Blues has always been my number one type of music when playing harmonica. Sure I have played some rock songs and even some folk songs bur blues is really where my heart is. However a few years ago Joe Filisko mentioned a player by the name of Isom Fontenot in a class I was taking so I checked him out. It turns out he was a cajun harmonica player and I was fanscinated by the sound of his playing. I was hearing a lot of toung blocking techniques and I decided to learn more myself.
However it wasn’t very easy to find teaching material for cajun harmonica. I did get some material from Richard Sleigh and I used that to get started. In 2016 at Harmonica Masters Workshop in Trossingen Joe actually brought a cajun study song. It was actually a very nice mixture of blues and cajun making it a great study piece for blues harmonica players. This song allowed me to really work on my 3-hole blocks which have elluded my for quite some time. You can see the result below. If you are intereseted in purchasing the study material you can find it here.
Sometimes it is good to step outside of your comfort zone to find new challenges and grow as an individual, I know cajun music has made me a better blues player now. I not only had to figure out how to play the song, I also had to figure out how to practice my new technique effectively and not just in isolation. More on that in a later post.
The Black Friday Sale is a big thing, so also on Udemy where I published my course a couple of months back.I really enjoy teaching and this course is a way for me to reach people I normally cannot teach face to face. Online courses are also a great way for people to study at thier own pace.
The topic I chose for my first course is blues harmonica soloing, probably the main thing that gets people excited about learning to play harmonica but also difficult to develop systematically. In my course I focus on giving the right amount of information to allow people to set their creativity free on the harmonica.
A few years ago I got very interested in minor blues as it is something not we blues harmonica players tend to shy away from. Some people even think you cannot play blues over a minor chord progression.
This is of course incorrect but I can kind of see why people get the idea. If you are a player who always play in second position and have tried playing a solo when the band is in minor you probably noticed that some of the riffs you usually use weren’t working as well. This leads people to believe that blues and minor don’t mix or that it is too difficult to bother with.
When I started thinking about minor blues it was quite apparent that it wasn’t the fact that the chords were minor that was the problem. The blues scale is based on the minor pentatonic scale so a minor key should be no problem at all. After thinking about it for a while i realised that it was the minor third that was causing most players problems in second position. Playing a minor third over a major chord sounds really bluesy, even if the tone is not 100% in pitch. For example playing the 3-draw half step bend a little sharp (maybe just a quarter note bend) over the I-chord is perfectly alright. You can also play the 3-draw unbent which then matches the chord without being part of the blues scale. This means that you will rarely be really off in 2nd position.
Over the I-chord all blow notes are chord tones so that is pretty easy as well in 2nd position. The V-chord is trickier but most people handle it by using standard V-IV-I licks.
If we look at minor blues the minor third now becomes a chord tone as well as a blues scale note. Since it is a chord tone you really want it in tune, too sharp or even 3 unbent will not be any good and certainly not bluesy. Looking at the iv-chord the 2-blow will no longer be a chord tone, in fact unless you have mastered overblows the minor third is not available. This also means that all full blow chords are out which takes away some of the power of 2nd position. Even the draw 1-3 chord which is very commonly used won’t work because it is the major chord.
What you can do is stay away from the chords, 2 blow on the I.chord and make sure to play 3 draw half step bend in pitch. Or you can do what I did and opt for third position. Why is third position good for minor blues? Well simply put the minor third is quite easily accessible meaning that you won’t get in so much trouble playing it. In fact, the blues scale on holes 4-8 is dead simple and you only have to bend for the minor fifth. Here is what it looks like:
4 5 6+ 6′ 6 7+ 8 (Root, minor third, fourth, minor fifth, fifth, minor seventh)
It is a bit trickier in the low octave but it is not impossible:
1 2” 2/3+ 3”’ 3” 4+
Basically, if you stay above hole 3, third position is very easy and you can always develop the lower octve later.
Now, there are some misconceptions about third position. Some people think that third position is exclusively for minor songs and that is not true. You are playing the same scale so it’s not a specific minor scale you are playing. Third position works just as well over a major chord progression. I think this misconception comes from the fact that it sounds a bit darker playing in the third position but that comes from the fact that the minor thirds are more easily controlled.
Another thing I wanted to explore at the same time was blues rhumbas so I chose to write a rhumba in third position. You can check it out below. If I had written the song today I may have included a part where I play the very well known rhumba riff you often hear as backup.
As we all know, becoming a great harmonica player takes practice. Lots of practice. What suprises me sometimes is that how little thought some people put into how they practice. When I became serious about blues harmonica quite a few years ago I quickly found out that I was time constrained. It wasn’t because of lack of interest I wasn’t practicing 8 hours a day, it was simply because I had so many other obligations. Work, family, house, garden etc etc. You know how it is. This led me to thinking about how I could make the best use of the time I actually practiced.
Some time ago I took the time to record a few YouTube videos I chose to call “Hertzberg’s rules of practice”. It was my way of collecting the ideas I had developed over time that made my practice better than when I started. It turned out to be 9 rules for some reason, I don’t know why. Now I thought it would be a great time to summarize them here in this article. For full explanation of the rules watch the videos.
1. Quality & quantity More is not always better, it has to be good as well. Rule #1 video.
2. Consistency is king
Improvements fade if they are not maintained. Rule #2 video.
3. End with a positive feeling
What happens after the practice is also important to end on a positice note. Rule #3 video.
4. Have your gear ready
Don’t waste time when you practice! Rule #4 video.
5. Set your intentions
If you know what you want, everything falls into place. Rule #5 video.
6. Record and review
We don’t always hear what we play when we are playing. Rule #6 video.
7. Make performance practice realistic
The way be pratice is the way we default to under preassure. Rule #7 video.
8. Check relaxation
The more relaxed you are the less you will fight yourself. Rule #8 video.
9. Let the metronome rule
Staying in time is much more difficult than many people think. Rule #9 video.
If you follow these rules I can guarantee you that your blues harmonica practice will be much more efficient. Not only will your progress be quicker but you will also likely spend more time practicing. Everything adds up!
If you sign up to my mailing list I will send you a coupon giving you a 75% discount.
Everything moved quicker than I expected my course is already live on Udemy. I am very excited about this.
The course is for beginnig and intermediate harmonica players who want to improve their soloing skills. The course covers everything for simple 12 bar blues solo strategies up to startegies that include supporting the chord progression, dynamics, solo structure and creating excitement. This is what you need to take your solos to the next level and really integrate what you play with the music.
If you want to become better at playing blues harmonica solos, this is the course for you.
Forr the last month I have been working on a course to publish on Udemy. The reason I have chosen to go with Udemy is their great support in putting together courses. Now I have been able to focus on the material I want to tech rather than designing web pages. Hopefully everything will be up and running within a few weeks. I am very excited about this!
After the instructor concerts Friday night at HMW 2016, there was a short session with a great band. I hadn’t really planned to play anything but I couldn’t resist playing with such a great band. I was very happy afterwards.
Guitar: Kai Strauss
Bass: Thomas “Gaz” Brodbeck
Piano: Christian Rannenberg
Drums: Bernhard Egger
I took the opportunity to play in Joe Filisko’s class at HMW 2016. This is a great way to get feedback and to challenge yourself. It was great fun and I got some great feedback so that I can continue working on this.
Right now I am in the process IF planning an online beginner course in Swedish. There is quite a bit of training material in english online already but in Swedish it is another matter. If you are interested and have specific requests for such a course, drop me an e-mail or leave a comment.
I often get questions about different positions when playing blues harmonica. Most beginning players learn to play second position, for a very good reason, and never really think about why. To be honest, you probably don’t have to know why but I tend to think that expanding your knowledge is always good and will make you a better player even if you take pride in playing by ear and play what you feel. Another thing I have noticed is that some of the information being tossed around is sometimes misleading. In this article I will give you my view of why we use different positions.
First some theory. When playing blues we tend to focus our playing around the blues scale simply because that gives us a very nice sound and keeps us in tune. The blues scale is formed by adding the flatted fifth to the minor pentatonic scale. R b3 4 b5 5 b7. In C this would be C Eb F Gb G Bb. If you play blues in C this is the blues scale no matter what position you play in. I sometimes come across the misconception that the scale is different depending on the position, it is not. However you may not always have access to the complete scale in the position you have chosen but the scale itself stays the same. This takes me to the first reason we might choose a specific position.
Convenience If you map the C blues scale to a C harmonica you will notice that some of the notes are hard to play. I am not including overbends/overblows here since that is quite advanced and usually not something you master early in your blues harmonica career.
On holes 1-3 you can get R, 4, b5, 5 and b7 on 1+, 2”, 2′, 2 (or 3+) and 3′. So almost a complete scale, only missing the flatted 3rd. On holes 4-7 though you get R, 4 and 5 so you are missing all blue notes. Not a good place to start. On holes 7-10 things are better again and you get R, b3, 4, b5, 5 and b7 for a complete blues scale on 7+, 8+’, 9, 9+’, 9+ and 10+”. However you end up with quite a bit of blow bending which may take you some time to get right. So even if you can play in first position it will present some challenges and it won’t be the the first choice for beginners.
If instead you map the C blues scale on an F harp, known as second position, you get the root note on hole 2 inhale and you get a complete blues scale easily accessible on holes 2-6. R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7 are found on 2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+. This means that a lot of the notes you need are there “for free”. This is one of the reasons second position is so popular, you can master the blues scale quite quickly in this position. Another good thing is that two of the chords the band plays, the C (the I-chord) and F (the IV-chord), are available on holes 1-3 inhale and exhale. This means that you can switch between playing single tones and chords and be in tune easily with the band. Playing chords give you a BIG sound which is what you are looking for. If you dig a little deeper you will find that all inhale tones work well with the I-chord and all exhaling tones are chord tones of the IV-chord and also work OK with the I-chord. This means that almost anything you play will sound good over a standard 12-bar blues, at least it will not be out of tune. Also, since many tones are chord tones you can use a lot of two-tone combinations (partial chords) for a nice bluesy sound and texture. The 2-5 split is especially nice since it is the R-b7 combination, very bluesy. There is one thing second position isn’t very suited for and that is playing in minor. You can do it but it puts high deman on your bending skills since the b3 located on 3′ really has to be in tune, if you play it sharp it really sounds awful, this is the reason most players don’t play minor in second position. Also, the chords you play on holes 1-3 are major chords so you cannot use them the same way. It is not true however that you cannot play minor in second position, it is just more difficult and if you play the same as for a major song you will get into trouble.
Now let’s look at third position really quickly. Probably the second most used position today for blues harmonica. Many people think this position is only for minor blues which is not true, it works very well for major blues as well but it is often used for minor blues because it is easier to play well in minor compared to second position. On holes 1-4 you find the blues scale on 1, 2”, 2, 3”’, 3”, 4+. A lot of bending in this range, Holes 4-7 is easier, 4, 5, 6+, 6′, 6, 7+. In this range you basically get all important tones “for free”. The b3 which you need to play in key for minor is on 5 so you don’t have to worry to much about playing it sharp. Also holes 4-6 played simultansously is the i-chord (minor chord). Holes 8-10 gives you a partial scale. R, b3, 4, 5, b7 on 8, 9, 9+, 10, 10+. Again very easy to control and the i-chord is on 8-10 inhale. You also have the R-b3 partial chord on 3+-4+, 6+-7+ and 9+-10+. So from hole 4 and above this is a very easy position even in minor, the low octave takes requires som bending skills.
Choosing a position based on convenience is sort of like a guitar player that doesn’t like playing in F using a capo on the first fret to be able to use the same fingering as in E. Everything becomes easier.
Now on to another reason to select a certain position.
Tonal range If you only play second position you will in some keys end up with a tonal range you don’t feel comfortable with. For example, if the band plays in C and you only play second position you either have to use an F-harp which is very high in pitch or a low-F-harp whcih is quite low. Maybe neither is appropriate for the song or maybe you don’t feel comfortable playing thiose harps. Choosing third position instead puts you on a Bb-harmonica instead and all of a sudden you are playing a mid-range harmonica instead.
The feel Depending on how the blues scales is laid out on the harmonica in different positions and which techniques are available, the positions have different feels. For example, third position is often said to be a bit darker than second position. One of the reasons for this is that the b3 is easier to play right in pitch emphasising the minor quality. Fifth position also sounds quite dark with the root note on 2+.
Expanding your lick vocabulary When working with other positions than second you will learn new licks that will be useful also in second position. For example when you play over the IV-chord in seconds position you can use any first position lick you have learned and when you play over the V-chord you can use any third position lick you have learned. This really expands your vocabulary and will introduce licks you otherwise may never have used.
Your harp preference Maybe you have a favorite harmonica or don’t have the appropriate second position harmonica available. Playing in another position can save you here and offer more options.
Giving yourself a challenge When you have been playing for a while going to a new postion is a good way to develop your skills and give you new ideas. Also it will be easier for you to tackle non-standard blues if you are used to playing over more chords than the standard I-IV-V chords in second position.
Conclusion I hope this gives you an idea about position playing on the harmonica and takes some of the mistery out of it. If you have any thought or comments on this contact me via e-mail or post a comment below and I will help you as best I can. I have also created a a downloadable PDF for you mapping the blues scale in all positions as well as listing the connection between harmonica-keys and the keys of the different positions. Sign-up to my e-mail-list below to get it.