Practicing Riffs

I have written before about expanding your riff bank to have more tools in your improvisation tool box. However simply memorizing a new riff is not enough. They way you are practicing riffs have a big impact on how useful they become.

Make it stick

There is no way around repetitive work to commit it to memory. However you can add to your learning by introducing variations in your practice. Practice on different key harmonicas, practice with a metronome, practice at different tempos and make sure that you can recall the riff without the need for notation. Also try using different techniques to color the sound.

Practicing riffs in context

The real killer when practicing riffs though is to put it into context. You will never just play one riff and then be done with it. You will play it as part of a bigger whole. To do that effectively you need to understand when the riff sound good and when not to use it.

A great way of getting context is to pratcie with different patterns of repetition. Repetition is an important tool to let your audience know that what you play is important, use it!

Put the repetition in relation to the 12 bar blues and practice with a jam track. The simplest form is to repeat the riff for as many times as you can over a chorus. If it is a 2 bar riff you can repeat it 6 times. Listen to how it sounds over the chord changes, where does it fit best? Maybe it is great over the I-chord, OK over the IV-chord but sounds horrible over the V-IV-I transition.

Try changing between the riff you are practicing and other riffs, play the riff over bars 1 and 2, then play a fill over bars 2 and 4. Repeat the riff again over bars 5 and 6 and another fill over bars 7 and 8. Repeat the riff over bars 9 and 10 and finish off with a turnaround riff.

Listen to how other players are using repetition and emulate what they do in your practice. David Barrett calls this chorus forms and have included a number of these patterns in his books. It is all based on what the old masters used to do. It is wise to do the same.

Summary

Simply comitting a riff to memory you need to be practicing riffs in context and basing that context on different patterns of repetition is a great idea.

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Expand Your Riff Vocabulary

For most blues harmonica players a riff vocabulary is an important part of their improvisation arsenal. You could argue that improvisation should be 100% spontaneous and not built on things you have learned before. A nice thought maybe but I would argue that making something new out of “old” material is as valuable as making up new riffs nobody has played before. Famous riffs are famous because they sound great and not using them can really hamper how you sound. In this article I outline methods you can use to expand your riff vocabulary.

Online search

The first method that spring to mind is to do google searches. There is a whole bunch of sites out there with loads of riffs. You can also be a bit more old school and buy books, almost all harmonica books out there contain at least some riffs. I have published a number of articles before with beginner riffs, build up riffs and V-IV-I riffs. For subscribers I also provide extra riffs (see below).

Extract from songs

When learning a new song either from tabulature or if you transcribe it yourself you have a gold mine a new riffs. This is probably one of the most unused sources for learning new riffs. Many players feel that they are stealing if they extract riffs from songs. What you should do is pick out riffs you are especially fond of and try them under new circumstances. Different, tempo, different key or a different groove can transform a riff and I can guarantee you that very few people will complain. There are of course riffs that are very connected to certain songs such as “Mannish Boy” and maybe these hooks are best left for covers of that song.

Moving between positions and ranges

When you search for riffs online you will most likely find second position riffs. If you are a beginner this is likely where you want to start but if you want to try third position for example you may feel a bit limited. You can of course search for third position riffs but you can also use your second position riffs to expand your riff vocabulary for third position. I have written about how to do this in a previous article. Not all riffs are suitable to tranfer to another position but it can give you good ideas for riff variations.

Another thing that is underused is transposing a riff from one octave to another. If you have a riff you like in the holes 4-6 range you can try playing it in the 7-10 range instead. This is a great way of learning to use the upper octave more.

Summary

As you can see you have quite a few ways to expand your riff vocabulary, how much time you spend on this is up to you.

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Is Reusing Riffs Creative?

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

Pros and cons of reusing riffs

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

reusing riffs

Part of what SBW resued himself.

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

But what about creativity?

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

Summary

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

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Blues Harmonica Fills

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

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.

Characteristics

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

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.

Blues Harmonica Buildup Riffs Pickup style

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.

Blues Harmonica Buildup Riffs Triplet

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.

Blues harmonica buildup riffs hint type

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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Blues Harmonica Turnaround Riffs

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.

tonic based blues harmonica turnaround riffs

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 blues harmonica turnaround riffs

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 blues harmonica turnaround riffs

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.

bending blues harmonica turnaround riffs

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.

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Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs

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.

1-bar riff

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.

1-bar beginner blues harmonica riffs

1-bar riff

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.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs rpeptition focus

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.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Boogie Inspired

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.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Pickup

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.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs triplet

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.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs V-IV-I-turnaround

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!

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