exception however and that is that the seventh note of the scale i flattened when it is included in a chord. This makes the chord sound more interesting.

For the key of G (second position on a C harmonica) these are the chords:

  • I is G (found on a holes 1-3 draw on a C-harmonica)
  • IV is C (found on a holes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 exhale on a C-harmonica)
  • V is D (not found as a complete chord on a C-harmonica, root note on 1, 4, 8)

Chord tones

To be able to use the knowledge of the chords further, it is a good idea to know where to find the chord tones on the harmonica. This blues harmonica music theory knowledge is second position specific and carries over when you change key as you then change the harmonica as well to stay in second position. Knowing the chord tones is especially important for the V-chord as few of the chord tones are in the blues scale (covered below). For each chord the cord tones are (key of G, although best to think of them as root, third, fifth and flat seventh):

  • I-chord G, B, D, F (root, third, fifth and flat seventh)
  • IV-chord C, E, G, Bb
  • V-chord D, F#, A, C

For the I-chord (read about harmonica tabs here):

  • G (root note) 2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • B (third) 3, 7, (10+’)
  • D (fifth) 1, 4, 8
  • F (flat seventh) 2”, 5, 9

For the IV-chord:

  • C 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+
  • E 2+, 5+, 8+
  • G 2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • Bb 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)

For the V-chord:

  • D 1, 4, 8
  • F# 2′, (5+o (overblow)), (9+’)
  • A 3”, 6, 10
  • C 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

The notes on parenthesis are overblows and blow bends and if you do not master those techniques just ignore them.

Blues scale

The blues scale is probably the most common piece of practical blues harmonica music theory that people do learn. It gives a safe path to a bluesy sound over the 12-bar blues. The blues scale is based on the I-chord and the minor pentatonic scale connected to that chord. In addition to that scale the minor fifth is added which is a note that creates a lot of tension. It is known as tritone or “the Devil’s Interval”. The blues scale is made up of the following scale degrees:

Root, minor third, fourth, minor fifth, fifth, minor seventh

or

R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7

On the harmonica this translates to:

1+, 1′, 1, 2”, 2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+, (6′, 6,) 7+, 8, 9, 9+’, 9+, 10+”, 10+
4, b5, 5, b7, R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, R, (b2, 2,) 4, 5, b7, R, b3, 4

Note: The holes and tones in parentesis are often added to make the scale more flowing as the b3 and b5 are missing between holes 6 and 9. This adds a little extra bluesiness to this range.

To make it a little bit more readable, here is the scale between holes 2 and 6.

2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+
R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, R

Blue notes

Blue notes are notes that create nice bluesy tension towards the chord. These are b3, b5 and b7. The blues scale contain these notes for the I-chord but also knowing them for the IV-chord and V-chord gives you nice option to play over those chords.

For the I-chord:

  • b3 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)
  • b5 1′, 4′
  • b7 2”, 5, 9

For the IV-chord:

  • b3 8+’
  • b5 2′, (5+o (overblow)), (9+’)
  • b7 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)

For the V-chord:

  • b3 2”, 5′, 9
  • b5 3”’, 6′
  • b7 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

Benefits of blues harmonica music theory for soloing

Playing solos that completely stay within is absolutely fine but using chord tones and blue notes to follow the chords and mark chord changes for example can really create awesome solos. Especially how you handle to V-chord can set you apart from the rest of the pack. Here knowing the chord tones is cruical.

Benefits of blues harmonica music theory for accompaniment playing

When playing accompaniment playing you have a few options on what to play. However you chose to play it is your job to play something that is musically appropriate. You can for example play a bass line together with the bass player and then you will definately need to know where the chord tones are. Another option is to create tension against the chords and then you need to use blue notes and stay away from the chord tones. However you chose to play, know the theory will help you.

Putting it to use

I hope I have convinced you that learning blues harmonica music theory is a good thing and you want to make use of it. What you need to do now is take each of the concepts in this article, comit it to memory and start using it. The best way to do this is to concentrate on one single thing and have that as a focus when practicing playing solos for example. If you want to get to know the chord tones then play a lot of solos just using chord tones, when that starts becoming natural start using a few blue notes and so on. Before you know it this will become second nature.

Should you want to learn more general music theory I can recommend “Music Theory for Dummies” as a good starting point or you can take music theory classes on Skillshare (take advantage of the Premium membership offer).

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Music Theory – Pros and Cons

Music theory may not be at the top of your mind when you start playing blues harmonica. Some people even argue that knowing theory is bad. When I started playing I didn’t study any theory at all but during the last couple of years I have discovered the benefits. In this article I give you some counter arguments to arguments against knowing music theory.

Arguments against music theory

I have come across a few arguments against music theory for blues haromica players and I just want to make a few comments.

The masters got by without knowing theory.

Although it might be true that the masters of the early and mid 20th century were not classically trained in music theory, they certainly had a good intuitive grasp of it. They were learning from each other and other musicians and learned what sounded good. They learned it in practice. Most of us don’t spend as much time practicing and gigging as many of the early masters did. Learning theory is a way for us to leapfrog some of the trial and error.

I just play by ear.

Playing by ear is great and training your ears is a great thing. However theory will not hurt your by ear playing, it will just increase your understanding.

I don’t want to know music theory.

This argument I have the most difficulty understanding. I think it comes from a view that learning to play purely by ear is more noble and that music theory will hamper creativity. I would say that knowing theory increases creativity. You have to know the rules before you can break them with good effect.

It will stop me from being creative.

Actually I would say that knowing more allows you to be more creative. It allows you to utilize riffs and musical passages that you never would have thought of if the theoretical connections hadn’t been there.

Music theory pros

Understanding more of what you do is always a benefit in my opinion. More knowledge changes how we see things and we often end up enjoying it more. We also get a new vocabualry that we can use when communicating with other musicians. It is definately beneficial to be able to communicate with a musicians vocabulary in a open stage situation or if you gig with somebody you normally don’t play with.

Music theory cons

I don’t really see any cons with knowing a bit of theory. The only thing might be that when you pratice to internalize it you might feel like you have taken a step back. Don’t worry, it is just temporary.

What next?

Next week I will continue this topic and outline the few things you need to know as a blues harmonica player. You will see that it is not all that much and not very complicated. I will also tell you more about the benfits of knowing a little bit of music theory. Sign up below so that you don’t miss when that article comes out!

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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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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 Gear or More Practice?

If you are anything like me I guess you are a harmonica gear head, most harmonica players are. Part of the fun of any hobby is to have a reason to buy new gear. No harm in that at all. There is however harm when buying harmonica gear becomes the main reason for the hobby. It is also a problem when we start blaming our faults as harmonica players on our gear. In this article I give my thoughts on what is essential gear and what improvements come best from practice (with or without harmonica). Not all our shortcommings can be fixed with gear, very few actually I would say. I will not mention custom and semi-custom harmonicas here, they deserve their own discussion.

Essential harmonica gear

First, a look at what I consider essential harmonica gear. These are things that help you become a better harmonica player and help you practice. Maybe some people will see this list as very boring and maybe it is. However essentials are rarely very exciting.

Metronome

The metronome is what keeps us honest when we practice, it is very hard to ignore being off the beat when the metronome is running. It is also a very good tool for practicing in the extremes, either really slowly or faster than we normally can handle. You can either use a stand alone device or a smart phone app.

Portable recording device

Critical listening while we play is extremely hard. Chances are that you are not hearing your mistakes, unless they are big, while you play. The ability to record and review afterwards is essential to pinpointing what you need to work on. I have been using Zoom Q3, which also records video, since a couple of years ago. I don’t think it is available anymore but I have heard god things about the Tascam DR-40 and Zoom H1 looks like a good option. If you have a smart phone it can likely work just as well.

Harmonica gear zoom Q3

My Zoom Q3

Jam tracks

Maybe not so much gear but jam tracks in different grooves, tempos, intstrumentations, etc is a great way to prepare for playing with other musicians. There are actually two ways to go about getting jam tracks. You can either buy individual or collections of jam tracks or you can invest in a computer program like “Band in a box” that can generate whatever kind of music you need. It can even create solos in the styles of famous artists. Quite an interesting tool, also useful for songwriters and home studio geeks.

Tounge block trainer

Learning the tounge block embouchure can be quite challenging due to the fact that we cannot see what goes on inside our mouths. The tounge block trainer created by Joe Filisko allows us to see what we are doing with our tounge and that really makes things a lot easier. You find the TBT here, where there also are instructions for how you make one yourself.

Service tools

A small set of tools with screwdrivers and tools for simple harmonica maintenance is quite handy. It is a good thing to know how to maintain your harmonicas yourself. Hohner has a nice set of tools with maybe more tools than you need at first. I have written about harmonica maintenance for cleaning in an earlier post.

Harmonica gear that can wait

Unfortunately this is probably the category most people are most interest in. A lot of the gear I got first definately comes from this category so, do what I say not what I do.

Amplifier

Unless you play regularly on stage you probable don’t need an amplifier. However if you do you a small 5W tube amplifier is probably what you need. It will be loud enough for rehersals and it can be amplified through the PA for larger venues. The amp will both be a way of being heard and a way of shaping your amplified sound. Before buying one you need to figure out what you need and what kind of sound you want. There is a big market for vintage amplifiers on eBay which can cost quite a lot. There are also a bunch of modern brands that specialise in harmonica amplifiers. Sonny Jr and Lone Wolf are two well known companies. I have a Gibson Kalamazoo Amp from the 60’s which I am very happy with but it did need some attention before being playable.

One thing that you should consider before spending a lot of money on an amp is that it will make everything you play louder. If what you put into the amp sounds band, what comes out will also sound bad, only louder.

Harmonica Gear - Kalamazoo Amp

My Kalamazoo.

Bullet microphone

If you buy an amp you will also need a microphone and the bullet style is the prefered style for many players. The same goes for mics as for amps, either you buy a vintage mic or a modern version from somebody who builds new mics often from vintage parts. BlowsMeAway Productions has both modern versions and custom wooden mics with vintage cartridges. I have the Bulletinin which I am very happy with.

Effect pedals

Effect pedals is a category I am not very interested in myslef actually. I have never come to grips with them. I would suggest that you hold off buying pedals until you know what you want from them. They can be great additions if you are looking for a specific sound that you are unable to create otherwise. I would also consider pedals icing on the cake and not something that will help your overall playing, if you don’t sound good acoustically pedals are not likely going to help you. Lone Wolf has a bunch of different pedals you can check out. To me delay and reverb pedals seem like a good place to start looking if you are experimenting with your sound.

The benefits of practice over harmonica gear

If you look back at the gear I list as essential you may notice that with the exception of the tool kit everything are practicing tools. The reason I think that practice is so much more valuable is that you will always take it with you. Sometimes you will not have access to your gear and sometimes you may want to play 100% acoustically. Even at those times when you have access to all your harmonica gear and all the best equipment in the world, what you have practiced will still shine through. There is no tool in a live situation that will fix bad timing or bad tone. They are such corner stones in every great players arsenal that they deserve to be put first at al times.

If you ever have to choose between new gear and more practice, I urge you to go for more practice. Hold off with the harmonica gear until you really need it. You will be glad you did. I am curious to hear any thoughts on this.

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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.