Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs

When starting out with blues harmonica most people start with second position. This is a very forgiving position. It means that we can start playing without knowing many riffs. However having a few beginner blues harmonica riffs can go a long way in building a foundation. Repetition is so much easier if the riffs are first internalized. The best riffs to use sound bluesy and are easy to play. As bending skills take time to develop it is also good if the riffs are free of bends. Bending and advanced techniques can always be incorporated later. In this article I give you 6 different riffs to get you started. I have tried to use as many draw notes as possible as they are the foundation of solid second position blues.

Types of beginner blues harmonica riffs

It is a good idea to learn a few different types of riffs, 1-bar riffs, 2-bar riffs, maybe 4-bar riffs and at least one V-IV-I-turnaround riff (which will be a 4-bar riff). The reason it is a good idea to have riffs of different lengths is that it will make it easier for you to compose a 12-bar blues chorus on the spot. An important skill when playing solos. I find 2-bar riffs to be especially useful. To learn more about the tab format you can read this article.

All of the recordings below are in a shuffle groove. Also note that I have not notated any techniques. Some of the recordings do have tremolos for example but that si up to you to add.

1-bar riff

First we have a simple 1-bar riff with mostly quarter notes. It is in the mid range of the harmonica starting on 4 exhale goes up to 6 exhale and ends up on the 5 draw. 5 draw is the minor seventh of the I chord which is a blue note that creates a bit of tension.

1-bar beginner blues harmonica riffs

1-bar riff

You can listen to how it sounds by blicking below.

Repetition focused 2-bar riff

This 2-bar riff is focused on repetition in the first bar before resolving on the 2 draw. The repetition in the first bar builds anticipation and tension that is then resolved by the long 2 draw.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs rpeptition focus

Repetition focused 2-bar riff

Listen to it here:

Boogie inspired 2-bar riff

This 2-bar riff is inspired by the boogie rhythm bass line you might here in a boogie song. It moves between 2 draw and 6 exhale which both are the tonic of the I-chord.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Boogie Inspired

Boogie inspired 2-bar riff

Listen to it here:

2-bar riff with pick-up note

Starting on the downbeat of beat one all the time will be boring. It is quite common to start on the upbeat of beat four in the preceding bar. This riff is an example of that.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Pickup

2-bar riff with a pick up note

Listen to it here:

2-bar riff with triplet

A triplet is three eight notes played over the duration of a quarter note. It is a good pfrase to have in your vocabulary, that is why I included this riff.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs triplet

2-bar riff with a triplet

Listen to it here:

A note on 2-bar riffs

You might have noticed that the 2-bar beginner blues harmonica riffs above all have a more actice first bar and a more stationary second bar. I would say that this is quite common but not a strict rule. There can be much more movement also in the second bar. Another thing you might notice is that the second bar is not filled, there is space at the end. This is very common and allows for a bit of space between riffs. If both bars were filled up it would be a problem playing a riff with a pick-up note right after a riff with no space at the end.

4-bar V-IV-I-turnaround riff

The V-chord in the 12 bar blues (bar 9) can cause less experienced players some problems. The reason is that the most of the chord tones of the V-chord are not in the blues scale and not as easily accesible on in the lower and middle octave. The notes played over the I and IV-chord may sound less cool over the V-chord. A good way of solving this for beginners is learning a solid V-IV-I-turnaround riff to play over bars 9-12. As you gain more experience you can improvise more here.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs V-IV-I-turnaround

4-bar V-IV-I-tunraround riff

Listen to it here:

V-IV-I-turnaround riffs are in a class of their own. They generally to be kept for bars 9-12 but can also be reused often from songs to songs. At least when toy are starting out. When you become more skilled, bars 9-12 and especially bars 9-10 give you an opportunity to shine.

Applying beginner blues harmonica riffs

When you have a few beginner blues harmonica riffs in your arsenal you have a good foundation for playing. The next step is to try these riffs over different parts of the 12-bar blues to see where you think they work best. Also try to combine them together to create longer riffs. If you have some bending skills you can try incorporating a few draw 3 half step bends instead of hole 3 draw unbent and hole 2 draw whole step bend instead of hole 2 exhale. This can increase the blues horse power of your playing. Also try some ornamental bends and techniques like vibrato, shakes and tounge slaps to spice things up.

I hope you find these riffs helpful and I am very interested to hear your thoughts. Comment below and don’t forget to like and share if you enjoyed the read!

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Benefits of Practicing Harmonica Fast and Slow

When practicing harmonica it is very easy to get too comfortable. When this happens we tend to practice the same things over and over and not challenge yourselves. I find that this is especially true when it comes to tempo. We all seem to have a tempor range which is where we feel most comfortable. For me it is usually between 85 bpm and 110 bpm. If I just start playing something, this is the range I end up in.

The dangers of middle ground

when we end up in this middle ground we seem to fool oursleves that everything is going according to plan. We stop listening to what we are doing and everything sounds right. What is really happening is that we fall back into assuming things are good because we are relaxed. For practice, being relaxed is not always good. We want to practice until we can do something in a relaxed fashion but to get there we need to be challenged.

Practicing harmonica at “very” low tempo

Not everyone knows this but to become really fast, practicing a really low tempo is the key. The reasone for this is that the very low tempo will reveal all errors and you can adress them with full attention. Then when you speed things up it is much easier to keep the precision you are aiming for. This in itself is a very nice reason to practice with the metronome set at a low tempo. It gets even better because when you practice like this you really have to mind the tempo.

At sort of medium to higher tempos you can rush the beat without it becoming apparent. Doing so will retract from the groove but it can be hard to pin point. You just won’t sound as good as you might. When the metronome (part of my essential gear list) is set at 42 bpm there will be lots of space between the swing eigths. You will become painfully aware that you are rushing.

A metronome is a great tool when practicing harmonica

You don’t need an expensive metronome.

Practicing at high tempo

Even though low tempo practice is important to playing fast with precision high tempo practice is still important. The thing I find it helps me the most with is changing my mind’s perspective of what fast is. If I am studying a song that I want to play at 120 bpm, I will start out at very low tempo to get the precision as mentioned above. Then I increase the tempo to get closer to the target. However I often find that I get stuck at somewhere around 110 bpm if the target is 120 bpm.

What I do then is set the metronome or jam track to well above the target tempo. Practicing this fast will make me miss a lot of the riffs and kind of stress me out. The magic happens when I then reset the tempo to 120 bpm. Now the target tempo will feel much slower than before and I can get pass the plateue.

Make it routine

If you make it part of your practice routine to both practice at very low tempos and use high tempos when appropriate you will super charge your practice sessions. Never let a good idea pass you bye when you are practicing harmonica.

Let me know how this works out for you. If you have any other tempo hacks, I am very interested in hearing about them.

I just recently published my “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Skillshare, sign up through this link to get a great deal on the Skillshare membership fee.

Harmonica Gear or More Practice?

If you are anything like me I guess you are a harmonica gear head, most harmonica players are. Part of the fun of any hobby is to have a reason to buy new gear. No harm in that at all. There is however harm when buying harmonica gear becomes the main reason for the hobby. It is also a problem when we start blaming our faults as harmonica players on our gear. In this article I give my thoughts on what is essential gear and what improvements come best from practice (with or without harmonica). Not all our shortcommings can be fixed with gear, very few actually I would say. I will not mention custom and semi-custom harmonicas here, they deserve their own discussion.

Essential harmonica gear

First, a look at what I consider essential harmonica gear. These are things that help you become a better harmonica player and help you practice. Maybe some people will see this list as very boring and maybe it is. However essentials are rarely very exciting.

Metronome

The metronome is what keeps us honest when we practice, it is very hard to ignore being off the beat when the metronome is running. It is also a very good tool for practicing in the extremes, either really slowly or faster than we normally can handle. You can either use a stand alone device or a smart phone app.

Portable recording device

Critical listening while we play is extremely hard. Chances are that you are not hearing your mistakes, unless they are big, while you play. The ability to record and review afterwards is essential to pinpointing what you need to work on. I have been using Zoom Q3, which also records video, since a couple of years ago. I don’t think it is available anymore but I have heard god things about the Tascam DR-40 and Zoom H1 looks like a good option. If you have a smart phone it can likely work just as well.

Harmonica gear zoom Q3

My Zoom Q3

Jam tracks

Maybe not so much gear but jam tracks in different grooves, tempos, intstrumentations, etc is a great way to prepare for playing with other musicians. There are actually two ways to go about getting jam tracks. You can either buy individual or collections of jam tracks or you can invest in a computer program like “Band in a box” that can generate whatever kind of music you need. It can even create solos in the styles of famous artists. Quite an interesting tool, also useful for songwriters and home studio geeks.

Tounge block trainer

Learning the tounge block embouchure can be quite challenging due to the fact that we cannot see what goes on inside our mouths. The tounge block trainer created by Joe Filisko allows us to see what we are doing with our tounge and that really makes things a lot easier. You find the TBT here, where there also are instructions for how you make one yourself.

Service tools

A small set of tools with screwdrivers and tools for simple harmonica maintenance is quite handy. It is a good thing to know how to maintain your harmonicas yourself. Hohner has a nice set of tools with maybe more tools than you need at first. I have written about harmonica maintenance for cleaning in an earlier post.

Harmonica gear that can wait

Unfortunately this is probably the category most people are most interest in. A lot of the gear I got first definately comes from this category so, do what I say not what I do.

Amplifier

Unless you play regularly on stage you probable don’t need an amplifier. However if you do you a small 5W tube amplifier is probably what you need. It will be loud enough for rehersals and it can be amplified through the PA for larger venues. The amp will both be a way of being heard and a way of shaping your amplified sound. Before buying one you need to figure out what you need and what kind of sound you want. There is a big market for vintage amplifiers on eBay which can cost quite a lot. There are also a bunch of modern brands that specialise in harmonica amplifiers. Sonny Jr and Lone Wolf are two well known companies. I have a Gibson Kalamazoo Amp from the 60’s which I am very happy with but it did need some attention before being playable.

One thing that you should consider before spending a lot of money on an amp is that it will make everything you play louder. If what you put into the amp sounds band, what comes out will also sound bad, only louder.

Harmonica Gear - Kalamazoo Amp

My Kalamazoo.

Bullet microphone

If you buy an amp you will also need a microphone and the bullet style is the prefered style for many players. The same goes for mics as for amps, either you buy a vintage mic or a modern version from somebody who builds new mics often from vintage parts. BlowsMeAway Productions has both modern versions and custom wooden mics with vintage cartridges. I have the Bulletinin which I am very happy with.

Effect pedals

Effect pedals is a category I am not very interested in myslef actually. I have never come to grips with them. I would suggest that you hold off buying pedals until you know what you want from them. They can be great additions if you are looking for a specific sound that you are unable to create otherwise. I would also consider pedals icing on the cake and not something that will help your overall playing, if you don’t sound good acoustically pedals are not likely going to help you. Lone Wolf has a bunch of different pedals you can check out. To me delay and reverb pedals seem like a good place to start looking if you are experimenting with your sound.

The benefits of practice over harmonica gear

If you look back at the gear I list as essential you may notice that with the exception of the tool kit everything are practicing tools. The reason I think that practice is so much more valuable is that you will always take it with you. Sometimes you will not have access to your gear and sometimes you may want to play 100% acoustically. Even at those times when you have access to all your harmonica gear and all the best equipment in the world, what you have practiced will still shine through. There is no tool in a live situation that will fix bad timing or bad tone. They are such corner stones in every great players arsenal that they deserve to be put first at al times.

If you ever have to choose between new gear and more practice, I urge you to go for more practice. Hold off with the harmonica gear until you really need it. You will be glad you did. I am curious to hear any thoughts on this.

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Harmonica Practice without the Harmonica

You may already have figuered out that I am a big advocate for practice, especially efficient practice and excercises. The more you practice the better you become, it is as simple as that. In this article I will give some ideas about how to increase your harmonica practice sessions without even touching a harmonica. It is easy to become caught up in believing that only your pure scale practice time will make you better. Good news, although scale practice, bending practice etc is important there are other forms of practice you may have not considered.

Fill up on good ideas

It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself to be a modern player or if you don’t want to copy the masters. Learning from the great masters like Little Walter, Walter Horton or Sonny Boy Williamson is essential. An excellent way of doing this is to listen to them as much as you can. By constantly filling your ears with good ideas from the past, your future ideas will become better. Don’t fall in the trap of ignoring good riffs from the past in your effort of developing your own style. Your own style develops from you absorbe ideas from others and rework them. Ignoring good input will not help you. So, get those ear plugs in and listen to good harmonica players when you can’t practice yourself.

Creative MuVo MP3 player can be filled up with songs for harmonica practice

Load up whatever music player you use with great songs to learn from.

Mental model harmonica practice

Lee Sankey is a harmonica player and instructor who has done very interesting research into the mental models musicians use while playing. He calls these models Brainstruments. The idea behind the mental model is that the musician is not playing the physical instrument bur rather his Brainstrument and the brain then translates everything into the physical world. Developing a mental model of the harmonica of course requires quite a bit of harmonica practice but it is worth while trying to figure out what your mental model is. With a mental model in place, you can think your way to becoming a better harmonica player.

Myelin

A very closely related topic to the Brainstruments is the work of Daniel Coyle which he put forward in “The Talent Code”. My short explanation would be that while practicing you develop neural pathways that are insulated with myelin which makes them faster and thereby stronger. When the pathways are in place they can be fired without the muscles moving. This means more support for mental harmonica practice.

One additional note on mental practice, if you do not do the physical “normal” practice you will not develop the mental model and the myelin will not form. You cannot just think about playing, you have to do it too.

Study theory

Theory studies may not be the your favorite thing and I know some people see it as a little bit dirty for harmonica players. I don’t understand that view at all. I think you should make an effort to understand as much as possible about what you are interested in. Understanding more about music theory will not only make you a better player, you will also appreciate the music more. It is also a perfect thing to do when you are travelling and not really want to listen to more music. Take out a theory book or do some Google searches to elevate your knowledge. If you are a complete beginner then “Music Theory for Dummies” is a good starting book.

Conclusion

I hope I have opened your eyes about what harmonica practice is and how you can apply these ideas to your own practice. Even if you don’t adapt all of these ideas, try at least one. Let me know how it works out. If you have any other ways of practicing without touching a harmonica I would love to hear about them.

 

Harmonica Tabs and their flavors

Using harmonica tabs to learn new songs is a fairly standard approach. However a beginner can be a bit confused by the different systems. In this article I will go through the systems of tabs I have come across to give my view on them. They are fairly straight forward and once you have wrapped your mind around them they all make sense. You will however probably prefer one or two above the others.

Classifying harmonica tabs

I have divided the different flavors into a few classes depending on how they convey information. This division is based on how rhythm is notated (if at all) and how the pitches (or rather the hole of the harmonica) are notated. There is no real science behind this classification, it is a just a way to think about the different systems. Common for all systems is that the key you play in doesn’t matter. The same harmonica tabs can be used in any key. What matters however is what position the notation is in. This matters as the riffs you learn can become a part of your own riff bank for that position.

The elements I use for this simple classifications are:

  • Rhythm notation vs no rhythm notation
  • Arrows for air flow direction vs + or – for airflow direction
  • Standard music notation combination vs separate system
  • Technique notation vs no technique notation

Standard music notation based tabs

This type is very common for teaching and is used by David Barrett who runs BluesHarmonica.com. The importance of David´s work with harmonica tuition cannot be overstated in my opinion. I would consider this type of harmonica tabs to be the standard and the most common. The style consits of standard musical notation with the holes of the harmonica noted below the notes. Air flow is noted with a +-sign for blow notes and draw notes have no sign. This feels very natural to my as second position is very draw note centric. This type naturally notates the rhythm in the standard music notation. Even if you don’t like reading the notes you get a sense of the speed of the notes by distance between the numbers.

Notating techniques

Notation of techniques are done both above the notes and after the hole notation. This may seem a little bit confusing at first but you normally get used to it quickly. Bends are notated with one or more ´-signs after the hole number. Slaps are notated by small rings above the notes and dips in the pitch are notated by small a downward facing arrow above the note or notes. Bascally any technique can be notated in this system making it a very rich and poweful tabulature system.

Standard harmonica tabs

Small part of a trascription from BluesHarmonica.com

The complete listing of notation symbols are found in David’s books or as part of his transcriptions. A side benefit of using this types of tabs is that you may learn the full standard music notation without extra effort. At least it will make any further studies in music notation easier.

Filisko-style harmonica tabs

The style of tabs used by Joe Filisko is quite different from the previous style. Rather than notating rhythm in standard music notation this type has its own system. Every beat of a bar is divied into sub-divisions of the beat depending on the groove of the song. If the song is in a straight-eigth feel the quarter notes are notated by a horizontal line with two short vertical lines. One for each eigth note. If the song is in a shuffle feel each quarter note is notated by a horizontal line with three short vertical lines. Basically the quarter note is divided into triplets.

The air direction is notated by arrows, upward arrows for exhale and inhale arrows for draw. Note bending is notated by horizontal lines on the arrows and the harmonica hole(s) played by numbers next to the arrows.

These tabs also notate the techniques used such as throat tremolo or vamping. You find a complete listing of the notation symbols here.

Filisko style harmonica tabs

Tabs used by Joe Filisko.

I have used this style of harmonica tabs quite a bit now so I really like it. I think it visually works very well for me. The rhythm of the riffs can be worked out quite easily.

Simple e-mail friendly harmonica tabs

If you want to send harmonica tabs you a friend and use one of the two systems above you will most likely have to send a JPEG-image. To avoid this you can opt for a more e-mail friendly system. Some tabs-oriented sites use this type of system as well. These systems do not notate the rhythm at all but only notate the holes played on the harmonica. The sign used to notate the air direction can vary and so can the placement of it, before or after the number. The examples below show the same riff notated with different systems.

  • Draw notated as no sign, – or d
  • Blow notated as +, no sign or b
  • Half step bend notaded as ´

Using ´+´ for blow

2  3′  4+  4  2

USING ´-´ for draw (sign placed before hole number)

-2  -3′  4  -4  -2

blow and draw notated with ´b´and ´d´

2d  3’d  4b  4d  2d

To be honest, I am not a big fan of using ´-´ or b/d-notation but I guess it is a matter of what I am used to.

Simple tabs with rhythm notation

You will sometimes come across a combination of the standard music notation tabs and the simple e-mail friendly tabs. That is when the simple tabs are complemented with music notation that is not notating the pitch. See the picture for an example of the rhythm notation.

Rhythm notation for harmonica tabs

Rhythm notation

This type of notation is not very common from what I have seen.

Arrow based harmonica tabs

Sometimes you come across tabs that use arrows for airflow direction but with no exact notation for rhythm. For these systems the length of the arrows normally gives an indication of the length of the notes in relation to each other. Bent arrows notate nemt notes.

Arrow based harmonica tabs

Notation with arrows and numbers.

I find these systems to inexact to be really useful. They do give support when you also have a recording of the song or riff. This style of tabs is used in “A Sourcebook of Sonny Terry Licks for Blues Harmonica” by Tom Ball which also includes recording of the licks.

Combination of arrow based tabs and standard music notation

I have found a variation of the arrow based system in a few books. This variation looks a lot like the system used by David Barrett but uses arrows for air flow direction and bends. It also seems to have fewer notations of techniques making it less powerful in my opinion. See the picture below for an example. This method is used in “Blues Harmonica Collection” by David McKelvy.

Arrow harmonica tabs and standard music notation

Combination of standard music notation and arrow tabs.

Rhythm from song lyrics

Some tabs you come across combine harmonica tabs with song lyrics and when you do that you will get a sense of the rhythm without notating it. This is not a good option for instrumental songs for obvious reasons. There is an example here.

Conclusions

As you can see there are a number of ways of notating harmonica tabs and with a little bit of thinking you can navigate most of them now. For my part I really think that the systems used by Bavid Barrett and Joe Filisko are the most versatile, exact and useful.

I hope you find this articel useful, let me know if you have any questions. Don’t forget to share this and to sign up to my newsletter below.

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