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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Sheet Music, Harp Tabs or Ear
Sheet Music, Harp Tabs or Ear
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2 posts
Oct 02, 2018
5:31 AM
Good morning,

As I get deeper into this forum, I see several variations of the same question. Sorry for the duplication.

I am wondering how people go about learning a new song.
Do you look for the sheet music as a reference?

Or perhaps Harp Tabs?

Or do you play with the recording and work to emulate what you hear, playing by ear?

OR - do you get close but improvise?

I'm very much a beginner and would like to understand how others go about learning songs.


Last Edited by dfcii on Oct 02, 2018 5:44 AM
397 posts
Oct 02, 2018
11:28 AM
In my case, it’s a combination of working with the recording via MimiCopy, a slow downer, and working out my own tabs for more difficult parts of the song. Patience, persistence, and humility, one small piece...a bar or two...at a time.
Edit...I try to get as close to the original as possible before messing with it.
Phil Pennington

Last Edited by Fil on Oct 02, 2018 11:29 AM
5612 posts
Oct 02, 2018
2:23 PM
Hi don,
Ive used all the ways you mentioned. These days i often use some slow down/pitch shift software and my ears to copy something off a recording. Tabs and sheet music are helpful,but mainly as a guide; harp can be difficult to transcribe and a lot of tab is inaccurate.
When I’m studying a record, i want to get as close to the record as i can. It’s about listening, hearing and working out how sounds are produced. But all those tools are valuable. One of the best exercises is to choose a piece and try tabbing it out for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a lot or complex. In fact, start simple.
5613 posts
Oct 05, 2018
3:30 PM
Here’s a true story. It’s not the first time I’ve had this type of experience but it is recent.
I was looking at my iBooks app and noticed I had a transcription of Jerry McCain’s great instrumental ‘steady’ (transcribed by David Barrett).
I decided I should learn to play it. I was sure I had a copy of the song, and I was very pleased when I picked up the compilation album ‘harp blues’ and saw it listed there as track 5.
So I played the CD and tried to follow along with the tab. Just reading at this point, not trying to play but imagining the notes and trying to fit the information from my eyes to the info from my ears.
I wasn’t really getting it. I have enough experience of this that I’d expected to see the correlation more strongly but I was only catching a little similarity here and there. The high end chorus seemed about right but it’s a bit dense to be really sure.
Next step was to take it to the computer. I figured that once I started to play the song on the harp it would iron out the problem.

I loaded the track into the amazing slow downer program and started at the top. I slowed it to 75% and made a loop of the first phrase.

I could play the first few bars of the record pretty soon but I was not playing many of the notes on the paper. This was weird.

I started looking for another copy of the song. It was just too different. I considered whether David had made a mistake in labeling some other song with the wrong name, but it was too similar. The general structure and the way the band came in told me his transcript was Steady but I know he is one of the most accurate transcribers so I became convinced there was another version.

To cut to the chase, yes there is and it’s far more common than the track on Harp Blues. But I don’t have it.

I did have a copy of Dave Barrett playing Steady though, from the History of the Blues Harmonica Concert album. So I used that along with the tab.

I do find I can learn a song using only my ears and lots of repetition, breaking it down into small phrases. My concentration being what it is, I’ll do this to learn a chorus, maybe a solo, or a head, or a riff etc.

For a bigger study, like an instrumental of 4 or more choruses I do find the tab helps me focus. I don’t know, maybe it’s the visual.

I can’t play just straight off the sheet though. Well, some sheets are better than others but I see them as a general guide. Ears always rule.

This problem of making sure you have the matching record comes up though. The first tab I tried to read was Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘checking up on my baby’ in the blues harp legends book. I still haven’t found the record that goes with that. Another from that book is Little Walter’s ‘ah’w baby’ which is a transcript of the alternative take. The Sonny Boy ‘mr downchild’ in that book is the checker record not the earlier trumpet cut.

As I write this I’m really wondering whether tab serves any purpose. I think it’s good to try writing your own tab as an aid to learning to really listen. And maybe trying to read tab is helpful in a similar way, so you will question what you are hearing and why the paper indicates something you don’t hear or that you disagree with. It’s all teaching you to listen more deeply.

That blues Harmonica legends book (if that’s what it’s called. I’ll have to go look and correct my post if it’s called something else!) is great but it has some inconsistencies between the standard notation and the tab. In my experience, in these cases it’s always been the tab which is wrong. Whenever I’ve used that book and found something in the tabbed notation didn’t sound right, ive found a discrepancy with the standard notation and always the standard notation is correct. Someone has made mistakes transcribing from the standard notation to tab. Before I could read standard music notation I had a much lower opinion of the book but now I believe the author actually did a fine job. It’s not perfect but the bones are there. Would’ve been nice if it referenced the recordings with greater detail.
239 posts
Oct 06, 2018
3:37 PM
We use a combination. Some songs are readily available as sheet music. So if I have a part to play I tab out my notes to a old style of writing it out with arrows to indicate direction of breath. I usually listen to several versions or arrangements to get a feel for the song. The recording do not have to include harmonica.
Once I know my notes I chart them out to see which harmonica offers me the required of notes. Sometimes it will turn out that I am playing in such an such a position 4th, 5th 12th etc but I don't spend much time on that aspect. Also if I need two harmonicas to do a song or a intro etc, then that is fine to.
Fills and such are pretty much my own...
Good luck with all.
198 posts
Nov 11, 2018
11:41 AM
Hi Don,
I read your profile. That was helpful. My short answer is to learn and play the songs by ear.

Congrats on learning to read notation and playing single notes. Those simple single note songs are an important part of the learning. Honestly, reading standard notation for harmonica sucks, especially for a beginner. I dont find tab helpful at all, except how Superbee recently used it for explaining an exercise (or scale...). My advise for learning songs is to listen and play by ear.

One thing I've always found helpful is to keep a list of my learned song titles, note the position, and tab the starting note. Sometimes I will even tab the 1st measure.

With you goal of adlibbing... I suggest you focus some attention to the blues scale and 2nd position cords. Even if you can't hit the bends yet, practice playing along with those songs just using the notes of that scale and one or two cords. Learn some licks and embellish... In other words adding to the song rather than playing melody.

It's about time I got around to this.

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