Harmonica players suck (except when they blow)A primer on the Mississippi saxophone
So you want to play the blues?
Well, you could spend bushels of cash on a guitar and years of lessons before locking yourself in the woodshed with your six-string and a medicine bottle slide and practicing until you sound like Elmore James, but you'll probably end up going broke and wearing your fingers down to midwrist first.
Or you could spend the price of a case of beer on a a few cleverly arranged bits of wood and metal from the Germany, follow these few simple tips and become your neighborhood bar's incarnation of Elwood Blues.
First you need a harp
Buy a diatonic 10-hole harmonica. Hohner is the 800 lb gorilla of the harmonica industry and most pros use their products, though Lee Oscar also makes a pretty good harp. Hohner's Blues Harps and Marine Bands are the most common favorites and very good results can be had with Pro Harps and Special 20s as well. All of them will run you about 20 pounds ($30 U.S.), but for the beginner a 3 pound ($5 U.S.) Pocket Pal will do.
Check the letter stamped on the end. This is the key (no, not the key to the highway, the musical key) Get a C or an A to start - don't get some obscure fancy-ass key like B flat or Em because you won't use it much.
Whatever you do, don't buy one of those great big, fat, expensive, silver, brick-sized things with valves and tiers of holes-that's a chromatic harmonica and you could hurt yourself (or at least someone else's ears) with one. You need to learn to stand up and walk before you can start doing olympic-level gymnastics.
Q: How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
A:Practice, practice, practice
Now for the boring bit: learning and practicing playing technique.
As in certain other contexts which we won't go into here since this is (mostly) a family website, when it comes to blowing the blues harp, blow is just a figure of speech. Bluntly put, harmonica players suck, though most prefer to say draw to avoid exactly these kinds of stupid jokes.
Take the harp between thumb and forefinger with the numbers up and the holes toward you, put your lips on its and blow. Now suck. Now blow. Now suck. Sounds like two accordions having sex right? Try blowing and drawing through only one hole. Not so easy right? Pucker up like you would to kiss your old aunt Ethel, the one with the mustache. Now relax you lips a bit, open your jaws a little and try again. Practice until you can reliably hit single notes. As icky as it may sound at first, you can use the tip of your tongue to count holes. Practice blowing and drawing on the third hole and then shifting up to the fourth hole.
Don't be discouraged by the fact that this will sound awful at first. If you were learning the violin it would sound like someone killing a cat with a power saw. The advantage to learning the blues harp over the violin is that the dying cat stage should only last a matter of weeks, not years. Practice as often as you can until you can comfortably hit single note and shift from one hole to the next.
Since what you are trying to do is learn a single thing and learn it well, frequency of practice will help more than duration. Try honking your harp three or four times a day for ten or fifteen minutes, instead of inflicting a solid hour of trying to play three or four notes on yourself.
Practicing harp is a lot easier than practicing piano. You can keep a harp in the car and practice at stoplights - try that with a Steinway.
Music is just a bunch of notes
Now you need to learn a bit of theory to make music instead of noise. This may sound complicated at first, but if you can knock "shave and a haircut" and count to five without using your fingers you should be okay. (If you can't count to five without using your fingers, consider becoming a drummer or vocalist)
There are several styles, sometimes referred to as modes or even positions, of harp playing and the style you play will govern your choice of key to play in. The two most common styles are straight and cross harp.
Straight harp, in which the key of the harp matches the key of the song (If the song is in C, you play a C harp) and the harp player plays the melody, is most common in folk and country music and usually requires that you know the melody of the song, learn which notes are which and all that other musician stuff (you might as well just learn to play guitar). It has its place in blues, but you can work your way up to it.
Cross harp is the core of most blues playing and involves playing a harp that is the fourth note from the key the song is in. Therefore a song in A requires a D harp, a song in B requires an E harp, a song in G means you need a C harp.
The standard 12-bar blues or rock progression follows a I, IV, V pattern. The "I" is the key of the song, the note of resolution on which the whole progression starts and ends. The V or fifth is the note that creates all the musical tension. The IV or fourth is the stepping stone that joins the two. For a song in the key of E, I=E, IV=A and V=B.
Try this simple theory experiment for non-musicians. Knock "shave and a haircut" (dah dah dada dah, dah dah) - it's seven beats, right? Now try just knocking the first five or six beats. Does it feel like your brain will explode unless you "finish" with the seventh knock? You have just created musical tension. Go ahead and knock that seventh beat and you've just resolved the tension.
If you can find that note of resolution on the harmonica, the start and finish of shave and a haircut, the I or first, you can sit in and play in key. Professional harp player's secret number 1: Its the letter stamped on the end of the harp, and the note you get if you blow in the three hole or suck air through the two hole.
If you can find on your harmonica the note that creates all the musical tension, the fifth beat in "shave and a haircut," the V note or the fifth, you can solo. Professional harp player's secret number 2: its the note you get if you suck air through the four hole.
If you can manage to hit that stepping stone note, the IV or fourth, to link the other two, you will soon be ready to get your mojo working. Professional harp player's secret number 3: blow in the four hole, draw through the three hole, both of those are stepping stone type notes.
Notes that create tension: draw 4, draw 1, draw 6
Notes that resolve tension: draw 2, blow 3 or blow 6
Stepping stone notes: draw 3, blow 4, draw 5, blow 5, blow 1, blow 2
To play a simple octave scale:blow 4, draw 4, blow 5, draw 5, blow 6, draw 6, draw 7, blow 7
Note that draw 2 and blow 3 are the same note and the switch from draw notes being higher to blow notes being higher that comes after the sixth hole
The Riff Stuff
Time to apply the theory to the technique and vice versa. Don't go blabbing it around but there is a secret to being a jam session star: To play the blues on a harp, you do not need to learn a single song. What you need to learn are riffs.
Riffs are musical phrases that are used to accent a song. String a few together and you have a solo. The theory of a riff is simple: you create and relieve musical tension. Just as you use words to make a phrase or a line of Iyics for a song, and string phrases to make a sentence or lines to make a verse, you use notes to make a riff and riffs to build a solo.
The simplest riffs go up (create tension) or down (resolve tension) and can be used to accent the end of a line of a song č try drawing on the fourth hole and then blowing in the third hole for a simple down riff and reversing it for an up riff.
You create longer riffs by using stepping stone notes to connect notes that create tension with notes that resolve tension. If you want to use a longer riff try blowing three, drawing three, blowing four then taking a long draw on four. Now reverse the order, stretching out the three blow or better yet, replacing it with a long draw on two (the same note, but draws sound better because you can bend them much more easily.)
The simplest riff of all is a single bent note of tension or resolution, which of course begs the question "what the @$%*#! is a bent note?"
In musicianese a bent note is a note in which the pitch is shifted to become sharper (higher) or flatter (lower), the most common being a flattened fifth - a patented, registered trademark of the blues.
Bending Steel With Your Bare Tongue
Bending notes on a harp is an essential skill and one that is very difficult to explain. Normally when you play a draw note the air you suck in is flowing along the roof of your mouth. To bend the note, you change the airflow by moving your tongue as if pronouncing the letter "L" and opening your jaw a little wider so that the air flows along the tongue, and hits lower on the back of your throat (I told you it was difficult to explain!). Try experimenting with long draws on four until you can get your harmonica to say "Wow."
Another cool, sort of percussive effect can be produced by tapping the tip of your tongue against the back of your top teeth on longer blow notes.
After much practice, you'll be ready to try trills, produced by moving the harp quickly back and forth while playing a draw note so that you alternate between, for example draw four and draw five. Try doing it slowly at first to get the hand movement just right.
Using your hands is also an essential skill especially when playing without a microphone. Take the harp between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand as before. Now put your right hand up against it so the heels and fingertips are touching. Opening and closing your hands gives you a nice homemade (handmade?) wah-wah effect.
Practice does not make perfect, but it does help. Once you can play a few simple riffs and bend the odd draw four, you're ready to take the plunge, amaze your friends, confound your enemies and meet attractive members of the subgroup of the species your sexual preferrence attracts you to!
Playing in the Band
Playing the blues harp is like sex - it is possible to do it alone, but its a lot more fun to do it with other people.
Go out and find yourself a guitar player (try the seedier bars and the unemployment office if there aren't any hanging around the music store) and get them to play a simple blues progression for you.
E E E E
A A E E
B A E B
Each letter represents four beats or one bar, hence the term twelve bar blues. Get this on a tape loop and you'll be able to practice until your lips bleed. Try throwing in short riffs at the end of a bar or the end of a line, Try singing a blues verse and then trying to play the same melody. Try echoing the last few notes at the end of the line as someone else sings. These are the most natural ways to come up with riffs of your own.
The best way to learn riffs and everything else is the same way art school teach people to paint - Study The Masters. Listen to all the blues you can lay your hands on, but especially listen to the great harp players. And not just the tunes where they strut their stuff, but also the ones where they are strictly playing background and comping along with the rhythm section.
Take note of when the harp player plays and more importantly when he doesn't play. Listen to the phrasing and the way riffs go up and then back down. You might be surprised at how simple some of the best-sounding ones are.
Get your favorite solos on tape or MD so you can play them over and over again and try to break them down into separate shorter riffs you can play. If you have access to vinyl records and a turntable, try playing a few select cuts at half speed to make it easier to break them down to individual notes. Be warned that many of the top players switch back and forth between diatonic and chromatic harmonicas so some of your favorite pieces may not be playable on the humble ten-hole mississippi saxophone.
Players of note
Obviously you should listen to your favorite players but if you are a true beginner and your favorite player is Elwood Blues (a totally adequate player from whom much can be learned, don't get me wrong) or "that guy in that band from Chicago, the one with the good guitar player" then this quick guide to who's who in harp may give you some ideas
The old masters: Guys like Sonny Boy Williamson I, Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller), Big Walter Horton especially Sonny Terry didn't come up using microphones and playing swanky clubs and theatres, they learned it all the hard way, scuffling in juke joints and street corners during the depression.
The Muddy Waters Academy: Muddy didn't work with no clumsy wannabees. The first great harp player in his band was the legendary Little Walter Jacobs, the man who invented electricity (He was the first guy to run his harp mic through a guitar amp and effects instead of through the main sound system like a vocalist) The great tones and smoking instrumentals Little Walter came up with established the blues harp as a solo instrument strong enough to stand on its own in an electric band, not just as something for a singer to play when he ran out of words. Greater players than ourselves gentle reader are still awestruck and wonder how he got some of those meaty tones.
Muddy didn't exactly take a step down when Little Walter left the band - the harp position in the band was filled by other greats in their turn such as James Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton.
Can White Men Play the Blues? Ask two other harp maestros from Chicago's second generation of bluesmen who came up in the 1960's the late great Paul Butterfield and one of today's reigning kings Charlie Musslewhite.
Fingers too cold to play guitar? You don't have to have picked cotton, shoveling snow can also give you the blues. Just ask Minnesota-based folk and blues scholar Tony "Little Sun" Glover, who is as good a teacher as he is a player. Or one of of the greatest players to ever come out of the north, Canada's Richard "King Biscuit Boy" Newell, from the steeltown of Hamilton, Ontario.
Only two things come from Texas: Sleazy politicians and some damn fine bluesmen. While most of his fellow Texican bluesmen feel the need to strut their stuff with more phallic guitars, Austin's Lazy Lester blew some mean harp.
Latter day saints: The third and fourth generation of bluesmen have taken the harp to new heights with virtuoso riffs and mind-boggling speed from Sugar Blue and Rick Estrin (of Little Charlie and the Nitecats), Norton Buffalo and rock player John Popper of Blues Traveller.
Obviously in this day and age, the Internet is a great source of information on almost anything and that includes harp. Try these websites as a jumping off point for lessons, tips, legends, and places to buy harps and gear.
A good guide to how jams work can be found here at callmedutch.com or take a look at John Gindick's excellent site can be found at harmonica central and Planet Harmonica is a great place to start.
Just about any other harp link you are going to need can be found atbluesharp.org
"Where do I plug in?"
If you are going to go on to play with a band, whether its in front of a paying audience, at a local open mic night or just sitting in with your cousin's garage band, you'll need to use a microphone.
There are three things to remember when it come to microphones. The first thing is never, never, never ever point the mic at the speaker it is feeding sound to because it will cause feedback and someone could get hurt, namely you if the now deaf and-therefore-unemployed sound man gets hold of you.
The second thing is never, never, never, ever point the mic at the speaker it is feeding sound to, it will cause feedback, hurt people's ears, make you look unprofessional, piss off the rest of the band, annoy the neighbors, inflict pain on dogs for miles around - look just don't do it, it's bad medicine, 'nuff said?
The third thing is that you get what you pay for in a mic- exponentially. The difference between a 20 pound and a 120 pound mic in terms of the quality of sound produced is far more than 100 pounds, so don't be cheap. Remember, Elwood Blues once traded a Cadillac for a mic.
If you are playing country, bluegrass, folk or even some acoustic blues you'll need to use your hands to mute the harp and get vibrato (that wah-wah-wah sound) so leave the mic in the stand and get good and close. Have the soundman turn up the bass a little and turn down the midrange. You'll probably want a nice bright clear sound so go easy on the echo and stuff.
If you are into electric blues, take the mic out of the stand and hold the harp right against it while holding the mic with the last three fingers of your left hand and the heel and edge of your right hand. If possible plug the mic into a guitar amp and then have the sound man treat it the same as a guitar. Depending on your stage setup and situation you may want to mic the amp and run it through your sound board or just crank it up and compete with the guitarists head-to-head on volume.
Be warned: If you turn the amp up too high you will get feedback. Don't try to use the same mic to sing through either, it won't sound right. Crank up the bass and don't be afraid of a little distortion or echočin fact you might even want to go whole hog and invest in some guitar effects pedals if you really get serious. A volume pedal can come in very handy if you want to turn it up to ll for a solo and then pull back from the brink to back up the singer.
If you have to play through the PA, be sure to do a sound check so that you can pick up the mic and get close without causing feedback but still have enough volume to be heard along with the rest of the band.
Most important thing to remember
Listen lots, practice more and then get off your ass and jam! Carpe a little diem and do it now! Stock the fridge with beer, order some pizza and call all your musician friends to come over and annoy your neighbors. Few blues musicians can afford to turn down a free meal and even drummers aren't dumb enough to look a gift beer anywhere but the mouth. Remember what you have learned here and especially what you have taught yourself during all those long hours of practice. Don't worry if you don't sound like James Cotton, just remember he doesn't sound like you either. Get out there and shake your money maker, dust your broom, pitch that wang clang doodle and generally bluesify the world around you
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