On this page I will take submitted questions (along with some questions from my years of teaching), and post my own answers for all to see.
Feel free to ask any harmonica-related question. Remember, there are no stupid questions! (well OK, there are SOME stupid questions, but no sincere question is stupid!)
Q: “Which out-of-the-box harmonicas would you recommend to intermediate or advanced players that will equally suit acoustic, amplified, blues and rock playing? There are so many models now and the most expensive aren’t always the best I find.“
A: Well, this is always somewhat of a personal decision. Each player will tell you something different, I’m sure, but here are a few things I have found…
Many blues players like the Hohner Marine Band style harmonicas. I endorse Hohner Harmonicas, but I have strictly played them for years before that was even recognized by Hohner. In other words, I don’t play them because I endorse them…I endorse them because I play them! I mention the Marine Band style harp specifically because for many years blues players have preferred and used them. I believe this is true partially because of the sound and feel of the wood comb with the brass reeds and reed plates that Hohner uses. There is a big difference between this harp model (which would also include the Marine Band Deluxe and the newer Marine Band Crossover) and others, especially in how it feels when it is played. Now, this may not be your harp of choice, but if you platy blues, it’s hard to argue with decades of some of the best players. If you have ruled out Marine Band style harps (maybe due to some lemons or sharp edges in the past) you may want to give some of these another shot. These are far & away my top choice. It’s the only style harp I play. I feel the Hohner Marine Band Crossover is the best wooden body out-of-the-box harp on the market currently…and many of my students feel the same.
If you have tried some and don’t like wooden-comb harps (some people don’t), Hohner’s Special 20 is still one of their best-selling harps and they are pretty darn reliable and consistent. Again, I feel Hohner harps last longest and are made better than other brands I have tried, and that comes from playing for more then 20 years.
Keep in mind – this is a matter of personal preference, and everyone feels a little differently about this. I have tried many of the “other” brands available nowadays as well, and it reaffirms my belief that the Hohner harps are made (and play) better across the board. Most of my students’ experience seems to be the same, as I commonly ask my students what they play & why.
It’s always a good idea to ask some players you respect what they prefer, and experiment with a few different styles of harps. It’s not only about how they sound, how they feel when they are played is also a big part of choosing the right one for yourself. I find I prefer the tone, resonance, overtones, and clarity of the Marine Band style harps from Hohner.
Q: “I have heard you also work on some theory and ear-training with your private students, is this true? Why would you need to know some theory to play blues, anyway? Don’t the best harp players play by ear? Isn’t this music better when it’s just ‘felt’?”
A: Wow – thanks for asking this, because answering this will give me a chance to explain why & how I taught myself, and why I do what I do with my students.
We’ve all heard people say “blues music is supposed to be ‘felt’ not studied”…and maybe we have thought or even said this ourselves. There is a point to be made, definitely. For blues styles of music (including early/traditional jazz and swing styles as well), and for musicians and most fans of the music, it’s about the “feel” of the music and what the the player is communicating through the music that makes this music so great! I agree 1000% (yes, a thousand percent!). Some people say “feeling can’t be taught”…and while for the most part this may be true, there are many factors that go into playing well and expressively that CAN be taught, even parts of understanding how to PLAY what you are FEELING.
If you were attempting to play by ear (as most players do), then wouldn’t it make sense that your playing would logically be better if you were to understand more of what you are hearing? There are ways to study what you hear, either musically, or techniques you hear on the instrument itself. Some of these sounds can and will help express how you feel, just like some of these sounds help express things to the listener. Knowing what these thiings are and how to do them will help you execute them easier, better and/or more expressively.
Keep these few things in mind…
- many people “feel” or connect with blues, but they can’t play a lick (either they don’t play an instrument, or they play poorly)
- a player may be feeling something while they play, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are expressing/communicating it in a way that others can feel it too
- while it’s true many good and some great players play by ear, their ears have gotten better and better as they practice & listen year in and year out
You can train your ear to be better and your brain to understand what works well musically, and it will impact your learning, your playing, and even your expressiveness in a positive way.
Q: “How much time should I spend practicing? How many hours is ideal or recommended for someone to reach a more advanced level? What should I be practicing?”
A: Good question, and even more important than HOW MUCH time you spend practicing is WHAT YOU DO during your practice time. Even if you spend a half hour a day working on stuff, you can make good progress, as long as you work on the right stuff.
You want to make sure you spend time working on several areas of development, such as rhythm practice, song or lick vocabulary, new techniques, and listening/ear-training. Don’t only work on one area of practice. It will help you learn faster if you spend time on several areas of technique and reinforce your technique practice in small short practice sessions throughout the day. If you divide your practice into a couple areas, and practice consistently, it will pay off.
Specific songs, licks, techniques, etc…that you need to practice will vary depending on the level you are at, and where you are with your technique. A good instructor should help with that either with steady lessons (helps you on an on-going basis) or with an evaluation at any given time.
Q: “I play mostly puckered, but want to incorporate some tongue-blocking. But whenever I try to tongue-block some licks, it is never clean. How do you play cleanly while tongue-blocking? Is it possible for me to get as good as I am puckered, but to do it tongue-blocked?”
A: I get questions like this all the time when I start working with a student that doesn’t have much tongue-blocking experience…and YES, it does seem next to impossible to play cleanly while tongue-blocking when it is a new technique for you.
Here is one of the GOLDEN RULES about playing harmonica – the lighter and softer you play, the better your technique will be and the more techniques and subtleties you will be able to do! This of course goes against human nature when learning something becomes frustrating and we want to just force it to make it happen…or just “try harder”. 99% of the time (or more) when we try playing with more force or heavier breath, it will make any technique tougher to master and the desired effect more elusive. (A side note should be made here about the harps you are playing. If the harps you are playing are not of at least halfway decent quality, they may be leaking too much air and some techniques will be rather difficult to play…therefore forcing it may seem like the only option. But forcing any technique is not the best route to go when you want to learn to play well. Get a better harp, and learn to control your breath and muscle movements more while you play.)
This is directly related to learning to tongue-block since many players start out puckering (as I did) and when they try tongue-blocking it seems difficult to play cleanly. Most of the time this is because your tongue is pushed too hard on the harp. You don’t need to block that much space on the harp, just a couple holes, which isn’t that big of a space.
Mastering the harmonica and getting all different types of sounds from the harp is all about controlled breath and small muscle movements. It can be frustrating and take time, but it is indeed possible.
Q: “Why is there so much talk and interest in microphones and amplifiers? Isn’t it really the player and the instrument that gives you the tone? Why worry so much about specific equipment? The tone should come from the player.”
A: While it is true that your own natural tone is amplified when using a microphone and amplifier, certain amplifiers and microphones (and certain combinations of microphones and amplifiers) can really add a whole new dimension of tonal variations to your sound.
The reason why certain microphones (especially popular bullet-style microphones such as the vintage Astatic JT-30 crystal/ceramic microphones and the Shure 520 Green Bullet-style magnetic microphones) are so popular amongst harp players is that when used with certain amplifiers and a developed hand-cupping technique, they can really add a new dimension of tone and enhance the overall sound you get from the instrument. An amplified “rig” (mic and amp combination) really becomes an extension of the instrument when used this way, in the sense that you can vary your sound with tonal variations by not just your harp tone, technique and attack, but now also with your microphone or cupping technique. Certain microphone/amplifier combinations work so well together that they add tonal shades, variations, and textures that you can’t get otherwise or with other equipment. This is mainly why some players (such as myself) also get very much into the the “equipment” side of things, but of course your natural tone on the instrument is of the utmost importance since this will be the biggest factor in your sound whether you play acoustic OR amplified. But this fact does not negate the big difference that a great mic/amp combination can make, once you have developed a good tone and solid microphone technique.
Q: “I’ve heard that many advanced players work on their own harps? I heard you mention you play custom harps (from Joe Filisko & Richard Sleigh). How long do custom harps last before re-tuning is necessary? How much work do you do on your own harps, and is this a desirable skill for other players?”
A: Yes I do play Hohner Marine Band style harps (including Marine Bands & Marine Band Crossovers) customized by Joe Filisko & Richard Sleigh. I also play some Crossovers out of the box that I tweak myself. How LONG a custom harp will last (or any other harp for that matter) greatly depends on a combination of how it is played AND how it is set up. There is no clear definitive answer and it varies greatly, even with myself. However, I will say that I have harps that are 15 years old from these guys that still play great with minimal repairs over the years. I don’t play that hard and I do a fair amount of work on my harps (when I find the time to do so) such as re-tuning, gapping, even replacing reeds sometimes.
IMPORTANT : if you want harps to last – especially custom harps that have been set up to be played lightly and/or for overbends – you want to learn how to play lightly, or you will blow your harps out. Period. There is no way around this. To get more out of the harps, most good custom harps are made to be more air-efficient (which makes the harps much more sensitive), BUT while this will make certain things easier because the air doesn’t leak out and goes where it should, this can cause reeds to choke up reeds or become worn-out easier for the same reason – the air doesn’t leak much and if you play hard, it will be wear & tear on your harps/reeds. Most players – even pros – play too hard sometimes.
Is it desirable to work on your harps? I think anyone who plays professionally should work on their harps, whether they play stock or custom harps. This way they can learn to make adjustments to their instruments depending on their style/attack, etc… For students, amateurs, and other non-professionals, if you take it seriously and have developed a certain level of playing skill, learning to at least tune up and do minor adjustments is a very desirable skill. It is also an eye-opener, as you will see how much work actually goes into making a great harmonica. The basic tweaking skills (re-tuning & minor adjustments) should be something any decent player starts to learn. I think it also makes one a better players since you have more insight into how the instrument itself works.
Also see my important Q&A #21 on “Custom Harps?”
Q: “When is it appropriate for a player/student to start working on the chromatic harmonica as well as the diatonic? I love the sound of the west coast guys on chromatic (Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and even yourself) but the instrument intimidates me, as it seems to act differently than a ‘regular’ harp. Any advice, or things I can do to prep to get ready for the chromatic?” (also see Q&A’s #13 & #11)
A: When I first saw a picture of a blues guy holding & playing the chromatic, I wondered “What IS that thing?! I have got to learn how to play that!“. Within my first year of playing harmonica I did get a chromatic, and I had seen Rod Piazza and William Clarke also within the next year. Needless to say I was blown away! But when I picked up the harp & tried to play it, it was so WEIRD at first!
The chromatic harmonica is really like a different instrument, in fact, it IS a different instrument, not just a bigger one. The tuning of the notes is different, the size is different, the sounds you get are different, and the way you should approach playing it is different as well.
As a general rule, I usually don’t start my students on chromatic until they have a decent general grasp of 3rd position playing on the diatonic harmonica. Most (almost all) of the blues that you hear on chromatic harmonica is played in 3rd position. This is mainly because of the tuning of the instrument and the chordal sounds that are available. On any harmonica (diatonic or chromatic) the chords you can get are limited since all the notes must be “natural” notes (unbent) and in the same breath direction. This fact can limit some of the sounds or positions that work well for any particular style.
Also, and this is VERY important, do not try to bend on the chromatic harmonica! Some players can bend (some modify their harps slightly as well)…but you DO NOT want to try to learn how to play the chromatic harp like a “regular” blues harp and try bending the notes. The harp isn’t tuned in a way that allows bent notes like the diatonic harp, and you will wear out the reeds if you try too hard..and possibly get some other-worldly sounds coming out of your harp as well.
Having a decent grasp of 3rd position diatonic playing (how the scale lays out and the sweet spots for blues) and some decent tongue-blocking technique (tongue-vamps, octaves) will help you prepare to start learning some blues on the chromatic harmonica.
Q: “I have been playing several years, and have built up a good level of techniques, mixing some pucker and some tongue-blocking. I can play well, but I can’t do anything but play learned licks. I have learned many songs or licks, but when I ‘jam’ all I can do is repeat the licks I already know. Is it important to keep learning licks or solos note-for-note? When will I be able to jam or improvise? What can I do to get closer to the level where I can play more than just the licks I have learned?”
A: This is a combination of a few related questions I received recently. There is no short, easy answer, but I will give my thoughts on these questions, coming from years of learning, playing and teaching.
It is a normal part of the learning process to learn licks, solos and/or entire songs as you build up your technique and your chops on the instrument. In fact, I believe it is one of the most important things you can do to become good. Having said that, in my opinion it is a means to an end, not the end itself. The skill and art of improvising is something that develops for years and years, likely for the remainder of your life that you play. Any skilled player, (hopefully) continually gets better at this skill with each passing month and year. To illustrate this point, I still work on improvising and I believe it is one of my strong points as a player.
But WHEN does it change from just repeating learned licks/solos to being able to or more comfortably jam and improvise in a musical way? The answer will be different for everyone, due to the facts that everyone learns differently, has different good/bad habits, and has different practice routines and/or amounts of practice time.
Look at learning to jam or improvise musically the same way as you would look at learning a new language to speak, and getting to the point where you can speak fluently and ask your own questions or make your own statements in this new language. It takes time and patience. I would also say you want to practice jamming as early as possible, and as your techniques and skill level on the instrument increases, so will your ability to jam & improvise musically. Learning songs, solos and licks note-for-note will definitely help you along, as they will help you learn musical patterns on the instrument, and help build a basic vocabulary which you can start building upon.
One way to start stepping away from playing the same licks over & over, is to take some licks you know, but phrase the notes differently (different timing for the notes). Another way is to use them as a starting point, and try ending the licks somewhere else (ending on different notes you think may work). More ideas will be coming soon…
Q: “In my experience, while delay is quite appropriate on certain songs, on others it seems to push the harp too far back, or get in the way of the phrasing if the song is at a certain tempo. Different players and different bands I play with feel differently about this, and I’m not sure how to approach this. I like the delay I use, but sometimes can it be too much?”
A: I’ve had several questions concerning reverb and/or delay recently, and they are quite similar. When it comes to delay or reverb on harmonica, I try to use my judgement as with anything else musical, and ask the question – “does it fit?”
As a general rule, most people feel that some styles (such as a slow blues) benefit from some reverb or delay to help flesh out the sound. I sometimes agree with that idea, but I also strongly encourage any musician (regardless of instrument) to continually work on their “sound” and technique apart from any effects they add on top of that. This way, you don’t get to the point where you kind of use an effect as a crutch that you always rely on to play well or feel comfortable with your sound. A good amp/microphone setup for harp is different, because you want to have a rig that is reliable and fitting to your playing style or your band’s music…but an added effect can and should (in my opinion) only enhance what you are already playing.
It IS an objective thing, but I can say that too much of any one effect will eventually warrant the effect null & void for the listener, and in turn get in the way of the music if overdone. I feel that too much reverb or delay kind of takes away from the effectiveness of it. I would also suggest experimenting with different levels of the effects you use per each song. I often go back and forth between using a delay, using some reverb (and using varying amounts of them), or using none through the course of one night.