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Another newbie to blues harp....

PostPosted: Sat Sep 20, 2008 11:12 pm
by vic lewis
....and I'm wondering about the best way to learn.

I've got five Hohner MS Blues Harps - in the keys of A C D G and E. I figured that'd cover most of the keys I usually play in. I've fooled around with them a little over the last 3 or 4 years - mostly on songs I've written that have a sort of Dylanesque feel to them. I don't pretend to be any good - but I can just about get a tune out of them.

Bear with me if I seem to be rambling - there is a point to all this. Not long ago, on another forum, someone mentioned playing "crossharp" - ie, to play along with a song in the key of D, you'd need a harp in a different key IF you want it to sound bluesy. Now I've never been able to manage bluesy - Dylany/folky is all I've ever got.

So I tried playing along with a song in the key of D, and using the G harp. First thing I noticed, I had to draw, rather than blow, to get the root note - and hey, it did sound bluesy! I feel like Luke Skywalker when Obi-Wan Kenobi said, "you've just taken the first step into a larger universe!" - or something along those lines.

So am I on the right track? For a song in A - say, a nice simple blues using A D and E chords - I'd need a harp in D to sound bluesy? I read something the other day about playing in first position - I'm guessing, but I presumed that's using an A harp when the song's in A - second position, guessing again, I'm thinking a D harp when the song's in A - and third position - guess I haven't got a clue with that one!

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Like I just read in another thread, "It's easy to play, but hard to master"....or something along those lines.....

:D :D :D


Re: Another newbie to blues harp....

PostPosted: Sun Sep 21, 2008 1:11 pm
by jbone1
vic, the force is awakening in you........

you're on target as far as you've come. cross harp or second position, the root minor notes for say A, are in the draw notes on a D. in G, a C harp. etc etc. if you do a search for "circle of fifths", you can download a handy chart that will give you keys of harp for any of the 12 positions that can be played. looking at the chart and reading it counter clockwise, it's a easy reference for what harp in what position in a given song key. third or "slant" position is a little different. another step from the root key is taken, so in an A song you'd use a G harp, start on draw 3, and use runs of 4 holes, which repeat on the upper 4 holes. third is more of a jazz style but i have found it's adaptable to blues and country and very effective also. different positions require different notes and one can get lost in finding the right notes in a given position, but it can be done. i haven't! i stick to first, second, and third.

third position is what blues guys use with a chromatic harmonica to get the bigger sound. it's a real trip. also works well with a diatonic 10 hole. one cool feature of it is, with tongue blocking, you can get a much bigger sound, octaves or even actual chords depending on how you block.

but for starters, second position is a great tool for blues. it may be THE most used position in fact, for blues. some of the particulars are that it's mostly draw notes, several of the reeds can be bent to make lower notes, it's mostly used with diatonic 10-hole harps. along with draw bends, blow bends can also be achieved to get more notes yet.
there are dozens of different brand and style harps that can be played in this position. using hand effects and cupping the harp tightly to seal the sound in will allow for some cool effects. a note of warning- play lightly, like there's a baby in the next room sleeping! using a lot of breath FORCE will wreck a reed and disable a harp. it's a given. rather, find and use some breathing exercises to access your deep chest cavity. most people use only the top third of their potential breath since they don't know how to breathe deeply. what this simple thing will do is give you a huge resonant chamber, an air column if you will, and greatly increase the possibilities for resonant playing. imagine singing from just your throat, and then imagine pavarotti, who uses that air column. huge difference. in fact, i doubt opera or some other styles of singing could be done without using resonant breathing! resonant breathing can be learned from any voice coach. there are some great resources for resonant harp playing on youtube, adam gussow and david barrett come to mind, but there are lots more.

what does using the deeper breath available do? it changes your playing from excessive FORCE to a different kind of POWER. it saves reeds in harps, which believe me, buying yet another set of reed plates and changing them out, or just a new harp often, gets to be a pain! if you take the cover plates off a harp, you will see how delicate a brass reed is. playing hard will fatigue the metal of a reed and cause tiny stress fractures, which will flat out the reed, and it can't be repaired once that happens. some few guys get into replacing actual reeds and tuning them, but for me this is just a dead end. rather, i just try and play more responsibly! i still wear out harps but not nearly as fast as i once did. there were times when i first began playing with bands, i could kill a harp in a night, sometimes in just a set or two! these days i have harps in my case i've had for over a year of active playing.

who do you like to hear playing blues harp? there are some incredible inspirations out there, both past and present. i have a long list of guys who have blown me away and made me want to pursue this thing. little walter, big walter, sonny boy williamson I and II, james cotton, carey bell, junior wells, and a long list of others. incidentally, if you really listen to dylan, what he did on first position harp is actually a real challenge to duplicate! we do a couple of dylan songs in the duo i work in and it's a trip doing the harp part on a least one of those songs.

another big influence on a lot of players, and in first position, on the high end of a harp, is jimmy reed. his lines were very simple, but his nuance was amazing.

so there's a little food for though vic. if it was me i'd start simple, try positioning the harp deep between my lips and purse down to single notes, or use tongue block to get the same effect, and work from there. and by the way, jon gindick did a great book/cd set, "Rock'n'Blues Harmonica", i got a lot of good use from. may be a copy at or someplace. goes from total basics into some of the real fine points, and has a jam-along cd too. if you know a local harp player who can show you some things and give you some sense of direction, so much the better. we all have different learning styles. a student mentality will take you a long way regardless!

i hope you post here as you go along, and let us know how it's going. there's no such thing as a dumb question!


Re: Another newbie to blues harp....

PostPosted: Sun Sep 21, 2008 7:19 pm
by bottleneck

Re: Another newbie to blues harp....

PostPosted: Tue Sep 23, 2008 3:36 am
by vic lewis
jbone1 wrote:who do you like to hear playing blues harp?

That's actually a tough one! I can go back to when I was a little kid - Little Red Rooster by the Stones was a hit when I was about 6, and, as much as I loved the Beatles, and they used harmonicas on a lot of early songs, it didn't sound the same as LRR, you know? Later, when I got into buying albums, it was probably still the Stones - Midnight Rambler from the "ya-ya's" album was a favourite.

But my introduction to the blues - the real blues - only came about a few years ago in another forum. You have to understand, there was very little blues on the radio in England back when I was a kid - and what blues we were allowed to listen to was usually by the big "pop" groups of the day, like the Stones or the Yardbirds. Then again, when FM radio was starting up in the 70's, the alternative to the pop music of the day was pretty much prog rock - not much scope for blues harp in Yes and Genesis songs!

But then bands like Led Zep and Nazareth got me into slide guitar - years before I got a guitar, or a slide. One record I always wanted to play was Ry Cooder's version of "Vigilante Man" - I've got a workable version of that in open G now.

From slide guitar, to the blues - again, the problem back then was not knowing where to look. It's only the last few years, and thanks to the internet, that I've listened to much blues...people whose opinions I've valued guitar-wise have turned me on to the likes of BB King, Robert Johnson, Keb Mo, John Lee Hooker, etc. But to me, the blues is a vast reservoir of music waiting to be tapped into - so much music, I don't really know where to start, to be honest!

My guitar playing's come on a ton these last few years - I can play a nice steady rhythm guitar, and I'm getting better (especially in the 12-bar genre!) at improvising - but as for blues harp, well, I know I LOVE the sound of it, but as I said, I really don't know where to start. Any recommendations - youtube links, for example - would be gratefully received. There's a big wide world of blues out there, and I haven't the foggiest clue as to which direction to even start out on - if ignorance truly is bliss, I'd be in heaven by now!

:D :D :D



Re: Another newbie to blues harp....

PostPosted: Tue Sep 23, 2008 6:45 am
by bottleneck
i would suggest you buy a little walter CD and listen to it over and over till it is coming out of your ears.we could list the other masters,but little walter will give you a good start.

as far as you tube,search adam gussow and jason ricci for lessons,and james cotton for listening pleasure.good luck.

here are some names to start yourself a pandora station:sonny boy williamson 1 &2,jimmy reed,jerry portnoy,william clarke,carey bell,walter horton,sonny terry,slim harpo,frank frost,kim wilson,stevie wonder,george smith,gary primich,rod piazza,lee mcbee,junior wells,and of course little walter.that should get you started.