Better Harmonica Practice

I recently ended a beginners harmonica course in my home town. All the students were very eager to learn and we had great fn together. They all had one challenge in common though. They never seemed to get any practice done. In this article I will give my view on why many people don’t do what they enjoy and what to do about it. Simply “how do you get better harmonica practice more often?”.

Why we don’t practice

Some people may jump to the conclusion that if people don’t practice they are either lazy or not interested enough. Although it may seem logical I would argue that it is the wrong conclusion. I find that the reason people don’t practice is the fact that they are expecting too much of themselves. Learning something new takes time and effort and is slow sometimes. Many people also think that in order to get any benefits they have to practice much longer than thay actaully have to. Somebody who has the idea that a one hour practice session is the minimum requirement will very quickly get discouraged when that time is not available due to everyday life.

How to get better harmonica practice more often

The thing you need to do to get better harmonica practice more often is to realize that practice does not have to be long and all inclusive all the time. It is far better to practice a few minutes every day if that is all you can manage, than one one hour session once a week. Spaced repetition combined with thinking about what you have practiced in-between the sessions is a great way to make progress. This of course also means that you have to focus on less things for every session. Make a short 5 minute session about one thing and concetrate on that one thing very hard.

To get going like this you can use the trick I learned from Richard Sleigh to make a promise that is so easy to fulfill that it is almost impossible to fail. Promise youtself to practice for example train imitations for 30 seconds every day. This promise is easy to fulfill and will often turn into much more practice. It will make you feel good about your practice which is another key aspect to succeed.

Try it out and don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re lazy just because you don’t practice alla the time!

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Keeping Your Harps Clean

I bet that at least once you have experienced a stuck reed in one of your harps and quite likely the reed was stuck either by a foreign object that came with your saliva or by a build up of sugar residue that has come from playing. In this article I will give you a fre pointers on how to keep your harmonicas clean enough to avoid these mishaps.

The first thing you should do is make sure that your mouth is as clean as possible before you start playing. What does not come into your harmonica will not have to be cleaned out. The best process is of course to always brush your teeth before playing. Although most people understand this, it is not always practical or feasible. Some people will flat out ignore this advice. I have to admit that I don’t always do this myself unfortunately. The second best thing you can do is to rinse your mouth with water before playing. I try to keep this as my minimum standard and it works quite well.

Contemporary Harmonica Masters

In a previous post I listed some of the harmonica masters from history that have inspired me. In this post I want to point you in the direction of some contemporary harmonica masters that are worth a serious listen. There are of course many more active players, see this as a starting point.

Jason Ricci

When I think of fast players with spectacular riffs, Jason Ricci comes to mind. Maybe not your first choice if you are looking for a traditional appraoch but he can be really inspiring if you like speed. Check out the video below.

Jason Ricci in action.

Kim Wilson

No list of contemporary harmonica masters can be complete without Kim Wilson. He is also a player many non-harmonica musicians look up to. Check out his work with “The Fabulous Thunderbids” in the video below. Great blues rock and texas blues!

Kim Wilson in action.

Rick Estrin

One of the coolest dudes around is Rick Estrin. He has great skills when it comes to groove and making anything sound cool. He made a DVD a couple of years ago about his harmonica style and how to make the groove come alive. It was great fun to watch. In the video below he makes a solo perfomance of “Getting out of town” it doesn’t get cooler than that.

Mr Cool!!!!!

Joe Filisko

If you have read my earlier articles it will not suprise you ti find Joe Filisko on this list. In my opinion Joe is second to none when it comes to tone on the harmonica and keeping the old traditions alive. His teachings on traditional blues harmonica is excellent. He also makes a good job writing original material in traditional styles. I love the work he does together with Eric Noden, a perfect match musically.

Filisko & Noden on stage.

Other contemporary harmonica masters?

No I am curious which contermporary harmonica masters you think are missing from the list. Comment below or drop me a message, suprise me!

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Blues Harmonica Events

One of the great things about the internet is that we now have access to an incredicble amount of instructional material previously unatainable. We can now be students in out own homes when it suits us. However having a live harmonica instructor is really something else and interacting with other students is really inspiring. If there is no harmonica school in your area and no teachers are close by, I can really recommend that you take a look at the available blues harmonica events that are run all over the world. In this article I list events I think are worth taking a look at.

SPAH Annual Convention

The SPAH Annual Convention is organized in the US once a year. Unfortunately I have not attended yet but it is definately on my list. It takes place in August over 5 days. From what I gather the program is packed with workshops and jam sessions and don’t plan for a lot sleep! This is an event with all the great instructors and artists. This is probably the largest of the blues harmonica events.

Edinburgh Harmonica Workshop

Edingburgh Harmonica Workshop is organized by Tomlin Leckie and is one of the newer additions when it comes to harmonica events. It is a 80 participant 3 day event, so definately smaller than SPAH. Looking at the program for 2019 event Tomlin has put together a great program. The teachers are well known and the topics look really interesting.

Harpin’ by the Sea

If you are looking for a short event, then Harpin’ by the Sea is for you. It is a one day event based on different themes every year. From what I hear from friends, this is an event that is really fun. I hope to join this event one day. My friend Stuart McKay, who is one of the organizers has made a really good case for it.

Harmonica Masters Workshops

Harmonica Masters Workhops organized in Trossingen each year by Steve Baker is now well esablished among the blues harmonica events. It is organized 3 years in a row and then there is a gap when the World Harmonica Festival is organized.

khops organized in Trossingen each year by Steve Baker is now well esablished among the blues harmonica events. It is organized 3 years in a row and then there is a gap when the World Harmonica Festival is organized. To get a better insight of what goes on there you can read my trip report from 2018.

Getting the most out of blues harmonica events

Which ever event you choose to go to, I have a few pieces of advice to make sure to get the most out of it.

  • Prepare at leat one song to perform in front of the class if that is offered. It is a great way of getting feedback.
  • Participate in jam sessions. A great way to test things in a safe environment.
  • Prepare a song to perform in an open stage session if that is offered. These events have the best audience.
  • Trade contact information with other participants, you make friends for life.
  • Live close by the event. Don’t spend your time in transit every day.
  • Have fun!

If one of these events doesn’t seem right for you then I am sure you can find another event to go to. You will not regret it!

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Harmonica Masters to Inspire You

Learning something new takes effort. I guess you already know that. This is also part of what makes it so rewarding. To keep practicing inspiration can go a long way. In this article I have put together a short list of harmonica masters from history that can keep yuor motivation up.

Sonny Boy Willimanson II

No list can be complete without SBW II aka Rice Miller. His tone and control of the instrument is second to none. Also, very few players look as cool as him while playing. Check out this video of him playing “Bye bye bird”.

Sonny Boy Willimanson II in action.

Little Walter

Moving on with the harmonica masters Little Walter (aka Walter Jacobs) has a natural place on the list. He did some fine work with Muddy Waters and can also serve as great inspiration if you want to learn to play blues chromatic.

My babe!

Big Walter Horton

Big Walter is probably the best side man in history, he didn’t seem to have all that ambition to be the front man. Anyway, no matter who he played with his sound was absolutely amazing. If you want a real challenge then learn a few of his songs.

Shakey!

Sonny Boy Willimanson I

Sonny Boy Willimanson I (aka John Lee Willimanson) was one of the most influental early players. He was younger than SBWII but died before SBWII started his career. He has a different sound to the players above but was the one to popularize second position with “Good morning little schoolgirl”.

Sonny Boy Willimanson I

Sonny Terry

You may have noticed that the name Sonny seem to come up a lot, maybe there is something magic about that name. Sonny Terry is a big inspiration for me and also a source for big frustration. His sound is so hard to capture but truly amazing. What a show man.

Sonny Terry

Letting the harmonica masters inspire you

The best way of letting the masters inspire you is to listen to them as often as possible. If you fill your ears with their licks you are more likely to start emulating their sound when you are ready.

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Harmonica Tremolo or Vibrato?

When people talk about different techniques I often find there is a bit of confusion when people don’t agree on definitions. The part where I hear and read this most often is regarding harmonica tremolo and vibrato. In this article I will give you the definitions on how I think about these techniques.

Harmonica tremolo definition

The tremolo effect means that the volume goes up and down periodically. You can do this either with your breath or by cupping and opening your hands. This can be used either on single notes, dirty notes or chords. Sometimes people call shaking their head and going between holes tremolo but I prefer to call that a shake to separate it from a “proper” harmonica tremolo. The shake can of course be done with a tremolo but they are not the same thing.

Vibrato definition

A vibrato on the other hand changes the pitch of the note(s) rather than the volume. However sometimes people think they are continously changing the pitch when in fact they are changing the volume. This is where some of the confusion arise. As with the shake the vibrato can be combined with a tremolo.

Making it more complicated

Actually, the shake technique where you moreve between two notes or between dirty notes belong in the vibrato group rather than the tremolo group since the frequency content changes. Some people may also argue that the a harmonica tremolo done by hand technique changes the frequency content of what you hear and then it could be placed in the vibrato category. All in all Iike to think about what my intentions are and call it a harmonica tremolo if I am actively changing the volume, a vibrato if I am actively changing the pitch and a shake if I am shaking my head.

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Octave Split on the Harmonica

Playing single notes on the harmonica is an important skill but is not always the coolest sound on the harmonica. Fortunately tongue blocking offer a number of ways to get more out of your tones. One of these ways is to use the octave split to get more sound out of the harmonica.

What is an octave split?

Octave split is quite simply playing two single notes one octave apart simultaneously. To the listener it will not necessarily sound like two notes (if the harmonica is properly tuned that is). Two notes played at once will be louder than one note and that will definately help when you are playing notes in the high range.

How to do it

In principle, splits are very easy. You simple play one note out of the right corner of your mouth and another note out of the left corner of your mouth. Your tongue will block the holes between them. To do this you need to control your tongue so that it is just wide enough to cover the holes between notes. You will also need to make sure that your mouth has the right size to block out any holes outside the holes you are aming for. Once again I will mention the Filisko Tongue Block Trainer which is a great tool for practicing this.

Not all splits are created equal

To get a proper octave split you will need to know where to find it. The exhale notes are quite easy, simply block two holes to get an octave. 1+-4+, 2+-5+, 3+-6+, 4+-7+, 5+-8+, 6+-9+ and 7+-10+ are all true octaves.

For the draw notes it is another matter. On the lower end some octaves are true octaves when blocking two holes and some are fake octaves. Going up higher you will need to block three holes to get true octaves.

True octaves:

  • 1-4 (two holes blocked as for the exhale notes, know as a 4-hole block)
  • 3-7 (three holes are blocked, known as a 5-hole block)
  • 4-8
  • 5-9
  • 6-10

Apart from the 1-4 all other 4-hole blocks are fake octaves. The 2-5 is quite common and is a root note (2) with a minor seventh on top (5), a very bluesy sound. The other 4-hole draw blocks can be used, just be careful about if it is the sound you want.

The fact that you need to adjust from 4-hole to 5-hole blocking can be quite challenging when playing the upper range. However it is well worth the effort to get the extra power in your notes.

Make it your own!

If you are not already using octave splits I suggest you start praticing it to get the most out of your upper range and add to your sound.

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Teaching Harmonica as a Beginner

When people think of teachers and instructurs I feel they often think of very experienced teachers. There is of course nothing wrong with this but I think there is value to be teaching harmonica even as a beginner, or rather a slightly more advanced beginner. In this article I will outline my thought on the benfits for the student and the teacher when the teacher is not very experienced.

Drawbacks of an inexperienced teacher

Let’s start with some obvious drawbacks. An inexperienced teacher will of course be unfamiliar with some of the more advanced techniques. If the student want to progress very quickly he or she may feel held back. Also the teacher may feel inadequate when teaching harmonica as a beginner. If this is enough to discourage the teacher or the student is a matter of personal preference.

Advantages for the teacher

I find that one of the things that is most valuable to be as a teacher is that I need to explain what I do. That extra effort you need to put in to explain what you recently learned to explain to somebody else can be really beneficial for your own learning. Teaching is also a great driving force to keep developing yourself. If your student(s) are not that much more inexperienced that you, this can be a strong driver.

Advantages for the student

Learning from a seasoned pro can be intimidating for some people. A less experienced teacher can definately be a plus if you feel that way. The fact that the teacher was learning the same thing not long ago can also work in favor of the student. It is easier to remember what was hard when the experience was not that far back. The teacher can be seem more as a fellow explorer of the instrument.

What about a combo for teaching harmonica?

It is of course up to each and everyone to decide who to learn from. However I feel that the idea of beginning teacher should not be too easily discarded. Especially when you live in an area where there are no experienced teachers. The combination of a slightly more advanced beginner teaching harmonica in combination with online teaching such as Bluesharmonica.com can be a powerful combination. This is also good for the teacher as you can get great material that way (both need to be members of course).

I hope you see that there can be value in both teaching as a beginner and being taught by a beginner.

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Side Pull Technique

This week we continue looking at techniques that change the presentation of the notes played. Tongue blocking offers quite a few techniques. In this article I focus on the side pull technique.

Side pull description

The side pull technique is very simple in principle but can be difficult to execute. As the name implies the tongue is pulled sideways to let air into the harmonica. More specifically part of the tongue is pulled sideways to go from a full block to a standard tongue block position.

The main difference to a tongue slap or a pull slap is that the tongue never leaves the face of the harmonica. It is simply the position and/or width of the tongue that change. This means that there is no chord played as part of the technique giving it a less aggresive sound.

Performing the technique

To peform the technique you start by fully blocking the harmonica and apply breathing pressure. Move your toung or change the with of your tongue on the right side to open up the hole to the right of your tongue. You will need to be in very good control of your tongue to do this correctly as the movement is very small. Use a tongue block trainer to practice. See the two steps below.

The result is a single note that start very abruptly as the air pressure has built up behing your tongue. All that air is now forced passed a single reed on the harmonica.

When to use

You can basically use the side pull technique any time you would consider a tongue slap or a pull slap. It is especially good to use if you feel the other two techniques sound to harsh or aggresive.

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Practicing Riffs

I have written before about expanding your riff bank to have more tools in your improvisation tool box. However simply memorizing a new riff is not enough. They way you are practicing riffs have a big impact on how useful they become.

Make it stick

There is no way around repetitive work to commit it to memory. However you can add to your learning by introducing variations in your practice. Practice on different key harmonicas, practice with a metronome, practice at different tempos and make sure that you can recall the riff without the need for notation. Also try using different techniques to color the sound.

Practicing riffs in context

The real killer when practicing riffs though is to put it into context. You will never just play one riff and then be done with it. You will play it as part of a bigger whole. To do that effectively you need to understand when the riff sound good and when not to use it.

A great way of getting context is to pratcie with different patterns of repetition. Repetition is an important tool to let your audience know that what you play is important, use it!

Put the repetition in relation to the 12 bar blues and practice with a jam track. The simplest form is to repeat the riff for as many times as you can over a chorus. If it is a 2 bar riff you can repeat it 6 times. Listen to how it sounds over the chord changes, where does it fit best? Maybe it is great over the I-chord, OK over the IV-chord but sounds horrible over the V-IV-I transition.

Try changing between the riff you are practicing and other riffs, play the riff over bars 1 and 2, then play a fill over bars 2 and 4. Repeat the riff again over bars 5 and 6 and another fill over bars 7 and 8. Repeat the riff over bars 9 and 10 and finish off with a turnaround riff.

Listen to how other players are using repetition and emulate what they do in your practice. David Barrett calls this chorus forms and have included a number of these patterns in his books. It is all based on what the old masters used to do. It is wise to do the same.

Summary

Simply comitting a riff to memory you need to be practicing riffs in context and basing that context on different patterns of repetition is a great idea.

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