How To Play Blues Harmonica – Building Technique


Forget about books, you don´t need anything like that to learn how to play blues harmonica. I suppose as a bare minimum you will need to read at least this blog to get you pointed in the right direction, but after that it’s all clear sailing.

hohner blues harpSince blues (diatonic) harmonicas come in specific keys (A,B, C, etc), they are all set up to be played in specific scales. So you just need to learn a few basic licks to get started and also how to inhale (draw) and exhale (blow) with the rhythm. Most of your blues harp playing will be spent inhaling. These are the sweetest notes in the scale and the best control and bending technique can be applied when inhaling. This is true for the lower two thirds of the scale, but once you pass hole 7 everything flips and you need to exhale more to keep the scale sounding right. This is a VERY general way to describe the harmonica and there are many websites and books out there that will tell you everything you need to know, broken down into segmented bits of knowledge, about harmonica scale structures and targeting specific melodies (like you would learning the piano or guitar), and you should probably go check those out because knowledge is always good, but the truth is that you can pretty much wing it and make a lot of cool things happen.

So where do you learn technique?

In my case, I bought a little book called “how to play the harmonica”. It was tall and skinny and had some really amateur layout and design on the cover. I started trying to figure out silly songs in it like “Old McDonald Had A Farm” or “She´ll Be Coming ´Round The Mountain” but it was pretty boring and even worse…it was hard and I ended up throwing away the book. With some minimal effort I learned a few simple songs by ear like “Love Me Do” (The Beatles) or “Desire” (U2) but I couldn´t do much more than that. There had to be a better way.

trainSo I started listening to old recordings of Chicago blues songs featuring harmonica. Nothing specific mind you (I´m not going to list off a bunch of famous harmonica players), but I got my hands on and listened to as much blues harmonica playing that I could. I tried to pick out (by ear again) short, 3 or 4 note patterns and learn them. This more than anything was the ultimate key to success. Sometimes these were hard to get at first, but with a little practice I learned a lot of short little combos, note bending (you can “bend” a note on the harmonica by adjusting your mouth cavity and jaw) and hand cupping techniques. Once I had a modest bag of tricks, I would then try to mix up and experiment with those combos on my own. I had a recording of an acoustic guitar playing standard blues and I practiced over that. More than anything, this is the phase where I built my first “alphabet” of harmonica licks. I also took the advice of Willie “Blind Dog Fulton” Brown in the movie Crossroads and practiced trying to make my harmonica sound like a train (Chug, chug, chug, chug…Chug chug chug chug….WOOO WOOO) which was a great exercise for building rhythm and breathing ability. This phase was a lot of fun because I practiced a lot and the practices sounded pretty good right from the start. Before long I was ready for the next step.

With my new arsenal of “borrowed” licks, I began playing along to simple blues songs with other musicians. We would play at parties or just sitting around at home having a few beers and it was always a ton of fun. With so much practice I started developing my own combos and unique tricks and eventually I got the courage to go up on stage at a Blues Jam Night with some real blues musicians in a local club. I am now an accomplished singer and guitar player but my very first time on stage was with a harmonica. I have another blog post about the whole experience here called “Hey Buddy, Nice Organ”.

All through this phase I was always looking for ways to make my playing sound like what I had been listening to in those original blues recordings. I also noticed that a lot of it was an attempt to capture a “feeling” more than playing a specific group of notes or pattern. Since the blues harmonica is in a fixed scale, there was a freedom to just play and shape the sound and not worry so much about playing a bad note.

Crossroadsposter1986Even now, years later, when recording harmonica on my own songs, I sometimes attempt to mimic the more interesting effects that some old blues players used. Adding a distortion pedal and running the microphone through a guitar amplifier can really change the sound of the harmonica in some very cool ways.

And one of the best things about studying the blues harmonica is that after countless practices and live performances I was able take those standard blues style riffs and play them over other styles of music like rock, folk, country and even ska. On my last album SOFA KING COOL (Clamrecords 2013), the title song “Sofa King Cool” is played in a weird style that is hard to classify, but you can clearly hear the blues influence in the harmonica playing style. If you listen closely during the guitar solo, you can even hear a bit of the harmonica “train” mimicking technique I got from old Willie Brown´s indirect advice.

So go find yourself some blues music with harmonica and start listening. Depending on the harmonica(s) you have, you may need to be selective on the songs you study at first. Many blues songs are in E, which means you´ll need an A harmonica to study them. Here is a harmonica chord conversion chart you can use to figure out which harmonica key you need for which song key.

Good luck and…um…”happy” blues playing! 🙂

Klyde – Daze of Dawn

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