Harp Q&A’s #11-20

Q&A #20

Q: “It’s rumored that William Clarke used to play the harmonica upside-down (hole 1 to the right, hole 10 to the left). Is there an advantage in doing this? Can you give other musicians who have done the same?”

A: Yes, William Clarke did play the harmonica “upside-down”, meaning with the lower holes/notes to the right, and higher holes/notes to the left. All I can say about William Clarke’s upside-down approach is that he told me it was how he started out playing, unaware that it was “upside-down”. Other players who played this way include Sonny Terry, Paul Butterfield, and Billy Boy Arnold.

As far as there being any advantages to it, I don’t know of any. Whichever way you learn correctly to begin with is usually the easiest (and usually sticks with you). I find it is easier overall to begin with playing “rightside-up” since you can see the hole numbers if you want to look at it while you are beginning to learn. However, you can’t really look at the harp or it’s coverplates (with the numbers on) while you’re playing anyway. Almost all of the learning is by position and feel (of different parts) of your mouth, and with the help of your ear.


Q&A #19

Q: “Exactly how many positions is it possible to get from a 10-hole diatonic harmonica? After the first three (1st-straight, 2nd-cross, and 3rd), how important are these other positions?”

A: OK, glad you asked! There seems to be a lot of mis-information out there in regards to what a “position” even is on the harmonica, so let’s clear that up, and this will begin to answer these questions.

Each standard diatonic harmonica is tuned to a specific key, and there are 12 keys that exist. Playing any harmonica in any specific key is referred to as a “position”. Since harmonicas were originally made to played in the key they are tuned to (for example, a “C” harmonica was originally made to be played in the Key of C), playing in the “tuned” key of the harmonica is referred to as “1st” position. But there are 12 keys in all, so that leaves us 11 other possible positions that any harmonica can be played in. However, the diatonic harmonica has a restriction most other instruments don’t have – missing notes. While a player can learn to “bend” and “overbend” (overblows & overdraws) to get these missing notes, the techniques involved and their execution on the instrument make many of these other keys/positions very limiting, at least for convincing blues playing.

In each genre of music, the scale is used differently. Knowing that, it is apparent that depending on what style of music you play, you may find other positions that work well. For blues & blues-related roots music, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd position work very well since most the parts of scale that are used a lot are easily available. Blues can also be played convincingly in 4th, 5th, and 6th position. Other positions such as 12th work well for more of “jump/swing” style of blues. Keep in mind, I’m not saying it’s not possible to play any style in any key of any harmonica (because it is), but I find when people try to stretch the limits of this concept too much it usually sounds unconvincing and unmusical to my ears. This is due to the fact that it is difficult to play these “missing” notes & scales in pitch, and also the effects & chords are usually very limited in the “further” positions.

So to summarize the answer to the questions here…there are 12 positions possible, and the importance if these positions depends on the style of music you want to play, and/or how challenging you want music-making to be on your instrument. In my opinion, it is most musical to use positions that make sense according to the style you want to play in. There are reasons why 1st, 2nd, and 3rd positions are so common for blues & related styles – because the available notes work well for the style.

More information on some these ideas & concepts about positions will be coming soon here on BadAssHarmonica.com…stay tuned…!


Q&A #18

Q: “George ‘Harmonica’ Smith was credited as having mentored two of the biggest names in modern harp – Rod Piazza and William Clarke. While Little Walter certainly had his legion of imitators, was he directly responsible for mentoring any other artists who went on to make big names for themselves in the Blues?”

A: George “Harmonica” Smith is definitely credited with mentoring those two players, and has also helped out many other players later in his life such as Kim Wilson, Mark Hummel and others. Most of this happened starting in the late 1960’s when a new generation of younger (especially including white) audiences were being exposed to and appreciating/playing this music. George Smith lived to be 59. Little Walter almost lived to be 38 years old, and there seemed to also be a difference in temperament between these two individuals. I know of no particular players that Little Walter had personally mentored. Although it’s possible there were a few players that picked up a few things in passing from Little Walter, Walter seemed to have more of a competitive nature and didn’t talk much about his techniques or approach in detail with many people (that I know of). I would guess that Jimmy Rogers and Louis Myers (who both also played guitar with Little Walter, and both also played harp) directly knew about some of his approach on the instrument more than most players, but I am unaware of any direct “protege” of Little Walter’s.


Q&A #17

Q: “While it is important to develop an ear for music, as well as a sense of timing and feeling for what you do, how important is it that you know how to read music?

A: Great question, and ultimately the answer to this question will depend on two main things: 1) what type of music and/or gigs do you want to play, and 2) how well-trained is your ear (or how well can it be trained).

For the kind of music I play (mostly blues & related American “roots” music such as country, rock & roll, swing, etc…) reading music is most often needed if I want to follow a chart to learn or play a song I don’t know, either for a recording, a gig, or for my own knowledge. Since I have developed my ear over many years, I don’t normally learn this way, I learn by ear. Keep in mind, learning by ear is a skill that can be developed to get better & better. I don’t know many players that can learn instantly by ear, especially if they haven’t developed the talent and skill yet. Many people will say they “play by ear”, but this is not the same thing. Or more specifically, it may mean they are playing by ear, but not everyone hears the same or has the same level of ear-training…so therefore some people can obviously do this much better than others. Just like anything else, it is a skill that can be nurtured & strengthened.

Developing timing (a good sense of rhythm) and feeling are also things that can (and should) be developed, and are vitally important to playing these styles of music.

But when talking about blues & related music, I would say learning to read music is important if you want to be a studio musician (to record songs, jingles, etc…for other people’s projects), or if you already have some prior knowledge of music and learning visually seems to help you. I don’t think reading music is necessary at all to learn to play blues for your own enjoyment, and for most musical situations involving blues. However, I don’t see many drawbacks to learning to read, aside from the time it will take to do so and the fact that you will likely not need to do if you stick to this genre. I do think it will help you if you want to branch off into other styles and perform and/or record in other situations down the road however. Having said that, many of my favorite blues players (if not all of them) couldn’t read music at all.


Q&A #16

Q: “Of George ‘Harmonica’ Smith and Little Walter, which was truly more technically proficient?

A: Although George “Harmonica” Smith proved to be possibly a bigger influence in blues chromatic harmonica playing (just judging by some of the top players nowadays who carry his approach on the chromatic harmonica), Little Walter seemed to be the more technically proficient. A good case can be made for George though, with his mastery of the chromatic harmonica. George not only recorded more on the chromatic harp, but he also did record playing the chromatic harmonica in 1st & 2nd position, as well as the usual 3rd position and even what I call “alternate C” or B# (playing in the key of C on a C chromatic, but approaching it more like the key of B – with the slide in to raise it to the key of C – as opposed to the “regular” 1st position approach). However, on the diatonic harp Little Walter seemed to have a never-ending stream of ideas on the harp and seemed to move around with a little more ease & fluidity.

As far as techniques on the instrument go, they both had their strong points. On diatonic, they both used tongue-split octaves (George more so than Walter), trills, vamped notes (percussive chord before a single note), vibrato, and tremolo (George used this more as well). Little Walter used the “tongue-trill” (moving the tongue side-to-side and alternating two single notes) quite a bit, whereas George used the tongue-vamp (moving the tongue on & off the harp while tongue-blocking a single note, so as to alternate a single note with a chord) much more. George also used tongue-split octaves on the chromatic, which Walter didn’t, and has proved to be a strong and popular approach on the instrument in blues since his usage.

As far as musicality goes, both were strong players, but I would say Walter was the one with a more creative melodic approach to single note lines and phrasing on the diatonic harmonica. But if we’re talking chromatic harmonica, that may be a different story!


Q&A #15

Q: “Which is better: learning riffs, licks and fills, or learning to play solid melody lines?

A: The answer to this question partially depends on what your goals are and where you are at now with your playing. Generally speaking, it is equally important to learn licks, riffs, solos and fills (which are usually a lick or a riff) AND melody lines. A player who only focuses on one aspect will be limiting themselves greatly. Let’s look at what these things are and why you should learn them.

Riffs by definition are short musical passages that are repeated either in the background behind vocalists or soloists and/or for part of the “theme” of a song. When people speak of “horn lines” they are usually referring to riffs played by a horn section (or in some cases a piano & guitar, or organ and sax, or whatever combination of instruments is fitting to the style of music being played). Not all “horn lines” are riffs though. Riffs are great to know to broaden your sense of accompaniment in any particular style, help you become a better ensemble player, and even help you become better with your sense of rhythm and phrasing for different grooves and/or tempos. Riffs are the short patterns that can make a song “catchy” or build up the excitement behind a soloist or vocalist, or as mentioned before, build a “theme” for a song.

Licks are also single-note musical lines, but licks stand out in a solo or fill, and usually prove to be appealing to the listener. Licks are not usually repeated, but are usually unique to the particular place in the song/chord progression where they are played. A little passage of a solo that stands out as exciting would be referred to as a great “lick”. A lick can also be used to create a “theme” of a song, but if it’s not too lengthy & it’s repeated exactly, it would usually be referred to as a riff (riffs are usually not too lengthy). It is important to learn licks because it will greatly enhance not only your ability to sound cool, but add to your vocabulary on the instrument.

Learning licks and riffs will help you become familiar with patterns that are effective to create a mood or make a musical statement from which you can start to improvise from. Both can also be short patterns that listeners remember and associate with a song, but a riff would be short, catchy & repetitive, whereas a lick would be singular, perhaps a little more exciting, and usually a little longer.

Fills are short musical passages played to basically “fill” in the space between vocal lines or another instrument’s lines. You could use a lick or a riff during a fill. Obviously fills are also good to learn for the same reason as riffs & licks – learn to become a better ensemble player, and broaden your vocabulary on the instrument, and within certain types of grooves & styles.

Melody Lines are important as well. Learning melody lines from songs is important because it will not only add songs to your repertoire that you can play (and learn to build upon), but it will also help you understand how melodies work within certain keys and scales on your instrument.

Here’s another way to think of it, again going back to my analogy of music as a language: Think of the Melody Lines you learn as musical poems or quotations you can use. Riffs, Licks and Fills can be looked at as questions, exclamations, comments, remarks and/or spoken asides. Both parts of the language are important to learn, and both will help you become more fluent in the language of blues harmonica. In addition to this, both can also help you create your own musical ideas and/or solos.

If you are only interested in playing melodies or folk songs, and are not interested in playing styles of music where there are many licks, riffs, fills and such (American roots music such as blues, jazz, swing, country, rock & roll, etc….all incorporate these things), then learning riffs and licks may not be of particular importance to you. On the other hand, if you are interested in these styles of music and don’t care too much about being melodic (hopefully you do though!), then learning some scales and melodies won’t be of much importance to you. They are both equally important to becoming a good musician in my opinion, and depending on what style of music you want to play, one may play a bigger role than the other.


Q&A #14

Q: “What is the difference in approach to harmonica playing between you & someone like Jason Ricci? Can one play blow bends, overblows and overdraws by using tongue-blocking? Is there a difference in sound?

A: I have been getting this question quite a bit during the past few years. As far the difference in approach, let’s talk a little about embouchure first, or more specifically tongue-blocking vs. pursed-lips/lip-blocking.

ANY harp player who can play well should have both techniques in their arsenal. There are many techniques one can only play if you are tongue-blocking, such as tongue trills, tongue vamps, pulls & other chordal effects, sharply attacked staccato rhythmic playing, etc…as well changing the tone of your playing. Tongue-blocking by nature of the embouchure (if & when done correctly – as any technique should be) gives the player a bigger resonant air chamber to play with, and this directly effects the tone being heard. This is not to say that people that don’t tongue-block don’t have good tone. I know some players that don’t tongue-block and have good tone. I have also heard many of those same players try to play some tongue-blocking and the tone has been even better…and by “better” I mean fuller, rounder, richer and deeper. I have never heard anyone get worse tone by tongue-blocking, always “fuller & rounder”, regardless of the player (I have taught hundreds of students worldwide, and I know dozens of pro players as well).

Without getting too far into the Tongue-Blocking Vs. Lip-Blocking debate, I will just say that I am primarily a TB player (almost 100% of the time) and I know Jason Ricci to be primarily a Lip-Purser who also throws in some TB’ing for certain effects and techniques.

I use TB’ing for blow bends and overblows as well, which I started using back in the 90’s and used on my first album with my band Jump Time…I wasn’t that good at it back then, but could do it. I don’t use many overdraws personally, but when I set up my harps to do so, I can usually get them tongue-blocked as well. In addition, I also get draw bends on my Low tuned harps tongue-blocked. Not many people ask about them, but the real high AND the real low bends are difficult with any embouchure, just for different reasons physically.

The debate about the difference in sound will probably go on & on, but I can say (as well as any other tongue-blocker that I know) that YES there is a difference in sound, especially in the lower range of the harp, when you are tongue-blocking. Again, this is not to say that you can’t “sound good” when you don’t TB, but there is indeed a difference (unless of course, you purposely try to sound the same and narrow your TB air chamber to do so).

Many players tend to use mostly lipping for single notes and TB for some effects, which I did for a short period myself. However, the transition going from lip-purse to tongue-blocking for certain effects or techniques in the middle of a musical passage or lick made the playing NOT flow as well as I wanted it to. I have found this to be an issue with most players I have come across as well. When you TB all or most of the time, all of those TB techniques or effects (such as octaves, tongue-trills, staccato rhythmic chording, etc…) are literally right there at your fingertips, so to speak, so they flow much easier in your playing.


Q&A #13

Q: “Why should a player spend so much effort to sound “traditional” when playing blues on a chromatic? Is the blues only folk music, or should it change & move forward? Why the effort to play multiple notes or chords on a chromatic? I play a C chromatic and play blues in every key…

A: First, to be clear about the use of my word “traditional“, so we are on the same page. When I was talking about “traditional blues chromatic” in a recent question (Q&A #11), I was referring to traditional Chicago blues style chromatic harp playing, per the question asked. There are many other “traditional” styles (jazz or swing for instance) which have different techniques and aspects to them.

When talking about “folk” music, I believe folk music should be always-changing in some respect due to people’s concerns, ideas, circumstances, frustrations, etc…are indeed always changing, and so are techniques and knowledge of music and all other things. But folk music (like “folks”) in some ways also always remain the same. Full of life, color, feelings and the human experience. “Moving forward” doesn’t have to mean changing styles on an instrument (although it CAN indeed mean that), but that in & of itself does not mean something is moving forward at all. There have been many swing players that have had more advanced scale knowledge than the blues players (dating back to the 1920’s & 1930’s)…that’s not exactly moving forward (meant tongue-in-cheek, and pun intended! haha).

“Why the effort to play multiple notes or chords on the chromatic harmonica?” you asked…
Simply put, many people like the way it sounds. I also happen to be one of them. I love some jazz & swing players and other stylists who DON’T play intervals & chords on the chromatic, but I also happen to like very much the interval & chordal sound in blues and related styles as well.

If you play blues on a C chromatic in all keys – that’s great! However, that is not what everyone wants to do. Neither approach is right or wrong, nor is one more “advanced” than the other in a strict sense. Meaning – I don’t know any real good jazz or swing player that can hold his own in a “traditional” blues vein with the best of them. I use the word “traditional” here because I am referring to the use of the chords, intervals, techniques, phrasing, style and tone used in that “traditional” blues style that many contemporary blues players overlook nowadays…not at all to mean it is out-dated or ineffective still to this day, because many people feel it still is. On the other hand, I don’t know any great “traditional” style blues chromatic players who can hold their own as far as playing over changes, melodic ideas, and using scales in many different keys like the great jazz/swing players. Both styles of players have much to learn from each other.


Q&A #12

Q: “It would be great for you to share other CD recommendations you might have, particularly around the less obvious/more obscure stuff. I’d also like to understand the ‘roots’/inspiration for various harmonica & blues classics…

A: Every month on BadAssHarmonica.com I offer harmonica-related CD recommendations on my Listen Up! page, and also have CD recommendations on the individual “Blues History” pages for each harp player I feature. I strongly recommend that you not only listen to harp stuff though, you want to take in all great music that is related to the kind of music you want to play, and/or just music you love to listen to…there is plenty out there that doesn’t get heard much anymore through the “normal” outlets (radio/tv/etc…).

For MORE recommendations, music, and historical information, please check out my “Blues & the Beat” website. This is a blues-based radio show that I host every week, and the archives available for members on the website include all styles of traditional blues such as Chicago Blues, Vocal Groups, Jump Blues, Soul, New Orleans R&B, Swing, and early Rock & Roll. Along with each of the archives listed (each month there will be over 60 archives available streaming 24/7), I offer some CD recommendations if you like what is on the show. In addition to this, I also am creating “genre” pages for the above-mentioned styles of roots music & musicians featured on the show which have historical information, artists to know about, CD suggestions, and photo & video galleries. The Listen Up! CD recommendations and the “Blues & the Beat” archives all update monthly, so you will get plenty of CD recommendations between BadAssHarmonica.com and my new “Blues & the Beat” site.


Q&A #11

Q: “I’m a chromatic harmonica player and I’ve been studying Chicago blues for the last couple years, trying to get familiar with the licks. I noticed certain keys do not work for this. The fact is, certain things such as overbends are not physically possible on the instrument and I know most of the work in the chromatic blues tradition is based in the key of D, however I want to be able to play in other keys and still sound “Chicago”. Any suggestions?

A: This is another GREAT question that deserves some attention. I probably play more chromatic harmonica in a blues context, than most (if not all) other players out there. I have also worked at understanding what works for blues on a chromatic harmonica, and have taught many classes on blues chromatic playing. Let me start off by saying that the chromatic harmonica is really a different instrument than the standard diatonic harmonica. Because of the different tuning and the different mechanics of these instruments, they sound different and need to be played differently. Trying to bend (and especially overbend) on the chromatic is not usually a good idea (unless you have customized your harp – remember, these harps are tuned and made differently) and will often result in a unresponsive reed, or some kind of other-worldly buzz or squeal. So, since bends don’t work well for the chromatic, how can I still play chromatic and make it sound like “traditional blues”?…and in keys other than D?

They key of D works so well because most blues players who play chromatic (and most chromatic players in general) use a chromatic harmonica tuned to the key of C. Playing on a C harmonica in the key of D is what is known as “3rd Position”. It just happens to work out that many of the notes you will want for the blues scale are available in 3rd position, and the chords somewhat work as well. The reason the chord issue is so important is that traditional blues (and great contemporary blues) harmonica playing involves a fair amount of tongue-blocking techniques where the tongue is taken off the harp and you hear 2 or more notes, making up chords or “intervals” (a pair of notes separated by at least one hole). If you want to get that “traditional blues” sound on chromatic harmonica and want to get all the sounds involving chords, tongue-slaps and all of that, then play in 3rd position. If the song is not in the key of D, I would recommend TWO options…1) get a different key chromatic harmonica to play 3rd position for the new key you want to play in, or 2) learn where the blues scale is in this new key and minimize the chords, tongue-slaps, and intervals you play (since many will probably not fit too well), but take advantage of other techniques such as octaves and tremolo.


Current Harp Q&A’s

Harp Q&A’s #31-40

Harp Q&A’s #21-30

Harp Q&A’s #1-10


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