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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Improvising; slow blues; etc
Improvising; slow blues; etc
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5713 posts
Jan 01, 2019
1:30 AM
Just over a year ago i tried to take positive steps toward becoming a better improviser.
Progress has been slow, but i think there has been some. Not as much as I’d like but some.
Ive certainly been thinking about the learning process and trying some approaches.
This is about my 5th attempt to post something about it, after a jam on the weekend where i noticed something which may be significant.

I don’t ‘jam’ much, and that may be significant in itself, but i think jamming by yourself with a backing track is probably quite ok

At the jam i was called up to play with a guitarist and he called the songs. The first 2 I didn’t really know but thats jamming, right? It was an experience I’m fairly used to; i.e. a bit disappointing. I started to warm up a bit in the 2nd song but it was time for it to end by the time i was finding some ideas.
The 3rd song called was a slow blues, and to my surprise i had plenty of ideas. One of my ideas was to choose notes other than my 1st thought, by which i mean that i managed to avoid falling into some ‘bad’ habits. Not exactly ‘bad’ i suppose, but things I’ve done fairly habitually but which i know are not the things i want to do. And it worked out.

I realise that if nothing else, my ability to play this slow blues groove has developed quite satisfactorily, and i wondered what Ive been doing which has led to that.

The idea of this post is to share some of the things I’ve been doing which i think have helped. To make it easier to read and in the hope i’ll Actually get something posted i think i’ll make a series of separate posts for each idea
5714 posts
Jan 01, 2019
1:34 AM
I thing i did in late 2017 was talk to Ronnie Shellist a few times. If nothing else, those conversations helped me pin down what i was trying to achieve.

Another thing i think may have really helped the slow blues was Ronnie’s Global Harmonica Summit with Gerry Hundt. I couldn’t attend live but i managed to watch the slow blues part of the recording a couple of times. I really wish i could buy that session as a download.
5715 posts
Jan 01, 2019
1:51 AM
Another thing i did quite a lot over the last 12 months was play scales. Scale patterns. I played 1st position up and back, bending the 2 draw wholes step, 3 draw whole step and 10 blow half step. I noticed this exercise did change my brain. I was playing it for a few minutes each day, and while speed was a goal it was secondary to accuracy. I am not particularly fast at it but i did improve speed and i certainly got much better at playing the high end of the harp. I did the exercise in various ways, sometimes just doing one octave up and back multiple times then moving to the next octave and so on, then combining all three octaves in a continuous run.
I noticed my brain began to recognise where i was on the harp and i started to hear the sound of the scales much better so that i could tell where i was by the sound of the notes and the relationships even if I didn’t keep track of the hole number. This was very interesting as I’d never really understood the value of these scalar exercises. It was also exciting as i realised i was changing my brain.

Apart from that exercise i also began doing some similar exercises with pentatonic scales for 1st major/4th minor, 2nd major/5th minor, 12th major/3rd minor and 11th major/2nd minor. I really did notice my mental image of the harp beginning to develop while i was doing these.

It was a bit more time consuming to run all those exercises every day and eventually i sytopped doing them but i do think theyre beneficial. They don’t need to take up a great deal of time. I think the benefit will come with just a few repetitions each day, but regularly, like every day.
5716 posts
Jan 01, 2019
2:14 AM
Study songs:
I studied 3 Little Walter songs which i think were really beneficial. I studied them one at a time and I didn’t have a plan but in retrospect i see they have probably had a cumulative effect

Can’t Hold Out Much Longer:
The solo is really based primarily on a single idea. There is some variation and some contrast but its a great demonstration of how Walter would build a solo.
Ive studied quite a few of Little Walter’s solo choruses now and i think its slowly starting to seep into my consciousness; i feel like every now and then i start to get an idea of how he constructed things and often did just take one ‘idea’ (meaning a lick) and develop it into a chorus

Can’t hold out much longer is based on this 2 measure lick he plays right at the start of the solo. Measures 3 and 4 are just a different way of presenting the same idea. Measures 5 and 6 are a different idea and great to learn because its a ‘repeating lick’ which can be borrowed and used in other constructions and will also develop bending and movement chops, then back to the 1st idea for measures 7 and 8. Measure 9 is picked up with the first part of the same thing but then transposed to fit the chord change, then measure 10 is really also the same lick just chopped up and put together in a different way. Then he rolls out a turnaround to die for.

I have played this for a while but only this last week buckled down to work out that turnaround lick.

(Edit: that lick over measure 5 and 6 always bothered me and i thought it was in the timing but when i paid it careful attention i realised its because i was playing the 2 draw whole step bend where on the recording the 1 draw should be)

As I’ve sometimes found before with Little Walter, sometimes the thing which seems impossibly tricky just requires you to understand he didn’t play things to make life difficult for himself. It’s often just a matter of understanding a move he made which sets something up.
I love it when i ‘solve’ these ‘puzzles’. For me,this turnaround was such a thing and I haven’t cemented it in my muscle memory yet, but its well on the way. ‘Muscle memory’; its still the brain.

Anyway, thats one song i found very satisfying to play and examine.

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jan 02, 2019 1:25 PM
5717 posts
Jan 01, 2019
2:28 AM
Another LW song i want to mention is Blues With A Feeling.

It’s a slow blues but it isn’t all that slow, its about 80 bpm, but the solo chorus is cool and i think rather suited to a slow blues.

This one is mainly about shakes. The 1st 2 measures are all shake on the 4 and 5 draw, and so is measure 3, but measure 4 is like a somethings gonna happen...but the thing that happens is just a chord change and another shake but shifted to fit the chord, and he just changes back to the original shake again when the chord moves back on measure 7 and 8, although he has slightly changed the pickup lick. But then measure 9 begins this long expressive almost vocal phrase that flows into the turnaround and sets up the beginning of the next vocal

I dunno, its just an exercise in head rolls in some way, but it also demonstrates the build up of tension and the big release and how all that works. Ive actually been playing this one for a couple of years so I’ve forgotten what it was like to learn. I know i used to count so that I wouldn’t get lost in the shakes and miss the chord change.
5718 posts
Jan 01, 2019
2:58 AM
The 3rd LW song is Last Night
In some ways its quite similar to Blues With A Feeling, but slower. It’s also played on a G harp if you’re trying to accompany the record, so thats a little bit different when you’re getting the hang of it
The 1st 3 measures are pretty much a big head shake but measure 4 is just a great line going up the scale and back down to pick up the chord change. I’m note sure if he’s applying a tongue flutter over the IV chord or not. I think it may be another instrument I’m hearing in the mix but at first i thought it was a flutter. The flutter idea doesn’t seem to quite fit with the licks he plays though. I don’t know, doesn’t matter for my purpose really. He goes back to the shake on bars 7 and 8 and its all seeming familiar territory then of course beginning measure 9 he plays a lovely phrase which takes it to the end of measure 10 and then a simpler turnaround device. The tone he achieves on this phrase in measures 9 and 10 is quite instructive i think. It’s worth paying attention to the tone and trying to get it. I’m not sure i really get there but I’m able to change the tone by adjusting my breat pressure and the shape of my oral cavity and i think thats moving in the right direction,

These 3 songs taken together i think have been tremendously beneficial in several ways. For 1 thing, theyre teaching me to listen. For another they are teaching me a way to think about musical ideas, and how to play with ideas rather than just get a panic going about ‘where next’. You could almost combine all 3 into a single song but i think thats a different proposition. They are all rather self-contained. I think multiple-chorus solos require some different thinking and I haven’t really gone there yet.

The idea is not really to memorise and play these although I’m happy to do so. It’s more about processing all the lessons they contain and developing chops to play expressively with textures and dynamics and build and release tension. There are some other songs too
5719 posts
Jan 01, 2019
3:12 AM
A great piece on David Barrett’s website which i think is really worth studying is a song called “my Blues”. It’s strong from start to finish really, 5 choruses i think but CH5 is largely a reprise of CH1. Great classic intro lick too. The whole thing is full of technique and harmonic ideas, s well as structural ideas.

One of the 1st slow blues songs i tried to play was Jr Wells’ “early in the morning”. Lately I’ve been listening to Bob Scaggs’ version and copying the harp. It’s an E harp on the Boz Scaggs record. I believe the player is Harry Duncan. There are a couple of choruses but theyre not consecutive.

Although its 3rd position, i think GeorgeSmith’s “Telephone Blues” contains great lessons in how to approach a slow blues solo. It’s again pretty much one idea, which boils down to ‘play the scale”. Also in 3rd position is Cotton’s “blues keep falling” which makes heavy use of one particular lick
5720 posts
Jan 01, 2019
3:27 AM
That might be about what i have to say except that i think in addition to all that stuff and the ideas contained therein, and the brain plasticity stuff, there may be something in just the gradual accumulation of information and a synergy between various aspects. Maybe I’ve just done about enough listening and thinking and copying to be able to start regurgitating a few things which appear to have been generated by me. It feels a bit like that; there may just be a requirement to study ‘enough’ to assimilate things and maybe I’ve just crossed a threshold with respect to one groove.

Of course i may have just had a good day. Maybe next time i try to jam a slow blues ill be back to struggling through
411 posts
Jan 01, 2019
7:28 AM
Thoughtful post. Well done. Lots to think about and try. Thanks.
Phil Pennington
414 posts
Jan 02, 2019
10:54 AM
Check out “Last Chance”, George Harmonica Smith.
Phil Pennington
5726 posts
Jan 02, 2019
2:24 PM
That’s pretty cool, Fil
According to my spreadsheet (which is in fact only 1 man’s opinion and is riddled with incorrect information) George played a Low F diatonic in 2nd position and a Bb chromatic in 1st on that record.

I can hear what i think is a chromatic, but I couldn’t swear its a Bb. And when i play an F harp in Bb I don’t call it 2nd position; that would be 12th! So i’ll Have to listen again to at least determine the Key...

Ok, the song is in C, and to me it does seem to be played on a diatonic in parts and I’d say a Bb in 3rd (ie not 1st, 2nd or 12th!)
I also hear what i think is a Chromatic and I’d say its a 64 reed chromatic, which is not a model that comes in Bb. To my knowledge these were only made in key of C, so I’d say 1st position for the chromatic sections. I think its just too low to be played on a 12 hole model.

And there’s no ‘low F’. There could be a C diatonic, in those days there was a Low C available too, so I’m not discounting that at the moment but i cant say I’ve noticed it yet.

Sorry, i realise your post is not about my harmonica artist and key spreadsheet but i am trying to hear what George is doing.

The beginning i think is a C chromatic and he is playing a phrase G F Eb C. On my 270 this sounds right if i blow 3, draw 2, draw 1 with the slide in and blow 1(slide out)

You could do this on a Bb diatonic with a whole step bend on the 3 draw, 3 blow, 2 draw whole step.

That opening lick is repeated 4 times, with minor variations of timing and phrasing but just those 4 notes...but then tha band comes in and that next thing he plays sounds distinctly like a chromatic and i cant hear what he’s doing.

That is a great song though and i do think probably largely 3rd position and possibly 1st on the chromatic. Would be interesting to see what others think about it
5727 posts
Jan 02, 2019
2:45 PM
I’m thinking choruses 1-3 are on the chromatic and choruses 4 and 5 on the Bb diatonic
346 posts
Jan 02, 2019
7:24 PM
I admire your efforts, Bee. So that beginners following this won't feel overwhelmed by the amount of information or where to start absorbing some of this, I'll point out that three of the best teachers, who all have lessons on YouTube or on their web sites, confirm several of your thoughts.

Jason Ricci emphasizes the practice of scales for accuracy, speed and importance in improvisation.

Ronnie Shellist and Lee Sankey (who has joined Ronnie in the last Global Harmonica Summit) both emphasize the "visualization" of the harmonica notes as you have described.

You may want to check Ronnie's website, harmonica123.com to see if you can purchase the download you mentioned.
5728 posts
Jan 02, 2019
8:02 PM
Indeed yes, it was Lee Sankey who suggested the 1st scale exercise i mentioned. I did mean to say also that while i mentioned its a pattern, i probably could have emphasised that aspect. It’s not just playing the scale in a linear fashion. It’s a pattern like C D E C, D E F D, E F G E ....and so on

And my personal chats with Ronnie also ran across these sort of exercises.

I also saw a video of Jason speaking about the scalar things which reminded me a lot of the sorts of things Ronnie had suggested.

Richard Sleigh also spoke about the pentatonic exercises.

I have purchased a link to the recordings but its a streaming link and its not so easy to pause and rewind or pick up where you left off. I did enquire of Ronnie about a download but because of the vision it would be a very big file. I thought audio-only could be good, and he seemed interested but at the time it wasn’t an optiion.
221 posts
Jan 02, 2019
10:30 PM
I want to kick off my first post of 2019 with sincere thanks to Superbee for his prolific, helpful and thought provoking contributions to the forum.

Thanks Superbee, the specific examples that you cite are awesome, I’ll definitely look into them. I can relate to a lot of your post although I don’t play the harmonica with performance in mind. I just like to play. I think that’s worth mentioning because when I improvise it lacks the performance goal. In other words it doesn’t even have to sound good I just have to be happy with it.

I have learned some classic blues by listening and playback, basically trying to replicate for the challenge and learning, but I more often play familiar songs that just come to mind. A good example is the time I’ve recently spent messing with Auld Lang Syne. Last month I played every Christmas song I could come up with. I start by playing melody usually in 1st or 2nd position. Once I have the melody locked into my head I start embellishing and going off on tangents, key changes... I really enjoyed working on Auld Lang Syne and I will no doubt keep working on it for a while, like I did last year.

Thinking about it now, I realize a significant part of improvising with these familiar songs includes applying skills that I have been focusing on around the same time. Auld Lang Syne was littered with copious amounts of blue scale variations, bent vibratos, and alternating left and right tongue blocks. Again, this does not create a good performance, but it’s gratifying to push my ability with things I’ve been focusing on.

Relative pitch and intervals are critical to my improvisation, or playing in general for that matter. I strictly play by ear and typically have no idea what hole I’m on. I do have to know where I am sound wise and what pitch is coming when I move to it. If the pitch isn’t what I expect (errk, wrong) then I can normally create a short detour to stay on track. Sometimes hitting an unexpected note turns into something pretty cool. So, I try to avoid the habit of ignoring mistakes, or the redo.

I believe scales help me a lot with intervals. I normally warm up with scales and that helps establish my ear to the harp key (or alternate tuning that I may be using). Sometimes I cheat(?) by using a glissando or grace notes to make my way to a note that I’m not sure about. I’m still working on fluency with bends. I hear them in my head but I don’t always nail them like I am capable of. Naturally I don’t want to avoided bends while improvising, unless it’s a distraction. I personally don’t like the bent tone in some places, like if it’s a sustained note of melody. So some bent notes will cause me to improvise further. I don’t consider that a bad thing but still I’m working on my bend tone with some vibrato while hoping to improve my opinion.

Practicing single note octaves jumps has helped me with those intervals. It has also helped me go straight to a starting point for repeating a passage in a different octave. I generally don’t have trouble with octave changes unless it involves a speedy mussel memory type pattern. Going outside the specific mussel memory is a bust for me. For example, I have to wire a high speed scale up, then down, then up and down together, then up and down in a continuous loop... Furthermore, I don’t think that wiring a speedy pattern helps me recognize those individual notes. But I often apply fast patterns and scales or parts thereof while improvising.

Speaking of speed, I honestly don’t try to improvise with music that’s clearly too fast for me to keep up with, otherwise I basically just play rhythm. I try to play where I have enough time to focus on being creative, smooth and somewhat proficient. My speed potential has continued to increase over time. It has also improved with my appreciation for responsive harps. I clearly remember struggling to play my first speedy repeating triplet. I spent many hours on that. But, once I had it down I quickly began stringing triplets together up and down the register and then applying the speed in other areas. The time I spent focusing on triplets helped me with improvisation by improving my general speed and dexterity, and it gave me another tool in the bag like the shakes mentioned by Superbee.

Regarding the shake, I’m not familiar with the ones specifically mentioned, but I learned from Mitch Kashmar that some of the shakes or warbles that I thought I’ve been hearing were actually what he called tongue switching (also called a shimmer) where the tip of the tongue is moved rapidly to alternate the 4 then 5 hole for example (or 3,4,5). Switching is similar to the flutter tonguing on-and-off technique. I’m still trying to perfect the switch. As a trumpet player I’m honestly a bit baffled by the variety and terminology. No matter what the techniques are called I figure the more tools the better; they all come in handy at some point. I often use one of these sustainable techniques while improvising to reset the pace, or change directions…

A good tip I read here somewhere was to listen more and play less. In other words don’t over play. I like that. Although I do improvise with recordings I spend more time playing solo. Again, sometimes it’s based on a familiar song but other times I just play like painting a blank canvas (or doodling on a piece of scratch paper).

I have a long way to go with my playing, but I can clearly recognize progress. I recently received a CD from Jbone and Jolene (love it) and I found myself jamming along with some of their music on the first listen. Okay, it wasn’t complicated but still it was music I’d never heard before and something I only dreamt about doing just a few years ago. This level of improvisation by ear was something missing from all the years I spent playing otherwise, so I am very happy to reach this point with the harmonica.

It's about time I got around to this.
5733 posts
Jan 04, 2019
4:08 PM
Thanks dchurch; i must say I’ve noticed your contributions here, they seem very well thought out. I’d say your brain is somewhat more organised than mine! I’m regularly seeing your posts and thinking “yes, thats a better way of explaining that idea”.

In February 2012 i read a message from David Barrett about supporting the ‘harmonica community’. David followed this up over the next few days with further elaboration.

i took it to heart. I think that is the watershed moment from where i really changed the way i thought about my participation in forums and the “harmonica community”.

This is what David wrote
“Most likely you didn't have anything to list when I asked you what you were doing for the harmonica community yesterday. Let's look at three paths of thinking though... supporting, helping and creating... you're surely doing one of these?

When you purchase harmonicas from your local music store they're more likely to carry more harps on hand. If it's a small store, they may carry a larger selection of keys just for you. If you talk to them about new models of harps, books, mics, amps, etc., and order these items through them time to time, they're again more likely to carry them in stock for other customers to check out (sometimes they have to meet a minimum order threshold, making the chance of having these items in stock, for at least a while, inevitable).

When purchasing harmonicas from independent harmonica mail order houses (F & R Farrell, Kevin's Harps, Harp Depot, Coast to Coast Music, Rockin' Ron's Music 4 Less, etc., and yes, I know some of those are out of business now ;-( you're supporting people who are REALLY into the harmonica and they're less there to make money (NOBODY makes good money doing this) and more here to help serve our harmonica brethren.

When purchasing custom mics, harmonicas, amps, cases, etc., you're funding high-quality work from artisans who are your fellow harmonica players.

When subscribing to BluesHarmonica.com you fund the $ needed to finance the interviews (yes, everyone gets paid), contributors and lessons I provide (otherwise I'd be teaching more private lessons and there would be nothing for the greater community).

I'm a member of Harmonica Collectors International... I don't collect harmonicas. I'm a member of Dennis Gruenling's Radio Show "Blues & The Beat"... I haven't had a chance to listen to it in the six months since I paid my membership, but I feel good about it because I believe in the work Dennis does (he's damn good at it).

Get what I'm saying.

Now, let me ask again, how can you "support" your harmonica community?”

There are a couple of follow up messages over the next days:

“What does it mean to "help" the harmonica community?

Here are some examples...

1) Ask the leader of the local jam session you frequent if there's anything you can help with. Aspects of running or setting up for the jam... getting the word out via social media or flyers in the local area...

2) Get the word out about products or services you feel strongly about in your social circles... local and your social media (Facebook, blog, etc.). Possibly write a review.

3) If there are companies out there that you feel offer a valuable service to you and the harmonica community, ask how you can help. Most, if not all, independent companies that make products for the harmonica do it out of the love for their instrument and harmonica community... many do it as a hobby and can use help with some of the business side of things.”

“If you're not interested in participating in something someone else is doing, then create something yourself. Do you like history? Are you mechanically inclined? Do you like working with databases? Do you like design?”

“Some subjects that I write about I'm an expert... something I have taught many times in many situations... the focus is to just write it down. Other areas I write on I am not an expert, and the research I do helps to educate me AND others. You don't have to be an expert to help the harmonica community by creating something new. Get started today on a project that excites you (and doesn't take away too much practice time... I'm dead serious about this).

Here are some Ideas for you:
- Create a listing
- Catalog something
- Gather historical data on an artist or artists that interest you
- Think of a product that you would find helpful that nobody offers
- Start a local blues jam session
- Start a harmonica club in your area

Here are some examples that are out there. If you know of some others, please share them on the General part of the forum.

Artist Song Listing

Vintage Harmonica Microphone Museum

Vintage Harmonica Amplifier Museum

Vintage Harmonica Sheet Music Museum

Walter Horton's Recordings

Harmonica Industry List

Summing Up:
Supporting... spending your $

Helping... assist in the efforts of someone else doing something good for our community

Creating... taking the initiative to get it done

Our community is small, but dedicated. Make a difference”
226 posts
Jan 05, 2019
8:49 AM
Thanks, I try to be at least somewhat coherent. David obviously does a great job of inspiring support. I know he is well respected instructor. Very cool. Thanks for sharing this.

OT: I’ve got to post this karma moment: It’s 8AM here and I’m having coffee and reading this thread… I just switched off the news and turned on Wagon Train on METV. These classic shows are my release from the morning news. I’ve never seen this rerun but the harmonica is center stage! It’s not just the typical background music or a glimpse in some campfire scene. It’s about a father and long lost son who unknowingly meet while playing their harmonicas… The episode is “The Jeremy Dow Story” guest starring Leslie Nielsen.

I got to get back to Wagon Train. I’m sucked in.

It's about time I got around to this.

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