Contemporary Harmonica Masters

In a previous post I listed some of the harmonica masters from history that have inspired me. In this post I want to point you in the direction of some contemporary harmonica masters that are worth a serious listen. There are of course many more active players, see this as a starting point.

Jason Ricci

When I think of fast players with spectacular riffs, Jason Ricci comes to mind. Maybe not your first choice if you are looking for a traditional appraoch but he can be really inspiring if you like speed. Check out the video below.

Jason Ricci in action.

Kim Wilson

No list of contemporary harmonica masters can be complete without Kim Wilson. He is also a player many non-harmonica musicians look up to. Check out his work with “The Fabulous Thunderbids” in the video below. Great blues rock and texas blues!

Kim Wilson in action.

Rick Estrin

One of the coolest dudes around is Rick Estrin. He has great skills when it comes to groove and making anything sound cool. He made a DVD a couple of years ago about his harmonica style and how to make the groove come alive. It was great fun to watch. In the video below he makes a solo perfomance of “Getting out of town” it doesn’t get cooler than that.

Mr Cool!!!!!

Joe Filisko

If you have read my earlier articles it will not suprise you ti find Joe Filisko on this list. In my opinion Joe is second to none when it comes to tone on the harmonica and keeping the old traditions alive. His teachings on traditional blues harmonica is excellent. He also makes a good job writing original material in traditional styles. I love the work he does together with Eric Noden, a perfect match musically.

Filisko & Noden on stage.

Other contemporary harmonica masters?

No I am curious which contermporary harmonica masters you think are missing from the list. Comment below or drop me a message, suprise me!

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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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Guitar Harmonica Duo – Getting Started

In order to progress we must challenge ourselves. As harmonica players, getting in front of an audience is an excellent way. However, even though I am very interested in harmonica music I find that other people don’t have the same interest as I. After a couple of solo harmonica instrumentals most people lose interest. a better way then I find is starting a guitar, harmonica duo.

Why not a full band?

The reason I recommend a duo (or possibly a trio) is that finding one person with a similar interest and drive is much easier than 4-5 people with the same interest and drive. The more people involved the less common ground you usually have. Another thing you may not have considered is that scheduling rehersals with a full band can be a nightmare. To me a guitar harmonica duo is the perfect setup to begin with.

Getting started

I suggest you follow a path something like this:

  1. Gather a library of music you want to play
  2. Find a potential duo partner, maybe a friend. If not then advertise on forum such as Bandfinder.
  3. Discuss what you want to do, make sure your goals are not too far apart.
  4. Try a few rehersals together, start with easy songs you are both familiar with.
  5. Build your repetoir together. You probably need about 10-15 songs before you do your first gig.
  6. Find your first gig. It can be a friends party, a café, pub or why not go busking in the street? Don’t be afraid to ask to get paid but be realistic.
  7. If it all works out, continue building your repetoir get more gigs.

A few additional pointers

Make sure that either you or your guitarist sing, pure instrumental music is harder to find gigs for in my opinion. Consider taking up singing if neither of you sing to begin with! Be prepared for that you will not be the center of attention on all gigs. Some people rather talk than listen, jsut get used to it and focus on the people who do listen. Make sure your set list contains varielty, it will keep people interested for longer. If you are adding a song you are not too sure about then put it between two songs you know you will nail. Make sure to put a little bit of talking in between the songs, script it if necessary.

My own path

I don’t play in a guitar harmonica duo myself, it quickly turned into a trio for me. Duo or trio is not that important actually, it is the act of making music together and the challenge that matters.

guitar harmonica duo or trio
Rehersal with Worn Out Soles.

Go do it!

I hope this inspires you to start a guitar harmonica duo (or trio) nad that you get out in front of an audience. Why not start looking for a guitartist today?

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Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 Trip Report

Since 2007 I have been attending the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen. I did miss 2008 but after that I have been a regular (every 4th year is skipped dut to the World Harmonica Festival). This was the 12th edition of the event and it was bigger than ever. I am recently back from Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 and this is my trip report.

Planning

Planning for this trip actually started in November 2016, since there was no event in 2017 it was a long wait but the calender was marked already back then. In December of 2017 I made my booking to Hotel Bären which is my ususal spot when I go. In may the flight was booked during October the final travel arrangements were made. Getting from Stuttgart Airport to Trossingen takes some planning, either by train/bus (4-5 changes), or by taxi (a bit pricey). This year we were lucky that our friend Thomas from Denmark was already in Germany and had a rental car.

Trip to Trossingen

On Tuesday October 30th my trip to Harmonica Masters workshops 2018 started for real. I took the train from Landskrona around lunch my friend Mattias joined me on the crowded train. We got to Kastrup Airport in good time to get through security where our harmonica cases are always taken aside as they look ver strange in the x-ray machine. It has been a tradition to start with a burger (or ribs) and a beer (or two) while waitning for boarding. During this time we were joined by our friend Jolo who took a later train. We had a great time as always waiting for boarding, although airport prices are HIGH!!!!

harmonica masters workshops 2018 pre flight meal

Pre flight meal.

Our plane trip to Trossingen was quite OK, had a few laughs and Jolo’s guitar actually got to ride in “business class” in front of us. We landed on schedule and our friend Thomas picked us up and we headed for Trossingen. Now Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 was close!

When we arrived in Trossingen we immediately checked in at Hotel Bären and then went to Hotel Traube close by, where most HMW veterans gather on the night before the event. This time is a time of great joy when you meet all your friends from previous years and also make some new friends. These nights never end early.

harmonica masters workshops 2018 Traube crowd

Some of the ususal suspects.

Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 kick-off

The event itself started on Wednesday afternoon with registration at the Music Conservatory. We were all greeted by the mastermind of the event Steve Baker who also presented all the teachers. This year there were 148 students and workshops by Joe Filisko, Eric Noden (guitar), Greg Zlap, Marko Jovanovic, David Barrett, Mitch Kashmar and Riedel Diegel. There is basically something for everyone. Steve Baker himself taught private lessons to a few students.

After the introductions we all went to our respective class rooms for our first workshops. I attended Joe Filisko‘s class, he is a great teacher and has a lot of focus on getting great big harmonica sound. In his teaching method he uses original study songs that allow the students to dig deep on the different topics.

The workshops start

On Wednesday we had two workshop sessions. Joe started with explaining the key elements to develop to get a good sound and how to effectively use what you know. We also started working on the first study song. The first task was to work on a short riff with basically no technique at all, then we built it out with more and more complex tqchniques added. It really kept us working. Something seemingly simple can in fact be really complex and to execute it well you need everything in order.

Wednesday evening

The evening in Kesselhouse started with a meet and greet hosted by Hohner. They treated us to pizza, beer, wine, t-shirts and competitions (everybody won!). It was a very nice event. Hohner is really supportive of the harmonica community and a great sponsor of Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018.

The first musical event of the evening was Joe Filisko’s informal acoustic jam. I participated on a few songs and Joe asked if I would sing as well. I sang “How many more years” which I have done on stage 2016. It was all great fun. After the jam we had an opportunity to go onstage and perform with the help of Christian Rannenberg and Eric Noden. I wanted to try a new song I had been working on so I got up, see it below. The song is in Dm and I played third position on the harmonica.

There were lots of great performances in the sessions as always. One of them was Rohan Singhal who turned 13 that night. Very inspiring to see. It had been a long day so after the last session performance was over I went back to my hotel to get some sleep.

Thursday

Before the classes started I got a chance to look at the products from Lone Wolf Blues Company who had a stand with their equipment on display. I am not a big advocate of pedals or buying new equipment but they have some interesting stuff. Heinz Jörres was also there with pictures from previous years. I was very happy to find one of me that I could buy.

harmonica masters workshop 2018, lone wolf blues company products

The Lone Wolf Blues Company display.

The workshops contunied with the material from Wednesday and we worked hard on the box shuffle song before the lunch break. In the afternoon there was an opening of an exbition of blues pictures by Heinz at the Harmonica Museum. Joe, Eric and Steve performed a few songs as well.

In the last workshop of the day Joe opened the floor for people to perform and get feedback. There were some amazing performances during that hour and a half. Joe creates a safe place and people get a lot out of the feedback. I have played in class 2016, 2015, 2014 (Born Blind and Train Imitation), 2011 and 2010 but hadn’t prepared anything for this year.

Sessions

Thursday night followed the same patterna as Wednesday night with acoustic jam followed by an on stage session. As on Wednesday we got to see some amazing performances. I performed again on stage but was not very happy with my performance. It is a very safe environment though, so I didn’t feel too bad. I decided to be smart and go to bad reasonably early this night as well.

Friday morning

Friday morning I left a little earlier to go and see the demo room for Marble amps. They had a small room where players could test their equipment. Great sound in that room! There were so many people there that I didn’t get to play but it was fun to listen to.

harmonica masters workshops 2018, marble amps

Some of the amps.

In the workshops we continued working on the material from before and Joe introduced the “Inhale Only Blues” that really challenged us to step us our breathing and get as much blues tone out as possible. The great thing about this is that it is easy to pinpoint what you need to work on yourself depending on what your goal is.

Friday afternoon

Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 had less extra curicular activities due to the holidays but one thing that was very interesting was the exihbiyion in the harmonica museum. There was a special exhibition about sonny Terry with lots of cool things from his estate. His glasses, a shirt, a harmonica and many pictures and stories. It was my first time in the museum and I am happy I got to see that.

harmonica masters workshops 2018, sonny terry harmonica

One of Sonny Terry’s harmonicas.

After the tour I decided to get some extra rest before the evening and skipped the last workshop of the day. I heard there were some great performances there.

Friday concerts

After a nice supper at Hotel Traube I went to Kesselhaus for the Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 Friday teacher concerts. Kesselhouse was already full when I got there, it was impossible to get in front of the stage. The top floor was also full from what I heard. There were three concerts, first David Barrett who played a great selection of tunes highlighting the old masters of blues harmonica. Second was Marko Jovanovic who has a different approach and mixes a lot of styles into an interestin blend. Last up was Steve Baker who was on fire and played material from his latest CD release.

Steve Baker on stage at Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018

Steve Baker with the band.

Unfortunately there were no onstage session after the concerts due to the packed program. This was really missed by a lot of the workshop participants.

Saturday

Saturday was the last day of teaching. Joe continued with the drills based on the study songs. A new study song in the style of Walter’s Boogie was introduced and we worked on key riffs and breathing. After lunch I had a nice rest in the hotel before going to the last workshop of Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018. It was a workshops with all intructors and all students. It was a Q&A session with all instructors mixed with jamming. A good way to end the teaching.

Joe Filisko at Harmonica Masters workshops 2018

Joe teaching in class.

Saturday concerts

Saturday night followed the same pattern with Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 instructor concerts. Once again Kesselhaus was filled to capacity. The evnng started with Greg Zlap who played with lots of enegry and captivated the audience. Second was Filisko & Noden who played material from their latest album “Destination unknown”. This was the highlight for me. The concerts ended with Mitch Kashmar who brought his students onstage for one song.

Filisko & Noden on stage at Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018

Filisko & Noden on stage.

Once again we missed the open stage sessions after the concerts. satyed on an talked to a lot of friends as it was the last evening and some people would leave early.

Sunday

Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 ended with a chill out brunch before most people headed back home. It is always sad to say good bye to everyone but we were all looking forward to 2019.

Harmonica Masters Workshops 2018 chill out brunch

Joe and I at the chill out brunch.

The trip home went smoothly although with a lot of waiting.

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Better Solos through Playing Backup

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

Types of backup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic of bass line for playing backup

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

Other benefits

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

Do it!

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

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Harmonica and Vocals, a Great Combo

When I started playing harmonica playing solos was what I wanted most. Since then I have become much more interested in other aspects as well. In this article I want to push for combining harmonica and vocals. There are advantages you maybe haven’t considered.

Who is most important?

When I have been to workshops with Joe Filisko he has often told the class that as harmonica players we have to count on being considered the least important person on stage. It may not be very obvious all the time but I can certaily realte to this statement. I think this partly comes from the fact that many people see the harmonica as a secondary instrument and a bit of a novelty. A great way to get around this is to add vocals to your repetoire. If you also sing you are instantly transformed to the most important person on stage. This reason alone is enough to warrant combining harmonica and vocals.

Getting rid of air

For blues players the harmonica is primarily an inhaling instrument. Singing is of course done exhaling (at least mostly). The combination is a good way of getting rid of air for more harmonica playing and getting air into the lungs for singing. Because we use the air differently this makes for an easy combination and is therefore also less complicated than people think.

Better phrasing

Vocals and harmonica share a lot when it comes to the expressiveness for music. If you practice singing you will notice interesting ways of phrasing lines that you can tranfer to your harmonica playing. Well executed phrasing and use of dynamics can really enhance a harmonica performance.

Fill practice

If you combine harmonica and vocals you will also automatically need to become better at fills. When you yourself is the singer you cannot step on the your own vocal lines. The improved fill skills will be appriciated when playing with other singers.

Harmonica and vocals summary

As you can see there are great advantages for combining harmonica and vocals. The last one I would like to mention is that it is fun. You are already putting yourself in the spot light as a musician, why not take full advantage of that spot?

Let me know how it works out for you and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

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Is Reusing Riffs Creative?

Being able to play dazzling solos is a dream for many beginning harmonica players. The nice thing about the diatonic harmonica is that is so easy to start playing and be reasonably in tune with a 12 bar blues. Taking the next step and really more effort though. Creating a riff bank by learning riffs is a good way to get going. Learning songs that the mold mastered played is another great way. However some players seem to be hesitant about reusing riffs they learn in songs. It can feel a bit like stealing and not very creative at all. In this article I give my view on this topic.

Pros and cons of reusing riffs

First of all I have to say that I am all for reusing riffs. The riffs played by Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton and others are memorable for a reason. They are damn good. If you don’t reuse those riffs you are seriously limiting yourself. The idea is to make good music and there is no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants. It may make you feel better to know that the old masters definately were resuing their own riffs (and probably other players riffs as well). For example bars 5-7 of the first solos in Born Blind by Sonny Boy Willimanson II is very similar to bars 5-7 of the second solo of Help Me. That phrase is very recognizable as SBWII and nobody would say it is a bad reuse.

reusing riffs

Part of what SBW resued himself.

On the flip side resuing too heavily can be a problem. You don’t want the audience to think you are playing a specific famous song when you are in fact jamming or soloing on your own original. Don’t rip a whole solo for example. Pull out the the riffs you like and put your own spin on them instead. With time they will become your own.

But what about creativity?

We may all have different opinions on what is creative and what is not but I don’t see using your riff bank as less creative than on the spot composing. Even if you are using patterns or riffs you already know the creative part is applying them in an appropriate situation. David Barrett calls improvisation revisiting what you already know and I think that is a good way of looking at it. One riff you pull out will lead you someplace on the harmonica, then you can pull out another riff using that place as a starting point. You can also get creative by resuing riffs and color them differently with techniques and other forms of improvisation.

Summary

So all in all I hope you see that resuing riffs you learn in song is not something to stay away from. Using them can make you sound a lot more professional and also push you to come up with your own variations. Use this gold mine the great players of yesterday have left behind!

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Stage Debut as a Harmonica Player

At one point or another in your musical career you will probably want to make your harmonica performance stage debut. Even if you are not aiming to become a professional player it is something I recommend. It can be quite a scary step to take but if you follow my little guide it will go a lot smoother.

Where to make your stage debut

First of all, in this guide I will focus on you making your stage debut as an individual. Doing it as part of a band is a whole other matter. The places you should look for should advertise either a jam or an open stage session. In these cases you will normally find a house band that provide the backup and a jam leader or keaper of the list that plan who goes on stage.

Another type of jam might be the informal jam sessions that sometimes happen in pubs and bars. In that case there is probably not a house band but the jam leader may play backup on guitar for example. These informal jams are good practice but do not really give give stage experience. There may not even be an audience.

To find a venue with a jam session or open stage you can either ask more experienced players or search online. If you live in a small town you may have to travel a bit.

Small stage for stage debut

When making you stage debut the stage doesn’t have to be huge.

Type of audience

Depending on the venue you will encounter different types of audience. It might be tempting to choose to play for an audience that is less experienced in hearing harmonica players but I think that is a bad idea. A more knowleadgable audience have probably heard lots of great players before but they are also more likely to appreciate what you do.

Consider three scenarios, you totally make a mess of everything, you make an OK performance or you make a spectacular performance. If the audience is not really interested in music and prefer to drink rather than listen they may boo you of stage in the the first case and probably not pay much asstion to you in the two other cases. However if it is a very knowledgable audience they will love you if you make a spectacular performance, they will appriciate you if you make an OK performance and they will give you points for trying in you mess it up. All in all I think a more knowledgable audience is the better option.

This type of audience is most likely found in blues clubs and venues with well established jam and open stage sessions. Workshops where musicians come to learn is another option for this type of sessions. I chose to do my stage debut at the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen. An event with some of the best teachers in the world and an audience of some of the best amateur, semi-pro and professional harmonica players in Europe (actually quite a few from outside Europe as well). See how I did below.

What to play

When you plan what you are going to play you are probably best off if you chose a song that is quite well known. This maximizes the chance that the band knows the song and plays it the way you expect. If it is an instrumental or you sing yourself you can choose the key quite freely but if you want the house band vocalist to sing you have to be prepared to adapt to his or her vocal range. You don’t wan to end up in a situation where you can’t play simply because you couldn’t agree on a key with the band. If you want to play a semi improvised instrumental you should probably stay as close to a standard 12 bar blues or one of the more common varations.

Communicating with the band

Once you know what to play you have to figure out what to tell the band. In this case less information is usually better. They must know the key, the groove and if the song doesn’t start from the top. It should probably be something like:

  • 12 bar blues, shuffle in E

  • This is “How many more years” in G

  • 12 bar blues, rhumba, in G, meet me on the V-chord

The song I chose for my debut may be stretching it a bit as it has an intro and is a 12 bar blues with two variations used (quick change and ii-V-I change). To make this work I had the intro and the chorus printed out so I could communicate it easily to the band.

Preparations

To be really prepared I recommend that you make your practice realistic. What I mean by this is that you practice the song as if the band was there. This means that you stand up, tell the band what they need to know, count off and so on. Everything you need to do on stage you do in practice. The reason for doing this is that when the pressure is on we default to what we are used to. If you are used to doing everything already you stand a better chance of doing things correctly on stage. If you miss some detail in your preparations you may experience the same thing I experienced in a gig some time ago. I didn’t prepare for the microphone setup so at the gig it didn’t work at all. It was a true harmonica rehersal gone bad.

One thing you can do if you plan to attend a regular jam session is visit it as part of the audience. This will give you a lot of information on how things are run. It is better to know beforehand to take the pressure off a little bit.

Arriving at the jam

When you arrive at the jam or open stage take a look around to find the jam leader or keeper of the list. Talk to him or her and say what you want to do. If they ask you about your experience level just be honest, it is always appriciated. When you have you place on the list, take a seat and make sure you can hear when you are called. Once on stage, do as you prepared and have fun. Don’t forget the audience, they are there to listen to you.

After your stage debut I suggest you hang around for a while. This is a great time to meet new friends and get feedback from other musicians. Who knows, maybe you find a new band or duo partner at the session. You will certainly make new friends.

Time to act

Now you know a little bit more about what goes into making your stage debut. Do you feel up for it? I may be a bit scary but I can promise that it is well worth it. Afterwards you will feel great and you will have grown as a musician and a human being. So get to it, start looking for the right session for you!

Harmonica Bending, Types and Considerations

Most people have harmonica bending in mind when they start playing, at least beginning blues harmonica players. In theory bending is simple but as any blues harmonica player knows, it takes years to develop the technique. On top of this not all bends are created equa. Depending on what you want to do, you have to treat the bends differently. In this article I will outline how I view different types of bends and what that means for their usage.

There are diiferent types of harmonica bending

Not all harmonica bending is the same.

Fake harmonica bending

The first type is fake bending and by that I mean short change in the tonal quality of the note. It can be done by for example pronouncing “oy” when playing a note. It gives the impression of a change in pitch but that is not always the case. This type is often used by beginners before any real bending is mastered. It is a good way to introduce a bit more bluesiness in your playing if haven’t learned to bend yet.

Ornamental bending

Cloesly related to fake bends are ornamental bends. These are rapid changes in pitch at the start of a note. By using ornamental bends you get a nice tool for varying your riffs. By playing the same riff twice but varying how ornamental bends are used you introduce variation and make the riff more interesting to your listeners.

Melodic bending

Melodic bending is what I call bending to create the missing notes on the diatonic harmonica. In some sense that is what harmonica bending is for but as you will see below for blues you may sometimes want to create pitches that are slightly off. Melodic bending is what you would use to play folk melodies and pop songs and requires good technique and a good ear.

Blues bending

Blues bending is quite close to melodic bending but there are few other things to take into account. For hole 3 for example bending the half step to create the minor third in second position over a major 12 bar blues can sound even bluesier if it is a lttle bit sharp. If it is a little bit sharp and played dirty it sounds really cool. This is where there is a difference between blues bending and melodic bending. This does not apply when you play over a minor blues, in that case the minor third needs to be at the correct pitch (that is the same as for melodic bending, a big reason 3rd position is often used for minor blues to get the minor third “for free”).

Another difference is that bending hole 4 down half a step is actually bent lower than the melodic half step bend. The pitch created is somewhere between Db and C on a C-harmonica. Playing the half step perfectly in pitch is not as bluesy so you want to push it down all the way to get the full effect. Knowing the difference is what gives you the real blues horse power.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Well basically it means that depending on what effect you are after you need to consider how you practice and use your harmonica bending. What I recommend is that you practice your technique so that you can chose what type of bends to use. Being able to precisely control the pitch gives you the option to adopt your bends to the type of music you play. Get your technique and ears in shape!

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Using Your Voice to Make Sense of Blues Harmonica Rhythms

If you play blues harmonica chances are you play shuffles a lot. It’s a nice groove and typically the first groove you learn to play. Since you probably play it a lot it has been etched into your brain and you don’t have to think too much to follow the groove. But what happens when you run into tabs or musical notation that are a bit more complicated? What happen when you step a little bit outside what you are used to?

Using your ears

If you are lucky you will have a sound file where the riffs you are working on is played, either in isolation or in context with a backing track or a band. In that case it is a matter of listening to the music at the same time as you are reading the tabulature and try to sing along with the rhytmic pattern. If the recording is too fast for you, you can use a program like The Amazing Slowdowner to play it at a more comfortable speed. This step is quite important to make sense of what you are trying to learn. When the rhytmic pattern is in your memory you can start worrying about the pitches as well. The process becomes something like read, listen, read, sing or hum, play on the harmonica. Try to use your ears more than your eyes.

If you want to go the technical route you can use a MIDI sequenser or similar program to program the pattern and have the computer play it back to you. Not a bad choice but not always feasible.

Using your voice before the harmonica

However we are not always lucky enough to have a recording of what we are studying or a MIDI sequencer at hand. In this case you need another method of figuring out the rhytmic pattern if it is previously inknown to you. They way I usually do this is to use my voice and use articulation to get a sense of the rhytmic phrasing. The articulations that work the best for me are:

  • 1/4-note – ta
  • 1/8-note 1/8-note straight feel – ta-ka
  • 1/8-note 1/8-note shuffle, first 1/8-note on the beat – taa-ka
  • 1/8-triplet – ta-da-ka
  • 4 1/16-notes – ta-ka-ta-ka

This list definately does not cover all possible combinations but it is a good starting point for working things out. You have to pay attention to any rests in the pattern and put together the phrases you need to get the complete harmonica phrase you are working on. Don´t forget to use a metronom, rule number 9 of Hertzberg´s Rules of Practice.

Let me know if you have any questions on this and if it has been helpful to you. Stay in touch by subscribing to my newsletter below.

Harp on!