Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > 'Aha' moments
'Aha' moments
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9 posts
Jan 09, 2018
12:06 PM
Can everyone share something that really made a big impact on unlocking your ability. Like something that you learned or practiced that you did not expect to have the impact that it did.

For me, embarrassingly, it was learning the 1st position major scale in the low octave. I know that every beginning harmonica book out there gives you songs and exercises in first position, and I was an idiot for not listening. Instead I just tried to learn blues licks in 2nd position because that is what I wanted to play.

This is one of the main big reasons I quit and restarted several times over the years and never made much progress. I just did not have a command over the draw bends on holes 2 and 3. I could fake it, but it was a struggle. The break through was practicing the 1st position major scale many many times. At first I could not even do it. Then I could kind of get it descending but not at all ascending, etc. The beauty of it is, that you can easily hear if you are missing the note. When I was finally able to play the scale effortlessly both ascending and descending, all of those bends became natural. What I thought was almost impossible before, ie., hitting bends accurately and consistenly, was actually kind of easy for the first time. That includes the half step bends that are not a part of that scale.

So, I would recommend to anyone learning, whether you think you'll ever use the major scale in 1st position, practice it. Don't be stubborn like I was, even though you will seldom ever play that scale, it will help you master the technique you need to hit your bends accurately in 2nd and 3rd position.
766 posts
Jan 09, 2018
1:05 PM
good advise

for me, big steps in my learning

1. second position blues scale on a G diatonic

2. to play simple scale on a diatonic - single notes, TBing only, then play the same scale playing octaves

Last Edited by 6SN7 on Jan 09, 2018 1:42 PM
9 posts
Jan 09, 2018
7:37 PM
I might state an obvious aha here, but gapping an OOTB MB (a la Joe Spiers and Andrew Zajac’s YouTube instruction) and then playing a pro-customized (Joel Andersson) MB a year later changed the game for me twice over. Nowadays, bends and overbends are butter — I can nuance technique (and bend overbends, for instance) when I’m not struggling against a leaky, inefficient instrument, which had been my experience before I popped off the coverplates or considered a custom harp.
80 posts
Jan 10, 2018
3:01 AM
That's good topic! I have to say that I totally agree with Swashbuckler73. A lot of people underestimate the pro-setup of harmonica, but, especially for rookies players (IMHO) is very important to have a good, non-licky and solid setup. This help a lot to understand if you using a bad technique or a bad instrument which don't give to you the possibility to apply it in a correct way. Moreover, different harmonica keys need a little different approch in technique: have a set of harmonica with good and uniform setup is again very helpful. My 'aha moment' was been when I've got a complete harmonica custom-set which was uniform in setup enough to suggest to me where I'm doing wrong in technique and where the harp setup 'was wrong'! Apart this consideration, I have to say I've found very helpful the David Barrett books: 'exploring second position' and the first volume 'building harmonica technique' which propose good exercises to learn and/or improve bending and expressivity.
The Iceman
3439 posts
Jan 10, 2018
7:16 AM
I probably can not "legally" suggest others use my "aha" moment, but here it is....

1972 - Traveled to India. Staying in a house on Goa, near the beach. Another "famous Hippy Character at that time", called "The Doctor", would come up to folk at night sitting on the beach and introduce himself..."Hi. I'm The Doctor. Would you like one drop or two?" as he turned on his flashlight and asked you to stick out your tongue. In his little eye dropper bottle was liquid LSD. I told him "I'll take 2". An hour later, I'm sitting on the sand, knees pulled up, head down with harmonica in hand, staring at the grains of sand starting to wiggle and change color while playing the harmonica and "AHA" - early bending technique discovered! (of course, that was early technique - much much refined and rethought over the years, but at least it got me started!
The Iceman
1671 posts
Jan 10, 2018
7:35 AM
In the mid '70s a guitar player in a band with me shared the circle of fifths with me.

After consideration, "Aha!"

The circle of fifths has provided a number of "Aha" moments to me over the years as I periodically review the circle. I now have it committed to memory due to organizing my harps in the order of the circle.


A more recent "Aha" during the last decade was when I determined to learn to execute some over-bending notes. In the face of meeting youngsters fluently playing chromatically on a diatonic I wanted to at least add a couple notes to my playing. This led to lowering reed gaps, which led to my learning to play with less force and more finesse.

I now do occasionally OB a few notes here and there, but the greatest impact of pursuing this technique was learning to better manage breath force and how to set up my harps for my playing.

Doug S.

Last Edited by dougharps on Jan 10, 2018 7:37 AM
1257 posts
Jan 10, 2018
8:41 AM
A big “Aha moment” for me was the realization that, (and I coined a little phrase) “The music that comes out of you is the music that is inside of you.” That sounds simplistic but let me explain. I am a classically trained musician. I played 1st Chair Clarinet for pretty much all of my developmental years, which meant that I played the melody lines on a lot of classical music, marches, theme songs from the great musicals, etc. I can remember riding the bus home from school with many of my fellow band members and we would sing our respective parts as we played what we had been rehearsing in band practice minutes before. I could play my parts or sing my parts because that music was inside of me via pure rote memorization. When I picked up my first harmonica in 1972, I was immediately able to play that same music. Like you, I learned to bend the draw notes on the lower end of the harp in order to complete the major scale.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago when I first became aware of the blues harmonica and playing in positions other than first. I didn’t know that you could blow bend on the top end of the harp. I knew nothing about overblows and overdraws, but neither of those are required for playing traditional blues. I learned to play the different scales, pentatonic, minor pentatonic, blues scale, etc. but that did not make me a blues musician. Because the blues was not yet inside of me. Playing in second position for me, was like asking me to speak German when my native language is English. I wasn’t fluent in the language. I’m still not. It has gotten a lot better, but English is still my first language. For me, what has helped a lot, is to listen to blues music and “sing” along with it – not the vocals, but harp lines – instrumentals. I have had to train my brain to hear the music and learn to think in that language. I know that I need to get beyond the “thinking” and make it as natural as my native language. It is a process. Slowly, but surely, it is happening. For me, playing notes on a harmonica is easy. Making music is the hard part.

Tom Halchak
Blue Moon Harmonicas
Blue Moon Harmonicas
113 posts
Jan 10, 2018
9:02 AM
Mooncat's videos have provided me with a countless number of "Aha" moments over the years. Probably the biggest single influence on my progress.

Thank you Jason.
114 posts
Jan 10, 2018
9:05 AM
Circular breathing has proven elusive. It is the "Aha" moment I would love have, but I doubt I will get there. It just seems to be one of those things that you either "can" or "can't" do...
367 posts
Jan 10, 2018
10:53 AM
I guess this counts as an “aha”: when I accepted the fact that buying stuff wasn’t going to take the place of time on the harp. As far as playing goes, it was a tip Cheryl Arena gave me about tongue blocking and octaves.
Phil Pennington
5182 posts
Jan 10, 2018
1:12 PM
The concept of chord tones. That was like a light went on.

Then later, realising that in 1st position 9 Blow is the 5th, thus equivalent to 2nd position 4 draw; I think I heard Gussow say it that way on something he was teaching. Maybe how long can a fool go wrong. He played 9 blow and said ‘that’s the 5th, that’s like 4 draw in second position’ and suddenly high end first just ‘clicked’ as I related it back to my mental image of 2nd position chord tones and the way the 3 draw and 4 draw bend to flat the 3rd and the 5th, just like the 8 and 9 blow can be bent. In a way it was like taking a chunk of my mental model of 2nd position (2 draw, 3 draw, 4 draw) and turning it upside down and moving to 7 blow 8 blow 9 blow. Maybe weird but it was a real thing for me
695 posts
Jan 10, 2018
4:38 PM
Mine came onstage at a jam, long ago. The band started into Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and it was cool as hell but I couldn't make it work in 2nd. I'd been messing with 3rd but didn't really get it yet, so I was hesitant to try. Then I remembered a bit of advice: "Stop being so afraid of it and play the f*cking thing" (guess who). Grabbed another harp and everything worked and it was great.

That was years ago. Last week I switched harps from 2nd to 3rd in the middle of a solo, 'cause I wasn't feeling it in 2nd. That turned out great, too. Come a long way.

ted burke
617 posts
Jan 10, 2018
8:28 PM
I have never had an aha moment as a result of a teacher's instruction or advice from another harmonica player. I've been playing for 51 years and each break through came through playing obsessively , listening obsessively, going through dozens of harps obsessively to master an idea and to push onto the next riff, song, style. The plus side of all that toil is that I have a sound/style that is my own (whether you like what I do or not).The downside , I suppose,is that I cannot conceptualize a way to give instruction or tips on how to do what I do. Hence, my ritual advice, which is to play as obsessively as I did and to listen to as much music in as many different styles as you can; soak it up and try to play it. My biggest breakthrough, though, was when I was 17 and bent the three draw and got something close to a butterfield sound. From there my huffing and puffing took shape into real music. A moment that changed everything.
2026 posts
Jan 10, 2018
9:18 PM
A guy who plays mainly prewar acoustic blues took me on board to be his harp sidekick. Very little 12 bar blues like I was used to. I was playing my teacher a recording of us one day, and he said “The guitarist is giving you a pretty strong rhythmical signal. Just lock into the groove and play along with that.” Then it all fell into place.
Jason said in one of his videos, “sometimes it’s not important what you play, but how you play it.” Dr. Gussow said in one of his lectures, “the groove is the prayer.” And Rick Estrin, in one of his instructional videos, says he is not teaching us how to play so much as teaching us how to lock into the groove. In my mind at leat they are all saying a similar thing. Now, locking into the groove is a key element I focus on (along with playing the “right” notes in the right key, of course).

BronzeWailer's YouTube
Jim Rumbaugh
1281 posts
Jan 11, 2018
7:56 AM
Major Key songs are easy in 12TH, 1ST, and 2ND positions
Minor Key songs are easy in 3rd, 4th, and 5th positions
12th major is like 3rd minor
1st major is like 4th minor
2nd major is like 5th minor

and that's enough to do all the music that I am interested in.

theharmonicaclub.com (of Huntington, WV)
586 posts
Jan 11, 2018
9:06 AM
The moment I finally grasped how to tongue-block, about a year into my time as a player. Someone told me "just gently place the tip of your tongue down over all the holes in your mouth except the one on the right." It was an epiphany. I'm probably about 65% pucker, 35% TB now (depending on the song, of course).
1768 posts
Jan 11, 2018
9:14 AM
Well, since I was new to the harp, Adam's advice that the 2-draw was the most important note was my aha moment.

But, back to 1st position, it is easy to neglect it - I do, and it can be very embarrassing if you don't know it. That's something I learnt from bitter experience.

Last Edited by Andrew on Jan 11, 2018 9:18 AM
1143 posts
Jan 11, 2018
9:40 AM
There was at least two.
While I naturally learned playing technique rather easy, bends, overbends, scales, speed. While on musical sides I often heard critics that I am playing unmusical, exercises instead of music etc. Once very good folk musician told me. Imagine shepherd with 3-note flute he made. It is very simple instrument, but imagine he is as talented as John Coltrane. This shepherd will find way to express himself with such a primitive too by dynamics, rhytms, articulation etc. So that time I start to play different. Another one was my guitar player. He told me play offbeat to be heard and to be more melodic and focus me one simple rhytmic patter which I didn't use a lot before (playing offbeat dotted eights like triplet quantized to 16-th grid). It help me understand how to build melodies.

My website. My album with Mikhail Bashakov. Seydel endorser. LoneWolf Blues Co endorser. Harmonica teacher. My facebook.
2444 posts
Jan 11, 2018
9:50 AM
Probably the first and most important was to realize, I needed to be a student, always. This did not happen early on, but after years of stumbling in the dark.
Admittedly I still don't use lessons much, instead I have soaked in a lot via live shows, the internet, and work with various people and bands on new material which has forced me to expand.

If I had it to do again, I would say, BE A STUDENT, ALWAYS.



3 posts
Jan 12, 2018
12:01 PM
Ah Ha?
Not sure if this qualifies!
Always wanted to be a vocalist but just didn't and still don't have the chops.
I put down the guitars and fell in love with Blues style harp.... I'm singing with the Harp!

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