Getting Good on Harp:
a 12-point lesson plan for success

 

If you’re serious about your journey as a blues harmonica player, you need a roadmap:  a plan of action that will carry you into the future.  That’s what you’ll find below.

I’ve done my best to distill one pro harp player’s hard-won experience into twelve steps.  Each step offers fresh challenges.  This website, including the products for sale here, can help you address those challenges.  But there are also steps that will require you to head off on your own.

I can’t walk every step with you.  But I can offer you some useful guidance. 

Blues harmonica is serious stuff.  It has helped me and many of my friends survive the bad shit that life has thrown at us.

Stay humble.  Work hard.  Honor all twelve steps.  Respect the music.  And be a little crazy.  Because we ARE, all of us, at least a little bit crazy.    

 

1.  THE BASICS:  The basics, for a blues harmonica player, are single notes, double stops, and chords.  Single notes let you play melodies.  Double stops--two notes at a time, but also warbles--add spice.  Chords enable you to play strong rhythms:  shuffles, train songs, fox chases.  (Some teachers call these percussive, in-and-out rhythms "chugging.")  At MBH:  Start with Beginner’s Deluxe, then Advanced Beginner Special.  Those two packages of videos and tab sheets, along with the jam tracks contained in the Beginner's Deluxe, will give you solid grounding in the basic skills--things you'll be able to build on as you move forward.  (You can, if you wish, purchase the individual lessons contained in those packages one at at time.  All of them are arrayed on the Beginner's page)

2.  THE BLUES PROGRESSION:  In order to jam along with jam tracks and eventually play with other people, you'll need to learn how to navigate the 12-bar blues progression.  If you've never had any formal musical training, relax!  I'll guide you with a lesson called Counting and Playing 12-bar blues.  Once you've got a handle on that, the best way of owning it is to pick up some jam tracks and wail along.  As a newbie, you have a limited repertoire of licks, including bits and pieces of the songs you worked through in Step 1.  But the most important part of improvising for a newbie is just....making stuff up, with a beat behind you.  Babbling like a small child.  Blues is a language; you're easing your way into a new language.  You'll gain useful pointers about improvisation from a lesson called Harmony for Improvisation I  And you'll accumulate new licks if you begin to listen to, and imitate (however badly!) the great players I discuss in Step 9, "Tracking the Greats."

3.  BENDS AND THE BLUES SCALE:  Bends are the heart of blues harmonica.  They are the wails and moans; the crying sounds.  Bends are produced by narrowing the airstream in your mouth in a way that lowers the pitch of a note.  You can learn about bending at the page called How to Bend Notes and on the FAQs page.  The most important bend for a beginner (included in the Beginner's Deluxe package, above) is explained in a video and tab called Bending the 4 Draw.  Here are some lessons that help you master that bend.  "Down Home" is somewhat easier than the other two:

   §"Down Home" (video) and (tab)

   §"Worried About My Baby" (video) and (tab)

   §"Baby Please Don't Leave Me" (video) and (tab)

After you've begun to get your 4 draw bend in shape, you can move on to the 2 draw and 3 draw bends.  They're a little trickier.  

   §Bending the 2 Draw (video) and (tab)

   §Bending the 3 Draw (video) and (tab)

Here are some lessons that emphasize those specific bends:

2 DRAW:

   §"I Got Love If You Want It" (video) and (tab)

   §"Sunshine of Your Love" (video) and (tab)

3 DRAW:

   §"Caledonia" (video), (tab1), and (tab2)

   §"Let the Good Times Roll" (video) and (tab)

   §"Night Train" (video) and (tab)

   §"Sugar Ditch" (video) and (tab)

2 DRAW and 3 DRAW:

   §"Goin' Down South" (video) and (tab)

   §"Next Time You See Me" (video) and (tab)

   §"Tequila" (video) and (tab)

Finally, and crucially, you need to learn how to string all three bends--the 2, 3, and 4 draw--into a single line of notes called the Blues Scale.  This is an EXTREMELY important element of blues harmonica playing.  There's actually a "mournful" blues scale called the Minor Pentatonic Scale and a "sweet" blues scale called the Major Pentatonic Scale.  I call them the Blues Scale and the Country Scale.  Good blues players know how to dance between the two scales in interesting ways.  (Note:  the tab for these two lessons is the same; it includes both scales.)

   §Blues Scale (video) and (tab)

   §Country Scale (video) and (tab

That's a lot of material for one step!  Take your time.  You'll finding yourself circling back to this material for years to come, if you keep playing the harmonica that long.  Even pro harp guys like me practice the 2, 3, and 4 draw bends every single day. 

4.  TONGUE BLOCKING:  There are two very different ways of producing notes on the harmonica:  lip pursing (also called "puckering") and tongue blocking.  Most beginners use lip pursing.  Lip pursing means fattening and your lips and narrowing the inner part of your "pucker" into a hole, as though you were going to whistle, then playing single notes through that opening.  Tongue blocking, on the other hand, means putting your tongue directly on the harmonica and playing through one or both corners of your mouth--i.e., on one or both sides of your tongue.  Virtually all of the great Chicago blues players used tongue blocking:  Little Walter, Big Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells.

I learned as a lip purser and played that way for the first ten years.  Then, at the insistence of my teacher, Nat Riddles, I added the tongue blocking technique.  What a revelation!  Tongue blocking adds power, solidity, and a world of new sounds to any blues harmonica player's toolkit.  YOU MUST LEARN TO TONGUE BLOCK!  But you DON'T  need to tongue block 100% of the time.  (Some other harp pros disagree with me.  They believe in 100% tongue blocking.)  In any case, you'll get a good introduction to tongue blocking technique in my lesson called Tongue Blocking 1.  You should also visit the Modern Blues Harmonica forum and check out some of the (contentious!) threads devoted to this debate.  

§thread 1

§thread 2

§thread 3

Here are a few lessons that stress tongue blocking:

   §"Easy" (video) and (tab)

   §"Shuffling It Up" (video) and (tab)

   §"What'd I Say" (video) and (tab)

   §"John Lee Williamson's Blues" (video) and (tab)

   §"Crossroads Blues" (video) and (tab)

   §"Have a Good Time" (video) and (tab - intro).  There's also a FREE (tab - solo)

   §"Blues With a Feeling" (video) and (tab)

5.  GROOVES:  A groove is, in essence, a beat.  It's a particular way of constructing and locking in to a beat.  It's the rhythmic feel of a song.  Don't confuse groove with tempo!  Tempo is simply the SPEED of a song:  the beats-per-minute or BPM.  Grooves, especially blues grooves, have names:  shuffle, two-beat, swing, slow blues, funky, rock, New Orleans, swamp.  Blues players often specify BOTH the tempo and a groove, along with the key:  "Give me a medium shuffle in G."  Or "Give me a fast two-beat in E."

As a developing player, it's essential that you begin to think about grooves, and begin to mold your playing AROUND grooves.  The shuffle and the slow blues (also called the slow drag) are probably the two most common blues grooves.  Both grooves are organized around a triplet feel, a distinctive 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 beat.  Another common blues groove is called the two-beat:  the groove that drives "Got My Mojo Working."  (Some people call that groove a breakdown.)  One characteristic of this groove, no matter the tempo, is that the upbeats on 2 and 4 are stressed more than the downbeats on 1 and 3:  one TWO three FOUR.....one TWO three FOUR.

At MBH, I offer lessons for songs in a variety of grooves:

SHUFFLES:

   §"Stompin'" (video) and (tab)

   §"Down Home" (video) and (tab)

   §"Next Time You See Me" (video) and (tab)

   §"Let the Good Times Roll" (video) and (tab)

   §"Chicken Shack" (video) and (tab)

   §"Crazy About My Baby" (video) and (tab)

   §"Shuffling it Up" (video) and (tab)

   §"Grooving Shuffle" (video) and (tab)

   §"Have a Good Time" (video) and (tab - intro).  There's also a FREE (tab - solo)

SLOW BLUES:

   §"John Lee Williamson's Blues" (video) and (tab)

   §"Blues With a Feeling" (video) and (tab)

TWO-BEAT:

   §"Put On Your Red Dress" (video) and (tab)

   §"Mojo 1.0" (video) and (tab)

   §"Pack Fair and Square" (video) and (tab)

   §"Good Morning Little School Girl" (video) and (tab)

   §"Got My Mojo Working" (video) and (tab)

ROCK:

   §"Just a Teeny Weeny Bit" (video) and (tab)

   §"Sunshine of Your Love" (video) and (tab)

   §"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" (video) and (tab)

   §"Born in Chicago" (video) and (tab - intro) and (tab - solo)

FUNK:

   §"Cissy Strut" (video) and (tab)

SWING:

   §"Fever" (video) and (tab)

   §"Blue Monk" (video) and (tab)

   §"Tenor Madness" (video) and (tab - basic) and (tab - advanced)

6.  EXPANDING YOUR SKILL SET.  At a certain point, after you've put in a solid foundation with the material covered in the first five steps, you'll want to explore new territory.  There are four areas you might want to look into.

     a)  First and third position:  Although 90% or more of the blues harmonica repertoire is played in second position (cross harp), every serious blues harp student needs to learn the other two positions in which classic repertoire is sometimes played.  FIRST POSITION means playing in the same key as the harmonica:  using an A harp to play blues in A, for example.  I offer a couple of lessons on first-position blues, including "How Long Can a Fool Go Wrong" (video and tab) and "Shuffling It Up" (video and tab).  In THIRD POSITION, you play one full step above the key of the harmonica--using a C harp, for example, to play in the key of D (D minor, really), or a Bb harp to play in the key of C.  I don't offer any MBH lessons in third position, but I do have a couple of free lessons on YouTube:  Third Position 1, Third Position 2.

     b)  8-bar blues:  Although the great majority of recorded blues songs are 12-bar blues, there are several other standard blues forms, including 8-bar blues and 16-bar blues.  8-bar blues include "Key to the Highway," "Trouble in Mind," and "Ain't Nobody's Business."  At MBH I offer a lesson on "Sonny Terry's Key to the Highway" (video and tab) and a broader survey of the form called "Eight-Bar Blues Progressions" (video + tab)

     c)  Turnarounds:  The turnaround is a crucially important aspect of the blues, and one that almost never gets focused attention from blues harmonica teachers.  The turnaround is the 12th and final bar of a 12-bar blues, where the chord progression generally kicks down into a V chord in the last two or three beats, preparing you to "hit it from the top" on the first beat of bar 1.  I offer a focused analysis of turnarounds called "Turnarounds" (video and tab), giving you more than a dozen ways of handling that moment on the harp.  I also offer an intensive study of the little "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits" flourish that blues players use almost every time they end a song.  I call it "Ending the Blues" (video and tab)

     d)  Amping the harp:  No matter how much you love the sound of acoustic harmonica, at some point you are going to clamp your harp to a mic and blow through an amp.  And then the big fun begins--as well as the big headaches.  Amping the harp is an art, and a science, and there's a fair bit of sorcery involved, too.  I've got a lesson entitled "Amping the Harp" (video + article) that will give you a pretty good starter course, helping you understand what the key variables are.  You might also check out pages on this site called "Harmonica Amps for sale" and "Harmonica Mics for sale." 

7.  SOCIALIZING YOUR TALENT:  With half of the 12 steps under your belt, it's time to begin thinking about the world beyond your woodshed.  (A woodshed is a practice room--whatever space you've dedicated to the project of improving your blues harmonica skills.)  It's time, in other words, for your first jam session.  At a certain point in your development, you can ONLY continue to improve if you take the risk of making music with other musicians.  Blues is collective enterprise.  It's call-and-response music.  If you don't step out of your cave, you risk missing all the rich and important lessons that only live performance can teach you.  

And, yes, sometimes you WILL go down in flames.  But that's OK.  Take the long view.  Cultivate your edge.  That's where growth will come.  That's also where you'll feel most alive. 

You can locate blues jams in your town, or nearby, simply by googling "blues jam" and your location.  Before you do that, you should visit the blues jams forum, a sub-forum here at MBH dedicated specifically to the subject of connecting players like you with local blues scenes.  BLUES JAM FORUM.

Once you locate a jam session, I suggest that you purchase a small notebook and bring it along.  You may also want to purchase a small voice recorder.  Why?  Because you need to get a sense of what songs people are actually PLAYING at jam sessions.  If you don't recognize certain songs, you should pester people after they come offstage and ask them what they just played.  Write down the titles.  Build a list of jam-session material--stuff you should know before you get up onstage.  Track down this music on YouTube, iTunes, wherever you search for recorded music.  Learn the songs!  Or at least make an attempt to figure them out.

Jam sessions, in other words, can be an invaluable learning opportunity--if you let them be.

8.  PUSHING YOUR LIMITS:  Some of the most powerful and moving blues harmonica playing ever recorded is also the simplest and slowest:  Big Walter Horton playing "Trouble in Mind."  But slow and simple, important as those qualities are, won't always cut it.  Sometimes you need a little flash.  Sometimes you need to blaze.   One way of developing speed is to practice with a metronome.  Start slow; play smoothly.  Slowly increase the tempo until you can't hack it.  Then drop the tempo 5-7 beats per minute.  That's your developmental tempo.  Work there for a while.  Then raise the tempo 5 BPM and see how it feels.  It should feel easier than it did last time you tried it.  Occasionally you should drop the tempo 10-15 BPM and re-acclimate to THAT tempo, making sure that you groove without speeding up.  The slower tempo will give you additional microseconds in which to think through the musical logic of the notes you're selecting, rather than simply shredding unthinkingly.  I used this method to develop the chops and musicality needed to play this version of "Crossroads Blues."  It took me 4-6 months of focused work--at least 15 minutes a day of speed training--to feel comfortable and creative at that tempo.

Expanding into the upper octave is a great way to add variety and originality to your playing.  Far too many blues harmonica players, including many fine players in the classic Chicago mold, rarely play melodies above the 6 or 7 hole.  That's a waste of some great melodic possibilities.  I offer a few lessons that foreground the upper octave:

   §"Upper Octave Boogie" (video) and (tab)

   §"How Long Can a Fool Go Wrong" (video) and (tab)

   §"Buford Chapel Breakdown" (video) and (tab)

   §"Sunday Driver" (video) and (tab)

   §"Adam's Warmup Exercises with Overblows" (video) and (tab)

9.  TRACKING THE GREATS:  In order to become a good blues harmonica player, you need to know what excellent blues harmonica playing sounds like.  This means familiarizing yourself with the greats, both living and dead.  You can't become great yourself unless you absorb what the masters have achieved, then go beyond them to create something deep, original, and soulful.  Very few living players achieve that level of excellence--but that's no reason not to try.

This website is an excellent place to ground yourself in excellence.  Check out the Top 10 and Second 10 All-time Greats list, and don't neglect the Honorable Mention list just below that.  (Many of today's best living players show up on that third list, including a handful of players who regularly contribute to the MBH forum.)  More excellence can be found on a page called Best Harmonica Videos.  And since you'll need some great music to accompany you on your journey, you should take a look at the page marked Classic Blues Harp Albums.  You should spend at least 15 minutes every day just listening to music.  Put on some headphones; sink deep into the groove.  Listen for the inner logic of the music.  Deep listening of this sort will repay itself many times over.

Watching videos and buying (or streaming) great blues harmonica music isn't enough.  You need to see great blues harp players do their thing live, in clubs, concert halls, and festivals.  So make a point--if you're a serious student--of going out and seeing some live blues from time to time.  Your local harp pro may not be on my Honorable Mention list, but he (or she) almost surely has something to teach you, if you attend his (or her) live show.

10.  OTHER TEACHERS, OTHER VISIONS OF EXCELLENCE:  I'd love to believe that this website has everything you need to achieve your dreams.  But my own experience teaches otherwise.  I urge you, at some point, to explore what other blues harmonica teachers have to offer.  None of us has a monopoly on truth!  I'm happy to recommend three teachers, all of whom I'm delighted to call friends:  David Barrett, Ronnie Shellist, and Joe Filisko.  Even if you're convinced that I've got what you need, your playing can only be enriched by their teachings.

11.  OVERBLOWS AND BEYOND:  Many people decide to learn blues harmonica because they fall in love with a certain kind of funky, mournful down-home sound.  I was one of those people!  This website offers you a wealth of traditional blues harp material.  But as you continue your studies, you may find yourself intrigued by the idea of expanding your range into the musical terrain that borders the blues, especially jazz, funk, R&B, and rock.  In truth, every contemporary blues player should explore those musics.  (Robert Johnson, B. B. King, and Little Walter all absorbed jazz influences:  The Harlem Hamfats, Django Reinhardt, Jimmy Liggins.)

Back in 1987, a harmonica pro named William Galison introduced me to the technique of overblowing, something he'd just been taught by Howard Levy.  It transformed my playing almost overnight by giving me the ability to play three new notes in the middle octave of the harmonica.  In January 2015, I was interviewed by Ross Garren for BluesHarmonica.com; I spoke for more than an hour about every element of overblowing.  You can find that interview here:  Gussow overblow interview.  I urge all serious blues harmonica players to explore this technique, and I offer you several advanced lessons for blues and jazz tunes that employ it:

   §"St. Louis Blues (video) and (tab)

   §"Sunshine of Your Love" (video) and (tab)

   §"Adam's Warmup Exercises (with overblows)" (video) and (tab)

   §"Blue Monk" (video) and (tab)

   §"Tenor Madness" (video) and (tab - basic) and (tab - advanced)

   §"Watermelon Man" (video) and (tab)

   §"St. Thomas" (video) and (tab)


12.  DEEPENING YOUR BLUES:  Whether you're determined to become a superior blues harmonica player or just looking to deepen and strengthen your current approach, you'll benefit if you make a sincere effort to learn something about the people who invented the blues.  Blues harmonica isn't just a matter of reeds, holes, bends, licks, bar, mics, and amps.  It is, or was, an expression of black life in America, especially the South, between the 1890s and 1960s.

A lot has changed since then.  The blues have moved outward from the juke joints and urban clubs to become a world music.  But some of the old retrograde dynamics remain--there are African American blues players who decry the way in which whites have "appropriated" the music, for example--and you'll be a better player if you become a better-informed student of the music's cultural origins and the meanings that have been attached to it over time.

That's why I created the "Blues Talk" series.  It's a course in the blues that takes the form of 12 one-hour lectures, each of which treats a specific aspect of the blues, focusing on culture and society rather than on the practical aspects involved in actually playing the music.  You can find out more about it HERE.

 

That's it!  You're done!  NOT!!!!  But if you make it this far, giving each step the time and focus it deserves, you'll be a heck of a lot better than when you first walked through the door. 

Keep having fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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