For most of the music that becomes a spectator sport, we get as involved listening to records and going to concerts as the football fan gets watching the Rose Bowl. While this it probably better than no music at all, the individual's inability to express himself, combined with an almost infinite capacity for being expressed to, has cut into the very personality of our culture.
A hundred years ago, every family that could afford a piano had one, and learning lo play was one of the requisites of being a cultured person. Now we witness the diminishing of some of the fundamental abilities of the human intellect. Why Johnny can't read and Johnny can't write has been attributed by educators to the influence of television Johnny sits back and lets the images wash over him instead of actively participating in the creation of images.
The same can be said of music. It has become a commercialized dream world that anesthetizes most of us, tricks us into thinking that talent is genius, that musicianship is leadership, and that the Rolling Stones’ latest album is somehow more important more bonafide music than that of the guy playing for pennies on the corner, or of the couple doing five hour, fifty song gigs in a bar for fifty dollars a night.
Making music has become associated with performance. A lot of people don't make music because they think it’s something you hate to do in front of people, or something you have to be damn good at. Or they don't learn to play because they have a fixed idea about themselves that something like "I'm not musically inclined." or ”I have a tin ear." Then they will pay five dollars for a record album and don't put a quarter in the hat of the street musician.
Which brings us to the harmonica— the tiny, humble, inexpensive. easy to carry, easy to play harmonica. Here is an instrument that cuts through most of the music fog that the dream-makers have fabricated for the past twenty years No one accuses a good harp player of being a genius. No. you don't have to be “gifted" to play the harmonica. All you have to do is make it a part of your life. Play it instead of the radio, or along with the radio. Play it for the multitude, play it for your lover, play it for yourself. Most important, play it for fun.
This is the second of a two part article on the secrets of playing the blues harmonica. Last week, I wrote about the fundamental thrill of getting a tingle note, and making that single note harmonize, or fit in, with the blues progression that your guitar player put on the taped cassette.
The notes that harmonize are called safe notes You can't make a mistake if you play only safe notes. Putting a riff together is going from one safe note to the next, using stepping stone notes, notes that don't fit in, to link it all together
Almost any kind of cohesive storytelling, be it musical or literary, is based on the principle of creating tension and then reheating it. The same is true of blues harmonica. There are two kinds of safe notes Wailing notes create tension. These are the notes that twist and bend and warble and have us sitting on the edges of our seats. The wailing notes are all draw notes. They are 1 draw, 3draw, 4draw, 6draw.
Notes of Resolution resolve the tension. After the harp player has twisted and wailed he brings it home. We sit back and sigh and say, "Jeez, what a solo" The notes of Resolution are 3blow. 2draw and 6draw.
So if you play the Reversible Blues Riff—
3blow 3draw 4blow 4draw 4draw 4blow 3draw 3blow - you it stress the 4draw at the top of the riff to make tension. On the way down you create tension on 3draw. then you resolve the riff on 3blow. If your tune is good and you are getting a single note, it should sound bluesy.
Listen to harmonica records - Charlie McCoy. John Sebastian. Paul Butterfield - and listen for the tension and the resolution of tension. This principle is the difference between making noise on your harp, and making music.
Here is a map of your harmonica for playing the blues:
When jamming to a basic blues progression on guitar, the beginning harmonica player searches for a pattern he can repeat over and over. Repeating this pattern, wresting the mailing notes for tension, gliding over the stepping-stone notes, and resolving on the notes of Resolution will sound different each time, because the guitar player is changing chords, thereby changing the backdrop for the harp. Once the beginner has learned to create tension and release it with one simple pattern, he can try variations with a lot of success. Some of the most original, daring riffs will be mistakes that he followed through on.
The first riff that you should learn is the Reversible Blues Riff. You have to get so you can do it automatically, without thinking, and then try to fit in with the music on the taped cassette. Be free and easy, but remember that when it doesn't sound good it is probably because you aren't making tension on 4draw. Or because you aren’t gliding over the stepping note, 4blow, quickly enough. Or because you aren't getting a single note.
Put the paper away at soon as possible and play the riff from memory. Play it as though you were taking a breath of air. Automatic, quick, without thinking.
Work on blending your notes together to that the riff has a sliding effect. Another good pattern, on the bass end of your harp is the Good Morning Riff: 1draw 2blow 2draw 2blow 2draw. This run starts on the wailing note I draw and ends on the note of resolution 2draw. If your notes sound like fog horns, it is because you are being too violent with your harmonica. Relax as much as you can. Don't sink your chin out or screw up your face. Be gentle. You'll find n difficult to play harmonica when you are reading the notes from a book. These things have to be internalized, coming from the inside out, before they are effective This is why. when you play your harp, you should do whatever you do lo relax and lose yourself
The high range of your harmonica lakes you up to 6draw, which is a wailing note, and allows you to resolve on 6blow. Or you can take a run down to a note of resolution at 3blow
6draw 6blow 5draw 4draw 4blow 3draw 3blow
These are three patterns that take you over the most easily played parts of the harmonica. Make these riffs fit in with the guitar music and you’ll be well on your way to playing innovative cross harp. Unfortunately, there is not a universal language for paying blues harp. Sheet music would not do much good because the incredibly subtle, but powerful inflections would be low. The inflections are created chiefly by bending notes. The word “bending" is used to describe that act of twisting the note lower than it was actually meant to be played. For instance, here is 4 draw:
By changing the shape of your mouth and opening your throat you can bend the note down like this:
Two hundred students have taught me that note-bending comes when a person has fooled around and experimented with his draw notes long enough to discover it on his own. One more clue, though, it that bending draw notes on your harmonica is not unlike whistling high, then whistling low on the inhale. You must change the trajectory of the air as It enters your mouth.
As I wrote earlier, there are few folks who could read this article, pick up a harp, and play good blues. Hopefully what I’ve said will encourage you to start. And if you are already a harmonica nut, but you are in a rut, the technical information made enough sense to give you some new ideas
There is always the temptation, when you are learning something for fun, to become anxious about it. Not only does this work against the very reason why you chose to learn the harp in the first place, it also hurts your harp playing. The most important thing is to make the harp a habit, and to play your music from the inside out. If you do this, the subterranean forces of your personality will take over, and you'll amaze yourself.
And if the day comes when you see a big curly haired fellow walking down Mission Boulevard, just huffin' and puffin’, and making his harp smoke, join in.
We'll have one hell of a jam.
For part 1 of the blues harp lesson, click here