Better Solos through Playing Backup

When most people think about blues harmonica they often think of the cool solos they have heard. Maybe this is what got you into playing as well? It was certainly of of the things that drew me to the instrument many years ago. However the more I play the more interested I get in playing backup. The training I have received by David Barrett has really opened up my eyes on this topic. In this article I will highlight how playing backup can make you a better soloist.

Types of backup

When you are playing backup you can choose a number of different approaches. These types are generally categorized something like this:

  • Hooks
  • Riffs
  • Sonic
  • Rhythmic
  • Horn lines
  • Bass lines

A hook is a riff that gives a special character to a song, something that needs to be there for people to recognize the song. A good example is Hoochie Coochie Man, I think we can agree that if you take that out the song lose too much.

Playing riffs that are not hooks is another way often used, the key then is to match the complexity of the riff with repetition. You can use complex/busy riffs if they are repeated over and over again. The riffs also need to work beneath the vocal lines without disturbing them.

A sonic approach is when you play long droning sustained chords that sound a bit like organ chords.

The rhytmich approach calls for ghost chords that add rhythm without too much pitch sound. Kind of like hand percussion.

Horn lines are riffs that sound very much like the stabbibg lines horn sections often play.

Bass lines are what we are going to be focusing here, they are riffs based mainly on chord tones that follow the chord progression closely. Think of it as what the bass player would play.

The magic of bass line for playing backup

The reason bass lines are so great for making you a better soloist is that they are music theory in practice as David Barrett puts it. Bass lines form the outline that the rest of the music can rest in. Since bass lines also both follow the chord structure and rely heavily on chord and scale tones, where to find these tones will become engrained into your mind. When you instinctically know where the chord tones are you can easily adapt your playing to the chord the band plays. Also, the chord tones should make up the bulk of the notes you use in your solo to sound professional. If you play too many outside you notes you will sound original but also very weird.

Other benefits

Other benefits of using bass lines for backup is that you learn to communicate with the band, especially the bass player. You will tighten up your sense of rhythm which is always good. And last but not least, if you get into the habit of playing backup you will play more during the songs and when it is time to solo you will be more into the groove. This last thing is true for when using the other approaches as well and has become super important to me.

Do it!

I hope I have inspired you to start playing backup (or more if you already do some) and now I want you to go and learn more about it. Let me know how it goes and don’t hesitate to send me any questions.

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Third Position Beginner Riffs

Playing in more positions than just second position is a great way of becoming more versatile. One of the first positions to work on then is third position. I think getting to know the scales and chord tones of the new position you are working on is very important but learning a few riffs can get you started quicker. Here I have collected some third position beginner riffs to get you going.

Descending riff

First off we have a nice decending riff that uses the blues scale and resolves on the root note.

third position beginner riffs - descending riff

Descending riff resolving on root.

You can listen to it here in 70 bpm.

Ascending riff

Here is an ascending riff for you that moves from the root note to the root note one octave higher.

third position beginner riffs - ascending riff

Ascending riff from root to root.

Listen to it here in 70 bpm.

V-IV-I-tunraround riff

Handling the V-IV-I-tunraround can feel a bit akward in a new position so it is a good thing to have one in your arsenal to begin with. This one has quite a standard feel to it and is quite easy to play.

third position beginner riffs - V-IV-I-turnaround

IV-IV-I-turnaround riff.

You can listen to it here in 70 bpm.

Summary

These third position beginner riffs won’t make you an expert third position player but they will definately give you a place to start. In later articles I will focus on how to build your riff bank further and how to reuse what you already know in second position. To get inspiration for playing third position, Little Walter is a good idea to listen to.

If you are looking for second position riffs you can also find them in previous articles, beginner riffs, V-IV-Is, turnarounds and buildup riffs.

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When are You Done Practicing Bending?

Many beginner harmonica players are drawn to the sound of second position and bending. A lot of the cool sounds we all love come at least partly from that combination. When I was starting out I didn’t really know which techniques I needed but I soon found out that bending was important. I remember a lot of frustration practicing bending and I just couldn’t wait to ben done. I had an idea that once I had learnet to bend notes I would be done. The question I answer in this article is: “when are you done practicing bending?”.

Done?

I will cut straight to the point, you will never be done practicing beding. Even the masters like David Barrett and Joe Filisko work on keeping their technique up to par (especially on low tuned and high tuned harmonicas). I think you should see this as something positive rather than something negative. You can always improve and you will most likely improve a lot faster when you are starting out.

The progression

I have previously written about different types of bending and these types can also be seen as steps on the ladder to mastery. The very first type, fake bending, can be accomplished with very little practice. Ornamental bending takes a little bit more practice but should be feasible to accomplish within days of starting. For proper blues and melodic bending you should allow yourself a couple of months of practice before it really sinks in. Even after this point you need to work on expanding the range of harmonicas you can bend on.

Very low tuned harmonicas and the higher range such as E, F and high G require special attention and I suggest you work on those harmonicas when you need them. Practice bending over the entire range of pitches is not strictly necessary unless you use all keys in your repetoire.

Summary

All in all, you will always keep practicing bending as long as you play harmonica. The positive note is that your level of control will improve and your ability to express yourself on your instrument will improve. Figure out what level you need to be at and practice accordingly. Also make sure that you are practicing in an efficient manner.

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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 areĀ 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.