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.

Articulations

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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Learn from Great YouTube Videos

When I started playing harmonica it was really a challenge to find any information on how to play. It was a big job simply finding any information and then I had to gamble on it being good. Today we sort of have the opposite problem, there is so much information out there that it can be a challenge finding the right information for you. With this page I try to fill a place in cyber space and in this article I have collected a number of helpful YouTube videos. As you will find these are not all the “usual suspects” for blues harmonica, I have tried to broaden the horizon a little bit.

Learning to swing

Aimee Nolte is a jazz musician and teacher who has a bunch of interesting YouTube videos. The first one I ran into was on the topic of swinging. I think there is a lot of things blues players can take from this video.

Improving rhythm

Let’s be honest, everybody probably need to work on their rhythm. I know I have to and that is why I am learning to play rhythm guitar and cajon. This video by Adam Neely gives you a way to improve your rhythm by connecting to your ability to speak. Not a bad idea at all.

A bit of music theory

As you might know I am a big fan of learning at least a little bit of music theory. The circle of fifths is one part of music theory that can open a lot of doors. It is a tool for song writers and musicians and teaches you about relationships between keys in music. This video by Mark Newman takes you on a deep dive of the usage of the circle of fifths.

Effective practice

Part of what I try to communicate with Blues Harmonica Kaizen is how to practice effectively and to learn new with joy. This TedEd video teaches a lot of what I have come to understand about learning and practice. A real gem among YouTube videos.

Your favorit YouTube videos?

If you have any other favorite videos or hidden gems I would love to hear about them. Drop me an e-mail or comment below!

Improvise with more than riffs

Being able to improvise is a highly sought after skill among musicians. Some blues harmonica players even regard it so highly that they don’t want to learn music theory. I have noticed that the focus on riffs sometimes mean that other forms of improvisation are overlooked. It is important to understand which tools you have at your disposal when you improvise. In this article I outline some tools you shouldn’t forget.

Chorus forms

David Barret who runs BluesHarmonica.com and who has systemitized blues instruction for a long time teaches chorus forms. They are basically patterns for how you repeat riffs in a chorus. By understanding how they work you shift your focus from finding a new riff to play to thinking about if you should repeat what you just played or play something new. Chorus forms also make it easier for the listener to follow your improvisation.

Note presentation

If you think that you might repeat yourself too much (listeners often want more repetition than you might think) you should consider how you present the notes you play. Always playing notes the same way will eventually become boring. Switch how you present the notes either between riffs, between choruses or from start to finish in your solo. Try to use clean notes, dirty notes, chords, tounge slaps, pull slaps, octaves, fake octaves, partial chords etc to keep your listeners intreseted. If you worry about repeating yourself to much then changing how you present notes when you repeat a riff might make yourself feel a little bit more at ease.

Dynamics

Dynamics is probably the most underrated and perhaps misunderstood musical tool. By changing the dynamics, that is the volume you play at, when you improvise you will envoke much more feelings in your audience. Let’s be honest, this is your most important job as a musician. The book “Let your music sore” by Corky Siegel and Peter Krammer is an excellent book/CD combo that explains this concept brilliantly.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Improvise better

If you start paying attention to these tools you will notice bif improvements when you improvise. If you need more guidance you can either contact me for lessons or take my online course “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Udemy (signup below to get a better deal and the Welcome Package) or Skillshare (two free Premium months through the link) whichever you prefer.

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Playing other Instruments to Improve Harmonica Skills

Most of us have one instrument as our main instrument. At the same time we have limited time for practice so playing other instruments isn’t a priority. Howerver by dedicating a little bit of time to learning and playing other instruments can reall make a big difference. I don’t mean you should aim for becoming a multi-instrumentalist but learn enough to grow as a harmonica player. In this article I list some ways other instruments can aid you.

Guitar

The first instrument that springs to mind is the guitar, I am treating lead guitar and rhythm guitar as one here. Playing guitar will give you another view of the scales you play. If you learn a few blues guitar licks you can use them to increase you vocabulary and learn them even deeper. If you practice rhythm guitar with a metronome you will develop your tightness against the beat which is always a good thing. I have started practicing metal rhythm guitar and my appriciation for those guys is now very high.

Electric guitar is a good choice when playing other instruments

You don’t have to buy an expensive new guitar in you want to start playing other instruments.

Electric guitar or acoustic guitar are both valid options, choose the one that suits you best.

Bass guitar

Playing bass lines is music theory in practice so learning to play bass guitar will make you a better player both on the theoretic side and the groove side. The bass guitar sets the groove together with the drums. If you learn to play a few groovy bass lines on the bass guitar that knowledge will transfer nicely on the harmonica. You can never have too much rhythm or groove!

Drums and percussion instruments

Playing drums is a great way of working on your coordination as well as your sense of rhythm. Even though the type of coordination for drums is different from the coordination needed for harmonica your brain will make use of the new knowledge by strengthening the neural networks you have built up before.

If am entire drum set seems like an excessive investment I can recommend a  cajon instead. It is basically a drum set in the form of a box and it is great fun playing it. You can even do what I did and buy kit to build it yourself. I can promise you that playing an instrument you have built yourself adds to the satisfaction.

Playing other instruments - cajon

Cajon is a great option if percussion is your choice.

Chromatic harmonica

Most people who start out with blues harmonica use a diatonic harmonica. Learning to play the chromatic harmonica may not strike you as learning another instrument but there are enough differences to make it a viable option. The great Swedish harmonica player Mikael Bäckman has written a Master’s Thesis on the subject of using two harmonicas when practicing a lick. He found great advantages of this appraoch when writing his thesis. The title is One Lick Two Harps well worth a read.

Violin or trombone?

Violind and trombone may not be the first thing that spring to mind for a blues player but the fact that you have to create the pitch yourself is very interesting. When we are bending we have to use our ears to determine when we hit the pitch and vilinists and trombonists basically do this for every note they play. These two instruments are great ear training instruments.

Ready to start playing other instruments?

I hope I have convinced you now that playing other instruments is a good idea even if you want to keep the diatonic harmonica as your main focus. It will add to your practice, not just steal your practice time. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.

 

Harmonica Practice Backlash

Have you ever experiensed unwanted backlash in your harmonica practice. I am pretty sure you have and you are definately not alone. It is quite natural to want to move forward all the time and when we don’t, we get frustrated. In this articel I will briefly tell you why you sometimes experience backlash and what you can do about it.

When does progress happen?

Even though it is the act of practicing that leads to progress it is actually not during practice that the real improvements take place. What we do when we practice is that we fire the neurons involved in the activity. The act of repeting something will make it permenent in the end. However, just like with exercising your muscles, the real growth happens between the harmonica practice sessions. When we sleep our brains clear out toxins that are the byproduct of our everyday thinking and at the same time the neural pathways we have fired during the day are stengthened. Our new pathways can also be connected to other networks of neural pathways and make use of their stored knowledge. On the flip side of this, pathways that are not fired are pruned after some time. This is why it is so important to be consistent in your practice routines.

Why do we expereince backlash in our harmonica practice?

From time to time we experience that what we are learning seems to go away. It doesn’t matter if you are learning harmonica songs or techniques, it will happen after some time. Basically what is happening is that after a new network has grown for some time and perhaps has been connected to several other networks in our brains that it benefits from it has become a bit of a mess. Our brains then figues out a more efficient way of building up that network or neural pathway. Before the network is rebuilt, it will be torn down. It is exactly during this time that we experience our backlash. Things that seemed easy a few days ago are near impossible to do. This is extremely frustrating.

What to do

Anytime you experience this kind of backlash the best thing you can do is acknowledge that it has happened and power through. When you acknowledge what is happening you will stop yourself from being too frustrated, it is just a part of learning. Continuing to power through will restate that the technique or song is important and that the neural pathways needs to be rebuilt. It will take some time but you will come back stronger than before.

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 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.

 

The Best Harp Exercise

When it comes to practicing blues harp the top hurdle facing people is often time. In our effort to get the most out of our practice time we look for the optimal circumstances. However in doing so it is all to easy to end up not practicing at all. This was a challenge for me for a long time, I wanted to practice a lot but if I couldn’t find at least an hour of uninterupted time I just didn’t practice at all. This is of course very counter productive. For me the big change when I first learned about “kaizen” and then the best blues harp exercise you can do on the harmonica.

Icremental improvement

The word “kaizen” is a japanese word that means “change for better” and it is often used to describe that an organisation continuously improve all parts of its operation. What is very appealing with this is that even small improvements building on top of other small improvements will result in big improvements overall. Another way of looking at it is that if you become 1% better at something every day the formula becomes 1.01 x 1.01 x 1.01… and you wil be 2 times as good as when you started after 70 days (not 100 days) and 4 times as good after 140 days. The 1% gain is not added to where you started (day 1) but to where you were the day before. This is of course a very theoretical way of looking at things but at least it opened my eyes to the compound effect of small improvements. I personally reformulated this to “it is better to practice a little bit every day than to cram a long session once a week”. I touch on this as well in my article on great harmonica practice.

Blues harp train imitation

The exercise I mentioned before is known as “train imitation”. It is a very simple exercise in which you play two inhaling chords while articulating “ah-ah” followed by two exhaling chords while articulating “who-who” on holes 1-2 or 1-2-3. You start slow and accelerate and decelerate to create the sound of a steam train. You continue for as long as you like. For dramatic effect people often start and finish with a train whistle. You get this by inhaling around holes 3-4-5 combined with a little bit of hand or throat tremolo. In the beginning this exercise is quite challenging. You may not get up to any great speed at all and you may find the tone weak. However this is exactly what this exercise will help you with. It will teach you to relax and balance your breathing so that you don’t fill up on air or run out of air. The relaxation in your posture and your embouchure will greatly improve your tone.

My wake up call

Whenever I can I like to get instruction from my good friend Joe Filisko and he is a great proponent of the train imitation. In fact when I have taken his classes at Harmonica Masters Workshop in Trossingen he has talked about train imitations EVERY year. Unfortunately I ignored it the first couple of years but in 2012 (I believe) I made a comitment. I promised myslef that I would do train imitations every day for at least 30 seconds. The idea with 30 seconds was that it was so short that it would be almost impossible for me to skip it, you can always find 30 seconds.

What happened was that it was quite easy for me to keep that promise. Most days I actually practiced for quite a bit longer than the 30 seconds. Not only that, I started noticing that my tone was improving and I was more relaxed than before. After about 2-3 months I felt that my tone was at least 100% better. Also my breath control was at a whole other level than before. I think this decision has been the single most effective for developing my own playing. When I teach people blues harp now the train imitation is the first thing I teach them. I tell them that this is something they can keep practicing for the rest of their lives.

Another benefit

A cool thing with the train imitation exercise is that it is actually an early blues harp song in itslef. You just need to build it out a bit and add some effects. At HMW 2014 I had worked up the nerve to show my train imitation to Joe in class, see the video below.


The two main things here are the daily practice leading to small continuos improvements and the train imitation exercise that lends itself perfectly to short practice sessions. To round things up I want to leave you with this little challenge. Make time for practice every day even if it is just 30 seconds and spend at least some of that time doing the train imitation. Let me know how it goes! Stay in touch by signing up to my newsletter below.

Blues Harmonica and Cajun?

Blues has always been my number one type of music when playing harmonica. Sure I have played some rock songs and even some folk songs bur blues is really where my heart is. However a few years ago Joe Filisko mentioned a player by the name of Isom Fontenot in a class I was taking so I checked him out. It turns out he was a cajun harmonica player and I was fanscinated by the sound of his playing. I was hearing a lot of toung blocking techniques and I decided to learn more myself and hopefully improve my blues harmonica playing.

Going outside blues harmonica

However it wasn’t very easy to find teaching material for cajun harmonica. I did get some material from Richard Sleigh and I used that to get started. In 2016 at Harmonica Masters Workshop in Trossingen Joe actually brought a cajun study song. It was actually a very nice mixture of blues and cajun making it a great study piece for blues harmonica players. This song allowed me to really work on my 3-hole blocks which have elluded my for quite some time. You can see the result below. If you are intereseted in purchasing the study material you can find it here. Joe has a lot of other great study material on the site.

Sometimes it is good to step outside of your comfort zone to find new challenges and grow as an individual. For sure cajun music has made me a better blues player. I not only had to figure out how to play the song, I also had to figure out how to practice my new technique effectively and not just in isolation. This will be elaborate more in another post.

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Bass line studies paying off!

My bass lines studies at Bluesharmonica.com are starting to pay off big time! Really pleased with that. If fits well in with my studies of improvisation, I now understand how important the chord tones are to soloing/improvisation and the bass line studies are ingraining the chord tones very well.

I used to think that “blue notes” were the real killers in soloing, how wrong I was. Blue notes are just for spicing things up and without a lot of chord tones around them they will simply just sound akward. I guess I have been playing more chord tones and scale tones than I have realized before but becoming aware of what you are doing is always a good thing.

Another great benefit is that the V-IV-I or specifically the V-chord which has caused me troubles before I now have a plan for. It is a great chord to introduce some new tones and some freshness in the riffs. Quite powerful stuff.

Are you studying bass lines?