Blues Harmonica Introduction
From “Harmonica World” Aug-Sep 2013
In 1974 an American blues duo toured Australia. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I saw them on TV, then live and was entranced by their sound. It was my introduction to blues, and the harmonica. Many of us start this way, hearing blues, wanting to play it, getting a harmonica. Then scratching our heads…
Like I did, back in the 1970s, with very few harmonica teaching resources at hand. I met the right people, a lucky break, they set me on my way. Guidance for new blues harmonica players is now easily found. This article shows where.
A starting point is the great players, now just seconds away with online sources like Spotify. Check out Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Walter Horton, Paul Butterfield, Kim Wilson, Charlie Musselwhite and Junior Wells. A large tip of a large iceberg, these guys will get you started. Along with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee of course. Listen until something really gets you. Then you’re ready to start with blues.
First, an instrument. Harmonicas come in different “keys”, most courses assume you have one in “C”. Music stores stock fewer harmonicas these days, so many of us buy online, where the range and prices are usually better. Harmonica choice has greatly increased since I started, with new high end instruments a key feature. Cheap harmonicas are much harder to play than more expensive ones, so the extra money is well spent. There are some great choices, I recommend a Hohner Crossover. An outstanding instrument, it comes with a high quality zip case, which fits more easily into a pocket than most others.
Beginning players run their lips up and down the instrument, blowing on the way up, breathing in (or drawing) on the way down. This uncovers the first harmonica trick: the note changes with breath direction. Some new players get this far only, saving the instrument for another day, which never comes. Let’s try the next step.
Place your mouth over holes 1 and 2, draw, then blow. A pleasing sound should result. Try it a few times. Then, draw on these two holes again, however this time break the air, by putting the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, then lifting it off. Aim to get two separate sounds, each the same length.
Once this is working, more or less, then try drawing twice, then blowing, again on the bottom two holes. Aim for two short draws, one longer blow.
It sounds easy, it may take a while to get. Dogged persistence underpins all good music, develop it now.
Once the notes are there, then speed it up a little. Tap your foot each time your breath changes direction, this helps the timing. If it’s starting to sound like a steam train, then you’re doing it right.
Now bring in a band. Got to the iTunes store, search for “Ultimate Blues Jam Vol 1”. These backing tracks, by Pete Schmidt, are the best I’ve found. Play the preview for Track 11, “Medium Shuffle in G”, join in with your C harmonica, drawing on the first two holes.
Then, do Pete Schmidt a favour and buy the track, or better still, the whole album.
The next step is single notes. Place your lips over the bottom hole, then draw. Hopefully a single note results, keep at it until it does. Now move up to the second hole, and draw again. Imagine a pea is between your lips you’ll have about the right shape. For blues, the second hole draw is the most important note. Hopefully it’s coming out right…
No? Funny that. New players always struggle with this note, so you’re not alone. Google “Two Hole Draw Problems”, you’ll find my article on how to get it right, along with tips from other teachers.
Speaking of teachers, find one if you can. You’ll move along much faster with expert help, plus face to face lessons will focus your practice. There are also some great online teaching resources. Google Howard Levy or Dave Barrett, check out their online schools. Ben Hewlett, NHL President no less, has some fine online teaching resources. Or go to HarmonicaAcademy.com, my teaching site.
Learning blues harmonica is a lifetime proposition. You won’t get it in a day, a week, a month. No matter. Some basic skills, picked up after a few months give you enough to join other blues players. This, more than anything else, will set you on your way.