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When I tell people I play the harmonica, they are quite often astounded that I play such a “Hard” Instrument. So lets talk about myths about Harmonica Difficulty.
I know this is going to sound like a player saying it’s easy because I know how but the reason I took up the harp is because of how EASY it is to learn and play. There are 4 difficult things about playing the harmonica which I will address later. I’m going to start with why harmonica is EASY.
Yes Harmonica Is Easy!
First things first. Lets get rid of the confusion. You don’t play harmonica, you play HARMONICAS. There are 12 (More in fact) harmonicas. One for each key. While a piano or guitar plays all keys on one instrument harmonicas play one key per instrument.
What does this mean to you? Two things in fact. One is you choose which which harp to play based on the key so you don’t need to figure out which part of the instrument and which combinations to play to sound right. Second, you learn one way to play on harp and it’s good for all songs in all keys. Just switch harps when you get a new song in a different key and play the same way. nothing new to learn. No new scales, no new techniques. It’s like having 12 guitars all tuned to a different key. you just won’t need a panel truck to carry them around.
The next cool thing that makes harmonica easy is positions. Straight harp, cross harp, slant harp, or first, second and third position. there are more but I will stick with these. In a nutshell, different positions allow you to play the same harmonica in different scales. What does that mean to you? It’s a fancy way of saying start in a different spot if you are playing a different kind of song. If you are playing blues, start in second position, cross harp and if you are doing something in a minor key, start in third position, slant harp.
Why is this easy? You can cheat with your harmonica case. I set mine up so when I get told what key a song is in I find the key, move one to the left, use that harp and start on the 2 hole draw. If it’s minor key blues I find the key, move 2 to the left and start on the 4 hole blow. Doing it that way makes things much easier.
When you play the harmonica there are certain sweet spots to play in. 2 through 6 for blues and 4 through 9 for minor key blues. You can go outside those holes when you get to know your way around the harp but it’s hard to go wrong when sticking with those sweet spots. It works with nothing fancy.
What Are The Tough Things
One Hole Playing
You can play chords fairly easily but it gets kind of mushy. Learning to play one hole is the first tough thing you need to learn. It will take time to get you mouth to work right but once you get it, one hole just gets easier and easier. It takes practice. There is no way around it.
Bending is a pain to learn. you just have to mess with it and mess with it until you get it. There are cheats that make it a bit easier to figure out but in the end it is another thing you just need to work at.
Tongue blocking allows you to do advanced chord structures and cool techniques. You need to know it. I don’t but I’m working on it. That being said, I get paid to play harmonica and I don’t know how to do it so take from that what you will.
You can play any song on any harmonica using overblowing and bending. It’s cool. It allows you more variability and gives you some great techniques. You can also be inducted into the Overblowing Snob club. I get it, it’s great for your bag of tricks. Build on the basics first, then expand on the basics. Then work on your style and your repertoire. Then go back to basics. Then get creative with it. Then start worrying about all the cool things you can do with overblowing. Then Buy an amp and a mic and forget you ever heard of overblowing. Then when someone talks about overblowing, pull out your chromatic that you also learned how to play while they were working on their overblowing techniques.
Get to it
Why are you sitting around reading articles on how easy it is to play? Go and practice. Give it a month. I believe anyone can Learn Harmonica In 30 Days!
I’ve been hitting more jams recently, thanks to my friend, the awesome photographer Rick Moore. I meant to post this a few weeks ago but with all the busy in my life I haven’t had a chance. Well in order to rectify that, here it is the future of the blues.
The guitarists are all 15 I believe, the drummer was out at the jam for his 13th birthday. They are Thomas Dawson, Brandon Katona, Alex Dowidchuk & Jonah Salen.
I have noticed a rise in traffic on my site over the past couple of years and I think this may have something to do with it.
For you harp players out there, I know there isn’t any harmonica playing in this video but you can cope. In fact, I encourage you to help a young kid take up harmonica. This band needs a harp player and you will be investing in the next generation.
Give a Kid a harmonica
Who knows how you got to this Harmonica Notes post. Maybe it was Santa. Do you have a harmonica player in your life (including you) who you absolutely MUST get a gift for, but you don’t have a bunch to spend? Say your limit is $20 plus tax or shipping. Well, let me tell you about what I just bought for myself for Chrismaquansika! (Sound it out, you’ll get it.)
I sound a little like an infomercial. The Danelectro Honeytone N-10 Guitar Mini Amp. I stumbled on it as I was surfing around the intertubes. It’s a little belt clip guitar amp that runs on a 9 volt battery.
Is it sturdy? No
Does is feedback easy? yes
Is it loud? kinda
Is it compact? yup
Does it look good? hell yeah
Is it cheap? HELL YES
At $20, I’ve used pay toilets that cost more.
Look, the truth is, if you’re at an open mic night or blues jam, sometimes they amplify. Sometimes there are 3 people singing and you can’t get a mic that’s hooked up to a PA. If you’re like me, 2 big reasons you got into playing harmonica, were cheap and compact. This amp fits the criteria. If you kill it, buy a new one. They don’t have the best sound but that gives your harp playing a bluesy edge. It will give you that little extra punch to be heard without counting on someone elses equipment.
So, what am I plugging into my new little amp? The Shure 57? The 58? The Green Bullet? Nope I went on the cheap for that too. I picked up a Samson R31S Hyper-cardioid Dynamic Mic. Yup, I went cheap on that too. $20-$30 anywhere you go. I bought mine off the shelf at Best Buy. It’s a pretty good mic for $25. It comes with its own cable that plugs in to it. The mic has the standard 3 prong XLR mic connector on the end so it takes the standard mic cable. the cable that comes with it has that on one side and a 1/4 inch phone jack on the other end so right out of the box it hooks up to an amp. The Samson and the Honeytone sound pretty good together and pump out the sound when I’m walking around the house. I’ll give It a proper try tonight night at open Mic.
I will say this, $50 for both mic and amp sure beats the hell out of $119 for a Green Bullet and $80 for the Fender Champion 30. This does NOT mean I won’t be blowing $200 some odd bucks on the Green Bullet/ Champ Combo at some point. I just don’t think the expense is warranted for my skill level. I just want autonomous amplification sometimes.
One more thing, I would have put a package deal together fo both of them but you can only get the amps at music stores and no self respecting music store, online or otherwise will stock anything Samson. It might be that Samson doesn’t sell to them… I don’t know.
Hey, this is Erik here at Harmonica Notes, I have a tutorial here for you on how to make backup tracks using Magic Garageband in Garageband 09. It’s a great way to have custom backup music for practicing on your own! Also, everyone remember to sign up for my news letter and get ready for the Learn Blues Harmonica Basics in 30 Days, coming in January. This is all the stuff I learned in my first year all together for you in one place. Will it make you an expert? HELL NO! It’s just the stuff I learned and my philosophy on learning blues harmonica. I might think totally differently in a year but that’s then not now. Did I mention it’s free? Yup, nothing, no cost, nada, zip, zero! What do you have to loose (except a month of your life you can never get back…ever).
But I’m rambling. Here’s the video.
Harmonica Notes wants to hear your story. I have a story about how I decided to learn harmonica. I was a teen when I first picked up a harmonica but that didn’t last long. It didn’t last a day. I didn’t think about it again until I found Adam Gussows videos on Youtube. My friend had just broken up with his wife and he got into blues guitar. I started playing the bass when that happened to support him. We would play together. I just didn’t get into it. It wasn’t my instrument.
After I saw the Adam Gussow videos, I decided to try harmonica again. I bought the harmonica key he was using and watched his videos and learned. I have been playing ever since.
So, what’s your story? I want to hear how you got interested in harmonica. Please leave a comment with your story and let me know. I want to hear where you’re coming from and what you want to get out of this site.
I haven’t written anything technical in quite a while. I really don’t much like writing technical stuff but it is useful. I’m going to talk about cleaning your harmonica today. I meant to do this 8 months ago because of an incident I had with my A harp. I was in love with my Bb harp at the time. It was the only one I played. I was teaching myself man of constant sorrow an thought i was amazing. I didn’t play my A harp for about 2 months. Eventually I picked it up just to blow a few notes through it.
Have you ever tasted oxidized brass? It’s memorable because it tastes so bad. That’s what my A harp tasted like. the reed plates had oxidized. It was just a little bit brown. I couldn’t get the taste out for my mouth for 10 minutes. The only taste worse than that that I know if is arm pit sweat. Don’t ask, it involves a girl.
I needed to get rid of the oxidized brass. Finding an article on how to clean your harmonica is next to imposible. I take that back, it is imposible. I finally found a series of posts explaining how to do it. It offered nothing to fix my brass flavor problem but it did run me through the cleaning process. I recommend doing this for each harp you have occasionally based on how much you use the specific harp.
Start by removing the nails or screws that hold the harp together. This is one reason I love my Hohner Blues Harp. It has screws. No nails to pry and no holes to widen. Once you remove those, the outer plates come off. Give them a light polish with a rag and they should be fine.
second, the reed plates will be screwed into the comb. unscrew the reed plates and seperate them from the comb. The reed plates are the most sensitive part of the harmonica so be careful of them, especially the reeds. You have to be careful not to bend the reeds. if you do, the harp is done. Run water across them to clean them up. I have seen where people say you can use a tooth brush on them but I would’t trust it. Maybe a toothpick to get any gunk from between the reeds and the plates. Just don’t force it.
The comb is another wipe down. It’s not sensitive. Rinse and wipe and you’re done. I have found bits of food in my comb before. After that, just put it back together.
So how did I fix the brass oxide problem? I polished the mouth side of it with a rag. focusing on the reed plates. It took a few minutes but I got all the brass oxide off.
What do I mean by play what works, practice what doesn’t? I said I was practicing with a friend, working on a few songs for a battle of the bands. I really enjoyed the time.It was a failure though. We got frustrated with each other because our timing was off. It was a simple song I have performed live probably upwards of 30 times, both at blues jams with a live band and at karaoke. I was singing and playing my harp and he was on guitar. The issue in the end was not that we didn’t know what we were doing, It’s that he was attempting to play past his skill level. I don’t blame him, basic rhythm for 12 bar isn’t the most fun.
I thought about all the ways I could tell him that sticking to the basics was necessary but since we were doing it for fun, in the end I just let him run with it. It wouldn’t have worked if I had downloaded the karaoke version of the song to show him I knew my timings. It would have just made him mad, well more mad.
I learned that It’s important to practice things that don’t work. Scales for instance, they are boring as hell but practicing them will make it easier to move around the instrument better later. Second, when you are playing with other people, play what you can do well, even if it isn’t the most exciting thing to do. It’s the combined sound that makes us all sound good. For the sake of the Battle of the bands, I wish he had just worked on chord changes and timing and not fancy flourishes he found in the online tabs. It’s not that he shouldn’t play them, he should practice the mas much as possible. He should practice them. Just like scales could have helped immensely.
I think he spent so much time on getting all the notes on the flourishes that the other stuff, the basic stuff, the stuff we needed to do well, got left by the wayside. I do the same things though. I love to do Texas Flood with my harp. I can jam all the guitar parts and sing the verses but when I listen to Sonny Terry he has all these great backup sound that I don’t know the first thing about and I have run into the term “harmonica Comping” a few times now. usually in reference to country music. I don’t even know what that is but I guess it’s like using the harp as a rhythm and backup instrument.
I’ve decided to start working on my scales. I think I might try actually learning which notes each hole plays. At least on my main harps. I’m also going to work on that whole rhythm thing. It may be boring but scales will help me switch keys better and backup and rhythm will be good for backing up other people. The whole sounds way better than each individual. Besides, I can’t sing and play harp and not be missing something. I need someone else so why shouldn’t I try to make them sound as good as they make me sound.
Little Walter was arguably one of the greatest influencers of harmonica music. The only harmonica player to ever be admitted to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman, a harmonica player. His song My Babe is one of my favorite harmonica songs. A true pioneer in blues harp.
I couldn’t find any videos of him playing My Babe, but I did find this video of him backing up Hound Dog Taylor And Koko Taylor. I dig those soulful riffs and mellow back up harp.
I mentioned in one of my earlier harmonica notes that I had picked up a Blues Harp MS B Harmonica. I picked it up because Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Texas Flood and a bunch of other SRV songs are in F#. F#/Gb is the Crossharp key for the B harmonica. I do run into Gb blues too so I figured it was time to pick one up. I like singing SRV songs when I hit Karaoke nights but the long solos don’t do well for karaoke. No one wants to see a guy standing on stage doing nothing for 24 measures.
I went to open mic night last night and tried it out. My B harp is now one of my constant carry harps. Texas Flood gave me lots of solo harp room. There is a 15 measure opening and a 24 measure solo. That’s a lot of space to fill with a harp solo. I really got to dig into my bag of tricks and play around with licks. It’s like having a blues jam without having to coerce all the other musicians up on stage. I’m putting Texas Flood in my repertoire as my new opener, I’m getting a little tired of She Caught the Katy. I still love the song but I think the bar staff at the places I go are getting tired of hearing it.
My next harp will probably be an Ab Blues Harp Harmonica. I know there are a bunch of great Eb blues songs. I just can’t remember any right now.