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.

Let me know how it works out for you and which limitations you set. Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles!

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Reed Gapping Overview

When a diatonic harmonica leaves the factory it has a form of generic setup. This generic setup is meant to work for most people. This also means that it will probably not be optimal for you. Depending on your playing style you may need to do reed gapping to get a perfect harmonica for your style. In this article I give an overview of setting the reed gap and the effects it will have.

What is reed gapping?

The reed gap is the distance between the tip of the reed and the reed plate when the reed is at rest. This distance will decide how the reed respond to different air pressures when you start playing a note. If the reed gap is set very low, the reed must be started with very low air pressure. After the vibrations starts the volume can increase. The reed will not even vibrate if the air pressure is to high. If the reed gap is set very high, the reed will need high air pressure and lots of air to start vibrating. If there is too little air or too low air pressure the air will just move past the reed and no sound is made.

correct reed gapping

Not too high and not too low.

The reed gap also determines how the harmonica responds to bends, overblows and overdraws. For draw bends the corresponding blow reed need to be set sufficiently low for it to be engaged when the draw happens. The same thing is true for the corresponding draw reed and overblows.

Getting the right balance

Getting the right reed gap is dependent on your playing style. If you play very softly you need the gap to be low. High gap is needed if you normally play forecfully. The right balance for you is when you can play both softly and forcefully on the same harmonica.

If you have sprecific needs you may need different sets of harmonicas for different styles. I remember going to a worskhop a few years ago with Marc Breitfelder who said he has three different sets of harmonicas. A “normal” set, a set for extreme overbends and a set for country harmonica vamping style.


You don’t need any complicated tools to do reed gapping. You can use a reed lifter tool, your nails or paper clip to gently push the reed upwards or downwards. Very little force is need so be very careful. You are aiming dor very small adjustements so don’t go too much by your eyes. If the action feels right when you play, it is right.

reed gapping tools

Possible tools to use for reed gapping.


Reed gapping is the modification I think is almost mandatory for all harmonica players. It is not a very complicated modification but you do have to be careful not to bend any reeds. Do it first on old harmonicas until you feel comfortable with it. I think adjusting the reed gap is something that you should consider doing before getting a custom comb even. With the right reed gap you will get a much more playable harmonica suited to your style.

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Custom Harmonica Comb Upgrade Preparations

Most harmonicas nowadays are pretty good out-of-the-box. At least if you choose to pay a little bit over the bare minimum. Still, as people get more and more sophisticated in their playing some choose to get a custom or semi-custom built harmonica. This is a harmonica modified or built by a skilled craftsman. I have harmonicas built by Günther Bayer (semi-custom), Dick Sjöberg (custom) and Joel Andersson (custom). I am very pleased with those harmonicas. In this article I will touch upon a modification you can do yourself with very little work. That is, changing to a custom harmonica comb.

I first came in contact with custom combs when when my first harmonica mentor Dick Sjöberg was developing the Sjoeberg Comb some years ago. It was part of my first custom harmonica that Dick built for me. Nowadays the Sjoeberg Combs are manufactured by Joel Andersson of J.A. Harmonicas. If you make a Google search you can find other suppliers of combs.

custom harmonica comb options

Sjoeberg Combs in different colors.

Simple optimization

Changing the comb on your harmonica to a custom harmonica comb is a good way of optimizing an existing harmonica and put it closer to the performance of a custom harmonica. What you will normally get is less leackage and more focused air stream towards the reeds. This will result in a harmonica that require less effort to play and bends will become easier.

The first thing you need to consider is if the custom harmonica comb will fit yout harmonica. Normally the manufaucturer will be very clear about this but it doesn’t hurt to be extra sure. I once got a comb I thought would fit a Marine Band deLux that was actually for a Marine Band Classic. Fortunately I could return it.

Properties of a custom harmonica comb

A custom harmonica comb is very often made out of hardwood and is fully sealed. This means that it will not absorb moisture and will keep its shape much longer. The surfaces that meets the reed plates are extremely flat to ensure a tight fit. The slots in the comb may also have a different design than you are used to. This is to control the air flow going to the reed. Some custom combs also include details like brass tube resonators to add to the overtone properties of the harmonica.

Preparing the harmonica

To benefit from the flat surface of the comb the surface of the reed plate needs to be as flat as possible. The reed plate for the blow notes has the reeds attached towrds the comb so unless you plan to remove all reeds first there is not much you can do about that plate.

What you should do is to make sure that the surface of the draw reed plate that faces the comb is as flat as possible. If you run your finger over an untreated reed plate you will feel that the pins that are used to attached the reeds stick out just a little bit. If they are left like that you will get some distance between the comb and the reed plate. This is especially true if the comb is made of hardwood. Tightening the screws will not help, the reed plate will most likely become a bit deformed.

Getting a good result

To make the reed plate as flat as possible you sand it starting with sand paper around 240 and then changing to finer and finer grade. For the final stages I use lapping paper which has extremely fine grains. This will create an almost mirror like surface. I hold the reed plate down using three fingers and move it in a figure eigth pattern to minimize the risk of an uneven surface. Also make sure that there are no unsanded spots left when you are done.

Glass plate to prepare for custom harmonica comb

Glass plate used as surface for sanding.

You need to make sure that the surface you lay the san paper and lapping paper on is as flat as possible. A table top may suffice, just realize that it is not 100% flat. I have gotten a piece of hardened glass that is pretty damn close to flat. The professionals use a lapping plate which is extremely flat to get the best result possible.

sanpaper for custom harmonica comb

Sand paper ranging from 240 to 400 and lapping paper.

Putting it all back together

Once you are happy with the surface of your reed plate you can install your new custom harmonica comb. Reassmble as you normally would but don’t tighten the screws too much, there is no need for this. If you tighten too much you run the risk of deforming the reed plates.

If you don’t have a custom comb you can actually get some of the benfits by flattening the standard wooden comb the same way as the draw reed plate and reassmbling with some non-toxic mineral oil between the reed plates and the wooden comb. This will give tighter seal and prevent the standard comb from absorbing moisture.

IV-chord Adaptions and Considerations

Playing in realtion to the chord being played by the band is what keeps us musical. The 12 bar blues gives us a good starting ground and a pretty safe path. This is especially true in second position and when using the blues scale or the pentatonic scales. I have previously written about using the V-chord to sound more professional and the IV-chord can offer the same opportunity. In this article I give you ideas on how to adapt to the IV-chord and take advantage of opportunities that otherwise pass you by.

The IV-chord and the blues scale in second position

First a look at the blues scale and the chord tones of the IV-chord. In G-major the blues scale is:

G Bb C Dd D F

The scales tones are:

C E G Bb

There is quite some overlap but not a lot of blue notes. The only clear blue note overlap is Bb which is the minor 7th. The flatted 5th and the 3rd is not in the blues scale. This means that our options for blues notes are limited for the IV-chord, which could make use of the Eb and Gb as well. Unless you are an overblow player or play a natural minor harmonica, Eb is out of the question for the lower octaves. In the higher octave it can be played by blow bending hole 8 (8+’). Gb is a good option to add playable by 2′ and 9+’.

There are also two notes in the blues scale best avoided for strong beats and long notes and those are D and Dd which would be a 2nd and a minor 2nd. These notes are dissonate but not in the bluesy way we are looking for. They are best used as passing notes.


So, to summarize it all here are my suggestions for adaptions for the IV-chord.

  • Avoid D (1, 4, 8) and Dd (1′, 4′) for strong beats and long tones.
  • Add Gb (2′, 9+’) to your notes to choose from.
  • Add E (2+, 5+, 8+) and Eb (8+’) to your notes to choose from.

By doing this you can play bluesy without straying to much from the blues scale for the IV-chord. Let me know how you get along and don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and get exclusive material!

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Different Levels of Feedback for Practice

In order to improve anything we need to understand what we trying to acheive and how close to the goal we are at the moment. To do this we need feedback when we practice to allow ourselves to judge our position. In this article I discuss the different levels of feedback we can use when practicing and how valuable they are.

The importance of feedback

levels of feedback for practice

You can use different tools to get feedback.

I would say that without feedback we cannot improve, period. Together with the end goal the feedback is what guides us through the jungle so that we can get to where we want to be. You can view yourself practicing as a control system and the input you get through various channels is the feedback signal that tell you how close to the target you are.

The different levels of feedback

The different levels of feedback you get when practicing a technique for example all have different levels of quality. Here is my classification from least valuable to most valuable.

Just playing

When we just play we may think that we are listening to what we are doing. Of course we are but we are too occupied with playing to hear the little mistakes. This is a trap many people fall into, they confuse playing with actual practice.

Practicing with a metronome

Adding a metronome to your practice routine is a huge step forward. The metronome is relentless in keeping the beat. It still puts pressure on you to really listen for how close you are to the beat and it does not tell you if you played the wrong note.

Record and review

Another step up the ladder is to use some form of recording device while practicing. This way you can review afterwards and see what you need to improve. This is best done in conjunction with a metronome. A loop pedal is a good option here as it will instantly play back what you played.

Remote offline review

If you have the option to send off a recording to an expert that reviews what you played you get even more feedback. This way you may also get feedback on things you didn’t even think about. Bluesharmonica.com offer this type of feedback in its membership. In my Udemy and Skillshare courses you get a version of this type of feedback as well.

Remote live review

Being able to consult with an expert live on something you are practicing on cuts the feedback loop shorter. It makes it easier to make corrections instantly and to ask follow up questions. Musical-U has this form of community based support.

Private lessons

At the top of the ladder of levels of feedback we have the private lessons. Having somebody listening to what you are doing, either in the room or via Skype, is the fastest way to get feedback. It is often also completmented by remote offline or remote live review to boost the results. Fo those interested in private lessons with me, please read the Courses and Lessons page.


In summary I just want to say that be mindful of how you practice and what levels of feedback you are getting. It can really make a big deffierence for your progress.

Blues Harmonica Fills

Before we get into this topic I have to be completely honest. I suck at blues harmonica fills. It is an art that so far has eluded me as player. I know however that continued study will give me result in the end. In this article I outline my view of fills and what to think of when using them in context.

The use of blues harmonica fills

blues harmonica fills

The diatonic harmonica is great for fills.

Just to give a brief definition of blues harmonica fills I would consider any riff that is used to fill the void between vocal lines a fill riff. The riff itseld is then not a part of the main melody and can often change from performance to performance. It is a way for the harmonica player to add to the excitement of the song being performed.

To add fills in a meaningful way you have to listen to what the other musicians are doing. Is the guitarist already adding his own fills? If so then you better stay away. Is there enough space in the background for you? Little Walter was a master of combining backup playing and fills and is well worth studying.


Typically blues harmonica fills are short in order not to interfer with the vocal lines. If your vocalist allows it there might me some room to start a fill before the last syllable comes out and to let the fills overlap a bit with the next line. When you are not sure it is better to stay off the vocalist’s turf all together.

If you want to use fills to put a specific charachter on the song your fills likely need to have some common ground. Perhaps same or very similar riff played with different techniques. If you are looking to add energy and excitement your riffs should be more aggresive and stand out.

Practicing blues harmonica fills

As you most likelty have noticed I have not given you any example tabs of blues harmonica fills like I did with turnaround riffs, V-IV-I-riffs and buildup riffs. I think it is better you find your own style for fills. Start by playing along songs you like an experiement with different shorter and longer riffs to find a good balance and build up a bank of riffs to use for fills. If you are worried about stepping on the vocal lines then practicing singing yourself at the same time as you do fills will help you develop appropriate riffs to use.

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Scales to Learn for Blues Harmonica Players

Probably the most used ways to stay in key when improvising is to use riffs already internilized and to use a scale fitting the key. For blues harmonica most players learn the blues scale and stick with that one. Perfectly fine but there are other scales that will benefit you as a player and can help you play when the song calls for something that is less bluesy for example. In this article I show you how to play two essential scales in second position.

The blues scale for reference

First we take a look at the blues scale. If you play a C harmonica in second position you will be playing in G. The G blues scale is:

G Bb C Db D F G (octave)

This root b3 4 b5 5 b7 root one octave above.

Scales Blues Scale

The blues scale.

The blue notes are the minor third (b3, Bb), flatted fifth (b5, Db) and the flat minor seventh (b7, F). These are the notes that gice us that special bluesy feeling. A cool thing about the blues scale is that it works over both minor and major keys (although people tend to stay away from minor keys in second position).

Minor pentatonic

The first alternative scale I want you to learn is the minor pentatonic scale. The blues scale is actually based on this scale. The only difference is that the minor pentatonic scale does not have the flatted fifth (tritonus) which is considered the most dissonate interval. This means that if you stay within the minor pentatonic scale you will stay clear of some of the more dissonant riffs that may not be appropriate for some songs.

The G minor pentatonic scale is:

G Bb C D F G (octave)

This root b3 4 5 b7 root one octave above.

Scales Minor Pentatonic

The minor pentatonic scale.

Major pentatonic

The second alternative scale is the major pentatonic scale. This is a bit different and does not have the blue notes of the blues scale or minor pentatonic scale. It also have the major third which means this scale is best suited for major tunes. Since the blue notes are missing this is a good choice for songs with a happier feel to them where bluesy riffs feel out of place.

The G major pentatonic scale is:

G A B D E G (octave)

This is root 2 3 5 6 root one octave above.

Scales Major Pentatonic

The major pentatonic scale.

This may require some work as A is three draw whole step bend and you want that in tune. Tricky but worth working for.

Putting the scales to use

To put these scales to use you need to internalize them so that you can stay within them when you choose to. Spend some time learning them and try using them to different jam tracks to work out where they work best for you.

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Practicing Harmonica Bending Technique

Bending notes on the harmonica is one of the tools that make the instrument so appealing for blues. Being able to create those missing notes is cruical for getting the right blues feeling. It doesn’t matter how long you play, you can always improve your harmonica bending technique. How you practice is of importance getting the right systems involved is crucial. In this article I will guide you through how to avoid some common pitfalls and give you a good start.

What to involve

Harmonica Bending Technique airflow around reeds

Manipulating the airflow around the reeds is what it is all about.

As the goal is to change the pitch we play it is important to understand a little bit of what goes on. When we bend we manipulate the air flow through the harmonica so that the draw reed slows down lowering the pitch. At some point the blow reed will start vibrating and interact with the draw reed. This is not done by force which is a common misconception among beginners. What you need is good control of your tounge and your throat. My manipulating the position of your tounge and the shape of your mouth and throat cavity you will reach the desired effect.

In order to get this going you need to be able to hear the pitch you are aiming for in your mind. This becomes the target you are trying to achieve. At the same time you need to be able to understand how you manipulate the position of your tounge and the shape of your throat. When you achieve a lowering in pitch you make a mental note of how it feels. This feeling is important to remember as it guides you in what to control. It is however not that feeling you should be targeting.

Bending will feel differently on different pithced harmonicas so you cannot rely only on the feeling of the bend. What you hear is what should guide you.

Visual cues

By using tuners or apps like Harp Ninja you can visually see how close you are to getting the right pitch. This is very important when you start practicing harmonica bending technique but it is not something you should rely on when playing. Remember that a tuner or Harp Ninja will not be available to you in the heat of battle but your ears will.

Finding the pitch

To be able to mentally hear the pitch you first need to find the pitch. To do this using a guitar or a keyboard can be very good. You can also do what Tomlin of Tomlin Harmonica Lessons does to play 3 draw whole step bend in tune and use a second harmonica as a reference.

No matter how you choose to find the pitch to aim for, you need to consider what type of bends you are aiming for. You may not always aim for exactly the pitch on the same hole.


All in all practicing harmonica bending technique comes down to using visual and sensory cues when needed, especially when starting out, but getting your ears in play as much as possible. The ears and your listening skills really are important in many aspect of music.

Let me know how you practice work out for you!

Blues Harmonica Buildup Riffs

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.

Blues Harmonica Buildup Riffs Pickup style

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.

Blues Harmonica Buildup Riffs Triplet

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.

Blues harmonica buildup riffs hint type

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!

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Important Harmonica Skills

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

breath control - harmonica skills

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 control

TBT - Tool for learning harmonica techniques

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.

A metronome is a great tool when practicing harmonica

You don’t need an expensive metronome.

Listening skills

harmonica skills - listening

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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