Before we get into this topic I have to be completely honest. I suck at blues harmonica fills. It is an art that so far has eluded me as player. I know however that continued study will give me result in the end. In this article I outline my view of fills and what to think of when using them in context.
The use of blues harmonica fills
The diatonic harmonica is great for fills.
Just to give a brief definition of blues harmonica fills I would consider any riff that is used to fill the void between vocal lines a fill riff. The riff itseld is then not a part of the main melody and can often change from performance to performance. It is a way for the harmonica player to add to the excitement of the song being performed.
To add fills in a meaningful way you have to listen to what the other musicians are doing. Is the guitarist already adding his own fills? If so then you better stay away. Is there enough space in the background for you? Little Walter was a master of combining backup playing and fills and is well worth studying.
Typically blues harmonica fills are short in order not to interfer with the vocal lines. If your vocalist allows it there might me some room to start a fill before the last syllable comes out and to let the fills overlap a bit with the next line. When you are not sure it is better to stay off the vocalist’s turf all together.
If you want to use fills to put a specific charachter on the song your fills likely need to have some common ground. Perhaps same or very similar riff played with different techniques. If you are looking to add energy and excitement your riffs should be more aggresive and stand out.
Practicing blues harmonica fills
As you most likelty have noticed I have not given you any example tabs of blues harmonica fills like I did with turnaround riffs, V-IV-I-riffs and buildup riffs. I think it is better you find your own style for fills. Start by playing along songs you like an experiement with different shorter and longer riffs to find a good balance and build up a bank of riffs to use for fills. If you are worried about stepping on the vocal lines then practicing singing yourself at the same time as you do fills will help you develop appropriate riffs to use.
Let me know how you get along and don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and get exclusive material!
Probably the most used ways to stay in key when improvising is to use riffs already internilized and to use a scale fitting the key. For blues harmonica most players learn the blues scale and stick with that one. Perfectly fine but there are other scales that will benefit you as a player and can help you play when the song calls for something that is less bluesy for example. In this article I show you how to play two essential scales in second position.
The blues scale for reference
First we take a look at the blues scale. If you play a C harmonica in second position you will be playing in G. The G blues scale is:
G Bb C Db D F G (octave)
This root b3 4 b5 5 b7 root one octave above.
The blues scale.
The blue notes are the minor third (b3, Bb), flatted fifth (b5, Db) and the flat minor seventh (b7, F). These are the notes that gice us that special bluesy feeling. A cool thing about the blues scale is that it works over both minor and major keys (although people tend to stay away from minor keys in second position).
The first alternative scale I want you to learn is the minor pentatonic scale. The blues scale is actually based on this scale. The only difference is that the minor pentatonic scale does not have the flatted fifth (tritonus) which is considered the most dissonate interval. This means that if you stay within the minor pentatonic scale you will stay clear of some of the more dissonant riffs that may not be appropriate for some songs.
The G minor pentatonic scale is:
G Bb C D F G (octave)
This root b3 4 5 b7 root one octave above.
The minor pentatonic scale.
The second alternative scale is the major pentatonic scale. This is a bit different and does not have the blue notes of the blues scale or minor pentatonic scale. It also have the major third which means this scale is best suited for major tunes. Since the blue notes are missing this is a good choice for songs with a happier feel to them where bluesy riffs feel out of place.
The G major pentatonic scale is:
G A B D E G (octave)
This is root 2 3 5 6 root one octave above.
The major pentatonic scale.
This may require some work as A is three draw whole step bend and you want that in tune. Tricky but worth working for.
Putting the scales to use
To put these scales to use you need to internalize them so that you can stay within them when you choose to. Spend some time learning them and try using them to different jam tracks to work out where they work best for you.
Let me know how you get along and don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and get exclusive material!
Bending notes on the harmonica is one of the tools that make the instrument so appealing for blues. Being able to create those missing notes is cruical for getting the right blues feeling. It doesn’t matter how long you play, you can always improve your harmonica bending technique. How you practice is of importance getting the right systems involved is crucial. In this article I will guide you through how to avoid some common pitfalls and give you a good start.
What to involve
Manipulating the airflow around the reeds is what it is all about.
As the goal is to change the pitch we play it is important to understand a little bit of what goes on. When we bend we manipulate the air flow through the harmonica so that the draw reed slows down lowering the pitch. At some point the blow reed will start vibrating and interact with the draw reed. This is not done by force which is a common misconception among beginners. What you need is good control of your tounge and your throat. My manipulating the position of your tounge and the shape of your mouth and throat cavity you will reach the desired effect.
In order to get this going you need to be able to hear the pitch you are aiming for in your mind. This becomes the target you are trying to achieve. At the same time you need to be able to understand how you manipulate the position of your tounge and the shape of your throat. When you achieve a lowering in pitch you make a mental note of how it feels. This feeling is important to remember as it guides you in what to control. It is however not that feeling you should be targeting.
Bending will feel differently on different pithced harmonicas so you cannot rely only on the feeling of the bend. What you hear is what should guide you.
By using tuners or apps like Harp Ninja you can visually see how close you are to getting the right pitch. This is very important when you start practicing harmonica bending technique but it is not something you should rely on when playing. Remember that a tuner or Harp Ninja will not be available to you in the heat of battle but your ears will.
Finding the pitch
To be able to mentally hear the pitch you first need to find the pitch. To do this using a guitar or a keyboard can be very good. You can also do what Tomlin of Tomlin Harmonica Lessons does to play 3 draw whole step bend in tune and use a second harmonica as a reference.
No matter how you choose to find the pitch to aim for, you need to consider what type of bends you are aiming for. You may not always aim for exactly the pitch on the same hole.
All in all practicing harmonica bending technique comes down to using visual and sensory cues when needed, especially when starting out, but getting your ears in play as much as possible. The ears and your listening skills really are important in many aspect of music.
Blues harmonica buildup riffs is a special kind of riffs that are used instead of a classic turnaround riff and sometimes they intergate into the V-IV-I-riff. The idea around a build up riff is that is building energy and anticipation for the the next chorus. In this article I show different types of blues harmonica buildup riffs and explain where they might be used.
Types of buildup riffs
When we talk about blues harmonica buildup riffs there is no precise definition of what they are. For a riff to be a buildup riff for me it either builds anticipation and tension, hints at the coming chorus or picks up the next chorus early. You might even debate what riff is doing what but I wil try to keep the types fairly clear.
Pickup type riff
This type of riff typically leads you from the tonic of the I-chord to the note you want to start the next chorus on. It is a good way of moving from 2 draw to a higher note so that you don’t have to make a big jump after a classic turnaround that may land you on 1 draw for example. This riff is 1 bar long (with a pickup) and leads you from landing on 2 draw in your V-IV-I riff to starting on 5 draw in the next chorus. Note that the last bar is part of the next chorus and not the buildup riff.
Pickup style buildup riff leading to 5 draw as start in the next chorus.
Repetetive cresecendo type riff
A good way of building energy is using repetition and increasing the volume at the same time. This builds both tension and the feeling that something is going to happen. This riff is very simple in itself, based on triplets in a simple pattern between 3 draw and 4 draw. It actually starts as part of the V-IV-I-riff in that is replaces both the I-chord part as well as the turnaround.
Buildup riff as repetitive triplet with pickup.
Repetitive hint type riff
By hinting at what is coming in the next beginning of the next chorus you can also build energy in a nice way. In this example the next chorus starts with a triad as a pickup on beat 4 in bar 12. The rest of bar 12 hints repetitively at the coming triplet. Note that the 1, 2+, 3+, 3, 2 part is actually part of the first riff in the next chorus.
Buildup by hinting at the coming riff.
Integrating blues harmonica buildup riffs
The way to integrate blues harmonica buildup riffs is to build up a bank of them, now you have three, and start using them together with your V-IV-I-riffs to exand that riff bank even further.
Let me know how these riffs work out for you and don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and get exclusive material!
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 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 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.
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.
You don’t need an expensive metronome.
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.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me and if you haven’t already sign up below to get the Welcome package and get exclusive material!
A few weeks ago I bought a wearable metronome and now it is time for a short Soundbrenner Pulse review. The reason I decided to get this device is that even though I consider the metronome an essential piece of gear listening to the click can be distracting. A silent device seemed like a good idea to me. In this review I give my thoughts on what this device offers to harmonica players.
First off let’s take a look at what you get. In the box the device comes in, which is quite nice in itslef, you get five items. You get the actual Soundbrenner Pulse device, a charging station, a USB chord for the charging station and two straps of different sizes. You also get some quick start papers but I am not really counting them. The packaging and items themselves feel like good quality gave me a nice impression right away.
Box, charging station with USB-chord, Soundbrenner Pulse device and straps.
Wearing the device
Before you can start using the device you have to charge it which is quick and mount it in one of the straps. Since the straps seem quite durable getting the device in place on the strap took a bit of force but nothing major. The two straps give you a lot of options on how to wear the Soundbrenner Pulse. For most people the two straps will allow you to choose wrist, lower arm, upper arm, ankle or calf depending on what you prefer. You need to experiment with the optimal placement for you. If you like to wear it around your chest you need to buy a bigger strap which Soundbrenner of course offer.
The device is operated by two fingers that are placed on the top surface of the Soundbrenner Pulse and by turning the dial of the device. This allows for simple turning on/off, starting and stopping the beat and defining the beat. Initially I had some problem where I defined a very fast beat when I in fact just wanted to start the metronome at the already defined tempo. After using it a couple of times this problem went away so it seems to be a minor issue.
To take full advantage of the device the Soundbrenner Metronome App should be downloaded. After connecting your device to your mobile device you get a lot of options on how to customize the strength of vibrations, time signature, beat sub divison and accents. There is also an option to sync up to five Soundbrenner Pulses which is very useful if the whole or part of the band are all wearing a device. There is also a library where you can store complete songs if it calls you changes in the beat throughout.
Sounebrenner Pulse Metronome App.
The device in use
The device require some getting use to and Soundbrenner is very clear about this. Feeling the beat is very different from hearing it. In the beginning you need to focus on feeling the vibrations and maybe customizing them in the app before it works well for you. However when you do get use to it, which doesn’t take all that long, your ears will be liberated. When you don’t have to listen for a beep or a click you can focus on litening to the music instead and this is where I feel the big advantage is for harmonica players.
When I was compiling this Soundbrenner Pulse review I was thinking a lot about the sound level of the device. Initially I was expecting it to be almost completely silent but truth be told it does make a sound. This mean that I cannot wear it on my wrist as it puts it too close to my ears. What I have done is wear it on my ankle and also turn down the power of the vibrations. I am probably more picky than most about this. When I aked support about this I got a quick and professional answer.
When you get use to feeling the beat the vibrations almost disapear when you play in time. For me this is great. It means that I only get a correction when I drift out of time. I think this is what you need more than anything.
Soundbrenner Pulse review summary
All in all I would like to summarize this review like this:
High quality device
Makes practice more efficient
Takes a little getting used to
Wearing it on the wrist not the best option for harmonica players
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The turnaround in the 12 bar blues is the part that signals that the form will repeat again. This, of course, happens at the end of the form. More sprecifically, bar 11 and 12 is where we play blues harmonica turnaround riffs. Properly executed these riffs give a sense of completion at the same time as the signal strongly that it is time to start the 12 bar blues again. If you listen carefully to recordings you will quite easily spot the turnaround in most songs, just remember that not all 12 bar blues variations include the turnaround. In this article I will give you a few riffs to add to your riff bank.
Properties of blues harmonica turnaround riffs
Although there are no hard and fast rules for these riffs there are a few properties they most often have. It is natural for the turnaround riff to be 2 bars but in order to fit with the V-IV-I riff of your choice it may need to be shorter.
In order to outline the turnaround in itself they often follow the chord tones very closely in bars 11 and 12. That is the I-chord through bar 11 and half of bar 12 and then the V-chord in for the last two beats of bar 12.
Basic turnaround riff
First off we have a very basic turnaround riff that uses the tonic of the chord. The tonic of the V-chord comes on beat 2 of bar 12 anticipating the V-chord on beat later. This riff always work but can be a bit boring if used too often.
Very basic blues harmonica turnaround riff.
Vamping style riff
This riff is a bit busier and uses the tounge slapping/vamping style so tounge blocking is the key here. In bar 11 it also uses 2 blow which is a chord tone for the I chord in 2nd position. Be careful though if you should be playing 2nd position in a minor blues, this riff would not work well. It has nice energy and is simple as there is no bending.
Vamping style blues harmonica riff without bending.
Triplet based turnaround riff
This riff is quite energetic as it is based on triplets. It aslo has a whole step bend on hole two which is the minor seventh of the I-chord, a very nice touch. A bit trickier as it has bending.
Triplet based tournaround riff.
Slightly more advanced turnaround riff
We finish off with a riff that is slightly more advanced, it incorporates the half step bend in hole three as well which is the minor third of the I-chord. A nice bluesy note.
Turnaround riff with a little bit more bending.
Applying blues harmonica turnaround riffs
Now that you have a few more blues harmonica turnaround riffs to practice it is time to put them to use. Start by selecting one or two and start experimenting with connecting them to your V-IV-I riffs. Be sure to get enough repetitions in to really make them stick.
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!
Building a solid riff bank give you lots of options as a harmonica player and improviser. The third line in the standard 12 bar blues is known as the V-IV-I, this part is busier than the other parts when it comes to the chords. It also contains the V-chord which can trip people up. Knowing a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs can go a long way. In this article I present a few options you may consider that go beyond the beginner riffs I have presented before.
Why learn specific V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs?
As the third line changes chords more often than the first two lines and contains the V-chord it is a bit trickier to navigate. I have previously written about the V-chord as a place where you can show off your skills. Learning a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs is a great way of adding to your improvisation skills. If you combine them with a bit of blues harmonica theory knowledge you are in great shape. Let’s look at a few riffs to add your aresenal.
Tounge switching riff
First off we have a tounge switch based riff that mostly uses the tonic of the V and the IV, simple but effective. The tounge switch also adds an element of suprise that the listener will appriciate.
Tounge switch based riff.
Triplet based riff
This riff I really like since it has a triplet feel, octaves and approches the higher ocatve of the instrument. All this sets it apart from many other V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs. I try to use this quite a bit myself. Notice that is starts one beat before the V-chord.
Triplet and octave based riff.
Chord tone riff
This riff is heavy on chord tones and takes advantage of the notes not normally played when playing the blues scale. It will freshen up the listeners ear.
Chord tone based riff.
The final riff is a descending riff that also hints at the chord tones of the V-chord. I like the sound of a riff that start quite high up and works its way to the tonic of the I-chord.
Applying the riffs
In order to work these riffs into your riff bank you should pick them up one by one. Make a decision to use one of them for all your improv for a while until it has really stuck in your head. That way you will make it permeanent. Then you go on to the next one. Having 3-5 V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs that are not the most common ones will make a big difference for how original you sound. Let me know how these riffs turn out for you!
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.
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.
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!