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Practicing for Success

The Learning of Blues Harmonica

By David Barrett,
There are two parts of learning how to play an instrument well; the music and the
instrument itself.
The Music
As many of you already know, the study of blues is not an easy venture. Quality blues
instructors are rare, but recently lesson material is becoming more and more available
every day. Though, for the most part, we are left to our own devices to sift through this
material and understand how to go about becoming proficient at playing blues. Blues is a
style of music that comes from and still is, for the most part, an oral tradition. The mere
thought that someone book studies blues is comical to some seasoned players. They
learned just how youre going to learn. Youre going to listencopyuse. Our advantage
is that we can get there more quickly with the aid of good instruction material to help us
with techniques on our instrument and concepts that will help us to understand the music
The Instrument
As harmonica players, our challenge deepens. Private harmonica instruction is almost
impossible to find unless you fly out to study with one of a few notable instructors in the
world. While there is a plethora of beginning method material to get you started playing
single-hole melodies and such, thats pretty much where it stops.
The past ten years have brought many improvements to our situation. Blues harmonica
workshops and lesson material that rise above the beginning threshold are now available.
The Internet makes learning about events, players and performances very accessible.
eZines such as and great newsletters such as the one from NHL
(National Harmonica League) in Brittan are more abundant. Email groups such as Harp-L
make communication with other harmonica players easy. It really is a good time to learn
the instrument.
With all these recent developments, there still is a need to understand the many facets of
study needed to become a good blues harmonica player and musician. Ill walk you
through what I commonly focus on with my private students and workshops.
There are more than thirty different ways to present one note on the harmonica. Each lick
played by a professional blues harmonica player involves the combination of many
techniques to make it sound the way it does. The more technique you have, the better you
can copy what other players are doing and the better you can perform what youre feeling
For all the techniques below, learn them by themselves to develop motor skills and muscle
memory. After you feel comfortable with the technique use it in exercises. After that, place

the technique into licks that you can play. Finally, place the licks into context by playing to
a jam track applying Chorus Forms for good phrasing.
1. Bending - All bendable holes draw and blow with pucker and tongue block embouchure.
A) Bend a note to its lowest degree and release it to its natural pitch.
B) Bend a note to its lowest degree and stop it at the bottom without the note raising.
Try bending a note, stopping at the bottom and going to the hole below it without
bending it.
C) Start a note in the bent position.
D) With the 3 draw and 2 draw, try to bend to each half step available and hold it long
enough to check with another instrument that it is in pitch.
E) Chromatic scale: play a chromatic scale from 4 blow to 1 blow (knowing that E-flat is
not available, referencing a C harmonica.)
F) Quartertone bends
G) Dip and cut bend articulations
H) Overbends (For players not necessarily focused on playing traditional blues.)
2. Tongue Blocking
A) Standard Tongue Block (lips over four holes, tongue blocks three holes to the left
sounding the hole to the right).
a) Slaps
b) Pulls
c) Pull-Slaps
d) Side-Pulls
e) Flutter Tongue (both on-and-off and side-to-side)
B) Four and Five Hole Octaves
a) Slaps
b) Pulls
c) Pull-Slaps
d) Side-Pulls
e) Flutter Tongue (both on-and-off and side-to-side)
C) Tongue Switching
3. Two Hole Shakes
4. Double & Triple Tonguing
5. Chugging & Chording
Music Understanding
Understanding some basic elements in music is imperative to performing music. Below are
some areas you should be familiar with.
1. Memorizing at least one harmonicas pitch set (C harmonica recommended) with all
possible bends.
2. Whole steps & half steps
3. Major and minor scales and chords
4. 12 and 8 bar blues progression and common variations
5. Theory behind position playing
Every blues harmonica player worth his or her salt can play blues well in first, second and
third position as well as some third position chromatic. First learn your second position

playing well, then apply your knowledge to the other positions. To become proficient in
other positions takes the same focus as second position. Search out and learn as many
songs and licks as you can for each position to give you a basis of what it means to play in
that position.
Improvising is the most difficult activity you can do on an instrument. Improvising requires
a good degree of proficiency in all disciplines of your instrument. Detailed below are
important study areas.
1. 12 bar blues progression
2. Knowing where you are at all times within the song without counting and hearing chord
3. Chorus Forms
4. Intros
5. Heads
6. Breaks
7. Bridges
8. Endings
9. Arpeggios
10. Chord scales
11. Harmony playing
From all the above areas of focus, Chorus Forms is the most important study. Through time
you have memorized instrumentals, solos, pieces of solos and licks, but nobody has told
you what to do with all of what youve learned. Chorus Forms put it all together and can
help all skill level players to improvise well. This concept is covered briefly in my Exploring
series of books within the Harmonica Masterclass Lesson Series and in detail at the
Harmonica Masterclass Workshops and soon to be released book/set Improvising Blues
Accompaniment Playing
When playing with a band ~80% of your time is spent accompanying; yet I dont know many
people that study the art of accompaniment playing. Here are some areas of focus.

Playing fills
Horn Lines
Bass Lines

Jam Etiquette & Band Leadership Skills

Many players will have the pleasure of performing with other musicians. Before going on
stage make sure you understand the basic principles below.

Counting the band in

Signaling breaks and endings
Microphone and amplifier choice

I also highly recommend becoming familiar with the other instruments of the band. You will
often have to describe the groove and other parts in a song to the other musicians. Youll
never get what youre hearing in your head to happen on stage if you dont know how to
describe what you want. I would recommend that any serious player learn how to play the
drums, bass and guitar at a basic level. You dont have to be great, youre goal is to just
learn enough to describe in each instruments language what you want. Besides being fun,
the learning of these instruments will lead you towards the ability to write good songs.
Putting it All Together
Every lick or technique you learn do the following.
1. Learn the technique.
2. Place the technique into exercises to develop speed and muscle memory.
3. Place the technique into a lick. These licks will come from lesson material, artist
recordings or ideas of your own.
4. Take each lick and apply the Chorus Forms with a jam track to find which phrasing
works best for each lick.
5. Review the licks that you like often to help insure they stay in your lick vocabulary.
6. Play with other musicians often to hone your performance skills.
What we covered is a general outline of what the blues harmonica player will want to focus
on in his or her studies over the years/decades. Along with these ideas I cannot stress how
important it is to listen and learn from all the great players past and present. Each song is
a lesson on movement, technique and application. Purchase every recording and lesson
book you can afford. Remember, playing blues harmonica is a lifetime pleasure of practice
and performance. Enjoy the journey! Good luck and have fun.

About the Author David Barrett