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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > My learning journey
My learning journey
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84 posts
Sep 24, 2018
10:31 AM
I thought I'd post my current thoughts on my learning journey. You never know, it may help someone just starting out.

I've played and taught guitar for 30 years. I've owned harps for as long, but used them very infrequently. I learnt to bend notes almost as soon as I got a harp but have spent most of my time in first, or more likely fourth position.(Most of my harps are in Paddy Richter) Self penned rock riffs etc. Two years ago, I decided to learn to overblow. I did it more as an academic exercise than for any real musical reason. (Almost like learning tapping for guitar. Great if you can do it, but not essential.) Then disaster struck, as I have had the most appalling year of teeth and gum problems. (Many stitches, many antibiotics.)A few weeks ago I felt healed enough to pick up the harps again.

I had stopped at the point of being able to play overblows relatively consistent. But when I sat down with a tuner I realized that none of them were the correct pitch. I have since found out that the overblow needs to be bent up to pitch. At first that seemed impossible but I'm getting there slowly.

I like some blues, but am really more of a rock fan. I’m more Rory Gallagher than John Lee Hooker. However, I’ve been listening to a few old blues albums and had a sudden urge to play some. The only standard tuned harp I possess is a really old, leaky MB with a terrible 3 draw. I had such a great time that I thought I'd sit down with the tuner and see what I was doing. My bends were all over the place, so I’m focussing my practice a couple of hours each night on second position. The overblow work I'd put in seems to help me control the reeds better. Or be more aware of what is going on with the reeds

The other evening, I put on “Off the Wall” by LW and pretty much got the verses after one listen through. (Note-wise, not all the nuances)

It felt great. A real confidence boost and has spurred me on to get a few new harps to leave in standard tuning. See review in a later post.

My point, if I've got one at all, is that any practice is worth doing. Even if it just informs what not to do. For all my years of owning harps, I've hardly ever practiced. Yet, I don't feel as if I'm constantly starting from the beginning. For me now, it is obvious how important working with a tuner is to not only develop your playing but also your hearing.

I can improvise a 12 bar, but my current goal is to work on two or three note clusters and how they relate to the chord changes. Luckily, my guitar playing means my music theory is pretty good.

I’m always going to be a guitarist first, but I finally can see all the little disparate pieces of knowledge finally coming together and finally making sense. Particularly with an emphasis on second position.
85 posts
Sep 24, 2018
10:32 AM
I bought my first harps around 1983 and at the same time got the only two harmonica books I could find. Tony Glover’s “Blues Harp” and the guitar case book “How to play the pocket harmonica”.

Tony Glover’s book was finger snappin’ cool, yet seemed to be written in an impenetrable language, familiar only to residents of San Fransisco circa 1967. The guitar case book was fine but like so many instruction books, it only really made sense once you could actually play.

Youtube etc, is so fantastic. If a picture paints a thousand words, a moving picture paints millions.
More enlightened countries would by now, have named a park, or struck a stamp in honour of Adam for spearheading the teaching of harmonica.

What I never truly understood was positions. I sort of got that it was related to the key of a song but that was it.

My guitar theory improved, as did my general music theory. Decades, I kid you not, decades later I returned to harmonica and I wrote out the notes.

“Hmm, second position is a lot like a mode.” “HANG ON A MINUTE!” “Second position IS a mode. Mixolydian!”

Isn’t it amazing how one sentence suddenly unlocks so much information. What was previously a baffling mystery now lay bare before me, purely because I understood the guitar jargon but not the harp lingo. (Third is Dorian etc)

I’ve started to make a little notebook on how the individual notes relate to each key/position.

But is theory important?

As with any musical instrument, it’s not important if you are exclusively playing or writing your own material.

But, if you are trying to use any tuition material, or even communicate ideas to other musicians it can help save a lot of time and messing around.

Playing by ear alone is fine, as the theory is going along in the background whether you understand it or not. Personally, I like to know what’s going on as it seems to afford you more options.
86 posts
Sep 24, 2018
10:32 AM
My first harps were Marine Bands, Then Special 20s. Then the old Proharps. (I loved them. I recently had a mint condition one gifted to me!)

A decade in the wilderness past by....

Then the MS Pro Harp and in the last decade Session Steels. I worked outdoors for 5 years and had a Session Steel in my pocket every day. It took a hell of a beating but played and still plays fine.

In amongst that lot, sprinkle the odd Blues harp, Lee Oskar, Golden Melody and Big 6.

Solid mid-priced harps. Nothing too cheap, nothing too dear.

Last week I bought a MS Blues Harp, Golden Melody and a Marine Band Deluxe. These will be left in standard tuning.

If I had to review these for overall quality OOTB, out of 10 it would be...

BH 8 Slightly less volume and tone compared with others but nice, solid feel. £31
GM 8.5 More refined tone than my old GM. Metallic resonance as note decays.£33
MBD 9 Loudest, fullest, responsive. Brutal, razor sharp coverplate bends. £47

So the scores go in ascending order, matching their respective prices. In this instance I do feel that you get what you pay for. But when you are starting out, any of the popular models will get the job done.I’d be perfectly happy with the oft-maligned MS BH. In fact, it’s my “in front of the TV” harp.)

Like guitars, everyone should own at least one good harp. It makes you feel good, attracts sagely nods, admiring glances, and gives you bragging rights. But more importantly offers a frame of reference.

I’ve yet to go down the route of custom built but perhaps it’s just a matter of time....

I learned to work on my harps. I tuned them to Paddy Richter. Gapped and embossed them. I even fitted valves to one as an experiment. I haven’t ever completely ruined one, although I’ve come close.

What have I learned?

Unless you have a quantity of spare cash lying around, it is difficult to know what is the right harp for you.

In isolation, most harps sound fine and to a degree, play fine OOTB. It just depends on your preference for construction etc.

Messing around with a harp might make the harp play better but not necessarily the player. That’s still down to practice. But it’s worth learning a little about what goes on under the coverplates.

I recently collected all my harps together. Guess which harp plays overblows easiest, with the lightest exhalation possible? A Lee Oskar in G. I don’t know what that proves but conventional wisdom says they have squealing problems etc. Is it my technique that has improved or have I just found the perfect level of embossing or gapping?
5607 posts
Sep 26, 2018
4:43 AM
Thanks Gerry, I found that interesting.
I also totally agree with the things you wrote pertaining to theory.
For me it was such a blind spot for decades and I’m so glad to have taken some steps to learn a little. I only have very basic knowledge but it’s helped a great deal, especially in the band room.

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