Blues Harmonica Beginner Course Published

About three weeks ago I published my new blues harmonica beginner course on Skillshare, titled “Blues Harmonica for Absolute Beginners”. The course is meant for anyone just starting out with blues harmonica. It can also be useful for anyone who wants to make sure their basics are solid. Just skip the parts you already know. Filming these courses are a lot of fun, although also a bit frustrating sometimes. I don’t have a big production team behind me so I do it all myself. These courses are a way for me to be able to reach out to more people than I would otherwise be able to. Blues harmonica has given me so much so I want to share it with as many people as possible.

Very briefly this is the contents of the course:

  • Holding the harmonica
  • Proper breathing technique
  • Playing train imitations
  • Basic accompaniment playing techniques
  • 12 bar blues form
  • Single note playing using the tongue block embouchure
  • Two different practice songs to study and record over a supplied jam track

This blues harmonica beginner course is the perfect first step before moving on to my other course on Skillhare, “Learn to Play Awesome 12 Bar Blues Harmonica Solos”. The good thing with the Skillshare model is that when you sign up you get access to both of them and a whole lot of other classes as well. If you use the links in this article you also get 2 free premium months. Here is a short promo video:

I really hope you will find this course helpful and I plan to add more courses in the future. Let me know which topics you would like to see.

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Benefits of Bass Line Practice

Of of the coolest elements of blues harmonica in my opinion is playing backup. However it is not the thing most associated with the harmonica. Most people would probably say that soloing is what drew them to the harmonica in the first place. I have started appreciating playing backup more and more. In this article I will point out benefits of bass line practice.

The purpose of bass lines

A bass line is what the bass player usually plays. It outlines the chords of the song and provides the foundation together with the drums for the song. In smaller setups where there might not be a drummer and/or bass player, the harmonica can fill this roll. In order to fill this roll properly you have to do specific bass line practice. It will however improve your playing in more ways. Actually, by taking the backup role you will instantly become more involved in the song and that will carry over into your solos.

Know the chords

Since the bass line outlines the chords it will be very grounded in the chord tones. Bass lines are basically music theory in practice. When you get to know the chords you are playing you also start understanding how they relate to each other. Step one to this is finding the important notes for each chord. These notes are the root, the third (minor third for minor key songs), the fifth and the minor seventh. Those notes are normally enough to outline each chord.

Basing your solos on the chord tones and spicying things up with some scale tones, outside tones and blues notes is a great way of building solos.

Get the groove

To properly lay the foundation in a song you need to know the groove. With specific bass line practice you will find that the grooves you practice will become second nature to you. This will improve your timing and allow you to make small changes as you play to make the music swing even more. To get to this point the metronome is your friend.

Support yourself

Even though bass lines are usually talked about in a band context they are useful when you play solo (as in unaccompanied) as well. Whenever there is a hole in the melody you play or in between riffs, hinting at a bass line is a great way of keeping the groove alive without a band. To able to do this you need to be really comfortable with bass lines.

Find your own benefits

As you start your bass line practice your will discover even more benefits as you progress. A nice way of practicing is to listen for the bass line of a song you like and play along to a recording. This way you can also work on your dynamics to blend in nicely.

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Harmonica Tuning Temperament – Why Care?

The fact that harmonicas go out of tune after being played for some time is not surprising and something most people notice. In recent years many more people also take the time to get harmonicas re-tuned instead of discarding them. The manufacturers have also made this easier with modern models with reed plates that are screwed on rather than nailed on to the comb. In this article I will give you my thoughts on why you should also care about the harmonica tuning temperament. In tune is more than simply being in tune. 😉

Harmonica tuning temperament variants

First of all, what are tuning temperaments? Basically it is how the notes are fine tuned against each other to give the best overall sound together. On a high level there are three major groups of temperaments.

  1. Equal tuning
  2. Pure just intonation
  3. Compromised tuning

These tuning types all have their place in the harmonica world. The reason you should care is that depending on the music you play one of these harmonica tuning temperament variants may be more suitable to you than another.

Equal tuning

Equal tuning basically means that the octave is divided into 12 half step, each half step is equal in size. This creates a tuning where every note is very close to where you expect it to be. I would recommend this tuning variant to anyone who primarily plays melodies. The Hohner Golden Melody is tuned like this. If you are playing more chord heavy (as I recommend for blues) you will find that this temperament creates harsher sounding chords, therefore I don’t recommend this tuning if you are primarily a blues player.

Pure just intonation

Pure just intonation is a tuning where the chords are your main focus. The idea is to fine tune the notes relative to each other to give the best sound of the chord. What the tuner/customizer does is listening to the chord to make sure that there are no beating sound when a chord is played. The important thing here is to get the ratios of frequencies between the chord tones just right.

Pure just intonation harmonicas are basically tuned so that they are more or less only usable in one position, more often than not second position. The note that will stick out the furthest is the 5 draw, it is the minor 7th to the 2 draw and is tuned -26 cents against the equal tuning variant. If you play the 5 draw at the same time as another instrument plays this note your note will sound very flat. Therefore I do not recommend this tuning if you are primarily a melody player or if you want to play in more positions on the same instrument.

Compromised tuning

Compromised tuning is exactly what it sounds like, it tries to find the best of both equal tuning and just intonation. The chords are tuned to be smooth and the important intervals should sound nice. At the same time the individual notes are not pushed too far away. Melodies can still be played without too much dissonance against other instruments.

Both Hohner Marine Band deluxe and Hohner Marine Band Crossover use compromised tuning. The deluxe is a little bit closer to pure just intonation. The tuning of the Crossover is meant to lend itself better to more positions than the deluxe. Most players will not notice a difference between these two types of compromised tunings. I generally recommend harmonicas with compromised tuning for blues players.

Summary

I hope this explanation has helped you understand why you should care about the harmonica tuning temperament. Contact me if you have further questions.

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Uneven Harmonica Cover Plates

The cover plates on a harmonica serve both decorative and practical purposes. It is where the manufacturer can put some nice decorative designs and they will of course keep your fingers away from the reeds when holding the harmonica. If you shop around fro harmonicas you may fins that some harmonicas have uneven harmonica cover plates. In this article I give a brief explanation on why they exist.

Why?

You are most likely to find uneven harmonica cover plates on low tuned harmonicas such as the Hohner Thunderbird or on custom harmonicas. The reason for this is quite simple, low tuned harmonicas have longer reeds and run a risk of hitting the cover plate causing a rattling sound. Custom harmonicas can often be played louder and harder than out-of-the box harmonicas causing greater oscillation amplitude on the reeds that can cause them to hit the cover plate.

Example of uneven harmonica cover plates.
An example of uneven harmonica cover plates, not easy to see but the bottom plate allows for more space for the reeds to move.

Second position is often used in blues meaning the draw notes are important and the longest reeds are in the low end of the harmonica. For this reason it is often the bottom reed plate that is sticking out further on the low end of the harmonica. High pitched harmonicas are less likely to produce the rattle so there is less need to put the cover plate further away.

Alternative to uneven harmonica cover plates

If you have a harmonica with standard plates that rattles you can either buy new plates or modify the standard ones. The most common modifications I have seen is to either bend the bottom cover plate a little to allow more space between the reed plate and the cover plate or to punch a slot in the plate to give some extra room just over the draw 1 reed. It is up to you to decide if it is worth the work and the risk of ruining a working cover plate.

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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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