Fatter Harmonica Sound

The diatonic harmonica is a small instrument with many inherent limitations. It is up to us as players to get a good sound. The key to getting a fatter harmonica sound is the take advantage of the design of the diatonic harmonica. This is also where the tongue blocking technique comes into play to make use of different techniques. In this article I will show how to fatten up a lick so that it sounds bigger.

From thin to fat

The thinnest and most basic sound we get out of the harmonica is when playing clean single notes. This is often where we start and perhaps how we learn a new song or riff. The basic melody is clearly heard when playing like this. However, for blues this is not the most exciting sound. Getting a fatter harmonica sound is al about understanding where to apply techniques and still keep the basic melody of the riff.

Fatter harmonica sound example 1

In this case we are going to take a riff from the beginner blues harmonica riffs article previously published here. It is the boogie inspired 2-bar riff.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Boogie Inspired Rhythm Tongue slap can be used
Boogie inspired 2-bar riff
Original version.

By adding tongue slaps to the inhaling notes 2 2 3 4 and the exhaling 5+, and exchanging the 5 draw for an inhaling chord and finishing off with a octave tongue split that plays 6+ and 3+ in unison with a tremolo the riff gets a whole lot more exciting. It is still the same basic melody but the techniques used offer more volume and excitement.

A fatter version of the 2-bar boogie inspired riff.

Fatter harmonica sound example 2

In this example we use the 1-bar riff from the same article above.

1-bar beginner blues harmonica riffs
1-bar riff
Original (actually a bit off from the notation, the 5 draw comes too quickly).

To get a fatter harmonica sound here we leave the 4+ alone, switch the 4 to an inhaling chord and play the 5 and 6+ as dirty notes. Once again the basic melody is kept but it sounds bluesier and fatter.

A fatter version of the 1-bar riff.

Try it!

Now you try it yourself on riffs you already know. Use tongue slaps, pull slaps, side pulls, octave splits, dirty notes, chords etc as you see fit to get the sound you want.

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Top Non-obvious Harmonica Accessories

When it comes to harmonica gear I am a pretty basic guy. I like to play harmonica without too many extras. I am not big on pedals and I try to stay away from buying new stuff and focus on practice instead. There are however some harmonica accessories that I recommend for everybody. Read on to find out which!

Paper clip, tooth pick or reed lifter tool

It may seems strange to find paper clips or tooth picks listed as harmonica accessories but you will be glad to have them in your case. The basic idea is just to have something that will make it easy for you to remove dried up material from the holes on your harmonica. Even if you very careful about keeping your instruments clean, there will be some dirt to take care of sooner or later. It’s nice to be able to do it without a full on clean.

harmonica accessories reed tools
Bent out paper clip, tooth pick and reed lifter tool. The reed lifter tool can come in many variants.

Resonance cup

The one who introduced the resonance cup to me was Joe Filisko. The idea with using a small plastic or glass cup is to add a bit of resonance when playing one handed and it also mellows down the treble a bit. It is a nice way of changing the sound a little bit and allow for relaxed one handed playing.

I would recommend that you experiment with different cups to find one that suits your hands and has a sound you like.

harmonica accessories resonance cup
A plastic resonance cup from a spray can.

Soft cloth

Having a soft cloth in your harmonica case should be standard for everyone (maybe even an obvious accessory). It is so much nicer to to wipe down a harmonica covered in saliva with a cloth instead of using your clothes. You actually get a soft cloth included with some brands but I find that many people lose it quickly.

harmonica accessories soft cloth
A soft cloth for wiping your harmonicas.

Your top non-obviuos harmonica accessories?

Now I am curious to find out what your top harmonica accessories are. Comment below or drop me an e-mail.

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Restarting Harmonica Practice

Some time ago I wrote about how to get better harmonica practice and benefit more from the time you spend. This is all well and good when you have a practice habit and things are going smoothly. But what do you do when you temporarily lost your habit? In this article I will give you some tips and pointers when restarting harmonica practice.

Recognize where you are

First of all, don’t feel too bad about what has happened. Most hobby players will give up practice from time to time. The reason we do it doesn’t really matter. It can be loss of interest, pressing work schedule, taking care of family etc. Just make sure to recognize that you are where you are and that you may not be able to play some things you have played before.

Start easy

There is nothing more devastating to restarting harmonica practice than to try to pick up where you left off. Go easy on yourself and start with something that you know you can do. Why not a train imitation? I have noticed that doing something fairly easy to begin with will make things much more fun.

Short and often

As with all practice, short sessions often is better than one long session per week. At this stage this is even more important. Let yourself long a bit for the next session, don’t overdo it in the beginning. Also make sure that you end your training sessions on a high note. That is, you should come away with a very good feeling inspiring you to continue.

Introduce challenges

After you get going and feel that you are on your way, it is time to work on a bit more challenging material. Have a go at what you were working on before you stopped. You may very well find that it comes back quicker than expected.

If you follow these simple steps you should have little trouble restarting harmonica practice on a more regular basis.

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Better Harmonica Practice

I recently ended a beginners harmonica course in my home town. All the students were very eager to learn and we had great fn together. They all had one challenge in common though. They never seemed to get any practice done. In this article I will give my view on why many people don’t do what they enjoy and what to do about it. Simply “how do you get better harmonica practice more often?”.

Why we don’t practice

Some people may jump to the conclusion that if people don’t practice they are either lazy or not interested enough. Although it may seem logical I would argue that it is the wrong conclusion. I find that the reason people don’t practice is the fact that they are expecting too much of themselves. Learning something new takes time and effort and is slow sometimes. Many people also think that in order to get any benefits they have to practice much longer than thay actaully have to. Somebody who has the idea that a one hour practice session is the minimum requirement will very quickly get discouraged when that time is not available due to everyday life.

How to get better harmonica practice more often

The thing you need to do to get better harmonica practice more often is to realize that practice does not have to be long and all inclusive all the time. It is far better to practice a few minutes every day if that is all you can manage, than one one hour session once a week. Spaced repetition combined with thinking about what you have practiced in-between the sessions is a great way to make progress. This of course also means that you have to focus on less things for every session. Make a short 5 minute session about one thing and concetrate on that one thing very hard.

To get going like this you can use the trick I learned from Richard Sleigh to make a promise that is so easy to fulfill that it is almost impossible to fail. Promise youtself to practice for example train imitations for 30 seconds every day. This promise is easy to fulfill and will often turn into much more practice. It will make you feel good about your practice which is another key aspect to succeed.

Try it out and don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re lazy just because you don’t practice alla the time!

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Keeping Your Harps Clean

I bet that at least once you have experienced a stuck reed in one of your harps and quite likely the reed was stuck either by a foreign object that came with your saliva or by a build up of sugar residue that has come from playing. In this article I will give you a fre pointers on how to keep your harmonicas clean enough to avoid these mishaps.

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.

Contemporary Harmonica Masters

In a previous post I listed some of the harmonica masters from history that have inspired me. In this post I want to point you in the direction of some contemporary harmonica masters that are worth a serious listen. There are of course many more active players, see this as a starting point.

Jason Ricci

When I think of fast players with spectacular riffs, Jason Ricci comes to mind. Maybe not your first choice if you are looking for a traditional appraoch but he can be really inspiring if you like speed. Check out the video below.

Jason Ricci in action.

Kim Wilson

No list of contemporary harmonica masters can be complete without Kim Wilson. He is also a player many non-harmonica musicians look up to. Check out his work with “The Fabulous Thunderbids” in the video below. Great blues rock and texas blues!

Kim Wilson in action.

Rick Estrin

One of the coolest dudes around is Rick Estrin. He has great skills when it comes to groove and making anything sound cool. He made a DVD a couple of years ago about his harmonica style and how to make the groove come alive. It was great fun to watch. In the video below he makes a solo perfomance of “Getting out of town” it doesn’t get cooler than that.

Mr Cool!!!!!

Joe Filisko

If you have read my earlier articles it will not suprise you ti find Joe Filisko on this list. In my opinion Joe is second to none when it comes to tone on the harmonica and keeping the old traditions alive. His teachings on traditional blues harmonica is excellent. He also makes a good job writing original material in traditional styles. I love the work he does together with Eric Noden, a perfect match musically.

Filisko & Noden on stage.

Other contemporary harmonica masters?

No I am curious which contermporary harmonica masters you think are missing from the list. Comment below or drop me a message, suprise me!

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Blues Harmonica Events

One of the great things about the internet is that we now have access to an incredicble amount of instructional material previously unatainable. We can now be students in out own homes when it suits us. However having a live harmonica instructor is really something else and interacting with other students is really inspiring. If there is no harmonica school in your area and no teachers are close by, I can really recommend that you take a look at the available blues harmonica events that are run all over the world. In this article I list events I think are worth taking a look at.

SPAH Annual Convention

The SPAH Annual Convention is organized in the US once a year. Unfortunately I have not attended yet but it is definately on my list. It takes place in August over 5 days. From what I gather the program is packed with workshops and jam sessions and don’t plan for a lot sleep! This is an event with all the great instructors and artists. This is probably the largest of the blues harmonica events.

Edinburgh Harmonica Workshop

Edingburgh Harmonica Workshop is organized by Tomlin Leckie and is one of the newer additions when it comes to harmonica events. It is a 80 participant 3 day event, so definately smaller than SPAH. Looking at the program for 2019 event Tomlin has put together a great program. The teachers are well known and the topics look really interesting.

Harpin’ by the Sea

If you are looking for a short event, then Harpin’ by the Sea is for you. It is a one day event based on different themes every year. From what I hear from friends, this is an event that is really fun. I hope to join this event one day. My friend Stuart McKay, who is one of the organizers has made a really good case for it.

Harmonica Masters Workshops

Harmonica Masters Workhops organized in Trossingen each year by Steve Baker is now well esablished among the blues harmonica events. It is organized 3 years in a row and then there is a gap when the World Harmonica Festival is organized.

khops organized in Trossingen each year by Steve Baker is now well esablished among the blues harmonica events. It is organized 3 years in a row and then there is a gap when the World Harmonica Festival is organized. To get a better insight of what goes on there you can read my trip report from 2018.

Getting the most out of blues harmonica events

Which ever event you choose to go to, I have a few pieces of advice to make sure to get the most out of it.

  • Prepare at leat one song to perform in front of the class if that is offered. It is a great way of getting feedback.
  • Participate in jam sessions. A great way to test things in a safe environment.
  • Prepare a song to perform in an open stage session if that is offered. These events have the best audience.
  • Trade contact information with other participants, you make friends for life.
  • Live close by the event. Don’t spend your time in transit every day.
  • Have fun!

If one of these events doesn’t seem right for you then I am sure you can find another event to go to. You will not regret it!

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Harmonica Masters to Inspire You

Learning something new takes effort. I guess you already know that. This is also part of what makes it so rewarding. To keep practicing inspiration can go a long way. In this article I have put together a short list of harmonica masters from history that can keep yuor motivation up.

Sonny Boy Willimanson II

No list can be complete without SBW II aka Rice Miller. His tone and control of the instrument is second to none. Also, very few players look as cool as him while playing. Check out this video of him playing “Bye bye bird”.

Sonny Boy Willimanson II in action.

Little Walter

Moving on with the harmonica masters Little Walter (aka Walter Jacobs) has a natural place on the list. He did some fine work with Muddy Waters and can also serve as great inspiration if you want to learn to play blues chromatic.

My babe!

Big Walter Horton

Big Walter is probably the best side man in history, he didn’t seem to have all that ambition to be the front man. Anyway, no matter who he played with his sound was absolutely amazing. If you want a real challenge then learn a few of his songs.

Shakey!

Sonny Boy Willimanson I

Sonny Boy Willimanson I (aka John Lee Willimanson) was one of the most influental early players. He was younger than SBWII but died before SBWII started his career. He has a different sound to the players above but was the one to popularize second position with “Good morning little schoolgirl”.

Sonny Boy Willimanson I

Sonny Terry

You may have noticed that the name Sonny seem to come up a lot, maybe there is something magic about that name. Sonny Terry is a big inspiration for me and also a source for big frustration. His sound is so hard to capture but truly amazing. What a show man.

Sonny Terry

Letting the harmonica masters inspire you

The best way of letting the masters inspire you is to listen to them as often as possible. If you fill your ears with their licks you are more likely to start emulating their sound when you are ready.

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Harmonica Tremolo or Vibrato?

When people talk about different techniques I often find there is a bit of confusion when people don’t agree on definitions. The part where I hear and read this most often is regarding harmonica tremolo and vibrato. In this article I will give you the definitions on how I think about these techniques.

Harmonica tremolo definition

The tremolo effect means that the volume goes up and down periodically. You can do this either with your breath or by cupping and opening your hands. This can be used either on single notes, dirty notes or chords. Sometimes people call shaking their head and going between holes tremolo but I prefer to call that a shake to separate it from a “proper” harmonica tremolo. The shake can of course be done with a tremolo but they are not the same thing.

Vibrato definition

A vibrato on the other hand changes the pitch of the note(s) rather than the volume. However sometimes people think they are continously changing the pitch when in fact they are changing the volume. This is where some of the confusion arise. As with the shake the vibrato can be combined with a tremolo.

Making it more complicated

Actually, the shake technique where you moreve between two notes or between dirty notes belong in the vibrato group rather than the tremolo group since the frequency content changes. Some people may also argue that the a harmonica tremolo done by hand technique changes the frequency content of what you hear and then it could be placed in the vibrato category. All in all Iike to think about what my intentions are and call it a harmonica tremolo if I am actively changing the volume, a vibrato if I am actively changing the pitch and a shake if I am shaking my head.

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Octave Split on the Harmonica

Playing single notes on the harmonica is an important skill but is not always the coolest sound on the harmonica. Fortunately tongue blocking offer a number of ways to get more out of your tones. One of these ways is to use the octave split to get more sound out of the harmonica.

What is an octave split?

Octave split is quite simply playing two single notes one octave apart simultaneously. To the listener it will not necessarily sound like two notes (if the harmonica is properly tuned that is). Two notes played at once will be louder than one note and that will definately help when you are playing notes in the high range.

How to do it

In principle, splits are very easy. You simple play one note out of the right corner of your mouth and another note out of the left corner of your mouth. Your tongue will block the holes between them. To do this you need to control your tongue so that it is just wide enough to cover the holes between notes. You will also need to make sure that your mouth has the right size to block out any holes outside the holes you are aming for. Once again I will mention the Filisko Tongue Block Trainer which is a great tool for practicing this.

Not all splits are created equal

To get a proper octave split you will need to know where to find it. The exhale notes are quite easy, simply block two holes to get an octave. 1+-4+, 2+-5+, 3+-6+, 4+-7+, 5+-8+, 6+-9+ and 7+-10+ are all true octaves.

For the draw notes it is another matter. On the lower end some octaves are true octaves when blocking two holes and some are fake octaves. Going up higher you will need to block three holes to get true octaves.

True octaves:

  • 1-4 (two holes blocked as for the exhale notes, know as a 4-hole block)
  • 3-7 (three holes are blocked, known as a 5-hole block)
  • 4-8
  • 5-9
  • 6-10

Apart from the 1-4 all other 4-hole blocks are fake octaves. The 2-5 is quite common and is a root note (2) with a minor seventh on top (5), a very bluesy sound. The other 4-hole draw blocks can be used, just be careful about if it is the sound you want.

The fact that you need to adjust from 4-hole to 5-hole blocking can be quite challenging when playing the upper range. However it is well worth the effort to get the extra power in your notes.

Make it your own!

If you are not already using octave splits I suggest you start praticing it to get the most out of your upper range and add to your sound.

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