Blues Harp in Two Lessons, part 1

Playing a harmonica is easier than driving a car.

You are scratching your head, and gelling ready to wad your Reader into a ball and throw it in the wastepaper basket. I'd suggest you relegate yourself to blind faith.
  • You are scratching your head, and gelling ready to wad your Reader into a ball and throw it in the wastepaper basket. I'd suggest you relegate yourself to blind faith.

A largely unpublicized change in American music during the past twenty years has been the tremendous rise in popularity of the harmonica. For most of us it started with the brief riffs thrown in almost as an afterthought to Beau Brummel, Beatles, PJ. Proby music and began to catch fire when we heard the wailing solos of Brian Jones. Paul Butterfield, John Mayall and John Sebastian. By the lime we got around to listening to the men these harmonica players had learned their locks from Sonny Terry. Sonny Boy Williamson. Little Walter and countless others we were hooked. Today you hear the harmonica as lead instrument in movie soundtracks Little Big Man. Midnight Cowboy. Sounder. White Lightning; television shows — McCloud. The Waltons and almost every chase scene; and every type of music that has an American flavor from Musak to Country Western.

Your guitar player, then, should not play in the key of C if you have a C harmonica, as cross harp is playing that C harp in the key of G. Confusing?

Your guitar player, then, should not play in the key of C if you have a C harmonica, as cross harp is playing that C harp in the key of G. Confusing?

One reason for the mass appeal of the harmonica is the development of harmonica music itself. In the old days, a harmonica virtuoso was someone who could play parts that were written for other instruments. Harmonica enthusiasts considered it a tremendous victory when the National Music Association declared the harmonica an official instrument. Before that, the harmonica had been considered a toy. and anyone who wanted to be a great harmonica player worked under this stigma. When the blues crossed racial boundaries. harmonica music came into its own: it was simpler, less defensive about its form, and a hell of a lot more fun to listen to Today, no one cares whether the harp is a toy or an instrument. They just want to hear you get down.

Harmonica music, which is as individual as the person making it. is capable of expressing a wide range of emotions. It isn’t the arrangement of the notes that gives the harmonica its beauty so much as the voice of the instrument itself. More than any other instrument, with the exception of the human voice, the harmonica is capable of producing a sob. a wail, a laugh that sounds real, ungimmicky. and is an integrated part of the music. Even more important than these Imitative qualities Is the deep, rich tone that somehow works to call forth memories, emotions, sensations that are precious and pleasant. There is a beauty in the voice of the harmonica that closely corresponds to the beauty of human beings and our secret, emotional lives, and this is why we love the harmonica.

Of all the instruments that are in widespread use today, the harmonica is probably the most simple (ten holes), inexpensive ($5.50), convenient (you can play it driving down the freeway or waiting for a bus) and appreciated. You can get drunk and rock out (on your harp), in a room full of people, or you can sit around a campfire and accompany the crackling of flames and the twinkle of stars. Best of all. you don’t have to be particularly talented or studied to do this. All you have to do. is make the harmonica a part of your life, something you put in your mouth along with your fingernails and cigarettes.

The first harmonica solo I remember hearing was on the record, “My Boy Lollipop,“ by Millie Small. This was back in the middle sixties and I doubt if I even knew it was a harmonica until the disc jockey mentioned it. During the next two months of “My Boy Lollipop’s" reign at the top of the charts, I would wait for Millie to quit singing, and turn the car radio up to a level that I would probably consider quite painful today. Driven behind me and coming in the opposite direction must have been startled to see my car weaving back and forth and my crew-cutted head bobbing up and down in the driver’s seat in time to the harmonica solo on “My Boy Lollipop."

It was about time that I bought my first harmonica, an echo harp, and tried to play popular music on it. As hard as ! tried, as much as I worked at it, I could not surpass the cowboy polka sort of thing that I had come up with the first few minutes I had it out of the box. The cowboy polka went on for two or three years. Finally someone who could stand it no longer and knew a little bit about playing the harmonica took me aside and revealed the secret of playing cross harp. Within a few weeks, I was a changed man. I could boogie.

This two-part article is written for the person who bought a harmonica with the idea of playing like Paul Butterfield, Charlie McCoy, or Magic Dick and never got beyond a sputtering, saliva-filled rendition of “Home on the Range." Along with an explanation of the cross harp technique which is the only way to beat your “Home on the Range" dilemma, I'll describe the ways you should go about learning the techniques of getting a single note and bending the sound of that note.

Only a genius could read an article like this one, go out and buy a harmonica and play it like a pro. No matter how fluently I describe the placement of your lips for getting a single note, you are still going to have to learn it your own way. This means getting used to the harmonica and making it a part of y our life. The articles you need are a harmonica, and a taped cassette of someone playing a basic, noncomplicated blues guitar. The harmonica should be either a Blues Harp, a Marine Band, or a Golden Melody, all made by Hohner. These harps are about two and a half inches long and you can get them in any music store for prices between $5.50 and $6.50. Which one is the best is a matter of personal taste and superstition.

Have the salesman test each hole on your harmonica when you buy it, and look inside your harmonica and make sure that the reeds are not rusted. I would guess that one in twenty harps that I've bought in the past ten years have been defective and once you've walked out of the store there is really damn little you can do about it.

There is, by the way, a terrific need for anyone who could design and manufacture a better harmonica. Hohner is going up in price and down in quality along with most of the big manufacturers of musical instruments. Yamaha makes a harmonica that nearly falls apart in your mouth. With an increase in demand probably second only to Zig Zag cigarette papers in the past ten years it’s a shame no one can compete with Hohner.

If you are buying a harmonica for the first time, I suggest you get one in the key of D. I say this because D appears to be a little bit easier for most beginners. If you have one in another key, It will do.

The purpose of the taped cassette with a recording of your guitar playing buddy it to give you something to practice with. This isn't absolutely essential, but if you would like to learn to jam with folks this is the way to go about it. Ask your friends to play a three chord progression with lots of sevenths to give It that bluesy feel.

It should be slow, with a heavy, pounding beat and you should listen to it enough times to that you are familiar with it and can anticipate chord changes.

You have to make sure that the guitar is in tune with the harmonica. This meant that an E note on the harmonica is the tame as an E on a guitar. If you have an E harp, then blowing on the first hole produces an E note. If you have a D harp, blowing on the first hole produces a D. Without knowing anything, the best way to tune a guitar to a harp is to blow on the first hole, tell your guitar player what note It is, and let him tune to it.

You have to make sure that the guitar player plays in the right key for your harmonica. This is one of the tricks of cross harp.

A C harmonica means that blowing on holes one through four at the same time gives you a C chord. When you play these notes individually you are playing in the key of C. This it called straight harp, and though you can make beautiful melodic music playing straight harp, you have to be a harmonica maestro to really boogie, which it what most of us want to do.

If you draw on holes one through four on your G harmonica, you will produce a G chord. If you play these notes individually, you are playing within the key of G. This is cross harp. You cannot really play the blues unless you are playing with the accent on the draw.

Your guitar player, then, should not play in the key of C if you have a C harmonica, as cross harp is playing that C harp in the key of G. Confusing? Here's a chart to help you get guitar music that will fit your harmonica.

This is an unfortunate hit of complication that can throw you off if you let it. You are scratching your head, and gelling ready to wad your Reader into a ball and throw it in the wastepaper basket. I'd suggest you quit trying to understand and relegate yourself to blind faith. To play with a guitar, follow the above chart.

The first thing lo do once you have your harmonica is gently break it in. I suggest you clench It between your teeth and breathe through It with your face and lips relaxed. Make sure that you are Inhaling and exhaling through hole one through four. We have unfortunate associations of dentist offices and brass knuckles whenever we put cold steel in our mouths so as a beginner you should give yourself a couple of days grace period before you actually try to do any thing fancy with it. Instead, breathe through it at though it were a scuba diver's regulator. You'll find that the further you put it in your mouth, the more you relax your face, and the more you breathe from your stomach, yoga style, the richer your tone will be. It should sound like a church organ. If It doesn't your lips are too tight. The air should move through the reeds without resistance. Do not struggle with your harmonica. Inhale and exhale effortlessly. Play harmonica to the relaxed, gentle rhythm of your respiration.

The next step, getting a pure tone on one note at a time, is a bit tougher, particularly in the light of what I said earlier. It isn't to Important what notes you play, as how you play them. You want a pure, rich voice on your single note. Contrary lo the instructions in most manuals, unless you want to play the “Beer Barrel Polka," the best way to get a single note Is lo pucker.

Push your lips out as far as they will go. Now relax them, but keep them puckered. There should be a hole the size of the end of your finger. Draw on hole four and get a pure tone. Don't use your tongue to guide the air and rind the right hole. Don't strain to pull the air through the harp. Your lips have to be relaxed and cannot be clenched tightly on the harp. They must be soft and placed well over the edge. It should he like a soft, intimate kiss. Make gentle, sensual contact with your harp. Don't he rough with it or it won't play for you.

You want your lips to be shaped similarly to the way they are shaped when you exaggerate the SHHHHH of ship or shoot, only you don't roll the air off of your tongue the way you do when you ordinarily say these words. Also, the lips have to be pushed out far enough for the hole to he small. Sometimes people make the mistake of tucking their lips under to produce a small hole. This it wrong. Instead, push your lips out. The greatest mistake you can make is to do violence to your harp with your lips and breath. You need a light, sensual touch to get good tone and good tone is everything.

Once you can get a single note you should begin learning to control it. Draw for ten seconds on hole four, then blow for ten seconds on hole 3. You will find that you have to use less air to do this and make an effort to control it. This will also teach you a little bit about moving from one hole to the next. Don't use your tongue to search for the hole, rather, slide the harmonica slowly and carefully, like the carriage of a typewriter. Your lips should be lubricated with saliva, but your mouth pretty dry to you don't spit into the harp.

You are now ready to jam with your taped cassette. You will find that three blow and four draw both work, and that you will not make a mistake as long as you stay on these two notes. If you experiment you will find that there are other safe notes (notes that won't make a mistake) on your harp. These are the first four draw notes (Remember that G chord?) played individually and at the same time, three blow, and six draw and blow. The other notes will work sometimes, but can t be relied upon for long wails. The notes above six draw are not very practical for beginning blues harpists and you will find that there is plenty of music on the bottom half of your harp.

Here is a chart of safe notes on your harmonica.

The reversible blues riff will fit into all kinds of music from country to blues.

The reversible blues riff will fit into all kinds of music from country to blues.

The notes in the empty spaces, one blow, two blow, four blow, five blow. and five draw are stepping stone notes. For the most part, I pass over these quickly on my way to one of the safe note, which I stress and wail on.

The first riff you should learn is called the reversible blues riff and it will fit into all kinds of music from country to blues Once you can play it smoothly and without thinking, try working it in with the music on the taped cassette.

Reversible Blues Riff

3blow 3draw 4blow 4draw (pause) 4draw 4blow 3draw 3blow. Notice that every note on the Reversible Blues Riff is a safe note except four blow. This means you will have lo work at passing from four blow to three draw quickly. You should work at using four draw to create tension and three blow to release it. The rhythm can be handled in a variety of ways, but I suggest you listen to harmonica records and get an idea of how you would like the riff to sound and work at it from that point of view. You should practice this riff enough so that you can play it without thinking about It. There is music in these four notes. Can you find it?

Mastery is when you can do something so well that you don't have to think about it. Most of us have mastered driving our automobiles. We coast right through hectic, crowded traffic one false move away from death without a troubled thought because we know what we are doing so well that we don’t have to think about It. This doesn't mean not paying attention, or not being sensitive to the road, the car, other drivers because If we don't drive with a certain degree of sensitivity we're likely to smash into rear ends and run over pedestrians. No. being a master means doing it right, and doing it without thinking.

Playing a harmonica Is easier than driving a car. Remember the first time you got behind the wheel? How your palms sweat and your heart beat? It wasn't until you learned to let the car do the work that driving got to be easy. It's the same with the harp. Let the harp do the work and you'II have more fun. In this lesson I've given you some of the basic ideas of playing the harp and I encourage you to fool around with them In a lighthearted spirit, but always keeping an eye on your goal of learning to do it right. In the next article I'll be more specific, and give you more riffs to leans. Soon you win be making up your own riffs and playing improvisations! harp.

The most important thing is to relax when you play your harp. There is no such thing as a good, nervous harpist. You can yell at your wife, beat your kids, hate your boss, but once you get behind your harmonica you let go of all that. You turn it into music, and It becomes funny, sad. and beautiful.


Continue to Part 2

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