Header Graphic
Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Playing Hard?
Playing Hard?
Login  |  Register
Page: 1

216 posts
Nov 05, 2019
11:57 AM
I know this has been discussed at various times before, but its a real question.

BBQ Bob, and others, advocate playing softly. Generally I agree this is a good idea. You tend to get better tone, don't inadvertently pull notes flat, bend more accurately, don't blow out harps, etc. I remember when I first figured out that playing softer made bends easier. I suffered for years from bad instruction on bending that had me constricting and sucking hard to get bends.

So here is my real observation and question. Now that I'm more advanced in my playing (I said "more advanced" not advanced :-) I find that I can play hard and still have good tone, get my bends, and rarely blow out harps. I suspect that the "hard" playing I do now is somehow different than the "hard" playing I did when I was a more of a beginner. It feels like I'm playing hard, but maybe its more intense than hard? Maybe I'm playing intensely live and pulling a lot of air through the harp, but my embouchure is more open (tongue blocking) and its actually putting less strain on the reeds?

Any thoughts on this?

Jim McBride
Bottle 'O Blues microphones
3045 posts
Nov 05, 2019
8:56 PM
Hi Jim, long time!
Early on for me I was trying to force the harp to do what I thought it needed to do for me. Too much air too fast, wrecked reeds by the pile.
Somewhere along the way I began trying to do seal jobs on Marine Bands, and it got better performance from the harps but a shorter life span since my bad habits weren't changing.
I finally realized that playing on loud stages and having unrealistic expectations of the instrument were my downfall. So I got off the loud stages #1, and sought out the duo idea. Next, #2, I took heed of Barbeque Bob and others and began to change my way of addressing a harp. And #3 I changed what I was trying to get from a harp and more adapted my style and "attack" to the harp. I've had a few customs and have tried out a lot of harps over many years. Pretty much I went from a force approach to a focus concept. Work WITH and not try to overcome. In a sense I quit the typical rat race and took a newer and softer direction as far as bands/partners went. I still get to really step out and shine.

So simply put I do more focus and less force. Do you think that's true for you as well?
Music and travel destroy prejudice.



310 posts
Nov 06, 2019
3:13 AM
Thanks for bringing this up, Jim. I started playing recently (nine years ago), after it became common knowledge how to adjust harps for air-tightness. I’ve never had to fight a bad harp. Bends and overblows have always been (comparatively) easy to get.

For some years now my playing has been toneful and tuneful, well into the realm of advanced playing, but frankly, kinda boring. The turning point was a jam where a guy with less technique than I got clearly better audience response. I had to figure out why I sucked and he didn’t, and in a moment of humility and vulnerability, I asked him about it. And in a moment of charity, he took my question seriously.

For one thing, he had a better grasp of the inner pulse of the music, just boom/crash, but he had it. (Adam’s videos on juke-joint harp are fantastic on this. I’ve been slapped in the face probably 50 times. Check them out and be enlightened.)

He also pointed to my excruciatingly-well-adjusted-for-overblowing harps and said he thought they were holding me back. A harp that blanks out when hit hard trains you to soften your attack, making you sound bland.

So I’ve been undoing some of the low gapping on my harps and focusing on playing more rhythmic lines, fewer single note melodies, switching seamlessly between loud and soft, hard and soft attack, treble-focused and bass-focused notes and chords. This has been helping with the first problem, feeling the pulse and getting the groove.

I’ve had to retreat from my all-in commitment to overblows. They hesitate or stick out more now as “overblow notes” and I will have to figure out how to deal with that. For now, though, more butts are coming off the barstools and that feels great.
3620 posts
Nov 06, 2019
8:52 AM
@jpmcbride -- I think you are actually beginning to truly understand something most harp players suck at and that's dynamics and people who play too hard are always going to suck at it because they're usually on 11 all the time rather than no more than 5 and thus they have no place to go.

Since you're using less breath force, everything is much smoother and when you hit a note just a tad harder, the impact because of dynamics hits home easier yet you're not beating the crap out of the instrument and the tone overall is bigger, fatter, rounder and puts more emphasis on the even number harmonic overtones, which will always sound as I described and easier on people's ears to listen to (and even more so to dogs and birds) whereas when you used too much breath force, you were doing the exact opposite.

I'm sure you have also found that you also rarely ever get winded and in addition to that, whenever you're playing amplified, you are much less prone to feeding back frequently as now you're letting the rig do the heavy lifting instead, which is the right way to do things.

@ the_happy_honker -- The inner pulse is essentially working WITH the groove and allowing things to flow naturally instead of forcing things to happen and also fighting the groove. I'll bet he's also making better use of space as well and not trying to play all over everything.

Even with overblows, when gapping, you do have to do it in such a way that you still maintain as wide a dynamic range as possible yet allow it to happen and that's a big reason why customizers charge more for an overblow setup because it's a trickier, more labor intensive setup to do for precisely the things I mentioned and takes more time and hand labor to properly accomplish.

Many non pro players tend to play at one single volume level in terms of breath force and never learn dynamics and part of the problem stems from the fact that most of them just play open jams where most of the musicians are, to be very brutally honest about it, horrible much of the time and wouldn't know dynamics if you bribed them to and so that hurts most harp players more than helps them.

Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte
2879 posts
Nov 06, 2019
4:59 PM
Dynamics are everything. Blues is supposed to be a music that conveys emotion. Listening to the truly great players of the genre employ a lot of dynamics to achieve tonal variation in their playing.

When your always playing at 10, there is no place to go unless you can go to 11. (Spinal Tap reference.)
217 posts
Nov 06, 2019
5:37 PM
Well, actually, I've kind of gone the opposite route. I played years in a duo, low volume. Now I'm in a band playing big amplified harp.

Definitely I'm working on, and incorporating a lot more dynamics into my playing. You're right ... if you set your baseline volume at 5, you have a lot of room to go in either direction to make things interesting.

I still feel like I play hard at times, but I think I've gotten my technique and embouchure worked out enough that I'm not putting excessive strain on the harps anymore - I rarely have reeds fail anymore.

Jim McBride
Bottle 'O Blues microphones
3046 posts
Nov 06, 2019
7:50 PM
My harps do get a workout when we play acoustic at say a big farmers market. But one thing I found out is, if you want people to come into "tip range", you don't serenade them half a block away. You sing/play at reasonable volume and those who want to hear more come closer. Overplaying is losing dynamics.
Music and travel destroy prejudice.



6259 posts
Nov 07, 2019
2:57 AM
I think I still play too hard sometimes but I don’t break harps anymore so I must have learned something. I think learning to play 1st position blues probably helped a bit actually, and maybe just learning to play on the top octave and also playing and bending on the chromatic.
Fronting a band in which the players are aware of the harp as a frontline instrument probably helped a lot too. If you can actually hear the harp when played quietly it’s quite enabling. I sometimes do have trouble with a guitar strumming away in the space for harp but generally not too bad
I notice though, when the stage volume comes up and people start going for it, it’s harder to hear and harder to judge the appropriate level.

Playing hard is futile though, just like screwing up your eyes doesn’t help you play better. Just unnecessary use of energy

I started playing Juke a while ago and I think that is great training too. It’s not half the song it should be if everyone is playing loud and the harp has to compete.

It is something I have to repeat from time to time, our guitarist is from a pop and punk background and our drummer is a rock guitarist and blues rock bassist. Happily though our bass player is a Little Walter fan whose favourite band is The Aces and we are in agreement about volume and space and dynamics not just for harp but the whole band.

Playing Juke last night in fact I noticed that I was playing with much more dynamic feel than I once had and that inspired me to take it a bit further.

I also noticed later that a triplet lick I was playing on an F harp was playing much easier than I once found it and I was not struggling for breath nor was I worried the reed was in danger of clogging.
I was more relaxed than I once used to be in execution.

I think that stuff works together, relaxation, easy breathing, dynamic-consciousness.

I’m changing my approach to singing too. Just trying to sing from a bit lower down and focus more on phrasing and delivery with intent rather than just pitch.

I think it’s all related.

Later though, in Rocket 88 I felt there was just nowhere to go

Jbone, I love that mention of drawing people closer by playing quietly or at least not driving them away or keeping them at a distance. It seems sensible.
10189 posts
Nov 08, 2019
12:14 PM
Here is my theory... when you are starting out you have very bad breath control. Say a harp can play anywhere between 1 to 10 without damaging it. Sometimes you play at 5. Sometimes you play at 1. Sometimes you play at 10. That's your dynamic range. But when you have bad breath control... when you haven't learned to control your top end, when you haven't figured out how to use double stops to get some crunch you kind of pulse. You get too excited at the loud parts and you mean to play at 10, but you end up playing at 11 and sometimes pulsing up to 12 or 13.

10 doesn't have to mean using full force. It's just loud enough to get dynamic range. As you get better breath control your breath better. If you are pulsing from 6-8 because you don't have breath control you can't just use 6-8 for dynamics because you aren't going to nail it.

Learning to play soft gives you a lower floor for dynamics. I breathe through my harmonica. I use the range of force I would breathing. That includes 'I just ran a block' (or I just ran a marathon levels if you are in shape like some players!) and 'I am completely relaxed' breath force. It does not include 'I am playing trumpet or baritone' breath force levels though.

So... if you can control your breath force, play at 10, but don't play at 11 where you blow out your harp. Practicing playing lightly helps you develop that breath control.

Thread Organizer (A list of all sorts of useful threads)

First Post- May 8, 2009
1710 posts
Nov 08, 2019
1:26 PM
Another thing is, as you become a better player,you also become a more efficient player. That is, you are better able to match your breathe resonance with the hole you are playing. More volume with less effort.
25 posts
Nov 16, 2019
7:04 PM
sometime it hard to even play hard caus dat makes it less easy, so much betta to jus play easier instead no to hard, take it easy is da best maybe. sometime depend what we like even more?

Post a Message

(8192 Characters Left)





blues harmonica riffs - harmonica tabs - learn harmonica - play harmonica

play harmonica easily - harp tabs for beginners - blues harmonica lessons


ADAM GUSSOW is an official endorser for HOHNER HARMONICAS