things you'll need to know if you're new to this blues harp game.....
Welcome to the frequently-asked questions (FAQ) page at Modern Blues Harmonica! I can't answer every question you've got, but I can address a few of them. I'm happy to share some tips and techniques that I've accumulated in the course of more than 40 years as a blues harmonica player and teacher. Bending, tongue-blocking, overblowing, best harps for beginners--and of course the questions, "What harp keys should I buy?" and "How long will it take me to get good on harmonica?": you'll find answers to those common blues harmonica questions and more, just below.
Here's one question you may NOT have thought to ask:
Who is that red-haired guy with glasses in the photo above? That is me in the fall of 1986 at the age of 28, about two weeks after I'd first come down to Harlem and started sitting in with Mr. Satan and Professor Sixmillion. Mr. Satan's name, I soon found out, was Sterling Magee. Born in Mississippi, he was an R&B legend who had played with King Curtis, Etta James, and many other big names, then gone off the deep end and reinvented himself as a street-prophet. He was just beginning his own one-man-band odyssey when I met him. The washtub-bass player was Bobby Bennett. I was the newbie. Within five years after this picture was taken, Sterling and I had big-time management, a hit CD (Harlem Blueson Rounder Records); we had played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, we'd opened for Buddy Guy in Central Park and toured the UK with Bo Diddley, and I had the right to call myself a touring pro. I lived that life from 1991 through 1998.
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I’m just starting out. What harmonica should I buy? And what key? Short answer: Hohner 1896/20 Marine Band harmonica in the key of C. (If you go to the "HARMONICAS for sale" page on this website, you'll find a link to several good mail-order places that can sell you one cheap and ship it out overnight. If you need a good harp RIGHT NOW, the kind of harp that I use, hit the icon below)
The Marine Band—the basic 10-hole diatonic harp, not the 14-hole version or the "deluxe," “super,” or "blues harp" version—has been around for a long time. Many of the foundational blues players, the Little Walters and Big Walters and Sonny Boy Williamsons, played and recorded with the Hohner Marine Band. Why not go with the classic?
In the course of my 40+-year career, I’ve sampled many other Hohner harps, including the Special 20, Golden Melody, Blues Harp, Pro Harp, and Big River Harp. I’ve also tried a few Lee Oskars. There’s nothing wrong with them. Many players swear by them. Recently I've tried Seydel and Bushman harps. They are both excellent instruments. Still, I always come back to the Marine Band.
No other harp has the same rich throaty tone on the low notes, or the same “crunch” feel when you bear down hard on bent low notes. This is particularly true for the lower keys: G, A, B-flat. It has something to do with the pear-wood comb, which grows slightly more brittle and resonant as it ages. Maybe it’s all about the wood. I don’t know.
I’ve recorded three albums with Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee--the guy playing guitar in the photo above--and I played a Hohner Marine Band on every single track.
A final word about keys: although the key of C seems to be the reference standard for beginning blues players (and although 95% of the beginning lessons on this website require a key of C), you might think about starting your musical journey with a pair of harps: C and D. Here’s why: beginning harp players often have a very hard time sounding the 2 draw on a C harp. I can’t tell you how many beginning students have sworn to me that the 2 draw on their C harp is broken. It’s not. It’s just a tricky hole for a beginner to sound. But when they pick up a D harp, they have no trouble. [See below for a longer version of this answer.]
So maybe you should buy two Hohner Marine Band harps, one in C (it'll work with all my beginners lessons) and one in D (in case you need to troubleshoot a "broken" 2 draw on your C that's not really broken at all). That’s what I’d do, if I had to do it all over again. I'd start off with a C and a D.
Do you need a different harmonica for songs in different keys?
Yes. And this is one of the first things you need to get under control. 90% of blues harmonica is played in what's called "cross harp" or "second position." (Google "cross harp" and you'll find a wealth of information.) Basically this means that you focus your playing on the draw notes of the bottom half of a 10-hole diatonic harmonica; the draw notes are stronger, have more soulful tone, and, most importantly, can be "bent"--meaning that you can lower the pitch of the notes by changing the shape of your mouth. This lets you produce the blues scale fairly easily. But it also means that you have to get used to the idea of playing a harmonica in a key other than the key stamped on its coverplate.
Here's a basic cross-harp chart covering the most common blues keys. MEMORIZE IT. Let me repeat that: MEMORIZE IT. It is the most important bit of rote learning that you--a blues harmonica student--will ever do:
key of song harp key
If I purchase your videos and tabs and practice a LOT, how good can I get in one year? In two years?
Here are two videos--one by an American, the other by a Bosnian--that help answer that question. The first player, Ron Marr, has been playing for 15 months; the second, Predrag Antic, has been playing for two years. They both started from scratch with my lessons:
I can't get a good sound out of the 2 hole draw on my C harp. I'm sure it's broken. Help!
It's not broken. The problem is your embouchure. Here's a troubleshooting guide I wrote for a friend who runs a Chinese harmonica instructional website.
HOW TO GET A CLEAR, STRONG 2 DRAW:
"The 2 draw is the most important note on the harmonica. When you’re playing cross harp—second position, the way that blues and country performers play—the 2 draw is the root. It’s the home-place. It’s the note you begin on and return to. It’s where the blues and country scale starts and ends. So it’s an extremely important note to play well.
"Many players, including some who are good enough to play in bands, don’t sound this note very well. Their 2 draw is weak, 'breathy,' flattened below perfect pitch.
"There are two keys to sounding a good 2 draw. The first is about embouchure. The second is about breathing.
"You embouchure is the way you shape your mouth—your lips, but also the inner part of your lips. To sound a clear, strong 2 draw, you should pucker your lips like a goldfish, making them big and fat, and narrow the inner part of the pucker into an opening roughly the size of one hole on the harmonica. Many players mistakenly narrow the outer ring of their lips; they make what I call 'old maid’s mouth.' (In America, an old maid is an older woman, often wearing glasses and teaching in a school, who narrows her lips in a sour expression of disapproval.) If your embouchure resembles old maid’s mouth, your 2 draw sound will be weak. Make big, fat lips. Use your hands, both of them, to push the harmonica firmly against the inner part of your lips, where you’ve made the narrowed hole. If you allow the harmonica to slip away from your lips, even a very small amount, your 2 draw sound will fall apart. I’ve 'fixed' the 2 draw for many, many players simply by demanding that they fatten their lips and push the harp a little more forcefully against the inner part of their pucker, rather than allowing the harp to ease incrementally away from their lips.
"The second key to a good 2 draw, after creating the proper embouchure, is sounding the note with a full breath. Here’s an exercise that will develop breath control and power. It’s a two-bar (eight beat) exercise. First, sound a clear, strong 2 draw. Now tap your foot in a medium-speed beat, and sound the 2 draw for seven beats, using one continuous breath. Strive to make the 2 draw clear, strong, and continuous—perhaps 85% of maximum volume. On the eighth beat, quickly reverse direction. Breathe out. Use the entire eighth beat to breathe out the air that you’ve inhaled on the first seven beats. Important: relax your lips a little on the eighth beat and allow some of the air to escape between your upper lip and the upper coverplate of the harp. This is crucial. Do not try to force all the air out through the harp; let at least half of it flow naturally out around the harp.
"Repeat this two-bar exercise 5-6 times in a row, then pause. The key is beginning with a clear, strong 2 draw; inhaling steadily for seven beats while keeping a steady beat with your foot; and exhaling on the 8th beat, using the entire beat for the exhale and allowing at least half of the exhaled air to escape around the top and possibly bottom coverplates of the harp.
"Do this exercise for a few minutes every day. In six months, you’ll have a terrific 2 draw!"
That's the advice I gave to Chinese harp players. I might have made one additional suggestion: If you can't sound the 2 draw on your C harp, purchase a D harp. Beginners find it much easier to sound the 2 hole draw on a D harp. Which players should I listen to if I want to learn real blues harp?
Start with the Top-10 and Second-10 lists that I've compiled. Here's the link:
What harp keys should I buy? It depends in part on who you're going to be playing with. If you're jamming along with blues records, you'll probably be able to get by with harps in the keys of A, C, D, and F. Those will enable you to play cross harp in the keys of E, G, A, and C. Many classic blues harmonica cuts are recorded in those keys.
The next three keys you get should be G, B-flat, and E-flat. G is the lowest standard harp; except for Dennis Gruenling, almost no harp players record on the low F, low E-flat, and low D harps. B-flat and E-flat show up with some frequency in the harp repertoire—Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, and Mark Wenner use them—and they’re particularly important if you’re going to be jamming with horn players, since horn players love the keys of F and B-flat. B-flat harps play cross in F; E-flat harps play cross in B-flat.)
Once you’ve accumulated G, A, B-flat, C, D, E-flat, and F, you’re ready to rumble. What about the remaining harps?
A-flat: rarely used. Stevie Wonder plays the solo on “Boogie On Reggae Woman” on an A-flat harp, blowing the high notes in first position. B: I’ve only come across two cuts in this key harp: Big Walter plays “Tighten Up on It” with Johnny Young on a B harp, and Sonny Terry plays “Poor Boy” on an obscure recording with Brownie McGhee D-flat: A favorite harp of mine for a particular song, “Gone to Main Street,” but I’ll be damned if I know anybody else who uses it--except for Nat Riddles, blowing harp with Larry Johnson on an impossible-to-find album on the Spivey Records label entitled Basin Free. E: This harp shows up from time to time. Sugar Blue plays “Miss You” with the Stones on an E, if I’m not wrong, and “Midnight Rambler” also uses it. James Cotton uses an E-harp on 100% Cotton. F-sharp: Very rare. Mickey Raphael plays his solo in Willie Nelson’s “Georgia on My Mind” on an F-sharp harp.
The only other key you might consider is a high G harp. In amplified contexts, a low G has trouble cutting through, but a high G is right out front.
I'd like to know more about different brands and models of harmonica--and harp mikes, too.
Here's just the site for you: www.ianchadwick.com/essays/harmonicas.htm Ian Chadwick has done a lot of hard work for you; please be sure to thank him, after you've emerged from his encyclopedic survey of harmonica hardware.
I want to learn how to bend notes. Help me!
You're in luck. I've got a sequence of three lessons that will teach you how to bend the all-important 2, 3, and 4 draw notes: BENDING VIDEOS AND TABS
My real dream is to be able to get up at the local jam session and kick some ass on a shuffle blues. I need to learn how to improvise. Help!
David Barrett, one of the best known harp teachers around, has written a volume entitled Mel Bay presents Improvising Blues Harmonica. I don't recommend many books, because I believe that blues harmonica doesn't translate well to the page, but Barrett has managed to crack the code and make the underlying principles of improvisation available to all players. I recommend his book highly. (And no, he hasn't paid me to say this. I just think he's done a terrific job.)
I've only been playing for two weeks, but I practice all the time--hours every day. How long will it take me to get good?
If you're a dedicated student of the instrument, somebody who listens to a lot of good harmonica music (i.e., recordings by great players), struggles to copy those recordings, asks a lot of questions, learns something new every day, and plays/practices for AT LEAST one solid hour a day (and preferably two or three times that amount), you may get surprisingly good in nine months to a year. But your development will in some ways only have just begun at that point, and you won't become a spectacular success unless you're also blessed with two more things: 1) real, undeniable talent; and 2) other good players--guitarists, pianists, horn players, bands, jam sessions--with whom you can hook up and really learn how to MAKE music. Still, obsessive hard work can get you a long way. One tool you may find useful is the Wittner metronome that I bought 20 years ago and still use when I'm trying to increase the speed and smoothness of my playing. (You'll know you're a speed demon when you can play 1/16th notes at a tempo of 120 b.p.m. Jason Ricci spews his at 135 and above.) Click on the icon to learn more:
In several of your videos you talk about "going to the woodshed." What does that mean?
It means finding a musical practice space--usually a bedroom, study, den, or other quiet room in your house or apartment, but also possibly a car, a tunnel, a barn, even a sequestered park bench--where you can make noise to your heart's content. It's the place in which you work stuff out; a place in which you delve with obsessive curiosity and focus into the machine-language of the blues, and the blues harmonica. You may bring jam tracks along to your woodshed. You will almost certainly bring a selection of great recordings by the masters of the blues harmonica AND, if you know what's good for you, by other masters of the blues and jazz: sax players, trumpet players, guitar players, etc.
Record-copying, as it was called back when records were the recording medium of choice, is an essential part of the woodshedding process. I still remember a period, many years ago, when every time I spoke with Dennis Gruenling he was transcribing a different solo by George "Harmonica" Smith. Eventually he transcribed all of them. That was some heavy-duty woodshedding! And it's one of the reasons why he is such a sensational player today: hard, patient work with no immediate payoff except the slow accumulation of small discoveries and the occasional unexpected flash of enlightenment. (Please don't fool yourself into thinking that a daily tour of YouTube videos and a few minutes of spirited playalongs will transform you into the next Little Walter, or Dennis Gruenling. We all worked very hard to get where we are today. We make it look easy because we spent a lot of time in the woodshed.)
A woodshed is a place, ideally, where you are completely free from the burden of performing for others and being judged by others. This liberates you to play the same passage a hundred or five hundred times in a row without fear of a bystander saying "That's boring" or "Get a real job!" Many of the great jazz musicians--Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins--approached the woodshed as a spiritual practice: with reverence, conviction, passion, and a calm but focused desire to move forward, fearlessly, into uncharted territory. Here's a great short essay about the meaning of the woodshed: http://www.bigapplejazz.com/woodshedding.html
I don't know any theory. But I know that I'd be a better blues harp player if I had a little harmonic knowledge. Help!
Just recently I came across a brief and surprisingly helpful video, a free download offered by the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I actually spent seven weeks there in the summer of 1978, studying jazz guitar, and the guy in this video is speaking the language that they taught me back then. Please watch this video, and take notes! He's talking guitar, not harp, but if you're a serious music student, you'll figure out which notes on the harp correspond to the ninth, third, fourth, fifth, and thirteenth..... akamai.www.berkleemusic.com/assets/display/768367/berklee_jazz_voicings_for_guitar.mov
Recently a YouTube subscriber has directed me towards another free theory resource. I haven't inspected it myself, but he swears by it:
Everybody, including you, Adam, is talking about overblows. I want to learn to overblow. Help!
You might start with www.overblow.com . If that doesn't answer your questions, here's a description recently offered by master overblower Chris Michalek. He describes two things: how to bend, then how to overblow. To overblow, substitute BLOWING for DRAWING in his first description:
"Get a drinking straw. Yep, just a plain old drinking straw and stick it in your mouth and start sucking. Now move the open end of the straw while you are sucking, up towards the ceiling. You may feel the air constrict, DON'T LET IT. Maintain a full airstream, if you can get a full stream of air while sucking on a straw that is ALMOST straight up and down you can bend a note. Keep sucking air, pull out the straw and replace with a harp. The note will bend!
"Do the opposite for overblows. This was tested en masse last week at SPAH [the annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica], where I got at least 22 people to OB in about 20 seconds and they did it on stock harps many of which were lee oskars."
In January 2015, I was interviewed on the subject of overblows for more than an hour by Ross Garren for BluesHarmonica.com. You can find that interview here: Gussow overblow interview.
Do you have a lesson about [fill in the blank]?
I probably do. All you need to do to find it is run a Google search using four terms: GUSSOW HARMONICA TRADEBIT and whatever you're searching for--VIBRATO, for example, or JUNIOR WELLS, or OVERBLOWS, or BLUES SCALE. Neat trick. And it works.
But I have so many OTHER questions! I'm sorry to keep pestering you by email, but you've put yourself out there as an expert and I don't know any other harmonica experts. Please answer ALL MY QUESTIONS, right NOW!!!
Okay, you win. Here are the answers: they're all posted at an amazing website called "Diatonic Harmonica Reference." The webmaster, god bless him, knows far more about the instrument than I ever will: www.angelfire.com/tx/myquill/
I'm cheap. Do you have any FREE videos in which you address some of these quesitons?
Yes, I do. Here's a playlist from my "Gussows Classic Blues Harmonica Videos" channel entitled "Ask a Pro: Basic Blues Harmonica Questions Answered!":
How did playing on the streets of Harlem change you?
Take a look at the following photo, which was taken ten years after the photo at the top of this page:
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