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!

Blues Harmonica Positions at a Glance

I often get questions about different positions when playing blues harmonica. Most beginning players learn to play second position, for a very good reason, and never really think about why. To be honest, you probably don’t have to know why but I tend to think that expanding your knowledge is always good. It will make you a better player even if you take pride in playing by ear and play what you feel. Another thing I have noticed is that some of the information being tossed around is sometimes misleading. In this article I will give you my view of why we use different positions. I hope this information will help you chose which harmonicas to buy.

Harmonica theory

First some theory. When playing blues we tend to focus our playing around the blues scale. This because that gives us a very nice sound and keeps us in tune. The blues scale is formed by adding the flatted fifth to the minor pentatonic scale. R b3 4 b5 5 b7. In C this would be C Eb F Gb G Bb. If you play blues in C this is the blues scale no matter what position you play in. I sometimes come across the misconception that the scale is different depending on the position, it is not. However you may not always have access to the complete scale in the position you have chosen. Still, the scale itself stays the same. This takes me to the first reason we might choose a specific position.

Convenience

Choosing a position based on convenience is sort of like a guitar player that doesn’t like playing in F using a capo on the first fret to be able to use the same fingering as in E. Everything becomes easier.

First position

If you map the C blues scale to a C harmonica you will notice that some of the notes are hard to play. I am not including overbends/overblows here since that is quite advanced. Usually not something you master early in your blues harmonica career.

On holes 1-3 you can get R, 4, b5, 5 and b7 on 1+, 2”, 2′, 2 (or 3+) and 3′. So almost a complete scale, only missing the flatted 3rd. On holes 4-7 though you get R, 4 and 5 so you are missing all blue notes. Not a good place to start. On holes 7-10 things are better again and you get R, b3, 4, b5, 5 and b7 for a complete blues scale on 7+, 8+’, 9, 9+’, 9+ and 10+”. However you end up with quite a bit of blow bending which may take you some time to get right. So even if you can play in first position it will present some challenges and it won’t be the the first choice for beginners.

Second position

If instead you map the C blues scale on an F harp, known as second position, you get the root note on hole 2 inhale and you get a complete blues scale easily accessible on holes 2-6. R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7 are found on 2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+. This means that a lot of the notes you need are there “for free”. This is one of the reasons second position is so popular, you can master the blues scale quite quickly in this position. Another good thing is that two of the chords the band plays, the C (the I-chord) and F (the IV-chord), are available on holes 1-3 inhale and exhale. This means that you can switch between playing single tones and chords and be in tune easily with the band. Playing chords give you a BIG sound which is what you are looking for.

If you dig a little deeper you will find that all inhale tones work well with the I-chord and all exhaling tones are chord tones of the IV-chord and also work OK with the I-chord. This means that almost anything you play will sound good over a standard 12-bar blues, at least it will not be out of tune. Also, since many tones are chord tones you can use a lot of two-tone combinations (partial chords) for a nice bluesy sound and texture. The 2-5 split is especially nice since it is the R-b7 combination, very bluesy.

Weakness of second position

There is one thing second position isn’t very suited for and that is playing in minor. You can do it but it puts high demand on your bending skills since the b3 located on 3′ really has to be in tune. If you play it sharp it really sounds awful, this is the reason most players don’t play minor in second position. Also, the chords you play on holes 1-3 are major chords so you cannot use them the same way. It is not true however that you cannot play minor in second position, it is just more difficult and if you play the same as for a major song you will get into trouble.

Third position

Now let’s look at third position really quickly. Probably the second most used position today for blues harmonica. Many people think this position is only for minor blues which is not true, it works very well for major blues as well but it is often used for minor blues because it is easier to play well in minor compared to second position. On holes 1-4 you find the blues scale on 1, 2”, 2, 3”’, 3”, 4+. A lot of bending in this range, Holes 4-7 is easier, 4, 5, 6+, 6′, 6, 7+. In this range you basically get all important tones “for free”.

The b3 which you need to play in key for minor is on 5 so you don’t have to worry to much about playing it sharp. Also holes 4-6 played simultansously is the i-chord (minor chord). Holes 8-10 gives you a partial scale. R, b3, 4, 5, b7 on 8, 9, 9+, 10, 10+. Again very easy to control and the i-chord is on 8-10 inhale. You also have the R-b3 partial chord on 3+-4+, 6+-7+ and 9+-10+. So from  hole 4 and above this is a very easy position even in minor, the low octave takes requires som bending skills.

Now on to another reason to select a certain position.

Tonal range

If you only play second position you will in some keys end up with a tonal range you don’t feel comfortable with. For example, if the band plays in C and you only play second position you either have to use an F-harp which is very high in pitch or a low-F-harp whcih is quite low. Maybe neither is appropriate for the song or maybe you don’t feel comfortable playing thiose harps. Choosing third position instead puts you on a Bb-harmonica instead and all of a sudden you are playing a mid-range harmonica instead.

Next reason…

The feel

Depending on how the blues scales is laid out on the harmonica in different positions and which techniques are available, the positions have different feels. For example, third position is often said to be a bit darker than second position. One of the reasons for this is that the b3 is easier to play right in pitch emphasising the minor quality. Fifth position also sounds quite dark with the root note on 2+.

Expanding your lick vocabulary

When working with other positions than second you will learn new licks that will be useful also in second position. For example when you play over the IV-chord in seconds position you can use any first position lick you have learned. When you play over the V-chord you can use any third position lick you have learned. This really expands your vocabulary and will introduce licks you otherwise may never have used.

Your harp preference

Maybe you have a favorite harmonica or don’t have the appropriate second position harmonica available. Playing in another position can save you here and offer more options.

Giving yourself a challenge

When you have been playing for a while going to a new postion is a good way to develop your skills and give you new ideas. Also it will be easier for you to tackle non-standard blues if you are used to playing over more chords than the standard I-IV-V chords in second position.

Conclusion

I hope this gives you an idea about position playing on the harmonica and takes some of the mystery out of it. If you have any thought or comments on this contact me via e-mail or post a comment below. I will help you as best I can. I have also created a a downloadable PDF for you mapping the blues scale in all positions. It also lists the connection between harmonica-keys and the keys of the different positions. Sign-up to my e-mail-list below to get it. You also get a Udemy discount code.

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Recommendations for Buying Harmonicas

Before you start playing it is pretty obvious that you need a harmonica and typically what you need if you play blues is a diatonic harmonica. This is the 10-hole version that is quite common in blues, rock and among troubadoures. Some people think this instrument is a toy but nothing could be further from the truth. Diatonic harmonicas from serious brands are serious instruments but suprisingly cheap compared to other instruments. There are a few things you need to know before shopping around for your harp. This article aims to give you a good start.

First of some basic stuff, what you are looking for is a Richter tuned, major diatonic harmonica. Most often you can leave out the “Richter tuned” part when you search for a harp but you want to be sure it is a major diatonic. Most diatonics are major diatonic. Some brands offer other version such as melodic minor and harmonic minor variants. These are more suitable for playing folk music and melodies than blues.

Choosing the key

OK, so now you know the type of harmonica you need, another thing to decide is what key to choose. The key of the harmonica is which scale the harmonica is tuned to. A C-major diatonic harmonica is tuned to the C-major scale. It is basically a small piano with the black keys removed (and a few of the white keys as well). So what key to pick then? First off, it doesn’t matter what key you use when you play by yourself and learn to play. All keys work the same way. However if you play with other people you need to be in the right key. Also if you choose a harmonica that is tuned to a very low key it can be more challenging to play at first.

Very high pitched harmonicas can also be challenging to control. What you want in the beginning is key somewhere in the middle of the range. Traditionally G is the lowest key and F (or possibly F#) is the highest key. Nowadays many brands offer keys outside this range such as low F, or even down to low low F. I would recommend a C-major harmonica to start with. This puts you in the middle giving you a very workable harmonica without “extra” challenges, also a C-major harmonica when played in 2nd position, which is the go-to position for many blues harmonica players and what you normally learn first, is in the key of G which works reasonably well for most guitar players.

Additional keys

If you choose to buy more than one harmonica I would recommend an A-major harmonica as well as this plays in the key of E in 2nd position and is also a nice key when you play by yourself. In fact if you get the following keys you are pretty much set for most situations: C, A, G, Bb, low F and D.

Choosing the brand

So, now you know what type of harmonica and the key to buy so now we have to choose a brand. There are a lot of brands out there and in the end it comes down to what you like and what suits your playing style. I make these recommendations based on my own preferences and what I use and have used. If you ask somebody else you may get other recommendations. One thing though, you basically get what you pay for. A cheaper harmonica tends to be less durable and in some cases not as well set up out of the box.

The list below is in order of preference from my point of view.

Hohner harmonicas

Generally speaking I recommend Hohner, their harmonicas have been the standard for many blues players for a long time. This is no accident, other brands may have gained ground at Hohner’s expence during the last few years but for me Hohner is still my choice.

Hohner Marine Band Deluxe

The Marine Band Deluxe was the Hohner flag ship product for a number of years, it is an updated version of the classic Marine Band with a better sealed comb and reed plates that are screwed on rather than nailed. They play very well out of the box and also lend themselves well for repair work and custimization. The tuning of this harp works very well for blues and the chords are beautiful.

Hohner Marine Band Crossover

The Crossover is an updated version of the Marine Band Deluxe with even higher precision and bamboo composite comb that does stands up very well against moisture. As with the delux it is very maintainable and plays lamost perfectly out of the bos. The tuning is slightly different so the chords are not as smooth compared to the delux but it works over a wider range of keys and may therefore be a better choice if you not only play 2nd position blues but other styles and positions as well.

Hohner Marine Band Classic

Before Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover this was the go-to-harmonica for many blues players. An often copied harmonica and for good reason. It works very well out-of-the-box. It has a partially sealed pear wood comb. You may experience som swelling of the comb with this model which is a draw-back but it is not too bad. The reed plates are nailed to the comb which makes maintenance of this model a bit more cumbersome than the Deluxe and the Crossover.

Other options

The three harmonicas above are far from the only options but reallt what I prefer. Here are some other options to consider if you either don’t like these three, prefer platic combs or can’t get hold of them for some reason.

Hohner Golden Melody is a nice harmonica that is a bit thicker, it plays very well but is tuned to equal tuning which works better for melody playing so chord heavy music is not its strong point. Hohner Pro Harp is a plastic comb harmonica quite close to the Marine Band Classic but very maintainable as it is part of the Hohner MS system. Hohner Special 20 is a plastic comb version of Marine Band, many people like it but I never made friends with it. Lee Oskar is a very custimizable and maintainable harmonica with lots of spare part options. They work better for melody heavy music due to their tuning. C.A Seydel & Söhne 1847 Classic is a really good harmonica that feels semi-custom to begin with which is quite special, the only draw-back is that it is a bit pricey.

If you would like to order harmonicas online I can truly recommend Thomann for europeans. Excellent selection, good service and fast deliveries. For full disclosure, I am a Thomann link partner.

 


Musikhaus Thomann Linkpartner

Planning Blues Harmonica Video Series

Right now I am planning to film a number of short videos with tips for you about Blues Harmonica. The first series I am planning is about how to practice as efficiently as possible. It will be a series in 10 parts and will be published on my Facebook page, make sure to like it to get the videos as soon as possible! If you would like to see a video on any specific topic, let me know in the comments.

Also check out my latest Facebook post with me practicing one of my current focus songs.