Blues harmonica buildup riffs is a special kind of riffs that are used instead of a classic turnaround riff and sometimes they intergate into the V-IV-I-riff. The idea around a build up riff is that is building energy and anticipation for the the next chorus. In this article I show different types of blues harmonica buildup riffs and explain where they might be used.
Types of buildup riffs
When we talk about blues harmonica buildup riffs there is no precise definition of what they are. For a riff to be a buildup riff for me it either builds anticipation and tension, hints at the coming chorus or picks up the next chorus early. You might even debate what riff is doing what but I wil try to keep the types fairly clear.
Pickup type riff
This type of riff typically leads you from the tonic of the I-chord to the note you want to start the next chorus on. It is a good way of moving from 2 draw to a higher note so that you don’t have to make a big jump after a classic turnaround that may land you on 1 draw for example. This riff is 1 bar long (with a pickup) and leads you from landing on 2 draw in your V-IV-I riff to starting on 5 draw in the next chorus. Note that the last bar is part of the next chorus and not the buildup riff.
Pickup style buildup riff leading to 5 draw as start in the next chorus.
Repetetive cresecendo type riff
A good way of building energy is using repetition and increasing the volume at the same time. This builds both tension and the feeling that something is going to happen. This riff is very simple in itself, based on triplets in a simple pattern between 3 draw and 4 draw. It actually starts as part of the V-IV-I-riff in that is replaces both the I-chord part as well as the turnaround.
Buildup riff as repetitive triplet with pickup.
Repetitive hint type riff
By hinting at what is coming in the next beginning of the next chorus you can also build energy in a nice way. In this example the next chorus starts with a triad as a pickup on beat 4 in bar 12. The rest of bar 12 hints repetitively at the coming triplet. Note that the 1, 2+, 3+, 3, 2 part is actually part of the first riff in the next chorus.
Buildup by hinting at the coming riff.
Integrating blues harmonica buildup riffs
The way to integrate blues harmonica buildup riffs is to build up a bank of them, now you have three, and start using them together with your V-IV-I-riffs to exand that riff bank even further.
Let me know how these riffs work out for you and don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and get exclusive material!
No matter what level player you are there are a number of harmonica skills you need to work on. These skills should be viewed as work in progress, you can never be too good. If you are a beginning to intermediate player working on these skills will help you improve faster. These are also skills you will continue developing as long as you play. I have focused on skills that people either take for granted or tend to overlook.
Breath control is an important harmonica skill.
It is very likely that you will spend a lot of your time playing in second position if blues is your style of music. The harmonica is primarily an inhaling instrument for blues especially in second position. This is the exact opposite of what you body wants. Your survival instincts tell you to get air in whenever possible to ensure that you don’t suffocate. Good harmonica technique require that you don’t waste the space in your lungs making this one of the primary harmonica skills. You need to be able to inhale for a long time to play many inhaling notes in a row. To do this you ypu need to be comfortable with emptying your lungs completely and filling them slowly. At first this will be uncomfortable but you can train your ability.
If you have any medical condition you must consult with your physician before attempting to practice this. It is not worth hurting yourself. The two parts you can pratcice is emptying your lungs completely and them filling them slowly. To empty your lungs push hard with your diaphragm in a sharp exhale. You will notice that what you normally consider empty lungs is actually half filled lungs, unused blues potential. To practice filling up slowly empty your lungs and slowly breath in through your mouth. Try to extend this time so that you can fill up very slowly. Do not breathe through your nose. This will be a bit uncomfortable at first as your body wants you to fill up faster. If you feel dizzy or anything you need to stop, do not force yourself into a dangerous zone.
Tounge Block Trainer
I strongly believe that tounge blocking is the best embouchure for playing blues harmonica. The thing most people struggle with when moving to tounge blocking is that in everyday life we are unaware of what our tounge is doing. To remedy this we need to become aware of out tounge movements. Joe Filisko has developed a great tool for this, the Filisko Tounge Block trainer. You can either buy it ready made or make one yourself (you can find instructions here). What the TBT allows us to do is see the postion of our tounge when it touches the harmonica (or rather somethinh that resembles a harmonica). By connecting how the tounge feels in our mouths to the visiual image we see in the mirror using the TBT we become much more aware and as a result our tounge control improves.
Tounge articulations is a way of shaping the the sound that comes out of the harmonica. I consider this would of the most overlooked harmonica skills. By articulating “who”, “do”, “te” or something similar you can get the tone or chord you play come alive. This is great chording patterns and making riffs more expresive and interesting. To improve your articulations you need to practice them very focused both with and without the harmonica in your mouth. You will most likely have to exagurate the articulation to get it through the harmonica tone or chord. Record yourself while practicing and review to find how strongly you have to articulate to get the effect you want.
Sense of rhythm
Playing out of time or sloppily is never impressive. In order to really swing and to deviate from the rhythm in a creative manner you need to first be very solid. The best way develop this is to practice with a metronome as much as possible. You can probably not overuse metronomes. You also need to be strict with yourself and not allow yourself to fall of the beat, make the necessary corrections in pratcice. It will pay off. A good way of checking how well you keep time is to use a mtronome that you can silence without turning it off, then keep tapping the rhythm for a while and turning the sound or vibration on again. This will give you a good indication of how much you stray in you are not constantly reminded of the beat.
You don’t need an expensive metronome.
Develop your listening skills!
Listening skills are important both for developing ideas inspired by other artists but also to be able to follow other musicians. By developing your listenings skills will highten your musical awareness and also your appreciation for music. The best way to develop this skill is to listgen to a lot of music and take note of what you hear. Transcribing music from recordings is another great way of developing this.
Improving harmonica skills
Some of these harmonica skills will be developed in your normal practice sessions but you will also benefit from specific practice. For example practicing a song over and over again with a metronome will develop both your sense of rhtythm and your breath control. However to make big improvements you should also plan some part of your pratcice sessions for a specific skill. You don’t have to pratice everything every session though. If you pratcie three times a week normally, say Monsays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, then doing a few minutes of breath control work on Modays, extra rhythm exercises on Wednesdays and articulations and tounge control on Saturdays will go a long way.
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A few weeks ago I bought a wearable metronome and now it is time for a short Soundbrenner Pulse review. The reason I decided to get this device is that even though I consider the metronome an essential piece of gear listening to the click can be distracting. A silent device seemed like a good idea to me. In this review I give my thoughts on what this device offers to harmonica players.
First off let’s take a look at what you get. In the box the device comes in, which is quite nice in itslef, you get five items. You get the actual Soundbrenner Pulse device, a charging station, a USB chord for the charging station and two straps of different sizes. You also get some quick start papers but I am not really counting them. The packaging and items themselves feel like good quality gave me a nice impression right away.
Box, charging station with USB-chord, Soundbrenner Pulse device and straps.
Wearing the device
Before you can start using the device you have to charge it which is quick and mount it in one of the straps. Since the straps seem quite durable getting the device in place on the strap took a bit of force but nothing major. The two straps give you a lot of options on how to wear the Soundbrenner Pulse. For most people the two straps will allow you to choose wrist, lower arm, upper arm, ankle or calf depending on what you prefer. You need to experiment with the optimal placement for you. If you like to wear it around your chest you need to buy a bigger strap which Soundbrenner of course offer.
The device is operated by two fingers that are placed on the top surface of the Soundbrenner Pulse and by turning the dial of the device. This allows for simple turning on/off, starting and stopping the beat and defining the beat. Initially I had some problem where I defined a very fast beat when I in fact just wanted to start the metronome at the already defined tempo. After using it a couple of times this problem went away so it seems to be a minor issue.
To take full advantage of the device the Soundbrenner Metronome App should be downloaded. After connecting your device to your mobile device you get a lot of options on how to customize the strength of vibrations, time signature, beat sub divison and accents. There is also an option to sync up to five Soundbrenner Pulses which is very useful if the whole or part of the band are all wearing a device. There is also a library where you can store complete songs if it calls you changes in the beat throughout.
Sounebrenner Pulse Metronome App.
The device in use
The device require some getting use to and Soundbrenner is very clear about this. Feeling the beat is very different from hearing it. In the beginning you need to focus on feeling the vibrations and maybe customizing them in the app before it works well for you. However when you do get use to it, which doesn’t take all that long, your ears will be liberated. When you don’t have to listen for a beep or a click you can focus on litening to the music instead and this is where I feel the big advantage is for harmonica players.
When I was compiling this Soundbrenner Pulse review I was thinking a lot about the sound level of the device. Initially I was expecting it to be almost completely silent but truth be told it does make a sound. This mean that I cannot wear it on my wrist as it puts it too close to my ears. What I have done is wear it on my ankle and also turn down the power of the vibrations. I am probably more picky than most about this. When I aked support about this I got a quick and professional answer.
When you get use to feeling the beat the vibrations almost disapear when you play in time. For me this is great. It means that I only get a correction when I drift out of time. I think this is what you need more than anything.
Soundbrenner Pulse review summary
All in all I would like to summarize this review like this:
High quality device
Makes practice more efficient
Takes a little getting used to
Wearing it on the wrist not the best option for harmonica players
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The turnaround in the 12 bar blues is the part that signals that the form will repeat again. This, of course, happens at the end of the form. More sprecifically, bar 11 and 12 is where we play blues harmonica turnaround riffs. Properly executed these riffs give a sense of completion at the same time as the signal strongly that it is time to start the 12 bar blues again. If you listen carefully to recordings you will quite easily spot the turnaround in most songs, just remember that not all 12 bar blues variations include the turnaround. In this article I will give you a few riffs to add to your riff bank.
Properties of blues harmonica turnaround riffs
Although there are no hard and fast rules for these riffs there are a few properties they most often have. It is natural for the turnaround riff to be 2 bars but in order to fit with the V-IV-I riff of your choice it may need to be shorter.
In order to outline the turnaround in itself they often follow the chord tones very closely in bars 11 and 12. That is the I-chord through bar 11 and half of bar 12 and then the V-chord in for the last two beats of bar 12.
Basic turnaround riff
First off we have a very basic turnaround riff that uses the tonic of the chord. The tonic of the V-chord comes on beat 2 of bar 12 anticipating the V-chord on beat later. This riff always work but can be a bit boring if used too often.
Very basic blues harmonica turnaround riff.
Vamping style riff
This riff is a bit busier and uses the tounge slapping/vamping style so tounge blocking is the key here. In bar 11 it also uses 2 blow which is a chord tone for the I chord in 2nd position. Be careful though if you should be playing 2nd position in a minor blues, this riff would not work well. It has nice energy and is simple as there is no bending.
Vamping style blues harmonica riff without bending.
Triplet based turnaround riff
This riff is quite energetic as it is based on triplets. It aslo has a whole step bend on hole two which is the minor seventh of the I-chord, a very nice touch. A bit trickier as it has bending.
Triplet based tournaround riff.
Slightly more advanced turnaround riff
We finish off with a riff that is slightly more advanced, it incorporates the half step bend in hole three as well which is the minor third of the I-chord. A nice bluesy note.
Turnaround riff with a little bit more bending.
Applying blues harmonica turnaround riffs
Now that you have a few more blues harmonica turnaround riffs to practice it is time to put them to use. Start by selecting one or two and start experimenting with connecting them to your V-IV-I riffs. Be sure to get enough repetitions in to really make them stick.
At one point or another in your musical career you will probably want to make your harmonica performance stage debut. Even if you are not aiming to become a professional player it is something I recommend. It can be quite a scary step to take but if you follow my little guide it will go a lot smoother.
Where to make your stage debut
First of all, in this guide I will focus on you making your stage debut as an individual. Doing it as part of a band is a whole other matter. The places you should look for should advertise either a jam or an open stage session. In these cases you will normally find a house band that provide the backup and a jam leader or keaper of the list that plan who goes on stage.
Another type of jam might be the informal jam sessions that sometimes happen in pubs and bars. In that case there is probably not a house band but the jam leader may play backup on guitar for example. These informal jams are good practice but do not really give give stage experience. There may not even be an audience.
To find a venue with a jam session or open stage you can either ask more experienced players or search online. If you live in a small town you may have to travel a bit.
When making you stage debut the stage doesn’t have to be huge.
Type of audience
Depending on the venue you will encounter different types of audience. It might be tempting to choose to play for an audience that is less experienced in hearing harmonica players but I think that is a bad idea. A more knowleadgable audience have probably heard lots of great players before but they are also more likely to appreciate what you do.
Consider three scenarios, you totally make a mess of everything, you make an OK performance or you make a spectacular performance. If the audience is not really interested in music and prefer to drink rather than listen they may boo you of stage in the the first case and probably not pay much asstion to you in the two other cases. However if it is a very knowledgable audience they will love you if you make a spectacular performance, they will appriciate you if you make an OK performance and they will give you points for trying in you mess it up. All in all I think a more knowledgable audience is the better option.
This type of audience is most likely found in blues clubs and venues with well established jam and open stage sessions. Workshops where musicians come to learn is another option for this type of sessions. I chose to do my stage debut at the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen. An event with some of the best teachers in the world and an audience of some of the best amateur, semi-pro and professional harmonica players in Europe (actually quite a few from outside Europe as well). See how I did below.
What to play
When you plan what you are going to play you are probably best off if you chose a song that is quite well known. This maximizes the chance that the band knows the song and plays it the way you expect. If it is an instrumental or you sing yourself you can choose the key quite freely but if you want the house band vocalist to sing you have to be prepared to adapt to his or her vocal range. You don’t wan to end up in a situation where you can’t play simply because you couldn’t agree on a key with the band. If you want to play a semi improvised instrumental you should probably stay as close to a standard 12 bar blues or one of the more common varations.
Communicating with the band
Once you know what to play you have to figure out what to tell the band. In this case less information is usually better. They must know the key, the groove and if the song doesn’t start from the top. It should probably be something like:
12 bar blues, shuffle in E
This is “How many more years” in G
12 bar blues, rhumba, in G, meet me on the V-chord
The song I chose for my debut may be stretching it a bit as it has an intro and is a 12 bar blues with two variations used (quick change and ii-V-I change). To make this work I had the intro and the chorus printed out so I could communicate it easily to the band.
To be really prepared I recommend that you make your practice realistic. What I mean by this is that you practice the song as if the band was there. This means that you stand up, tell the band what they need to know, count off and so on. Everything you need to do on stage you do in practice. The reason for doing this is that when the pressure is on we default to what we are used to. If you are used to doing everything already you stand a better chance of doing things correctly on stage. If you miss some detail in your preparations you may experience the same thing I experienced in a gig some time ago. I didn’t prepare for the microphone setup so at the gig it didn’t work at all. It was a true harmonica rehersal gone bad.
One thing you can do if you plan to attend a regular jam session is visit it as part of the audience. This will give you a lot of information on how things are run. It is better to know beforehand to take the pressure off a little bit.
Arriving at the jam
When you arrive at the jam or open stage take a look around to find the jam leader or keeper of the list. Talk to him or her and say what you want to do. If they ask you about your experience level just be honest, it is always appriciated. When you have you place on the list, take a seat and make sure you can hear when you are called. Once on stage, do as you prepared and have fun. Don’t forget the audience, they are there to listen to you.
After your stage debut I suggest you hang around for a while. This is a great time to meet new friends and get feedback from other musicians. Who knows, maybe you find a new band or duo partner at the session. You will certainly make new friends.
Time to act
Now you know a little bit more about what goes into making your stage debut. Do you feel up for it? I may be a bit scary but I can promise that it is well worth it. Afterwards you will feel great and you will have grown as a musician and a human being. So get to it, start looking for the right session for you!
Building a solid riff bank give you lots of options as a harmonica player and improviser. The third line in the standard 12 bar blues is known as the V-IV-I, this part is busier than the other parts when it comes to the chords. It also contains the V-chord which can trip people up. Knowing a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs can go a long way. In this article I present a few options you may consider that go beyond the beginner riffs I have presented before.
Why learn specific V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs?
As the third line changes chords more often than the first two lines and contains the V-chord it is a bit trickier to navigate. I have previously written about the V-chord as a place where you can show off your skills. Learning a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs is a great way of adding to your improvisation skills. If you combine them with a bit of blues harmonica theory knowledge you are in great shape. Let’s look at a few riffs to add your aresenal.
Tounge switching riff
First off we have a tounge switch based riff that mostly uses the tonic of the V and the IV, simple but effective. The tounge switch also adds an element of suprise that the listener will appriciate.
Tounge switch based riff.
Triplet based riff
This riff I really like since it has a triplet feel, octaves and approches the higher ocatve of the instrument. All this sets it apart from many other V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs. I try to use this quite a bit myself. Notice that is starts one beat before the V-chord.
Triplet and octave based riff.
Chord tone riff
This riff is heavy on chord tones and takes advantage of the notes not normally played when playing the blues scale. It will freshen up the listeners ear.
Chord tone based riff.
The final riff is a descending riff that also hints at the chord tones of the V-chord. I like the sound of a riff that start quite high up and works its way to the tonic of the I-chord.
Applying the riffs
In order to work these riffs into your riff bank you should pick them up one by one. Make a decision to use one of them for all your improv for a while until it has really stuck in your head. That way you will make it permeanent. Then you go on to the next one. Having 3-5 V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs that are not the most common ones will make a big difference for how original you sound. Let me know how these riffs turn out for you!
When I started playing harmonica it was really a challenge to find any information on how to play. It was a big job simply finding any information and then I had to gamble on it being good. Today we sort of have the opposite problem, there is so much information out there that it can be a challenge finding the right information for you. With this page I try to fill a place in cyber space and in this article I have collected a number of helpful YouTube videos. As you will find these are not all the “usual suspects” for blues harmonica, I have tried to broaden the horizon a little bit.
Learning to swing
Aimee Nolte is a jazz musician and teacher who has a bunch of interesting YouTube videos. The first one I ran into was on the topic of swinging. I think there is a lot of things blues players can take from this video.
Let’s be honest, everybody probably need to work on their rhythm. I know I have to and that is why I am learning to play rhythm guitar and cajon. This video by Adam Neely gives you a way to improve your rhythm by connecting to your ability to speak. Not a bad idea at all.
A bit of music theory
As you might know I am a big fan of learning at least a little bit of music theory. The circle of fifths is one part of music theory that can open a lot of doors. It is a tool for song writers and musicians and teaches you about relationships between keys in music. This video by Mark Newman takes you on a deep dive of the usage of the circle of fifths.
Part of what I try to communicate with Blues Harmonica Kaizen is how to practice effectively and to learn new with joy. This TedEd video teaches a lot of what I have come to understand about learning and practice. A real gem among YouTube videos.
Your favorit YouTube videos?
If you have any other favorite videos or hidden gems I would love to hear about them. Drop me an e-mail or comment below!
Being able to improvise is a highly sought after skill among musicians. Some blues harmonica players even regard it so highly that they don’t want to learn music theory. I have noticed that the focus on riffs sometimes mean that other forms of improvisation are overlooked. It is important to understand which tools you have at your disposal when you improvise. In this article I outline some tools you shouldn’t forget.
David Barret who runs BluesHarmonica.com and who has systemitized blues instruction for a long time teaches chorus forms. They are basically patterns for how you repeat riffs in a chorus. By understanding how they work you shift your focus from finding a new riff to play to thinking about if you should repeat what you just played or play something new. Chorus forms also make it easier for the listener to follow your improvisation.
If you think that you might repeat yourself too much (listeners often want more repetition than you might think) you should consider how you present the notes you play. Always playing notes the same way will eventually become boring. Switch how you present the notes either between riffs, between choruses or from start to finish in your solo. Try to use clean notes, dirty notes, chords, tounge slaps, pull slaps, octaves, fake octaves, partial chords etc to keep your listeners intreseted. If you worry about repeating yourself to much then changing how you present notes when you repeat a riff might make yourself feel a little bit more at ease.
Dynamics is probably the most underrated and perhaps misunderstood musical tool. By changing the dynamics, that is the volume you play at, when you improvise you will envoke much more feelings in your audience. Let’s be honest, this is your most important job as a musician. The book “Let your music sore” by Corky Siegel and Peter Krammer is an excellent book/CD combo that explains this concept brilliantly.
Most people have harmonica bending in mind when they start playing, at least beginning blues harmonica players. In theory bending is simple but as any blues harmonica player knows, it takes years to develop the technique. On top of this not all bends are created equa. Depending on what you want to do, you have to treat the bends differently. In this article I will outline how I view different types of bends and what that means for their usage.
Not all harmonica bending is the same.
Fake harmonica bending
The first type is fake bending and by that I mean short change in the tonal quality of the note. It can be done by for example pronouncing “oy” when playing a note. It gives the impression of a change in pitch but that is not always the case. This type is often used by beginners before any real bending is mastered. It is a good way to introduce a bit more bluesiness in your playing if haven’t learned to bend yet.
Cloesly related to fake bends are ornamental bends. These are rapid changes in pitch at the start of a note. By using ornamental bends you get a nice tool for varying your riffs. By playing the same riff twice but varying how ornamental bends are used you introduce variation and make the riff more interesting to your listeners.
Melodic bending is what I call bending to create the missing notes on the diatonic harmonica. In some sense that is what harmonica bending is for but as you will see below for blues you may sometimes want to create pitches that are slightly off. Melodic bending is what you would use to play folk melodies and pop songs and requires good technique and a good ear.
Blues bending is quite close to melodic bending but there are few other things to take into account. For hole 3 for example bending the half step to create the minor third in second position over a major 12 bar blues can sound even bluesier if it is a lttle bit sharp. If it is a little bit sharp and played dirty it sounds really cool. This is where there is a difference between blues bending and melodic bending. This does not apply when you play over a minor blues, in that case the minor third needs to be at the correct pitch (that is the same as for melodic bending, a big reason 3rd position is often used for minor blues to get the minor third “for free”).
Another difference is that bending hole 4 down half a step is actually bent lower than the melodic half step bend. The pitch created is somewhere between Db and C on a C-harmonica. Playing the half step perfectly in pitch is not as bluesy so you want to push it down all the way to get the full effect. Knowing the difference is what gives you the real blues horse power.
So what does this all mean? Well basically it means that depending on what effect you are after you need to consider how you practice and use your harmonica bending. What I recommend is that you practice your technique so that you can chose what type of bends to use. Being able to precisely control the pitch gives you the option to adopt your bends to the type of music you play. Get your technique and ears in shape!
I have previously written on what is important when doing covers and how to practice and prepare properly. Now it is confession time, let me tell you what happens when your harmonica rehearsal routine is not up to par. A few weeks ago I was preparing for a gig with my trio “Worn Out Soles” and felt very confident. Not all results were as expected though.
The preparations started out pretty much as they always do. We made a list of our repetoir and started playing around with the set list. This time I wanted to add a new song, namely SBWII’s “Help me”. I have had my eye on that song for some time but haven’t felt quite up to it. Now I felt it was within my powers to play so it got put up on the set list. I wanted the chords bombs to be there, solo close to SBWII and the bass line hook played by one of the guitars. The more we practiced the better it sounded, the chord bombs were aggresive, the solo was coming along and there was a nice groove.
At this point Pirs, one of the guitarists/vocalists said “hmm, we really should practice with all the gear”. Me and Magnus, the other guitarist/vocalist, agreed and then we kept doing what we were doing. At his point I should have recognised that I was heading for harmonica rehearsal one bad.
To be fair we were practicing the way we usually practice and it has served us well so far. What I didn’t realize was that this song, “Help me”, required different microphone technique than what I had practiced before.
When it was time for the gig we felt prepared and did a nice job overall (if I can say so myself). However, when we got to “Help me” that was at the end of the set I quickly realized what I had missed in my preparations. I was singing and playing harmonica acoustically into a Shure SM58 and I wanted to keep my mouth close to the mic so that my voice didn’t sound too thin. This meant however that I had very little time to move my head back, bring up the harmonica, do the chord bomb and reset for singing. Since I hadn’t practice this, it really shook me up. Basically I messed up a whole bunch of the chord bombs, some of the vocals as well as part of the solo. I half panicked in the heat of the battle.
The microphone that caused me problems.
Overall the audience was happy and we got great feedback. For me, however, the experience was tainted by the fact that I could have done a much better job. Fortunately I can now take this as a learning experience and not skip realistic harmonica rehearsal with ALL equipment next time. If you are not rehearsing ralistically I suggest you start now!
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