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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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.
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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.
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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.
When starting out with blues harmonica most people start with second position. This is a very forgiving position. It means that we can start playing without knowing many riffs. However having a few beginner blues harmonica riffs can go a long way in building a foundation. Repetition is so much easier if the riffs are first internalized. The best riffs to use sound bluesy and are easy to play. As bending skills take time to develop it is also good if the riffs are free of bends. Bending and advanced techniques can always be incorporated later. In this article I give you 6 different riffs to get you started. I have tried to use as many draw notes as possible as they are the foundation of solid second position blues.
Types of beginner blues harmonica riffs
It is a good idea to learn a few different types of riffs, 1-bar riffs, 2-bar riffs, maybe 4-bar riffs and at least one V-IV-I-turnaround riff (which will be a 4-bar riff). The reason it is a good idea to have riffs of different lengths is that it will make it easier for you to compose a 12-bar blues chorus on the spot. An important skill when playing solos. I find 2-bar riffs to be especially useful. To learn more about the tab format you can read this article.
All of the recordings below are in a shuffle groove. Also note that I have not notated any techniques. Some of the recordings do have tremolos for example but that si up to you to add.
First we have a simple 1-bar riff with mostly quarter notes. It is in the mid range of the harmonica starting on 4 exhale goes up to 6 exhale and ends up on the 5 draw. 5 draw is the minor seventh of the I chord which is a blue note that creates a bit of tension.
You can listen to how it sounds by blicking below.
Repetition focused 2-bar riff
This 2-bar riff is focused on repetition in the first bar before resolving on the 2 draw. The repetition in the first bar builds anticipation and tension that is then resolved by the long 2 draw.
Repetition focused 2-bar riff
Listen to it here:
Boogie inspired 2-bar riff
This 2-bar riff is inspired by the boogie rhythm bass line you might here in a boogie song. It moves between 2 draw and 6 exhale which both are the tonic of the I-chord.
Boogie inspired 2-bar riff
Listen to it here:
2-bar riff with pick-up note
Starting on the downbeat of beat one all the time will be boring. It is quite common to start on the upbeat of beat four in the preceding bar. This riff is an example of that.
2-bar riff with a pick up note
Listen to it here:
2-bar riff with triplet
A triplet is three eight notes played over the duration of a quarter note. It is a good pfrase to have in your vocabulary, that is why I included this riff.
2-bar riff with a triplet
Listen to it here:
A note on 2-bar riffs
You might have noticed that the 2-bar beginner blues harmonica riffs above all have a more actice first bar and a more stationary second bar. I would say that this is quite common but not a strict rule. There can be much more movement also in the second bar. Another thing you might notice is that the second bar is not filled, there is space at the end. This is very common and allows for a bit of space between riffs. If both bars were filled up it would be a problem playing a riff with a pick-up note right after a riff with no space at the end.
4-bar V-IV-I-turnaround riff
The V-chord in the 12 bar blues (bar 9) can cause less experienced players some problems. The reason is that the most of the chord tones of the V-chord are not in the blues scale and not as easily accesible on in the lower and middle octave. The notes played over the I and IV-chord may sound less cool over the V-chord. A good way of solving this for beginners is learning a solid V-IV-I-turnaround riff to play over bars 9-12. As you gain more experience you can improvise more here.
4-bar V-IV-I-tunraround riff
Listen to it here:
V-IV-I-turnaround riffs are in a class of their own. They generally to be kept for bars 9-12 but can also be reused often from songs to songs. At least when toy are starting out. When you become more skilled, bars 9-12 and especially bars 9-10 give you an opportunity to shine.
Applying beginner blues harmonica riffs
When you have a few beginner blues harmonica riffs in your arsenal you have a good foundation for playing. The next step is to try these riffs over different parts of the 12-bar blues to see where you think they work best. Also try to combine them together to create longer riffs. If you have some bending skills you can try incorporating a few draw 3 half step bends instead of hole 3 draw unbent and hole 2 draw whole step bend instead of hole 2 exhale. This can increase the blues horse power of your playing. Also try some ornamental bends and techniques like vibrato, shakes and tounge slaps to spice things up.
I hope you find these riffs helpful and I am very interested to hear your thoughts. Comment below and don’t forget to like and share if you enjoyed the read!