Harp Q&A’s #21-30

Q&A #30

Q: “How do I get from an intermediate level player to the next level up, or just more advanced? I practice a lot, but I mostly just play along with CDs or recordings. Is this a waste of time? What else should I be practicing and for how long?”

A: I received this and similar questions from many players…and this is one of THE questions to ask. Ultimately, we all want to know what we should be working on to get better.

This is one of those questions that needs to be addressed differently depending on each player. I do this quite a bit in the half-hour evaluations I offer online (if interested, you can register here). If not with me, you should get with another experienced and knowledgeable harp instructor who can teach all different levels and techniques, and they should be able to help you out with this, at least partially. Since everyone learns differently and levels of ability vary quite a bit, this is something that should be answered for you specifically. This is one of the BIG benefits that come along with working with an experienced instructor on a regular basis. It’s very tough to know where to go with your playing & practice time all on your own. If everyone knew this, no one would need to teach harmonica, and we’d all be pros within a year or two of picking up the harp!

As far as practicing along with recordings goes, this is not a waste of time UNLESS it’s the only thing you do. If it IS the only thing you do, you want to take some of that time and work on some NEW stuff…whether it’s a song or solo to learn note-for-note, or a new position to work on, or some new grooves to play with, or a new technique, or anything else along those lines. Many things can fall into the “something new” category. Challenge yourself and push yourself a little bit. And as mentioned before, getting some 1-on-1 time with an experienced instructor can really help out with this.

An hour a day can be plenty good enough if you divide your practice time wisely and don’t only do one thing. Jamming along is worth doing and can help your progress, as long as it’s not the only thing you do.


Q&A #29

Q: “I’ve been working on Tongue-Blocking techniques within some songs I’m learning and can you explain how to learn songs that have new techniques in them? Do I need to slow songs down?”

A: I’ve seen many students try to learn techniques in the context of a new song or solo…and I’ve tried to do it myself in the past. I totally recommend against that, and here I will explain why.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that learning a new song/solo that encompasses some new techniques will get you to automatically learn those new techniques correctly. Most of the time, that will be a setup to rush through any new techniques you need to learn (which will cause bad habits and/or bad technique) in order to just get the rest of the song down, and that will also be very frustrating! It is difficult enough to learn a new song or solo, and is best to choose songs or solos to work on or learn that include techniques you already can do, OR at least techniques you are already working on. Keep in mind, new techniques should be worked on and practiced by themselves to really get them down well. This will be a little boring (and perhaps frustrating) at first, but the end result (getting the technique down correctly) will be well worth it. This will also help you play better and ultimately save you time and frustration in the long run.

As far as slowing songs down to learn them to learn or hear things correctly…some students find this helpful, but I have found that most students don’t really need to do this unless something is extremely difficult or beyond the level of the student…OR if you are talking about practicing certain new things (see the next paragraph). I have never slowed down songs myself, and find that when songs are slowed down (especially older recordings) the fidelity and SOUND of what is being played isn’t true to how it sounds in real time. I also found working with recordings at “normal” speed to help my ear out tremendously, and as you probably know, ear-training is very important to playing the harmonica well. Every once in a while you DO want (and need) to push yourself to reach a new level, but while you are building your repertoire and level of techniques & chops, you want to strive for things that are maybe just slightly out of reach, but not totally.

Also, I’d like to mention that when learning any new song, solo, or technique, I think it is good to practice the pieces of them slowed down (by yourself) to get the correct timing & execution of technique, until you are ready and comfortable enough to play them at full speed. This will help with difficult licks, passages and techniques – to work on the correctly but slowed down to allow yourself (and your body) to get the correct muscle memory learned. This is different then slowing things down to hear them, which I believe we can all get better at with more playing and listening experience.


Q&A #28

Q: “How do you convey to a band that you haven’t rehearsed with what the groove should be? If I go sit in at a jam or with a band, what and how should I communicate with them?”

A: I received several variations of this question recently, and it is definitely important if you spend time jamming with others or sitting in with bands and want to lead a song or two (or more).

First and foremost, you gotta know your stuff. But what “stuff” do you gotta know??

The Groove – I will be going into more detail soon on this website about grooves, but to start out with, you want to know some of the basics. Some of the basics would include Shuffle, Swing, Rhumba, Two-beat, slow blues, etc. Also of importance is to understand that some songs have a groove type in the title of the song, but are NOT the groove type themselves! Not all songs with “swing” in the title are actually “swing” grooves, and so on. Stay tuned for more details and a look into grooves on this site soon…

The Tempo/Count – I find it hard to believe how many players (amateur AND professional) don’t have a good grasp on how to understand the tempo of a song – and possibly more important – when & where to come in and play for some songs…but I see it all the time. You want to be able to not only count off the song at the correct tempo, but know where you and the rest of the band should be coming in. Although some songs and arrangements are trickier than others, but if you can count, you can learn this.

Chord Progression – If you’re playing at a blues jam or with a blues band and not doing a straight 12-bar blues (I-IV-V) chord progression, you want to know what the chord progression is to lead the band. Also, if there are variations on the 12-bar such as a “quick IV” or “extended I” you want to know that as well, and let them know. If you can listen to and play this music a lot and can recognize the chord changes, many times it’s just a matter of listening and counting to figure out the changes. I have many Jam Tracks here on BadAssHarmonica.com that follow different chord progression such as 8-bar blues and others that are good to practice with and get used to other progressions.

Arrangement – Whether you’re doing a straight ahead 12-bar blues with no variations, or something more fancy,  it’s good to have a “plan” for the song. Maybe you want an intro for the song, so you can start on the V chord, or take it all the way through one progression at first before the vocals. Then how many verses before a solo…and who solos? Even if the “when/who” of the solos aren’t planned out, at least make sure you can communicate and CUE the band in an obvious way so they know what you plan on doing before you do it.

…and oh yea…make sure you tell the band what key the SONG is in, not the key HARP you are using! 😉


Q&A #27

Q: “I know I spent years trying to find an amplifier I felt matched my ability and the tone I was looking for. I know many of my harp playing friends ask me all the time, so maybe you can address the question about how to go about finding the right amp to match the player? Vintage versus new/reissues?…and maybe be loud enough to hear yourself?”

A: I get lot of questions concerning amp & mic set-ups and I have been doing microphone work for close to 20 years as well, so I have had my share of experience with literally hundreds of microphone & amp combinations. This topic deserves a few good books (there one or two out there, and one of my own hopefully will join them soon), but let me tackle a few key issues where this is concerned.

#1 – It really is important to have the right Amplifier-Microphone pairing. I can’t stress this enough. Most players have a couple amps (one big, one small, maybe a few in-between if they become addicted to amps like I do), and will notice all “good” mics don’t sound good with all amps. This is the first thing to keep in mind. I’ll also never forget when a (well-known) friend of mine was playing as a guest on someone’s record they brought only ONE mic – and used an amp that was at the studio that they never used before. Not a smart move. They had a “good” mic with them, but it wasn’t a good match at all for the amp. What To Do: if you want to try out an amp to possibly purchase and have only one or two main mics, bring them along…it will make a difference!

#2 – What kind of volume do you need? No need looking around for big heavy amp with 100 watts if you play in bars & small clubs, or play in a duo or trio. Keep your playing situations in mind. If you play with a 3-5 piece band that doesn’t get that loud, a decent amp with one 12″ speaker or 2×10″ speakers (or something around that size) may be fine. For playing with a bigger, louder band, you will want more power & volume. For more recording, you won’t need something big to record with, but it will depend on the sound you want…read on…

#3 – Sound & Tone. This is where it gets tricky and VERY subjective. The natural tone of the harp player is one thing, and the sound & tone you get out of the amp is another. Smaller speakers will usually get you more “break-up”/distortion sooner (as will lower-power amps/speakers), and bigger, more powerful speakers will likely get you a fuller sound with more bottom end. The power output of the amp too will usually be a factor in how much “headroom” you have (how loud you can get before distortion and/or feedback). Many guys like 10″ speakers, and some prefer 12″ speakers. Some players just prefer the smaller amps with 8″ speakers that break-up/distort more because they like that sound, and will just mic the small amp while on stage.

#4 – Vintage vs. New/Re-issue. This also can be very subjective, but I have played through hundreds of harp amp rigs and strongly prefer older equipment (with the exception of very few amps, mainly the HarpKing amps because of their feedback resistance & versatility). Amps were made differently years ago and with less gain (“gain” will basically give you a stronger signal and more output for guitar, but will usually translate to more & earlier feedback for harp). Older amps are usually pricier but worth it and are usually investments as well…not many vintage amps will lose value. Some of the best harp-friendly vintage amp brands include Fender, Gibson, Premier, and Valco-made amps (they made some amps for National, Oahu, Gretsch and some other companies).

#5 – If being loud enough to hear yourself in the context of a band is an issue, I strongly recommend trying out a Kinder Instruments “Anti-Feedback+” box.This is a one-of-a-kind harp amp add-on that will help you get more crunch AND volume out of your amp. I have used these through many types of amps and in my experience though it takes a little getting used to, has been invaluable to me in certain situations. Take time learning how it works and trying different mics with it and it can definitely help you!

So there is a few things to keep in mind. I would also recommend to try out different amps before deciding on one. I will address this subject even more in the future…


Q&A #26

Q: “I am primarily a pucker player, but use tongue-blocking to accent single notes and to play octaves. When I try to do anything else tongue-blocked  (especially bend) I lose all the tone and clarity in my playing, and it sounds terrible! Any advice about transitioning to more tongue-blocking and getting it to sound right?”

A: I have received many similar questions, and in my many years of teaching (and playing) I have found this question to pop up over & over. It really boils down to what you really want to be able to do, and what you’re willing to do to get better. Most players start out puckering (as I did) and when they try to transition to more tongue-blocking, it is very difficult, uncomfortable, and not even remotely resembling something musical!

Best advice I could give if to take your time to tackle the basics. The SHORT CUT is to NOT take short cuts. Having to unlearn bad technique is much more difficult then learning a new correct technique, however foreign it may seem at first. This is exactly what you want to set yourself up to do, AND mentally prepare yourself for it…meaning, do not go into to practicing tongue-blocking expecting it to sound great or like Big Walter in one week. It probably won’t take as long as some people think (it feels like you’re taking a few steps back with your technique when you begin working on it), and you will need to develop new muscle control for playing with tongue-blocking, but it will happen and will definitely be worth it!

The first major step (and most important step) I would recommend to anyone making the transition to tongue-blocking is this: work on playing clean, clear, single notes with tongue-blcoking, then when you can do that moving around, work on playing every lick you already know, but playing them tongue-blocked with NO effects. Just clean, clear, single notes tongue-blocked. And more importantly – allow yourself time to practice this before you expect yourself to play/perform like this at a jam or a gig. It will take a little while before you are comfortable with it, but it will definitely happen if you stick with it. Once you are more comfortable with this, you can begin to add other effects.

Stay tuned for some Harmonica Instructional material here on BadAssHarmonica.com…coming soon…


Q&A #25

Q: “Do you have any tips for helping someone build a lick vocabulary on the harp, or to just expand their knowledge of patterns and licks?”

A: Learn songs (solos, instrumentals and licks) from the masters of the instrument. Yes, this means note-for-note. Learning dozens & dozens of the harmonica songs I learned helped me more than anything with building a vocabulary on the instrument. And I would look at it as a “vocabulary”, not just as licks to play. Learning songs note-for-note will take some time on your part (listening time & playing time) as well as some good coaching with a good instructor to help you with what you are struggling to hear and learn, but these steps are essential to building a stronger vocabulary on the harp and will make a BIG difference!

Another thing you can do is take some licks you already know and try playing them in several different NEW ways, with new timing & phrasing. I still do this myself to build up new ways to use note patterns I have used for years. There are literally infinite possibilities when it comes the variations of timing, tone, phrasing and articulation.

There are many other exercises you can work on and do for practice (that I will get into soon on this site) but I would say that learning new songs & solos is one of the best ways to build up your vocabulary on the instrument, in addition to making you more comfortable playing music on the harp, which will in turn help you make better music.


Q&A #24

Q: “I’ve been having endless problems with feedback using my bullet microphone and my amp. Can you make any suggestions? I prefer not to play through the PA system, but don’t want to have so much feedback while playing.”

A: Here is another question I’ve heard over and over again, and one I’ve dealt with myself so many times in the past. I must start off by saying that there is no “one way” to deal with this, since each microphone & amp pairing works differently. However, there are a few things to be aware of that you can work on to decrease your chances of feedback while playing amplified harmonica.

First, your grip on the microphone and the harp is one of the biggest factors in the picture here. As soon as you allow air to leak between your hand/fingers/harp area and you are standing in front of the speakers of your amplifier, feedback can happen. Controlling this grip takes time, just like any other technique does. Controlling the air in your grip is one big step to controlling feedback.

The tone controls on your amplifier should be changed depending on what microphone you are using. This may seem obvious, but some people think if they get a good tone with one microphone, they like to keep the tone set the same or else the next microphone isn’t “as good“. Lowering your treble is one way to try to help decrease squealy high-frequency feedback. Not every good microphone is a good match for every good amp. All amps work differently and I have my favorite microphones that only sound great with some amps I have. Try several different microphones & tone setting combinations with each amp to find the best match. Also, I have found that many players use volume controls on their microphones, and I find many times when used they are used so low that it affects the sound & tone coming from the mic itself.

Another thing I found useful and worth it’s weight in GOLD (once you learn to use it effectively) is the Kinder Instruments Anti-Feedback+ box. This amplified harp accessory will help you eliminate feedback from your amp and at the same time also give you some “crunch” from your amp without having to turn it all the way up to 11. Save up some cash, calibrate it to the mic you want to use, and start experimenting. It takes a little getting used to and needs tweaking between every mic you use, but the only people I personally saw not happy with it are people who haven’t spent much time working with it or getting used to it.

You can also change pre-amp tubes in your amp. If your amplifier takes the common 12AX7 style pre-amp tubes, they can be downgraded to a lower-gain pre-amp tube such as a 12AT7, 12AY7, or 12AU7 (mentioned in order from highest to lowest gain). Obviously, you want to change tubes only in the channel you are playing through, don’t just go changing any/all of them. Lower gain will basically mean a little less volume and power out of the channel, which in turn will give your more “headroom” and help reduce the feedback situation. Many players do this, but I find that lowering to anything other than a 12AT7 negatively affects the tone too much for my taste.


Q&A #23

Q: “I’m curious about your more detailed thoughts on Hohner Marine Band Crossover/Deluxe harps, as I’ve only tried a few of them quickly, but I do like the blues sound of Marine Band-style harps. I also have tried some ‘lightly’ customized Marine Bands…any thoughts or opinions as to what you think is good/better?”

A: Well, I’ve gotten several emails about this topic, so I will give my thoughts & opinion on these harps.

Hohner definitely went in the right direction with the Marine Band Deluxe a few years back, and has now stepped up their game a little more with the Marine Band Crossover. I play custom-made Marine Bands (from Joe Filisko & Richard Sleigh) but also have a few Marine Band Deluxe’s and Marine band Crossovers of my own, some of which I play right out of the box.

Nothing but a custom harp will compete with a custom harp, but I have been impressed with the Marine Band Crossovers I have played, as have many players & students I know. The Crossover has a fully sealed Bamboo comb, as well as screw assembly, and a better action setup on the reeds.

In a similar ballpark, my good friend and harp customizer extraordinaire Richard Sleigh occasionally has some “Marine Band kits” available for sale (usually around $55 – he said he can be contacted through his website). His “Marine Band kits” are basically a stock Hohner 1896 Marine Band, put together with a fully sealed pearwood comb, re-shaped coverplates, and full screw assembly. Some of the “kits” I have gotten from Richard in the past have even been comparable to a Marine Band Crossover, but keep in mind Richard does no reed work on these harps, he just sets them up for the customer to do the tweaking.

Any of these will be a good bet for someone wanting a better Marine Band-style harp out of the box. The Hohner Marine Band Crossover and the Richard Sleigh “Marine Band kit” are both fully sealed with full screw assembly, and are much easier to work on/tweak than a regular Marine Band (and will play noticeably better as well). I would recommend any of these harps, with the Crossover or the Richard Sleigh MB kit getting my top vote.


Q&A #22

Q: “How important are overbends (overblows and overdraws)? I practice a lot on different techniques for harp playing and I feel as though my time would be better spent on that then learning overblows and overdraws…”

A: The topic of overbends (overblows in particular) is definitely a hot one nowadays in harmonica circles. So much so, that it seems many students (beginner, intermediate and pro alike) get so pre-occupied with this “new technique” that they get their focus away from the original point of playing a musical instrument – to make music. To make sure no one takes this wrong, let me first clarify that I myself use overbends (mostly overblows), I am a tongue-blocker, and I also play mainly blues & blues-related American roots music.

I have seen the two opposite schools of thought on this subject, and I hope to see these two schools of thought start to grow closer to one another and meet in the middle somewhere. 1) players who want to advance the instrument, pushing ahead to discover new ideas & styles, and not be a “copy-cat” or a “traditionalist” (or some other word sometimes used in a condescending way to describe players who “merely” carry on the blues & folk traditions) sometimes at the cost of forgetting about making music“…and 2) players who hold tight to the “traditional” styles on harmonica, but don’t know much about these new techniques, and think there is no place for them in “traditional” music.

I can relate to both schools of thought, and I realize most people aren’t too far on either side, I just wanted to illustrate how different some feelings are on this subject.

So, how important ARE these techniques? Well, I feel they are important to know, but NOT as a basic foundational technique. Couple the facts that so much music can be made without them AND they are more advanced techniques (especially due to the fact that you will likely need to modify your harps to do them consistently), and on top of all of this, they are even harder than “regular” bends to play in pitch. I have seen (and continue to see) many players working on these skills before they are musically ready to use them, while not mastering other important techniques that would be more practical.

There’s nothing wrong with working on building up your techniques, even for more advanced skills, but I suggest working on overblows & overdraws to my students who:

  • play custom or very good quality harps (or tweak their own harps)
  • already have good ability with other non-advanced techniques available on harp
  • already have great bending technique & ability
  • can use “regular” bends consistently in a musical context over chord changes
  • have an understanding of the scales they want to use them in

Since playing & using overbends in context musically does require more skill than any “regular” note, I suggest first building up other techniques as you acquire the instrumental & musical skills that will help you with eventually mastering overbends.


Q&A #21

Q: “Do you recommend your students to play custom harps? I have heard statements like – ‘you will learn faster on a custom harp’ & ‘bending notes requires less effort’. I also hear guys who say they ‘set their harps up for overblows’…Will you shed some light on these subjects?”

A: VERY important question here! Let me break this down to a few parts, because it is not a black & white question.

“Do custom harps make bending & other techniques easier?” – Yes, they do. Of course it goes without saying that ALL custom harps are definitely not equal. No two ways about it, they vary GREATLY from one customizer to the next. However, nowadays there seems to be a higher bar set thanks to the likes & efforts (and harps) of Joe Filisko and Richard Sleigh. A “custom harp” that is set up well will make playing easier and more fun. It will be much more responsive, therefore making many techniques easier to accomplish (bends, quick rhythms, overbends, etc…). BUT (notice my big but), with the “more responsiveness” territory comes the issue of more reed sensitivity…read on…

“Will I learn faster & better on custom harps?” – This is tough to answer, because it is different for each player, depending on their acquired skills, habits, playing style, and other things. To address this important question, I will list some Pros & Cons of learning on custom harps…


  • harps are very responsive, and can make many techniques easier to play and learn (IF you can control your breath well enough)
  • harps are more in tune, and if played correctly (with breath control) will sound better
  • extra responsiveness also makes harps louder
  • if you play GOOD custom harps, and have some breath control, it will be a pleasure to play the harp each time


  • due to more responsiveness, heavy breathing will damage reeds much quicker than on a more-forgiving “out of the box” harp
  • if you still need to work on breath control (many players, if not most players do need to work on this), you will probably need to re-tune or replace reeds sooner than you think
  • can be expensive & addicting (haha, but this is true)

To summarize, I have seen many amateur and even beginner players play “custom harps”, with varying results. There is a noticeable percentage of players that regret the wait & cost of them because they bought “custom” harps before they really learned breath control, and found themselves blowing the harps out of tune or damaging reeds from blowing too hard. This is not recommended. If you are thinking of buying “custom” harps and DO have some breath control (easier said than done, believe me – most players think they do and they don’t), then it can be very worthwhile. If you DON’T have some breath control, I would suggest learning to control your breathing more, and perhaps work on using some of the “better” out-of-the-box harps out there like the Marine Band Crossover or Marine Band Deluxe, my personal favorites. They do play better than a “standard” harp, yet aren’t overly responsive so that most people won’t ruin reeds quickly by blowing hard.

As far as setting up for overbends (overbows & overdraws), this is something only the more advanced players will find worthwhile. Most well-made harps will overblow at least for someone used to the technique. I also do not encourage learning to overbend until my students can control the “normal” bending first and learn how to use bends musically in context (akin to learning to walk before you run). However, keep this in mind – the more the harps are set up for these extreme techniques, the more sensitive they will be to your breath, meaning some harder attacks on the notes (used in blues quite a bit) can cause reed(s) to “blank out” on you.


Current Harp Q&A’s

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Harp Q&A’s #1-10


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