Stage Debut as a Harmonica Player

At one point or another in your musical career you will probably want to make your harmonica performance stage debut. Even if you are not aiming to become a professional player it is something I recommend. It can be quite a scary step to take but if you follow my little guide it will go a lot smoother.

Where to make your stage debut

First of all, in this guide I will focus on you making your stage debut as an individual. Doing it as part of a band is a whole other matter. The places you should look for should advertise either a jam or an open stage session. In these cases you will normally find a house band that provide the backup and a jam leader or keaper of the list that plan who goes on stage.

Another type of jam might be the informal jam sessions that sometimes happen in pubs and bars. In that case there is probably not a house band but the jam leader may play backup on guitar for example. These informal jams are good practice but do not really give give stage experience. There may not even be an audience.

To find a venue with a jam session or open stage you can either ask more experienced players or search online. If you live in a small town you may have to travel a bit.

Small stage for stage debut

When making you stage debut the stage doesn’t have to be huge.

Type of audience

Depending on the venue you will encounter different types of audience. It might be tempting to choose to play for an audience that is less experienced in hearing harmonica players but I think that is a bad idea. A more knowleadgable audience have probably heard lots of great players before but they are also more likely to appreciate what you do.

Consider three scenarios, you totally make a mess of everything, you make an OK performance or you make a spectacular performance. If the audience is not really interested in music and prefer to drink rather than listen they may boo you of stage in the the first case and probably not pay much asstion to you in the two other cases. However if it is a very knowledgable audience they will love you if you make a spectacular performance, they will appriciate you if you make an OK performance and they will give you points for trying in you mess it up. All in all I think a more knowledgable audience is the better option.

This type of audience is most likely found in blues clubs and venues with well established jam and open stage sessions. Workshops where musicians come to learn is another option for this type of sessions. I chose to do my stage debut at the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen. An event with some of the best teachers in the world and an audience of some of the best amateur, semi-pro and professional harmonica players in Europe (actually quite a few from outside Europe as well). See how I did below.

What to play

When you plan what you are going to play you are probably best off if you chose a song that is quite well known. This maximizes the chance that the band knows the song and plays it the way you expect. If it is an instrumental or you sing yourself you can choose the key quite freely but if you want the house band vocalist to sing you have to be prepared to adapt to his or her vocal range. You don’t wan to end up in a situation where you can’t play simply because you couldn’t agree on a key with the band. If you want to play a semi improvised instrumental you should probably stay as close to a standard 12 bar blues or one of the more common varations.

Communicating with the band

Once you know what to play you have to figure out what to tell the band. In this case less information is usually better. They must know the key, the groove and if the song doesn’t start from the top. It should probably be something like:

  • 12 bar blues, shuffle in E

  • This is “How many more years” in G

  • 12 bar blues, rhumba, in G, meet me on the V-chord

The song I chose for my debut may be stretching it a bit as it has an intro and is a 12 bar blues with two variations used (quick change and ii-V-I change). To make this work I had the intro and the chorus printed out so I could communicate it easily to the band.

Preparations

To be really prepared I recommend that you make your practice realistic. What I mean by this is that you practice the song as if the band was there. This means that you stand up, tell the band what they need to know, count off and so on. Everything you need to do on stage you do in practice. The reason for doing this is that when the pressure is on we default to what we are used to. If you are used to doing everything already you stand a better chance of doing things correctly on stage. If you miss some detail in your preparations you may experience the same thing I experienced in a gig some time ago. I didn’t prepare for the microphone setup so at the gig it didn’t work at all. It was a true harmonica rehersal gone bad.

One thing you can do if you plan to attend a regular jam session is visit it as part of the audience. This will give you a lot of information on how things are run. It is better to know beforehand to take the pressure off a little bit.

Arriving at the jam

When you arrive at the jam or open stage take a look around to find the jam leader or keeper of the list. Talk to him or her and say what you want to do. If they ask you about your experience level just be honest, it is always appriciated. When you have you place on the list, take a seat and make sure you can hear when you are called. Once on stage, do as you prepared and have fun. Don’t forget the audience, they are there to listen to you.

After your stage debut I suggest you hang around for a while. This is a great time to meet new friends and get feedback from other musicians. Who knows, maybe you find a new band or duo partner at the session. You will certainly make new friends.

Time to act

Now you know a little bit more about what goes into making your stage debut. Do you feel up for it? I may be a bit scary but I can promise that it is well worth it. Afterwards you will feel great and you will have grown as a musician and a human being. So get to it, start looking for the right session for you!

V-IV-I Blues Harmonica Riffs

Building a solid riff bank give you lots of options as a harmonica player and improviser. The third line in the standard 12 bar blues is known as the V-IV-I, this part is busier than the other parts when it comes to the chords. It also contains the V-chord which can trip people up. Knowing a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs can go a long way. In this article I present a few options you may consider that go beyond the beginner riffs I have presented before.

Why learn specific V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs?

As the third line changes chords more often than the first two lines and contains the V-chord it is a bit trickier to navigate. I have previously written about the V-chord as a place where you can show off your skills. Learning a few V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs is a great way of adding to your improvisation skills. If you combine them with a bit of blues harmonica theory knowledge you are in great shape. Let’s look at a few riffs to add your aresenal.

Tounge switching riff

First off we have a tounge switch based riff that mostly uses the tonic of the V and the IV, simple but effective. The tounge switch also adds an element of suprise that the listener will appriciate.

Tounge switch based V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Tounge switch based riff.

Triplet based riff

This riff I really like since it has a triplet feel, octaves and approches the higher ocatve of the instrument. All this sets it apart from many other V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs. I try to use this quite a bit myself. Notice that is starts one beat before the V-chord.

Triplet and octave based V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Triplet and octave based riff.

Chord tone riff

This riff is heavy on chord tones and takes advantage of the notes not normally played when playing the blues scale. It will freshen up the listeners ear.

Chord tone V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Chord tone based riff.

Descending riff

The final riff is a descending riff that also hints at the chord tones of the V-chord. I like the sound of a riff that start quite high up and works its way to the tonic of the I-chord.

Descending V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs

Descending riff

Applying the riffs

In order to work these riffs into your riff bank you should pick them up one by one. Make a decision to use one of them for all your improv for a while until it has really stuck in your head. That way you will make it permeanent. Then you go on to the next one. Having 3-5 V-IV-I blues harmonica riffs that are not the most common ones will make a big difference for how original you sound. Let me know how these riffs turn out for you!

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Learn from Great YouTube Videos

When I started playing harmonica it was really a challenge to find any information on how to play. It was a big job simply finding any information and then I had to gamble on it being good. Today we sort of have the opposite problem, there is so much information out there that it can be a challenge finding the right information for you. With this page I try to fill a place in cyber space and in this article I have collected a number of helpful YouTube videos. As you will find these are not all the “usual suspects” for blues harmonica, I have tried to broaden the horizon a little bit.

Learning to swing

Aimee Nolte is a jazz musician and teacher who has a bunch of interesting YouTube videos. The first one I ran into was on the topic of swinging. I think there is a lot of things blues players can take from this video.

Improving rhythm

Let’s be honest, everybody probably need to work on their rhythm. I know I have to and that is why I am learning to play rhythm guitar and cajon. This video by Adam Neely gives you a way to improve your rhythm by connecting to your ability to speak. Not a bad idea at all.

A bit of music theory

As you might know I am a big fan of learning at least a little bit of music theory. The circle of fifths is one part of music theory that can open a lot of doors. It is a tool for song writers and musicians and teaches you about relationships between keys in music. This video by Mark Newman takes you on a deep dive of the usage of the circle of fifths.

Effective practice

Part of what I try to communicate with Blues Harmonica Kaizen is how to practice effectively and to learn new with joy. This TedEd video teaches a lot of what I have come to understand about learning and practice. A real gem among YouTube videos.

Your favorit YouTube videos?

If you have any other favorite videos or hidden gems I would love to hear about them. Drop me an e-mail or comment below!

Improvise with more than riffs

Being able to improvise is a highly sought after skill among musicians. Some blues harmonica players even regard it so highly that they don’t want to learn music theory. I have noticed that the focus on riffs sometimes mean that other forms of improvisation are overlooked. It is important to understand which tools you have at your disposal when you improvise. In this article I outline some tools you shouldn’t forget.

Chorus forms

David Barret who runs BluesHarmonica.com and who has systemitized blues instruction for a long time teaches chorus forms. They are basically patterns for how you repeat riffs in a chorus. By understanding how they work you shift your focus from finding a new riff to play to thinking about if you should repeat what you just played or play something new. Chorus forms also make it easier for the listener to follow your improvisation.

Note presentation

If you think that you might repeat yourself too much (listeners often want more repetition than you might think) you should consider how you present the notes you play. Always playing notes the same way will eventually become boring. Switch how you present the notes either between riffs, between choruses or from start to finish in your solo. Try to use clean notes, dirty notes, chords, tounge slaps, pull slaps, octaves, fake octaves, partial chords etc to keep your listeners intreseted. If you worry about repeating yourself to much then changing how you present notes when you repeat a riff might make yourself feel a little bit more at ease.

Dynamics

Dynamics is probably the most underrated and perhaps misunderstood musical tool. By changing the dynamics, that is the volume you play at, when you improvise you will envoke much more feelings in your audience. Let’s be honest, this is your most important job as a musician. The book “Let your music sore” by Corky Siegel and Peter Krammer is an excellent book/CD combo that explains this concept brilliantly.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Using dynamics to improvise is underrated.

Improvise better

If you start paying attention to these tools you will notice bif improvements when you improvise. If you need more guidance you can either contact me for lessons or take my online course “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Udemy (signup below to get a better deal and the Welcome Package) or Skillshare (two free Premium months through the link) whichever you prefer.

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Harmonica Bending, Types and Considerations

Most people have harmonica bending in mind when they start playing, at least beginning blues harmonica players. In theory bending is simple but as any blues harmonica player knows, it takes years to develop the technique. On top of this not all bends are created equa. Depending on what you want to do, you have to treat the bends differently. In this article I will outline how I view different types of bends and what that means for their usage.

There are diiferent types of harmonica bending

Not all harmonica bending is the same.

Fake harmonica bending

The first type is fake bending and by that I mean short change in the tonal quality of the note. It can be done by for example pronouncing “oy” when playing a note. It gives the impression of a change in pitch but that is not always the case. This type is often used by beginners before any real bending is mastered. It is a good way to introduce a bit more bluesiness in your playing if haven’t learned to bend yet.

Ornamental bending

Cloesly related to fake bends are ornamental bends. These are rapid changes in pitch at the start of a note. By using ornamental bends you get a nice tool for varying your riffs. By playing the same riff twice but varying how ornamental bends are used you introduce variation and make the riff more interesting to your listeners.

Melodic bending

Melodic bending is what I call bending to create the missing notes on the diatonic harmonica. In some sense that is what harmonica bending is for but as you will see below for blues you may sometimes want to create pitches that are slightly off. Melodic bending is what you would use to play folk melodies and pop songs and requires good technique and a good ear.

Blues bending

Blues bending is quite close to melodic bending but there are few other things to take into account. For hole 3 for example bending the half step to create the minor third in second position over a major 12 bar blues can sound even bluesier if it is a lttle bit sharp. If it is a little bit sharp and played dirty it sounds really cool. This is where there is a difference between blues bending and melodic bending. This does not apply when you play over a minor blues, in that case the minor third needs to be at the correct pitch (that is the same as for melodic bending, a big reason 3rd position is often used for minor blues to get the minor third “for free”).

Another difference is that bending hole 4 down half a step is actually bent lower than the melodic half step bend. The pitch created is somewhere between Db and C on a C-harmonica. Playing the half step perfectly in pitch is not as bluesy so you want to push it down all the way to get the full effect. Knowing the difference is what gives you the real blues horse power.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Well basically it means that depending on what effect you are after you need to consider how you practice and use your harmonica bending. What I recommend is that you practice your technique so that you can chose what type of bends to use. Being able to precisely control the pitch gives you the option to adopt your bends to the type of music you play. Get your technique and ears in shape!

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Harmonica Rehearsal Gone Bad

I have previously written on what is important when doing covers and how to practice and prepare properly. Now it is confession time, let me tell you what happens when your harmonica rehearsal routine is not up to par. A few weeks ago I was preparing for a gig with my trio “Worn Out Soles” and felt very confident. Not all results were as expected though.

Preparations

The preparations started out pretty much as they always do. We made a list of our repetoir and started playing around with the set list. This time I wanted to add a new song, namely SBWII’s “Help me”. I have had my eye on that song for some time but haven’t felt quite up to it. Now I felt it was within my powers to play so it got put up on the set list. I wanted the chords bombs to be there, solo close to SBWII and the bass line hook played by one of the guitars. The more we practiced the better it sounded, the chord bombs were aggresive, the solo was coming along and there was a nice groove.

At this point Pirs, one of the guitarists/vocalists said “hmm, we really should practice with all the gear”. Me and Magnus, the other guitarist/vocalist, agreed and then we kept doing what we were doing. At his point I should have recognised that I was heading for harmonica rehearsal one bad.

The result

To be fair we were practicing the way we usually practice and it has served us well so far. What I didn’t realize was that this song, “Help me”, required different microphone technique than what I had practiced before.

When it was time for the gig we felt prepared and did a nice job overall (if I can say so myself). However, when we got to “Help me” that was at the end of the set I quickly realized what I had missed in my preparations. I was singing and playing harmonica acoustically into a Shure SM58 and I wanted to keep my mouth close to the mic so that my voice didn’t sound too thin. This meant however that I had very little time to move my head back, bring up the harmonica, do the chord bomb and reset for singing. Since I hadn’t practice this, it really shook me up. Basically I messed up a whole bunch of the chord bombs, some of the vocals as well as part of the solo. I half panicked in the heat of the battle.

harmonica rehearsal with all equipment is important

The microphone that caused me problems.

The lesson

Overall the audience was happy and we got great feedback. For me, however, the experience was tainted by the fact that I could have done a much better job. Fortunately I can now take this as a learning experience and not skip realistic harmonica rehearsal with ALL equipment next time. If you are not rehearsing ralistically I suggest you start now!

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12 Bar Blues Variations – Get More Options

The 12 bar blues is one of the most common chord progressions used in the music world. It may seem like it would become boring quickly but it doesn’t. Things like groove, key, tempo and how to start and stop a song gives plenty of variety to the listener. There are however a few 12 bar blues variations that I feel are good to know. These will add a few more options when you play. I will use the roman numeral notation for the chord progression to make it key agnostic.

Quick change

A quick change means that you go to the IV-chord already in bar 2, the rest is just the same as the standard 12 bar blues. The quick change introduces a bit more movement in the chord structure and is one of the more common 12 bar blues variations. An example of a song using it is “Before you accuse me”. I like this variation and it is well worth practicing jamming over it because you will probably run into it.

12 bar blues variations - quick change outline

Outline of the 12 bar blues with a quick change.

Long V-chord

12 bar blues with a long V-chord may actually be a variation that is older than what we consider the standard form today. In this variation you stay on the V-chord also in the tenth bar. This form is used in the verses by Chuck Berry for “Johnny B Goode”. This is not a very common variation today but just for that reason it can be cool to use it sometime. It is also a great opportunity to show off your V-chord skills.

12 bar blues variations - long V-chord outline

Outline of the 12 bar blues with a long V-chord.

ii-V-I change

This change replaces the V-IV-I of the standard 12-bar blues. It has a bit of a more jazzy feel to it. You might be intimidated by the minor chord it introduces but it is not that difficult to handle. For G-major the ii-chord is Am which consits of A C E and G so two of the chord tones are already in the blues scale and E is easily accessible on a C-harp in 2nd position. An example of a song using this variation is Rory Gallagher’s “When my baby she left me”.

12 bar blues variations, ii-V-I change

12 bar blues with a ii-V-I change

Combining 12 bar blues variations

These variations don’t have to be used in isolation you can combine the quick change with either the long V-chord or the ii-V-I change. This way you can put more 12 bar blues variations under your belt. Sonny Boy Willimanson II’s “Born Blind” uses both a quick change and a ii-V-I change, one of my favorite songs. It is great fun to play.

Try it!

Now it’s time for you to try. I have put together three jamtracks of the variations in different styles for you to use when practicing. If you sign up to my newsletter you will receive the jam tracks as part of the Welcome Package.

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Taking Advantage of the V-chord

When it comes to improvising on the harmonica there is one place in the 12 bar blues where you really can stand out from the crowd. The place I am talking about is the V-chord, how you handle the V-chord signals to other musicians how knowledgeable you are. In this article I will give you the information you need to use theory to really shine over the V-chord.

V-chord

The V-chord sometimes causes harmonica players a bit of problems.

The problem with the V-chord

Let us first understand why the V-chord might be a bit problematic. For G-major (C harp in 2nd position) this is D. The chord tones are:

  • D, root
  • F#, third
  • A, fifth
  • C, minor seventh

If we look at the blues scale for G-major we have the following notes: G, Bb, C, Db, D and F. As you can see, C and D fit well with the chord tones but the other may need a bit of more care. G is the fourth of the scale realting to D which is a workable note but primarily a passing tone. Bb is a minor sixth, also primarily a passing tone and not even a scale tone. F is a minor third, a blue note for the chord and definately useful to create tension. Lastly Db is the major seventh and not really a note you want to use too much in blues.

The BS way

Playing many fast notes over a chord a player is not 100% comfortable with is not uncommen among some players. Although this will not sound bad it will not let you shine as a player. Maybe you will impress some people with speed but the pros will instantly recognise what you are doing. I do not recommend this approach and it is simple to avoid.

The easy ways

There are a couple of easy ways to handle the V-chord and still be musical. The first and easiest way is to hang on the root not all through the chord and perhaps touch on the minor seventh before going to the IV-chord. The same thing can be done with the fifth (6 draw would be easiest then). The only problem with this approach is that you will repeat yourself a lot, probably too much.

The second easy way is to learn a few V-IV-I-turnaround riffs to use. This is where a lot of players go and there are a huge number of them out there. It is basically up to you how many you choose to learn to avoid too much repetition. I think this is an excellent way and encourage you to seek out riffs to use. You will be standing on the shoulders of giants.

The knowledge approach

Even though I think learning riffs from other players is a great way I also think that using your theory knowledge can set you apart. By combining rhytmic patterns with chord tones you can come up with great riffs yourself. This will add options when you play and toyr riff bank will grow together with the set licks you have already learned. You will also be able to modify riffs you already know by stubstituting a few notes for the chord tones.

Besides being able to stay withing the chord tones for the V-chord there is another benefit. If you use mainly use the blues scale over the I- and IV-chord you will not use F# at all and probably A to a lesser extent. This means that to the human ear those notes will sound fresh when you use them. It doesn’t matter that you have played the third and the fifth of the other chords, the pitch of the note will be new and fresh to the ear. This is not only true for expert musicians who may actually be able to tell exactly what notes you are playing but also the average listener will notice. He or she will not be able describe what happens but it will sound fresh.

What next?

Now I would like to encourage you to internalize the chord tones for the V-chord and start using your knowledge when you play. Learn a few new licks and experiment with them. I also cover this and blue notes for the different chords in my “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Skillshare and Udemy.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail.

Playing other Instruments to Improve Harmonica Skills

Most of us have one instrument as our main instrument. At the same time we have limited time for practice so playing other instruments isn’t a priority. Howerver by dedicating a little bit of time to learning and playing other instruments can reall make a big difference. I don’t mean you should aim for becoming a multi-instrumentalist but learn enough to grow as a harmonica player. In this article I list some ways other instruments can aid you.

Guitar

The first instrument that springs to mind is the guitar, I am treating lead guitar and rhythm guitar as one here. Playing guitar will give you another view of the scales you play. If you learn a few blues guitar licks you can use them to increase you vocabulary and learn them even deeper. If you practice rhythm guitar with a metronome you will develop your tightness against the beat which is always a good thing. I have started practicing metal rhythm guitar and my appriciation for those guys is now very high.

Electric guitar is a good choice when playing other instruments

You don’t have to buy an expensive new guitar in you want to start playing other instruments.

Electric guitar or acoustic guitar are both valid options, choose the one that suits you best.

Bass guitar

Playing bass lines is music theory in practice so learning to play bass guitar will make you a better player both on the theoretic side and the groove side. The bass guitar sets the groove together with the drums. If you learn to play a few groovy bass lines on the bass guitar that knowledge will transfer nicely on the harmonica. You can never have too much rhythm or groove!

Drums and percussion instruments

Playing drums is a great way of working on your coordination as well as your sense of rhythm. Even though the type of coordination for drums is different from the coordination needed for harmonica your brain will make use of the new knowledge by strengthening the neural networks you have built up before.

If am entire drum set seems like an excessive investment I can recommend a  cajon instead. It is basically a drum set in the form of a box and it is great fun playing it. You can even do what I did and buy kit to build it yourself. I can promise you that playing an instrument you have built yourself adds to the satisfaction.

Playing other instruments - cajon

Cajon is a great option if percussion is your choice.

Chromatic harmonica

Most people who start out with blues harmonica use a diatonic harmonica. Learning to play the chromatic harmonica may not strike you as learning another instrument but there are enough differences to make it a viable option. The great Swedish harmonica player Mikael Bäckman has written a Master’s Thesis on the subject of using two harmonicas when practicing a lick. He found great advantages of this appraoch when writing his thesis. The title is One Lick Two Harps well worth a read.

Violin or trombone?

Violind and trombone may not be the first thing that spring to mind for a blues player but the fact that you have to create the pitch yourself is very interesting. When we are bending we have to use our ears to determine when we hit the pitch and vilinists and trombonists basically do this for every note they play. These two instruments are great ear training instruments.

Ready to start playing other instruments?

I hope I have convinced you now that playing other instruments is a good idea even if you want to keep the diatonic harmonica as your main focus. It will add to your practice, not just steal your practice time. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.

 

Harmonica Song Covers

Anyone who has ever thought about making harmonica song covers has had to ask the question, “how exact should I be?”. This question is valid both for the harmonica parts as well as the backup. In this article I will discuss a few considerations you will have to make depending on what you are looking for.

Why are you making harmonica song covers?

A good starting point to look at is why you are making covers. Are you expanding your repetoir for your band? Is learnings new songs to challenge yourself your focus? Are you trying to pinpoint exactly what makes a player unique? Is it a tribute? When you understand why you make the covers it is much easier to figure out what to do with the song.

harmonica song covers

Harmonica song covers is a great way of challenging yourself.

A few suggested approaches

If you are studying an artist to learn the style or if you are making a tribute to the artist you should probably aim to capture the essence of the artist. Try to capture the tone of the artist by dialing how the texture of the tone changes in the song. Using the exactly same riffs as in the original is definately a very valid approach. If you choose to improvise instead then make sure that you follow the always do, sometimes do and never do of the artist in question.

If you want to cover a specific song (and the song is the focus) you may also have to consider the other instruments used in the recording. The closer you are , the closer your sound will be. Maybe also lok at the equipment the artist used.

To build repetoir you can freestyle a bit. Most likely you should keep something of what the artist would do in your interpretation. It is up to you and what you feel comfortable with.

Don’t touch this

If you are working with a song that has components that give the song a very unique quality you better keep that in your cover. An example is a song like “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Willimanson II. It should include the backup lick from the band, the chord bombs and be played in second position. The fact that this is a minor blues may tempt some players to go for third position. I think that makes the song lose part of its identity. The fact the SBW forces second position on this song makes it unique.

Just do it!

No matter which I approach you choose for harmonica song covers it is great fun doing it. If you haven’t done it before I think you should start now. Let me know how it works out for you!