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


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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Maintenance for Clean Harmonicas

Maintenance may not be at the top of your mind as a harmonica player but it is something we all have to deal with. I bet that at least once you have experienced a stuck reed in one of your harp. Quite likely the reed was stuck either by a foreign object that came with your saliva. Sugar residue can also build up if your mouth is not clean when you play. In this article I will give you a few pointers on how to keep your harmonicas clean enough to avoid these mishaps.

Preventive maintenance

The first thing you should do is make sure that your mouth is as clean as possible before you start playing. What does not come into your harmonica will not have to be cleaned out. The best process is of course to always brush your teeth before playing. Although most people understand this, it is not always practical or feasible. Some people will flat out ignore this advice. I have to admit that I don’t always do this myself unfortunately. The second best thing you can do is to rinse your mouth with water before playing. I try to keep this as my minimum standard and it works quite well. Even if you don’t brush your teeth or rinse your mouth with water there are a few things you can keep in mind, especially during a jam session.

  • Don’t eat peanuts or chips/crips during a jam session, gig or practice session
  • Don’t drink sugary beverages
  • Drink water

When you have finished playing, don´t forget to tap the harmonica lightly to remove any moisture. To keep moisture build up to a minimum I have found that warming the harmonica in your hand before playing helps.

All of the above will help make sure that foreign objects don’t make it into your harps.

Simple cleaning

Even with the best preparations and intentions once in a while your will end up with a harmonica in need of some maintenance. The first thing you may notice is build-up of crud in the holes. See picture below.

Harmonica in need of maintenance.

The first sign you need to clean your harmonica.

To handle this I recommed tootpicks, gap toothbrush or a reed lifter tool. It is very easy to gently clean off the crud from the harmonica.

tools for simple maintenance

Reed lifter, tooth picks and gap toothbrush

Cleaning like this will keep your harmonica in good order for quite some time. If a reed seem to get stuck you can use a tooth pick or the reed lifter tool to gently put it in motion. If these actions don’t do the trick you may have to do some more cleaning.

Cleaning a disassembled harmonica

When you take a harmonica apart you get a whole lot more options for cleaning. Most likely you will find that both the reed plate and the comb are dirty.

Comb in need of maintenance

Dirty comb

reed plate in need of maintenance

Dirty reed plate

The first step to cleaning here is to use a soft toothbursh. Make sure you are not pressing too hard and brush in alignment with the reeds. You can also use water or some form of mild cleaning fluid on the reed plate. Make sure to wash it off before assemblying the harmonica. Do not use a lot of water on an unsealed wooden comb, the wood will absorb the water. If you are unlucky the wood will swell and warp. Id you have a plastic comb you can use a whole lot more water to clean it.

You might wonder why so much dirt make it in between the reed plate and the comb. It can di so because the reed plate and the comb are not 100% flat so there will be voids. If you buy a high end custom harmonica this will be less of a problem. These harmonicas have a tighter seal because of the flatness of the comb and reed plate. It will however not completely eliminate the problem.

Heavy duty cleaning

To get everything completely clean you need some more heavy duty equipment. I use a ultrasonic cleaner to clean reed plates, cover plates and screws. I do not recommend ultrasonic cleaning for wooden combs. The cleaner uses high frequency vibrations to basically shake the dirt off. It is very effective and can get everything more or less completely clean.

ultrasonic cleaner for maintenance

My ultrasonic cleaner

To make the cleaning even more effective I would recommend a cleaning liquid such as the EM-070 or similar which is normally used to clean dentures. Just make sure to clean it off with water after the ultrasonic cleaning.


As you can see there are many levels to maintenance and doesn’t have to be a bother. With a few tools you can come a long way. Let me know if you have any questions and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter below.

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.

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.

Bass line studies paying off!

My bass lines studies at are starting to pay off big time! Really pleased with that. If fits well in with my studies of improvisation, I now understand how important the chord tones are to soloing/improvisation and the bass line studies are ingraining the chord tones very well.

I used to think that “blue notes” were the real killers in soloing, how wrong I was. Blue notes are just for spicing things up and without a lot of chord tones around them they will simply just sound akward. I guess I have been playing more chord tones and scale tones than I have realized before but becoming aware of what you are doing is always a good thing.

Another great benefit is that the V-IV-I or specifically the V-chord which has caused me troubles before I now have a plan for. It is a great chord to introduce some new tones and some freshness in the riffs. Quite powerful stuff.

Are you studying bass lines?