Harmonica Masters to Inspire You

Learning something new takes effort. I guess you already know that. This is also part of what makes it so rewarding. To keep practicing inspiration can go a long way. In this article I have put together a short list of harmonica masters from history that can keep yuor motivation up.

Sonny Boy Willimanson II

No list can be complete without SBW II aka Rice Miller. His tone and control of the instrument is second to none. Also, very few players look as cool as him while playing. Check out this video of him playing “Bye bye bird”.

Sonny Boy Willimanson II in action.

Little Walter

Moving on with the harmonica masters Little Walter (aka Walter Jacobs) has a natural place on the list. He did some fine work with Muddy Waters and can also serve as great inspiration if you want to learn to play blues chromatic.

My babe!

Big Walter Horton

Big Walter is probably the best side man in history, he didn’t seem to have all that ambition to be the front man. Anyway, no matter who he played with his sound was absolutely amazing. If you want a real challenge then learn a few of his songs.

Shakey!

Sonny Boy Willimanson I

Sonny Boy Willimanson I (aka John Lee Willimanson) was one of the most influental early players. He was younger than SBWII but died before SBWII started his career. He has a different sound to the players above but was the one to popularize second position with “Good morning little schoolgirl”.

Sonny Boy Willimanson I

Sonny Terry

You may have noticed that the name Sonny seem to come up a lot, maybe there is something magic about that name. Sonny Terry is a big inspiration for me and also a source for big frustration. His sound is so hard to capture but truly amazing. What a show man.

Sonny Terry

Letting the harmonica masters inspire you

The best way of letting the masters inspire you is to listen to them as often as possible. If you fill your ears with their licks you are more likely to start emulating their sound when you are ready.

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Harmonica Tremolo or Vibrato?

When people talk about different techniques I often find there is a bit of confusion when people don’t agree on definitions. The part where I hear and read this most often is regarding harmonica tremolo and vibrato. In this article I will give you the definitions on how I think about these techniques.

Harmonica tremolo definition

The tremolo effect means that the volume goes up and down periodically. You can do this either with your breath or by cupping and opening your hands. This can be used either on single notes, dirty notes or chords. Sometimes people call shaking their head and going between holes tremolo but I prefer to call that a shake to separate it from a “proper” harmonica tremolo. The shake can of course be done with a tremolo but they are not the same thing.

Vibrato definition

A vibrato on the other hand changes the pitch of the note(s) rather than the volume. However sometimes people think they are continously changing the pitch when in fact they are changing the volume. This is where some of the confusion arise. As with the shake the vibrato can be combined with a tremolo.

Making it more complicated

Actually, the shake technique where you moreve between two notes or between dirty notes belong in the vibrato group rather than the tremolo group since the frequency content changes. Some people may also argue that the a harmonica tremolo done by hand technique changes the frequency content of what you hear and then it could be placed in the vibrato category. All in all Iike to think about what my intentions are and call it a harmonica tremolo if I am actively changing the volume, a vibrato if I am actively changing the pitch and a shake if I am shaking my head.

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Octave Split on the Harmonica

Playing single notes on the harmonica is an important skill but is not always the coolest sound on the harmonica. Fortunately tongue blocking offer a number of ways to get more out of your tones. One of these ways is to use the octave split to get more sound out of the harmonica.

What is an octave split?

Octave split is quite simply playing two single notes one octave apart simultaneously. To the listener it will not necessarily sound like two notes (if the harmonica is properly tuned that is). Two notes played at once will be louder than one note and that will definately help when you are playing notes in the high range.

How to do it

In principle, splits are very easy. You simple play one note out of the right corner of your mouth and another note out of the left corner of your mouth. Your tongue will block the holes between them. To do this you need to control your tongue so that it is just wide enough to cover the holes between notes. You will also need to make sure that your mouth has the right size to block out any holes outside the holes you are aming for. Once again I will mention the Filisko Tongue Block Trainer which is a great tool for practicing this.

Not all splits are created equal

To get a proper octave split you will need to know where to find it. The exhale notes are quite easy, simply block two holes to get an octave. 1+-4+, 2+-5+, 3+-6+, 4+-7+, 5+-8+, 6+-9+ and 7+-10+ are all true octaves.

For the draw notes it is another matter. On the lower end some octaves are true octaves when blocking two holes and some are fake octaves. Going up higher you will need to block three holes to get true octaves.

True octaves:

  • 1-4 (two holes blocked as for the exhale notes, know as a 4-hole block)
  • 3-7 (three holes are blocked, known as a 5-hole block)
  • 4-8
  • 5-9
  • 6-10

Apart from the 1-4 all other 4-hole blocks are fake octaves. The 2-5 is quite common and is a root note (2) with a minor seventh on top (5), a very bluesy sound. The other 4-hole draw blocks can be used, just be careful about if it is the sound you want.

The fact that you need to adjust from 4-hole to 5-hole blocking can be quite challenging when playing the upper range. However it is well worth the effort to get the extra power in your notes.

Make it your own!

If you are not already using octave splits I suggest you start praticing it to get the most out of your upper range and add to your sound.

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Teaching Harmonica as a Beginner

When people think of teachers and instructurs I feel they often think of very experienced teachers. There is of course nothing wrong with this but I think there is value to be teaching harmonica even as a beginner, or rather a slightly more advanced beginner. In this article I will outline my thought on the benfits for the student and the teacher when the teacher is not very experienced.

Drawbacks of an inexperienced teacher

Let’s start with some obvious drawbacks. An inexperienced teacher will of course be unfamiliar with some of the more advanced techniques. If the student want to progress very quickly he or she may feel held back. Also the teacher may feel inadequate when teaching harmonica as a beginner. If this is enough to discourage the teacher or the student is a matter of personal preference.

Advantages for the teacher

I find that one of the things that is most valuable to be as a teacher is that I need to explain what I do. That extra effort you need to put in to explain what you recently learned to explain to somebody else can be really beneficial for your own learning. Teaching is also a great driving force to keep developing yourself. If your student(s) are not that much more inexperienced that you, this can be a strong driver.

Advantages for the student

Learning from a seasoned pro can be intimidating for some people. A less experienced teacher can definately be a plus if you feel that way. The fact that the teacher was learning the same thing not long ago can also work in favor of the student. It is easier to remember what was hard when the experience was not that far back. The teacher can be seem more as a fellow explorer of the instrument.

What about a combo for teaching harmonica?

It is of course up to each and everyone to decide who to learn from. However I feel that the idea of beginning teacher should not be too easily discarded. Especially when you live in an area where there are no experienced teachers. The combination of a slightly more advanced beginner teaching harmonica in combination with online teaching such as Bluesharmonica.com can be a powerful combination. This is also good for the teacher as you can get great material that way (both need to be members of course).

I hope you see that there can be value in both teaching as a beginner and being taught by a beginner.

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