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!

Harmonica Practice Backlash

Have you ever experiensed unwanted backlash in your harmonica practice. I am pretty sure you have and you are definately not alone. It is quite natural to want to move forward all the time and when we don’t, we get frustrated. In this articel I will briefly tell you why you sometimes experience backlash and what you can do about it.

When does progress happen?

Even though it is the act of practicing that leads to progress it is actually not during practice that the real improvements take place. What we do when we practice is that we fire the neurons involved in the activity. The act of repeting something will make it permenent in the end. However, just like with exercising your muscles, the real growth happens between the harmonica practice sessions. When we sleep our brains clear out toxins that are the byproduct of our everyday thinking and at the same time the neural pathways we have fired during the day are stengthened. Our new pathways can also be connected to other networks of neural pathways and make use of their stored knowledge. On the flip side of this, pathways that are not fired are pruned after some time. This is why it is so important to be consistent in your practice routines.

Why do we expereince backlash in our harmonica practice?

From time to time we experience that what we are learning seems to go away. It doesn’t matter if you are learning harmonica songs or techniques, it will happen after some time. Basically what is happening is that after a new network has grown for some time and perhaps has been connected to several other networks in our brains that it benefits from it has become a bit of a mess. Our brains then figues out a more efficient way of building up that network or neural pathway. Before the network is rebuilt, it will be torn down. It is exactly during this time that we experience our backlash. Things that seemed easy a few days ago are near impossible to do. This is extremely frustrating.

What to do

Anytime you experience this kind of backlash the best thing you can do is acknowledge that it has happened and power through. When you acknowledge what is happening you will stop yourself from being too frustrated, it is just a part of learning. Continuing to power through will restate that the technique or song is important and that the neural pathways needs to be rebuilt. It will take some time but you will come back stronger than before.

Strategy for Learning Harmonica Songs Faster

Some time ago my first harmonica mentor, Dick Sjöberg, reminded me of a strategy we discussed in one of his workshops. The strategy originally comes from Carlos del Junco and is a way of learning harmonica songs efficiently. Without even thinking about it, I have been using this strategy and it is working great. This article will give you a short introduction to it and how to apply it when you practice.

The short version

The short version of this startegy is, start at the back. Saying it like that doesn’t make it sound all that impressive but bare with me for a minute. If you think about it for a while and consider always learning a song or a phrase from the beginning it is quite obvious that you always get to the part you don’t know at the end. By starting at the back, you always start with the part you know the least.

The slightly expanded version

When using this strategy for learning harmonica songs I have modified or expanded it a little bit. Here is usually how I use it for a song with for example 6 choruses of harmonica tabs.

  1. Is there a hook or very defining riff that is used a lot? If so study that first.
  2. Compare the first and the last chorus. It is quite likely that the first chorus, often referred to as the head, is repeated at the end of the song. The only difference then would be the the end riff. In up-tempo songs chorus 1, 2 and the last two may very well be head variations. If this is the case, the head is what you study first. Whenyou know it, you will have a big part of the songs memorized.
  3. Analyze your chosen chorus. Is there a part that seems especially tricky? If so, practice that in isloation first.
  4. Practice bar 12 in isolation until you have a good grasp on it. Practice bar 11 in isolation until you have a good grasp on it. Put bars 11 and 12 together and practice. Practice bar 10, put together with 11 and 12. Continue bar by bar backwards until you can play the whole chorus with confidence.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the next chorus. Keep going until you know all choruses.
bar 12 of harmonica songs as starting point for learning

Bar 12 is a good starting point when learning a new chorus.

It may seems like a lot of work but a lot of the small steps you are taking are actually very quick. A nice side benefit of this strategy is that for a song with a head that repeats at the end you can  chose to perform it already when you have learned the first and last chorus and then improvise for the other choruses.

Why it makes you learn harmonica songs faster

In my opinion the power in this strategy comes from the fact that you concentrate the mostat the beginning. You will constantly be repeating the part you know the least and move into parts that are more familiar. This also means that if you stumble and start over you instantly repeat the part that gave you troubles. You also avoid the trap of first playing what you know, then realixe that the unfamiliar part is coming up, panicing and having to start over.

Try this out for your next couple of harmonica songs and let me know how it works out for you. If you enjoyed the read please like and share. If you haven’t already sign up for the newsletter below!

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Start Tounge Blocking

One of the most infected debate in the harmonica world is the pucker vs tounge blocking debate that has been going on for ever. This article is not meant as fuel for that debate although I am a tounge blocking advocate since a number of years. What I would like to do with this articel is giving you a good foundation start tounge blocking for single notes. I find that some people stay with puckering just because they don’t know how to change.

Defining tounge blocking

First of, let’s just define what tounge blocking is. It is the embouchure where you place your mouth over three or four holes on the harmonica and then use your tounge to block the holes you don’t want to play. What you end up with is one (or more) holes that gets all the air throught the corner of your mouth. You can actually play out of both corners for the octave split but let’s save that for later.

First, no air

To get a good a start tounge blocking you need to be able to control your tounge. This is quite hard for most people as we use our tounges sub-consiously every day. I find that the best way is to start by blocking all the holes at once so that no sound comes out at all. It may sound counter intuitive but it is actually a very useful technique as a base for more advanced techniques. To effectively block all holes you will notice that the tip of the tounge is not wide enough, point the tip slightly downwards and let the top of the tip block instead.

Start tounge blocking, full block demonstration

Block all holes with the top of the front part of the tounge.

Slight leftwards slide

The next step is to open the air flow for one hole. You do this by ever so slightly slide your tounge to the left. This will open up a hole in the right corner of your mouth that will allow air to pass through one of the holes. Don’t worry too much if you get more than one hole to begin with but spend some time finding the sweet spot where you only get one hole. Basically that is it, this is how you start tounge blocking. The sound you hear should be unobstructed and relaxed, no bend in the pitch a full tone. Use the process I outlined before on how to learn new techniques.

Start tounge blocking, tounge position demonstration

Slide the tounge to the left to allow air to pass through.

Common problems

Here are a few problems people run into and how to remedy them

Unable to block all holes

You are probably using too much of the tip of the tounge, curve your toung downwards a bit more to use more of the top of the tounge. It is also a good idea to tilt the harmonica slightly downwards to more easily meet the top of your tounge. You may also be opening your mouth too wide, try narrowing it a bit to cover three or four holes. No more now.

Harmonica tilted against the cheek

In this case you are likely blocking with the side of your tounge, focus on holding the harmonica directly in front of your mouth no tilt. It is also likely that you have tried compensating for not curving your tounge downwards enough by tilting the harmonica. Go back to practicing the full block until you can hold the harmonica with no tilt.

Unable to control the tounge

If you feel that you are unable to control the tounge it is probably because you have no visual cues to build a picture of what is going on. In this case practice blocking all holes without the harmonica standing in front of a mirror and then sliding your tounge to the left. Seeing what you are doing will help you control your tounge and understanding how it should feel.You can also get the Filisko Tounge Block Trainer to get a more complete picture of what is happening.

Put it all together

Once you start tounge blocking I would recommend you to try to play as much as possible with this embouchure. You may need to relearn some songs you have played before but I think it is well worth the effort.

Harmonica Techniques – How to Learn

Extending your riff vocabulary and adding more texture to your playing is very important as a new player. Hower what might even be more important is knowing how to learn new harmonica techniques and riffs. In this article I will take you through a simple step by step process that will show you how to learn in the most efficient way. With this knowledge you will be able to progress much faster and also retain more of what you learn. The process is also useful outside blues harmonica practice, a nice little bonus.

How to learn with chunking

At the core of learning advanced harmonica techniques and concepts is a concept known as chunking. Basically it is the process of binding small pieces of knowledge into a new automatic movement or piece of knowledge. The reason this is important is that our short term working memory has limited space. Think of it as a box with around seven compartments and each compartment can fit one chunk.

How advanced a chunk is doesn’t matter, one chunk takes up one compartment. This is why new techniques require a lot of effort before they become second nature. To do a tounge slap before it is a chunk is individual movement you make is a chunk of its own. Your working memory is filled up quickly. I learned about chunking in the Coursera course “Learning how to learn” which covers quite a bit of other concepts as well. A very interesting course.

Breakdown of the how to learn harmonica techniques process

When explaining the process I will use the 3-hole block technique as an example (holes 6 and 4 played simulatenously while hole 5 is blocked). It is a technique I had to put a lot of effort into learning when I was studying Jerry’s Cajun Blues.

Get a mental image of the goal

In order to know if you have succeeded with what you are trying to learn you need a mental image to compare against. In the case of the 3-hole block I made sure I knew what it was supposed to sound like. You either do this by listening to an instructor, a recording or you make the sound yourself on the harmonica. Since I couldn’t do the technique properly to begin with I had to cheat a little bit. I basically covered the holes around the three holes I was working on with my fingers and used my tounge for the middle hole. If you want to, you can use scotch tape to block off the any unwanted holes.

Cheating is definately OK in this step as you are only aiming to hear what the finished product should sound like. This step is a high level step where you focus on the end result and not how it is achieved.

Break down the technique

Now we go from a high level perspective to a very practical low level perspective. Now we start thinking about how we can achieve the mental goal image, in this case the sound. We already know that we want to plat holes 6 and 4 at the same time while hole 5 is silent. We don’t want any sound from holes 1-3 or 7-10 either. With a little bit of thinking we can figure out that the opening in our mouth need to be small enough to only cover holes 4, 5 and 6. Our tounge needs to be thin enough to only cover hole 5. When we know this theoretically we need to transfer this to the harmonica.

Transfer mental image to the real world

A great way to do this is by using the Filisko Tounge Block Trainer in this case. It allows us to see what is happening with our embouchure. When it looks right using the TBT we make a mental note of how it feels. The next step is to tranfer this feeling when using the harmonica instead of the TBT. When it feels right we try breathing and check the sound against the mental image we formed before. If it does not sound right we make adjustements to try to replicate the sound we are after. As soon as it sounds right it is time to make a new mental note of how everything feels.

TBT - Tool for learning harmonica techniques

Tounge Block Trainer

Practice

There is now getting aroudn making repetitions to learning harmonica techniques. When it sounds right we practice over and over until it sticks. This is where most people stop. Unfortunately we are no where near finished. Even though praticing the technique in isolation is an important part of the process it is not enough. We have to know how to get to the position.

Setting harmonica techniques in context

One of the most important part of the process is getting context into the mix. A technique is never used in isolation. We never have unlimited time setting everything up and then play repeatidly. We are always coming from somwhere and we are always going somewhere. This means that we always have to practice moving into and out of the harmonica techniques. The beat way to do this is to put the technique we practice into a riff. In the song I was practicing I needed to move from a 7-4 split (4-hole split) to a 6-4 split (3-split). This became my riff.

More practice

When the riff sound right it is time to practice that as a riff or even as an individual technique. The embouchure and technique has become a chunk and moving between from the 7-4 split to the 6-4 split is the new chunk to form. The mental image also needs to be adjusted to take this movement into account. To make this practice even more effective we can add a second riff here where we move into the technique from another starting point. In my case this became another part of the song where I needed to move from 6-3 split exhale to 6-4 split inhale. Another chuck was practiced and formed. The brain then takes advantage of two similar chunks being formed in making the neural pathways as efficient as possible.

Widening the context

The next step is sort of obvious, set the technique in a wider context. When we get a short riff working we expand it. For me it was playing 4 bars instead of one of the song. When the 4 bars worked smoothly I then moved on to playing a whole chorus. All the time focusing on being as close as possible to the sound of the technique.

Spaced repetition

In the sections above where practice is mentioned, spaced repetition is an imortant concept. What it means is that you need to practice the same thing on separate occasions. The process of practicing and then resting allows your brain to make form the best neural pathways. You may even find that you can do the new technique better after you have had a pause for a few days. It is because your brain has optimised the neural network and pruned then unnecessary parts during sleep. To make this even more efficient it is a good idea to end practice on a positive note. Let the last repetition be a good one! This is part of the Hertzberg’s Rules of Practice.

The process in practice

Reading all of this may have you questioning if it is worth it. It may sound like a lot of work to learn new harmonica techniques. I know it sounds like a lot of work but no progress is for free. Also, as soon as this becomes a part of your practice strategy you will not eevn think about doing it. It will all come very natural to you. New techniques will be added to your repetoire as a part of your normal practice routine.

Let me know how this works out for you. If you have other tips or insights I would be very interested to hear about them. If you already ahven’t signed up to the newsletter you can do so below.

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Blues Harmonica Music Theory

Last I touched upon some arguments about music theory. This week I will give you a quick primer of the blues harmonica music theory you need to know to become an even better player. As you will see it is not very complicated and the benefits are well worth it.

Structure and chords of the 12 bar blues

The most common form of accompaniment you will come across when playing blues is the 12 bar blues. The picture shows the 12 bar blues outline with roman numerals and writing it like this means it can be used in any key.

Blues Harmonica Music Theory 12 bar blues outline

12 bar blues outline in roman numerals

  • I is the tonic chord of the key, based on the first note of the scale
  • IV is the sub-dominant chord of the key, based on the fourth note of the scale
  • V is the dominant chord of the key based on the fifth note of the scale

More on chords

A chord is two or more tones played together taken from a scale and the chords in a major key are based on the tones of the major diatonic scale. A G-chord is made up of notes from the G-major scale, a C-chord is made up of notes from the C-major scale and a D-chord is made up of notes from the D-major scale. What is often referred to as a chord is the first, third and fifth note of the scale played together. Stacking every second not of the scale is usually how it’s done (we won’t dive super deep into this). There is one exception however and that is that the seventh note of the scale i flattened when it is included in a chord. This makes the chord sound more interesting.

For the key of G (second position on a C harmonica) these are the chords:

  • I is G (found on a holes 1-3 draw on a C-harmonica)
  • IV is C (found on a holes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 exhale on a C-harmonica)
  • V is D (not found as a complete chord on a C-harmonica, root note on 1, 4, 8)

Chord tones

To be able to use the knowledge of the chords further, it is a good idea to know where to find the chord tones on the harmonica. This blues harmonica music theory knowledge is second position specific and carries over when you change key as you then change the harmonica as well to stay in second position. Knowing the chord tones is especially important for the V-chord as few of the chord tones are in the blues scale (covered below). For each chord the cord tones are (key of G, although best to think of them as root, third, fifth and flat seventh):

  • I-chord G, B, D, F (root, third, fifth and flat seventh)
  • IV-chord C, E, G, Bb
  • V-chord D, F#, A, C

For the I-chord (read about harmonica tabs here):

  • G (root note) 2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • B (third) 3, 7, (10+’)
  • D (fifth) 1, 4, 8
  • F (flat seventh) 2”, 5, 9

For the IV-chord:

  • C 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+
  • E 2+, 5+, 8+
  • G 2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • Bb 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)

For the V-chord:

  • D 1, 4, 8
  • F# 2′, (5+o (overblow)), (9+’)
  • A 3”, 6, 10
  • C 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

The notes on parenthesis are overblows and blow bends and if you do not master those techniques just ignore them.

Blues scale

The blues scale is probably the most common piece of practical blues harmonica music theory that people do learn. It gives a safe path to a bluesy sound over the 12-bar blues. The blues scale is based on the I-chord and the minor pentatonic scale connected to that chord. In addition to that scale the minor fifth is added which is a note that creates a lot of tension. It is known as tritone or “the Devil’s Interval”. The blues scale is made up of the following scale degrees:

Root, minor third, fourth, minor fifth, fifth, minor seventh

or

R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7

On the harmonica this translates to:

1+, 1′, 1, 2”, 2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+, (6′, 6,) 7+, 8, 9, 9+’, 9+, 10+”, 10+
4, b5, 5, b7, R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, R, (b2, 2,) 4, 5, b7, R, b3, 4

Note: The holes and tones in parentesis are often added to make the scale more flowing as the b3 and b5 are missing between holes 6 and 9. This adds a little extra bluesiness to this range.

To make it a little bit more readable, here is the scale between holes 2 and 6.

2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+
R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, R

Blue notes

Blue notes are notes that create nice bluesy tension towards the chord. These are b3, b5 and b7. The blues scale contain these notes for the I-chord but also knowing them for the IV-chord and V-chord gives you nice option to play over those chords.

For the I-chord:

  • b3 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)
  • b5 1′, 4′
  • b7 2”, 5, 9

For the IV-chord:

  • b3 8+’
  • b5 2′, (5+o (overblow)), (9+’)
  • b7 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)

For the V-chord:

  • b3 2”, 5′, 9
  • b5 3”’, 6′
  • b7 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

Benefits of blues harmonica music theory for soloing

Playing solos that completely stay within is absolutely fine but using chord tones and blue notes to follow the chords and mark chord changes for example can really create awesome solos. Especially how you handle to V-chord can set you apart from the rest of the pack. Here knowing the chord tones is cruical.

Benefits of blues harmonica music theory for accompaniment playing

When playing accompaniment playing you have a few options on what to play. However you chose to play it is your job to play something that is musically appropriate. You can for example play a bass line together with the bass player and then you will definately need to know where the chord tones are. Another option is to create tension against the chords and then you need to use blue notes and stay away from the chord tones. However you chose to play, know the theory will help you.

Putting it to use

I hope I have convinced you that learning blues harmonica music theory is a good thing and you want to make use of it. What you need to do now is take each of the concepts in this article, comit it to memory and start using it. The best way to do this is to concentrate on one single thing and have that as a focus when practicing playing solos for example. If you want to get to know the chord tones then play a lot of solos just using chord tones, when that starts becoming natural start using a few blue notes and so on. Before you know it this will become second nature.

Should you want to learn more general music theory I can recommend “Music Theory for Dummies” as a good starting point or you can take music theory classes on Skillshare (take advantage of the Premium membership offer).

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