Learn from Great YouTube Videos

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

Learning to swing

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

Improving rhythm

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

A bit of music theory

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

Effective practice

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

Your favorit YouTube videos?

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

Improvise with more than riffs

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

Chorus forms

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

Note presentation

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

Dynamics

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

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Improvise better

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

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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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Harmonica Rehearsal Gone Bad

I have previously written on what is important when doing covers and how to practice and prepare properly. Now it is confession time, let me tell you what happens when your harmonica rehearsal routine is not up to par. A few weeks ago I was preparing for a gig with my trio “Worn Out Soles” and felt very confident. Not all results were as expected though.

Preparations

The preparations started out pretty much as they always do. We made a list of our repetoir and started playing around with the set list. This time I wanted to add a new song, namely SBWII’s “Help me”. I have had my eye on that song for some time but haven’t felt quite up to it. Now I felt it was within my powers to play so it got put up on the set list. I wanted the chords bombs to be there, solo close to SBWII and the bass line hook played by one of the guitars. The more we practiced the better it sounded, the chord bombs were aggresive, the solo was coming along and there was a nice groove.

At this point Pirs, one of the guitarists/vocalists said “hmm, we really should practice with all the gear”. Me and Magnus, the other guitarist/vocalist, agreed and then we kept doing what we were doing. At his point I should have recognised that I was heading for harmonica rehearsal one bad.

The result

To be fair we were practicing the way we usually practice and it has served us well so far. What I didn’t realize was that this song, “Help me”, required different microphone technique than what I had practiced before.

When it was time for the gig we felt prepared and did a nice job overall (if I can say so myself). However, when we got to “Help me” that was at the end of the set I quickly realized what I had missed in my preparations. I was singing and playing harmonica acoustically into a Shure SM58 and I wanted to keep my mouth close to the mic so that my voice didn’t sound too thin. This meant however that I had very little time to move my head back, bring up the harmonica, do the chord bomb and reset for singing. Since I hadn’t practice this, it really shook me up. Basically I messed up a whole bunch of the chord bombs, some of the vocals as well as part of the solo. I half panicked in the heat of the battle.

harmonica rehearsal with all equipment is important

The microphone that caused me problems.

The lesson

Overall the audience was happy and we got great feedback. For me, however, the experience was tainted by the fact that I could have done a much better job. Fortunately I can now take this as a learning experience and not skip realistic harmonica rehearsal with ALL equipment next time. If you are not rehearsing ralistically I suggest you start now!

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12 Bar Blues Variations – Get More Options

The 12 bar blues is one of the most common chord progressions used in the music world. It may seem like it would become boring quickly but it doesn’t. Things like groove, key, tempo and how to start and stop a song gives plenty of variety to the listener. There are however a few 12 bar blues variations that I feel are good to know. These will add a few more options when you play. I will use the roman numeral notation for the chord progression to make it key agnostic.

Quick change

A quick change means that you go to the IV-chord already in bar 2, the rest is just the same as the standard 12 bar blues. The quick change introduces a bit more movement in the chord structure and is one of the more common 12 bar blues variations. An example of a song using it is “Before you accuse me”. I like this variation and it is well worth practicing jamming over it because you will probably run into it.

12 bar blues variations - quick change outline

Outline of the 12 bar blues with a quick change.

Long V-chord

12 bar blues with a long V-chord may actually be a variation that is older than what we consider the standard form today. In this variation you stay on the V-chord also in the tenth bar. This form is used in the verses by Chuck Berry for “Johnny B Goode”. This is not a very common variation today but just for that reason it can be cool to use it sometime. It is also a great opportunity to show off your V-chord skills.

12 bar blues variations - long V-chord outline

Outline of the 12 bar blues with a long V-chord.

ii-V-I change

This change replaces the V-IV-I of the standard 12-bar blues. It has a bit of a more jazzy feel to it. You might be intimidated by the minor chord it introduces but it is not that difficult to handle. For G-major the ii-chord is Am which consits of A C E and G so two of the chord tones are already in the blues scale and E is easily accessible on a C-harp in 2nd position. An example of a song using this variation is Rory Gallagher’s “When my baby she left me”.

12 bar blues variations, ii-V-I change

12 bar blues with a ii-V-I change

Combining 12 bar blues variations

These variations don’t have to be used in isolation you can combine the quick change with either the long V-chord or the ii-V-I change. This way you can put more 12 bar blues variations under your belt. Sonny Boy Willimanson II’s “Born Blind” uses both a quick change and a ii-V-I change, one of my favorite songs. It is great fun to play.

Try it!

Now it’s time for you to try. I have put together three jamtracks of the variations in different styles for you to use when practicing.

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Taking Advantage of the V-chord

When it comes to improvising on the harmonica there is one place in the 12 bar blues where you really can stand out from the crowd. The place I am talking about is the V-chord, how you handle the V-chord signals to other musicians how knowledgeable you are. In this article I will give you the information you need to use theory to really shine over the V-chord.

V-chord

The V-chord sometimes causes harmonica players a bit of problems.

The problem with the V-chord

Let us first understand why the V-chord might be a bit problematic. For G-major (C harp in 2nd position) this is D. The chord tones are:

  • D, root
  • F#, third
  • A, fifth
  • C, minor seventh

If we look at the blues scale for G-major we have the following notes: G, Bb, C, Db, D and F. As you can see, C and D fit well with the chord tones but the other may need a bit of more care. G is the fourth of the scale realting to D which is a workable note but primarily a passing tone. Bb is a minor sixth, also primarily a passing tone and not even a scale tone. F is a minor third, a blue note for the chord and definately useful to create tension. Lastly Db is the major seventh and not really a note you want to use too much in blues.

The BS way

Playing many fast notes over a chord a player is not 100% comfortable with is not uncommen among some players. Although this will not sound bad it will not let you shine as a player. Maybe you will impress some people with speed but the pros will instantly recognise what you are doing. I do not recommend this approach and it is simple to avoid.

The easy ways

There are a couple of easy ways to handle the V-chord and still be musical. The first and easiest way is to hang on the root not all through the chord and perhaps touch on the minor seventh before going to the IV-chord. The same thing can be done with the fifth (6 draw would be easiest then). The only problem with this approach is that you will repeat yourself a lot, probably too much.

The second easy way is to learn a few V-IV-I-turnaround riffs to use. This is where a lot of players go and there are a huge number of them out there. It is basically up to you how many you choose to learn to avoid too much repetition. I think this is an excellent way and encourage you to seek out riffs to use. You will be standing on the shoulders of giants.

The knowledge approach

Even though I think learning riffs from other players is a great way I also think that using your theory knowledge can set you apart. By combining rhytmic patterns with chord tones you can come up with great riffs yourself. This will add options when you play and toyr riff bank will grow together with the set licks you have already learned. You will also be able to modify riffs you already know by stubstituting a few notes for the chord tones.

Besides being able to stay withing the chord tones for the V-chord there is another benefit. If you use mainly use the blues scale over the I- and IV-chord you will not use F# at all and probably A to a lesser extent. This means that to the human ear those notes will sound fresh when you use them. It doesn’t matter that you have played the third and the fifth of the other chords, the pitch of the note will be new and fresh to the ear. This is not only true for expert musicians who may actually be able to tell exactly what notes you are playing but also the average listener will notice. He or she will not be able describe what happens but it will sound fresh.

What next?

Now I would like to encourage you to internalize the chord tones for the V-chord and start using your knowledge when you play. Learn a few new licks and experiment with them. I also cover this and blue notes for the different chords in my “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Skillshare and Udemy.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail.

Playing other Instruments to Improve Harmonica Skills

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

Guitar

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

Electric guitar is a good choice when playing other instruments

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

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

Bass guitar

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

Drums and percussion instruments

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

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

Playing other instruments - cajon

Cajon is a great option if percussion is your choice.

Chromatic harmonica

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

Violin or trombone?

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

Ready to start playing other instruments?

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

 

Harmonica Song Covers

Anyone who has ever thought about making harmonica song covers has had to ask the question, “how exact should I be?”. This question is valid both for the harmonica parts as well as the backup. In this article I will discuss a few considerations you will have to make depending on what you are looking for.

Why are you making harmonica song covers?

A good starting point to look at is why you are making covers. Are you expanding your repetoir for your band? Is learnings new songs to challenge yourself your focus? Are you trying to pinpoint exactly what makes a player unique? Is it a tribute? When you understand why you make the covers it is much easier to figure out what to do with the song.

harmonica song covers

Harmonica song covers is a great way of challenging yourself.

A few suggested approaches

If you are studying an artist to learn the style or if you are making a tribute to the artist you should probably aim to capture the essence of the artist. Try to capture the tone of the artist by dialing how the texture of the tone changes in the song. Using the exactly same riffs as in the original is definately a very valid approach. If you choose to improvise instead then make sure that you follow the always do, sometimes do and never do of the artist in question.

If you want to cover a specific song (and the song is the focus) you may also have to consider the other instruments used in the recording. The closer you are , the closer your sound will be. Maybe also lok at the equipment the artist used.

To build repetoir you can freestyle a bit. Most likely you should keep something of what the artist would do in your interpretation. It is up to you and what you feel comfortable with.

Don’t touch this

If you are working with a song that has components that give the song a very unique quality you better keep that in your cover. An example is a song like “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Willimanson II. It should include the backup lick from the band, the chord bombs and be played in second position. The fact that this is a minor blues may tempt some players to go for third position. I think that makes the song lose part of its identity. The fact the SBW forces second position on this song makes it unique.

Just do it!

No matter which I approach you choose for harmonica song covers it is great fun doing it. If you haven’t done it before I think you should start now. Let me know how it works out for you!

Harmonica Practice Backlash

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

When does progress happen?

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

Why do we expereince backlash in our harmonica practice?

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

What to do

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

Strategy for Learning Harmonica Songs Faster

Some time ago my first harmonica mentor, Dick Sjöberg, reminded me of a strategy we discussed in one of his workshops. The strategy originally comes from Carlos del Junco and is a way of learning harmonica songs efficiently. Without even thinking about it, I have been using this strategy and it is working great. This article will give you a short introduction to it and how to apply it when you practice.

The short version

The short version of this startegy is, start at the back. Saying it like that doesn’t make it sound all that impressive but bare with me for a minute. If you think about it for a while and consider always learning a song or a phrase from the beginning it is quite obvious that you always get to the part you don’t know at the end. By starting at the back, you always start with the part you know the least.

The slightly expanded version

When using this strategy for learning harmonica songs I have modified or expanded it a little bit. Here is usually how I use it for a song with for example 6 choruses of harmonica tabs.

  1. Is there a hook or very defining riff that is used a lot? If so study that first.
  2. Compare the first and the last chorus. It is quite likely that the first chorus, often referred to as the head, is repeated at the end of the song. The only difference then would be the the end riff. In up-tempo songs chorus 1, 2 and the last two may very well be head variations. If this is the case, the head is what you study first. Whenyou know it, you will have a big part of the songs memorized.
  3. Analyze your chosen chorus. Is there a part that seems especially tricky? If so, practice that in isloation first.
  4. Practice bar 12 in isolation until you have a good grasp on it. Practice bar 11 in isolation until you have a good grasp on it. Put bars 11 and 12 together and practice. Practice bar 10, put together with 11 and 12. Continue bar by bar backwards until you can play the whole chorus with confidence.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the next chorus. Keep going until you know all choruses.
bar 12 of harmonica songs as starting point for learning

Bar 12 is a good starting point when learning a new chorus.

It may seems like a lot of work but a lot of the small steps you are taking are actually very quick. A nice side benefit of this strategy is that for a song with a head that repeats at the end you can  chose to perform it already when you have learned the first and last chorus and then improvise for the other choruses.

Why it makes you learn harmonica songs faster

In my opinion the power in this strategy comes from the fact that you concentrate the mostat the beginning. You will constantly be repeating the part you know the least and move into parts that are more familiar. This also means that if you stumble and start over you instantly repeat the part that gave you troubles. You also avoid the trap of first playing what you know, then realixe that the unfamiliar part is coming up, panicing and having to start over.

Try this out for your next couple of harmonica songs and let me know how it works out for you. If you enjoyed the read please like and share. If you haven’t already sign up for the newsletter below!

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