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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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.

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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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.

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.


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 ┬áhole 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.


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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Studying bass lines

Part of the LOA program at 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.