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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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!
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.
The Black Friday Sale is a big thing, so also on Udemy where I published my course a couple of months back.I really enjoy teaching and this course is a way for me to reach people I normally cannot teach face to face. Online courses are also a great way for people to study at thier own pace.
The topic I chose for my first course is blues harmonica soloing, probably the main thing that gets people excited about learning to play harmonica but also difficult to develop systematically. In my course I focus on giving the right amount of information to allow people to set their creativity free on the harmonica.
A few years ago I got very interested in minor blues as it is something we blues harmonica players tend to shy away from. Some people even think you cannot play blues over a minor chord progression.
This is of course incorrect but I can kind of see why people get the idea. If you are a player who always play in second position and have tried playing a solo when the band is in minor you probably noticed that some of the riffs you usually use weren’t working as well. This leads people to believe that blues and minor don’t mix or that it is too difficult to bother with.
Understanding minor blues
When I started thinking about minor blues it was quite apparent that it wasn’t the fact that the chords were minor that was the problem. The blues scale is based on the minor pentatonic scale so a minor key should be no problem at all. After thinking about it for a while i realised that it was the minor third that was causing most players problems in second position. Playing a minor third over a major chord sounds really bluesy, even if the tone is not 100% in pitch. For example playing the 3-draw half step bend a little sharp (maybe just a quarter note bend) over the I-chord is perfectly alright. You can also play the 3-draw unbent which then matches the chord without being part of the blues scale. This means that you will rarely be really off in 2nd position.
Over the I-chord all blow notes are chord tones so that is pretty easy as well in 2nd position. The V-chord is trickier but most people handle it by using standard V-IV-I licks.
Second position challenges in minor blues
If we look at minor blues the minor third now becomes a chord tone as well as a blues scale note. Since it is a chord tone you really want it in tune, too sharp or even 3 unbent will not be any good and certainly not bluesy. Looking at the iv-chord the 2-blow will no longer be a chord tone, in fact unless you have mastered overblows the minor third is not available. This also means that all full blow chords are out which takes away some of the power of 2nd position. Even the draw 1-3 chord which is very commonly used won’t work because it is the major chord.
What you can do is stay away from the chords, 2 blow on the I-chord and make sure to play 3 draw half step bend in pitch. Or you can do what I did and opt for third position. Why is third position good for minor blues? Well simply put the minor third is quite easily accessible meaning that you won’t get in so much trouble playing it. In fact, the blues scale on holes 4-8 is dead simple and you only have to bend for the minor fifth. Here is what it looks like:
4 5 6+ 6′ 6 7+ 8 (Root, minor third, fourth, minor fifth, fifth, minor seventh)
It is a bit trickier in the low octave but it is not impossible:
1 2” 2/3+ 3”’ 3” 4+
Basically, if you stay above hole 3, third position is very easy and you can always develop the lower octve later.
Now, there are some misconceptions about third position. Some people think that third position is exclusively for minor songs and that is not true. You are playing the same scale so it’s not a specific minor scale you are playing. Third position works just as well over a major chord progression. I think this misconception comes from the fact that it sounds a bit darker playing in the third position but that comes from the fact that the minor thirds are more easily controlled.
Another thing I wanted to explore at the same time was blues rhumbas so I chose to write a rhumba in third position. You can check it out below. If I had written the song today I may have included a part where I play the very well known rhumba riff you often hear as backup.
As we all know, becoming a great harmonica player takes practice. Lots of practice. What suprises me sometimes is that how little thought some people put into how they practice. When I became serious about blues harmonica quite a few years ago I quickly found out that I was time constrained. It wasn’t because of lack of interest I wasn’t practicing 8 hours a day, it was simply because I had so many other obligations. Work, family, house, garden etc etc. You know how it is. This led me to thinking about how I could make the best use of the time I actually practiced.
Some time ago I took the time to record a few YouTube videos I chose to call “Hertzberg’s rules of practice”. It was my way of collecting the ideas I had developed over time that made my practice better than when I started. It turned out to be 9 rules for some reason, I don’t know why. Now I thought it would be a great time to summarize them here in this article. For full explanation of the rules watch the videos.
1. Quality & quantity More is not always better, it has to be good as well. Rule #1 video.
2. Consistency is king
Improvements fade if they are not maintained. Rule #2 video.
3. End with a positive feeling
What happens after the practice is also important to end on a positice note. Rule #3 video.
4. Have your gear ready
Don’t waste time when you practice! Rule #4 video.
5. Set your intentions
If you know what you want, everything falls into place. Rule #5 video.
6. Record and review
We don’t always hear what we play when we are playing. Rule #6 video.
7. Make performance practice realistic
The way be pratice is the way we default to under preassure. Rule #7 video.
8. Check relaxation
The more relaxed you are the less you will fight yourself. Rule #8 video.
9. Let the metronome rule
Staying in time is much more difficult than many people think. Rule #9 video.
If you follow these rules I can guarantee you that your blues harmonica practice will be much more efficient. Not only will your progress be quicker but you will also likely spend more time practicing. Everything adds up!
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Everything moved quicker than I expected my course is already live on Udemy. I am very excited about this.
The course is for beginnig and intermediate harmonica players who want to improve their soloing skills. The course covers everything for simple 12 bar blues solo strategies up to startegies that include supporting the chord progression, dynamics, solo structure and creating excitement. This is what you need to take your solos to the next level and really integrate what you play with the music.
If you want to become better at playing blues harmonica solos, this is the course for you.
Forr the last month I have been working on a course to publish on Udemy. The reason I have chosen to go with Udemy is their great support in putting together courses. Now I have been able to focus on the material I want to tech rather than designing web pages. Hopefully everything will be up and running within a few weeks. I am very excited about this!
After the instructor concerts Friday night at HMW 2016, there was a short session with a great band. I hadn’t really planned to play anything but I couldn’t resist playing with such a great band. I was very happy afterwards. Getting practice as a blues harp player is very important. Earlier in the week I had played in Joe Filisko’s class.
Guitar: Kai Strauss
Bass: Thomas “Gaz” Brodbeck
Piano: Christian Rannenberg
Drums: Bernhard Egger
Become a better blues harp player
If you ever get the chance to play on stage with professionals I suggest you take it! The experience will make you a better blues harp player. Just know that the first couple of times it will be quite intimadating. However this is how all great performers start. You have to practice to become good. To make things less intimadating I suggest you pick an occasion where you are surrounded by friends. Also make sure that you are prepared. Just knowing the song you are going to play is not enough. You need to prepare for the situation as well.
Joe Filisko’s has said:
If somebody asks you to play. Always say ‘Yes’ but always be prepared.
I think this a good quote to keep in mind. You never know when a good opportunity presents itself. If you are not prepared when it does, you will kick yourself later. As you become more familiar with the situation you will need less preparation. On this occasion for example I hadn’t planned to play. The opportunity however was too good to pass up.