What to Expect as a Beginner Harmonica Player

In my opinion the diatoinic harmonica is the best instrument in the world. It is especially suited for beginners which is both a blessing and and a curse. I do find sometimes that when don’t know what to expect when they take up playing harmonica. In this article I want to set your expectations as a beginner harmonica player.

Fast start

One of the best thing with the diatonic harmonica is that you can start playing very quickly. Within a few minutes you can start with a train imitation. Building on this you can also do simple accompaniment with rhytmic patterns. This means that you can actually start playing with other musicians right from the start. You just need to be aware that you won’t be playing any advanced solos or melodies just yet. The best way to make progress is to practice daily, even if this means short sessions.

Tone development

Most blues harmonica players are looking for the big fat tone you often hear in chicago style blues. When first starting out you will most likely have a thinner tone than you would like. This is because your tongue placement and throat relaxation have not been fully developed yet. The train imitation exercise mentioned earlier is the best way to getting a relaxed embouchure that

Getting into single note playing

To give you the most options for your later playing I recommend that you use the tongue blocking embouchure. Most people find tongue blocking more difficult that puckering to begin with. For this reason you will most likely have to expect that your single note playing will not be very clean to begin with. As long as you work on getting your precision up over time this is not a big issue as a beginner harmonica player. Learning tongue blocking is definately worth the time but it may feel like it takes a lot of time. Truth be told, you will be working on your embouchure as long as your play.

Developing your technique

Playing techniques as tremolos, vibratos and tongue blocking techniques such as tongue slaps are best added as needed when learning new material. You can always start learning new material without a certain technique and then add later. For example if a riff you are studing contains a lot of tongue slaps you can first learn it clean so that you are familiar with the sequence of notes. When you know the riff you can work on the sound of the riff with the techniques you need to add.

Playing solos

If you play over 12 bar blues and play in second position you can start playing solos pretty quickly. You may want to have developed a little bit of single note precision but second position and 12 bar blues is pretty safe for a beginner harmonica player.

Summary

I hope this gives you a fair understanding of what to expect as a beginner harmonica player. Don’t forget to check out the Welcome Package for becoming a subscriber to my newsletter. Click below to sign up!

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Harmonica and Vocals, a Great Combo

When I started playing harmonica playing solos was what I wanted most. Since then I have become much more interested in other aspects as well. In this article I want to push for combining harmonica and vocals. There are advantages you maybe haven’t considered.

Who is most important?

When I have been to workshops with Joe Filisko he has often told the class that as harmonica players we have to count on being considered the least important person on stage. It may not be very obvious all the time but I can certaily realte to this statement. I think this partly comes from the fact that many people see the harmonica as a secondary instrument and a bit of a novelty. A great way to get around this is to add vocals to your repetoire. If you also sing you are instantly transformed to the most important person on stage. This reason alone is enough to warrant combining harmonica and vocals.

Getting rid of air

For blues players the harmonica is primarily an inhaling instrument. Singing is of course done exhaling (at least mostly). The combination is a good way of getting rid of air for more harmonica playing and getting air into the lungs for singing. Because we use the air differently this makes for an easy combination and is therefore also less complicated than people think.

Better phrasing

Vocals and harmonica share a lot when it comes to the expressiveness for music. If you practice singing you will notice interesting ways of phrasing lines that you can tranfer to your harmonica playing. Well executed phrasing and use of dynamics can really enhance a harmonica performance.

Fill practice

If you combine harmonica and vocals you will also automatically need to become better at fills. When you yourself is the singer you cannot step on the your own vocal lines. The improved fill skills will be appriciated when playing with other singers.

Harmonica and vocals summary

As you can see there are great advantages for combining harmonica and vocals. The last one I would like to mention is that it is fun. You are already putting yourself in the spot light as a musician, why not take full advantage of that spot?

Let me know how it works out for you and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

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Building Your Harmonica Kit

When you start playing harmonica you can get by with one harmonica for quite some time. However when you want to play with other people you need to be ready to play in various keys. Most players expand ther harmonica kit over time until it is more or less complete (whatever that means). In this article I will guide you through which keys to buy to give you lots of options.

Where to start?

When I have written about buying harmonicas before I ususally recommend people to get a diatonic harmonica in the key of C. The reason for this is that C is a mid range tuned harmonica so it does not have some of the challenges of lower and higher tuned harmonicas. A C harmonica played in second position plays in the key of G which is a key many guitar players are fairly comfortable with. If your play in third position you will end up in D (or Dm).

First addition to your harmonica kit

When adding you second harmonica I would recommend you to get one in the key of A. It is tuned lower than the C but not extremely low so the transition is not to bad. Also in second position you will play in E which is a very common key to play in. In third position you will be playing in B (or Bm).

Adding more harmonicas

For further expansion I would suggest first adding a D harmonica so that you have one harmonica that is tuned slightly higher. This also adds A as your second position key.

After this I would suggest buying a G harmonica, a Bb harmonica and a low F harmonica in that order. They will add D (already covered by C harp 3rd position), F and C for second position playing. F is not a very popular key with many guitarists but I like it a lot personally. C is not a super common position but the low F can also be used to play in G (and Gm) in third position with a different sound compared to your C harmonica.

Summary

All in all when you have expanded your harmonica kit to 5 or 6 harmonicas you will have a kit that is workable for most situations.

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Reed Slot Sizing Overview

In previous articles I have touched upon different subject around optimizing harmonicas that I think are useful to know about. These topics are tuning, changing comb and reed gapping. This week we look at reed slot sizing and the benfits of it.

Reed slot sizing explained

As the harmonica is a free reed instrument it is quite easy to understand that the reeds of the instrument need to be able to vibrate freely to generate sound. The holes punched in the reed plate in which the reed vibrates is the reed slot. If it is too tight, the reed will get stuck. If it is too wide a lot of air is wasted and more effort is needed to play.

reed slot sizing example

A reed plate placed on a light table will tell you how much space the reed has to move.

When a harmonica is brand new the reed slot is often a bit to wide. To make it narrower customisers do reed slot sizing, sometimes referred to as embossing. The basic idea is to push material from the side of the reed slot down inte the reed slot. This will make the fit tighter.

Tools

When I first came in contact with reed slot sizing, or embossing, the tool of choice was the back end of a pitch fork. By repeatedly pressing the little sphere over the reed slot repeatedly material is pushed into the slot. Since then I have seen a number of different tools been developed that offer more precision but also require more skill. Reed slot sizing does take a bit of practice so if you want to try it then don’t try on your favorite harp first.

reed slot sizing tools

Two possible tools for reed slot sizing.

Summary

If you feel your harmonicas are leaky it may very well be that they need a bit of reed slot sizing. If you are unsure of how to do it then get the help of a good harmonica service technician.

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Third Position Scales

When learning to play in a new position it is a good idea to get to know where to the most important notes are. If you know where the chord tones of the I, IV and V chord as well as a few scales you are in good shape. Third position is a popular especially for minor blues so knowing some third position scales is a good idea.

Third position

Most of the time we reference a C harmonica when talking about specifics. Playing a C harmonica in third position will put you in the key of D. This means that the root note of any scale will be on 1, 4 and 8 draw. One way of looking at it is that third position is second position two holes up. For reference, take a look at the circle of fifths and try to make out for yourself why third position on a C harmonica is the key of D.

The blues scale

A you may already know the blues scale in scale degrees is:

Root b3 4 b5 5 b7 root (one octave up)

In D this transles to:

D F G Ab A C D

In tab for the middle octave this becomes:

4 5 6+ 6′ 6 7+ 8

third position scales - blues scale

The blues scale in D.

Quite an easy scale actually, only one bend and it is hole 6 which is not too difficult unless you use a high pitced harmonica. Also you don’t have to bend for the b3, it is there for free which is a big reason third position is very suitable for minor blues.

The lower octave require quite a bit more bending skills:

1 2” 2/3+ 3”’ 3” 4+ 4

The minor pentatonic scale

The minor pentatonic scale is almost the same as the blues scale but the lowered fifth is not part of it. The tab then becomes:

4 5 6+ 6 7+ 8

Very simple.

The major pentatonic scale

The major pentatonic scale will be imcomplete in the middle octave as it contains the third instead of the minor third. In scale degrees it is:

Root 2 3 5 6 root (one octave above)

In D this is:

D E F# A B D

The F# is not available in the middle octave (unless you do overblows) and becomes this in tab:

4 5+ (missing) 6 7 8

It can be played completely in the lower octave but it require more bending skills.

1 2+ 2′ 3” 3 4

Applying third psoition scales

Playing in a new position require quite a lot of practice but if you translate some of the riffs you already know to the third position scales you will have a good start.

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Harmonica Tuning Variants

When playing blues harmonica tone and sound are very important ingredients for the overall experience. Creating good tone require quite a bit of exercise but how the harmonica is tuned also play an important role. Most people beginners don’t even realize that there are different harmonica tuning variants. In this article I will explain the major groups of tuning temperaments you will run into. Depending on your playing style or what positions you prefer this may impact your choice of harmonica.

Tuning

First off I am not talking about tuning the harmonica to different scales such as a country tunes harmonica. The tuning referred to here is the relationship between notes within a scale. The reason this is done is to make chords and intervals as pleasing as possible. This is very important if you play a lot of chords, which I think you should.

If you don’t know how tuning is done I will just give a short explanation. Should the pitch of a reed be too low you can scrape off material from near the tip to make it vibrate faster. If the pitch of the rred is to high you can scrape of material closer to the base to make the tip realitvely heavier so that the reed vibrates slower. Tuning requires a steady hand and well trained ears. It is both an art and a science. Some choose to tune on the comb while some use tuning tables such as the Sjoeberg harp tuner table.

harmonica tuning equipment

Sjoeberg tuning table and Peterson strobe tuner.

Equal tuning

Equal tuning means that the octave is devided mathematically across the octave. This tuning is good for melody playing but not optimal for blues. The Hohner Golden Melody is tuned to equal tuning out of the box.

Pure just intonation

Pure just intonation means that the intervals in the scale are tuned realtive to each other to form a sound with out beats. This means that the notes of the scale are adjusted away from the equal tuning to reach this effect. What happens is that the chords and intervals will become very smooth and pleasing. Very good for blues. The drawback is that the tuning is done for one specific key, often the second position key. This means that the harmonica will be less usefule for melody playing and playing in other positions.

For example the 5 draw, which is the minor seventh of the root note, is tuned very low in pure just intonation to get a prefect relationship with the root note. If you would play in unsion with a piano on such a harmonica you will be quite a bit off compared to the note on the piano.

To get a pure just intonation harmonica you most likelt have to go to harmonica customiser or tune yourself.

Compromised (just) intonation

Compromised just intonation or simply compromised tuning is a way of getting the best of both worlds. The intervals are changed to get good sounding chords but not too much to make melodic playing or switching to different positions hard. There are many different compromised tunings. The Hohner Marine Band deLux uses a compromised that is closer to pure just intonation than the compromised tuning of the Hohner Crossover. This is because the intended customers are slightly different and have slightly different needs.

You may hear expressions such as 7 limit just intonation or 19 limit just intonation which are names that describe how close to pure just intonation they are. Many customisers have their own compromised tuning that thay have worked out depending on what they find most useable.

Recommendations

If you are looking to buy your first harmonica and blues is your goal I would recommend that you buy a harmonica with compromised tuning. As you get more advanced you will find which type of compromised tuning that suits your style the best.

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Left Handed Harmonica Player – Options for Holding

I am a left handed harmonica player and when I started playing there was nobody around to guide me. This meant that I had to figure out a lot of things myself. Unfortunately some of the decisions I made in the eighties later turned out to be less than optimal decisions. I have later changed the way I hold the harmonica and my embouchure for example. To help any left handed player out there (and right handed) this article covers the options you have when holding the harmonica.

Variables

To keep things short and sweet I focus on two things, the hand holding the harmonica and if hole 1 on your diatonic harmonica faces left or right. What felt most natural to me when I stared playin and what seems to be most natural if you are a left handed harmonica player is to hold the harmonica in your right hand with hole 1 to the left. Most right handed players opt for left hand and hole 1 to the left. There are of course two other combinations as well to look at.

Right hand, hole 1 left

Let’s start with the one that felt most natural to me. In this case the right hand holds the harp and your left hand is used for hand effects. It is certainly a playable position but there is one major drawback. Holes 1-3 which are the low pitched holes are the ones that get most effect from hand cupping effect and this way of holding basically removes this option. This is the reason I abanded this way oh holding. If you primarily play through a bullet mic and have a tight cup this may be less of an issue for you.

left handed harmonica player holding with right hand

This way seem to be what most left handed players choose by themsleves.

Right hand, hole 1 right

To remedy the drawback of the previous way you can simply turn the harmonica upside down. This way you can still hold with your right hand and have a cup over the lower pitch holes. This is the way Sonny Terry held the harmonica, definately an option if holding with your right hand is important to you. Just remeber that you have to flip all instructions you find online and your toung will be to the right most of the time while tounge blocking.

left handed harmonica player holding harp upside down with right hand

Holding the harmonica upside down but with the right hand allows for cupping around low pitched holes.

Left hand, hole 1 right

This is not a way I would recommend, using the left hand to hold but having the harmonica upseide down has the same problem as the first option I presented. There is really no need for this.

Left hand, hole 1 left

This is the way most right handed players naturally pick up the harmonica. The harmonica has the numbers facing up so you can read them easily and your hand cup naturally covers the low pitched holes. Even if you are a left handed harmonica player I would recommend you to switch to this way if you can. Most things regarding instructions and so on is simpler this way.

left handed harmonica player same style as right handed player

Suggested holding style, also note position of thumb and index finger. Allows for more natural position of the elbows.

But what if it’s impossible

Of course the recommendations above may be null and void for you if you have any physical challenges that prevents you from holding like this. In that case you should o what works best for you and find your own way.

If you do decide to change the way you hold the harmonica, let me know how it works out for you. I remember feeling a bit awkward for a few weeks before it became natural to me.

Minor Key Chord Tones in Third Position

Playing in minor keys may not be the first thing you try on the harmonica. Even some fairly advanced players stay away from it. If you are strictly a second position player minor keys may be problematic for you. A pretty easy way of fixing this is to learn to play in third position. Don’t get me wrong here, playing in third position doesn’t mean that you automatically play in minor or that you can only play minor. Third position just makes minor keys easier. If you have not played over a minor 12 bar blues before then learning to find the minor key chord tones is a good way to get started. If you know where the chord tones are you can play both accompaniment and even solo.

The benefit of third position

The benefit of third position for minor keys is that the minor third can be played without advanced bending skills. This is especially true if you play hole 4 and upwards. The lower octave require more practice though. also the minor key chord tones are quite easy to find.

minor key chord tones needed for minor blues

12 bar blues in D minor

The minor 12 bar blues can be formed by replacing the every major chord with its minor counterpart. In Dm for example the 12 bar blues then consist of Dm, Gm and Am.

Minor key chord tones

If you play a C harmonica in third position you will be playing in D or Dm. The chord tones for the chord in Dm are:

  • Dm – D F A C (root, minor third, fifth, minor seventh)
  • Gm – G Bb D F
  • Am – A C E G

The chord tones for Dm in tab:

  • D     1, 4, 8
  • F     2”, 5, 9
  • A     3”, 6, 10
  • C     1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

The chord tones for Gm:

  • G     2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • Bb   3′, 10+”
  • D     1, 4, 8
  • F     2”, 5, 9

The chord tones for Am:

  • A     3”, 6, 10
  • C     1+, 4+, 7+, 10+
  • E     2+, 5+, 8+
  • G     2, 3+, 6+, 9+

The Bb (minor third of Gm) is the one chord tone that is the trickiest. Playing the 3 unbent can sound horrible so make sure you play it in pitch. The 10+” is quite tricky as well. The whole step bend on hole 3 takes some practice too but there are easy options for playing the A elsewhere on the harmonica.

Get comfortable with it!

The best way to get comfortable with minor blues is to put on a jam track and practice playing the chord tones over it. With a little bit of practice you will be able to move around quite freely.

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Is Reusing Riffs Creative?

Being able to play dazzling solos is a dream for many beginning harmonica players. The nice thing about the diatonic harmonica is that is so easy to start playing and be reasonably in tune with a 12 bar blues. Taking the next step and really more effort though. Creating a riff bank by learning riffs is a good way to get going. Learning songs that the mold mastered played is another great way. However some players seem to be hesitant about reusing riffs they learn in songs. It can feel a bit like stealing and not very creative at all. In this article I give my view on this topic.

Pros and cons of reusing riffs

First of all I have to say that I am all for reusing riffs. The riffs played by Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton and others are memorable for a reason. They are damn good. If you don’t reuse those riffs you are seriously limiting yourself. The idea is to make good music and there is no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants. It may make you feel better to know that the old masters definately were resuing their own riffs (and probably other players riffs as well). For example bars 5-7 of the first solos in Born Blind by Sonny Boy Willimanson II is very similar to bars 5-7 of the second solo of Help Me. That phrase is very recognizable as SBWII and nobody would say it is a bad reuse.

reusing riffs

Part of what SBW resued himself.

On the flip side resuing too heavily can be a problem. You don’t want the audience to think you are playing a specific famous song when you are in fact jamming or soloing on your own original. Don’t rip a whole solo for example. Pull out the the riffs you like and put your own spin on them instead. With time they will become your own.

But what about creativity?

We may all have different opinions on what is creative and what is not but I don’t see using your riff bank as less creative than on the spot composing. Even if you are using patterns or riffs you already know the creative part is applying them in an appropriate situation. David Barrett calls improvisation revisiting what you already know and I think that is a good way of looking at it. One riff you pull out will lead you someplace on the harmonica, then you can pull out another riff using that place as a starting point. You can also get creative by resuing riffs and color them differently with techniques and other forms of improvisation.

Summary

So all in all I hope you see that resuing riffs you learn in song is not something to stay away from. Using them can make you sound a lot more professional and also push you to come up with your own variations. Use this gold mine the great players of yesterday have left behind!

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Harmonica Creativity through Limitations

The harmonica in itself is an instruments with built in limitations. This is part of the power of it as well. If you play first position melodies or second position blues you are for the most part on safe ground. What I propose in this article is that you impose more limitations to set your harmonica creativity free.

The problem with artistic freedom

Being completely free when playing a solo for example can actually be a problem for a beginner. When we have too much to choose from we sometimes freeze. The reason for this is that our minds need boundaries to be truly creative. It is the act of working around the limitations that set your harmonica creativity free.

With experience and sufficient knowledge of structure we can handle more and more freedom. After learning how to use repetition a musician is better equipped to take advantage of playing “without rules”.

Self-imposed limitations

harmonica creativity

Self-imposed limitations can help you.

By using self-imposed limitations you challenge yourself into finding new patterns or rhythms while playing. A great way of doing this is to limit which holes you allow yourself to play. Try this as an exercise:

  1. For the first chorus of a backing track play a solo using just hole 1. This will force you to think about your phrasing and rhythmic approach.
  2. For the second chorus play a solo using holes 1 and 2.
  3. For the third chorus play a solo using holes 1-3.
  4. Continue with this patterna for as many choruses you like.

Don’t forget to record what you come up with! When you listen back to what you have played you will notice that playing just hole 1 does not sound as boring as you would think. During the exercise you will also notice how much you appreciate getting another hole to play. All in all this will make you think about the building blocks of your music in a new way.

Go do it!

Now it is time for you to try this exercise. I would also encourge you to think about other limitations to use. Maybe just play eigth notes, then only quarter notes, then only half notes and in the end everything together. With each exercise you will increase your harmonica creativity a little bit and in the end it all adds up to something great.

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