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Harmonica Q&A #1-20

Currently, with my busy touring and recording schedule, I offer Live Online lessons in between my tour dates, and sometimes while I am on tour. All you need is a decent internet connection, and a computer or smartphone. It is easy and convenient for both parties, and just as good as an "in person" lesson. I have been doing online lessons for over 10 years, way before Skype and FaceTime, and have a lot of experience teaching students online with excellent results.

I also teach video lesson series' on the Sonic Junction website, and have plenty there to learn from.

Stay tuned for more options in the future here on BadAss Harmonica!

Yes. It seems that most of the people who started learning harmonica from the 1960's and later, started learning with the pucker method (or as I call it, "lip-blocking"). I started as a "lipper" myself, and I understand what it's like to go from puckering to tongue-blocking, especially with the bends. I've been as frustrated as you all are with the transition, and I have worked for years teaching myself and hundreds of students worldwide how to make the transition from puckering to tongue-blocking easier to understand and execute. I will have some video lessons available in the future on this site, but I do work with my private students with tongue-blocking and bending.

Often times, even with brand new players, I get my students bending while tongue-blocking within the first lesson!

Very common question, but tough to answer since it will depend on the situation. In a band situation, I like to talk to band members at rehearsals and before gigs about what size amp we will all use at a particular gig, and hope we can all agree on a similar sized amp (and hopefully not a 1,000 watt Mega-Blaster). It's also a good idea to make sure the idea of everyone being able to hear each other is brought up. In a jamming situation, I try to choose who I play with carefully, so I can ensure that I won't need to compete with someone who just wants to blast on stage regardless of what the other musicians are doing. It's good to have cues (as in the hand in a horizontal position near your waist, and slowly lowering it) to remind the other musicians that you all need to keep the volume level in check.

In addition to these ideas, in most situations, the harp amp will usually need to be at least the same size as the guitar amp (if not bigger) due to the fact that the guitar will likely be able to get louder with a similar size amp.

As far as I know with my experience working with other students AND with other teachers, starting out slow & building up speed once the lick/pattern is down is the best, if not the only way to really get speed down without being sloppy. This is one of the instances where I recommend working with a metronome (every musician should have one, regardless of how annoying they can be! The metronome, not the musician, haha).

For instance, get the lick or pattern down correctly, regardless of how slow you can play it. Play it with your metronome at a speed comfortable enough to play it correctly AND in time with the tempo. Once you do that, adjust the tempo on the metronome slightly faster, and repeat the process. It's just a matter of slowly building up your speed, and a metronome is great for that. Take your time once you reach a point where it becomes more difficult. Tongue-blocking players can play fast if they wish, but I find most choose not to for stylistic reasons. I believe Sugar Blue & Russ Green to be primarily TB players, and they can definitely play with speed.

I chose to start out with some acoustic jam tracks for several reasons. One main reason being that most players practice acoustic (which I also recommend) and a solo acoustic guitar makes sense to play along and practice with for acoustic harmonica, while having a minimum number of instruments to get in the way of your focus of learning to play with another instrument, and learning to find and play with the groove on your own.

Granted, sometimes a rhythm section (consisting of at least bass & drums) helps you find the groove easier and/or may be more fun to play with, but I also wanted to keep the first group of tracks fairly simple and straight-forward. I will not only have more stylistically interesting acoustic tracks available soon, but also electric guitar and full band tracks as well in the future.

Yes, it usually is a Hohner Marine Band style I am holding. I play Hohner Marine Band and Crossover diatonic harmonicas exclusively (you can even see me on the Crossover retail box), and many of my harps are customized by Joe FIlisko & Richard Sleigh exclusively. I started out trying all different kinds of harps and early on I took a liking to the Hohner Marine Band and Blues Harps for the feel & sound they had (before the Blues Harps changed to the bigger "MS" series harps like they are now).

It is a matter of personal preference, but the fact that the Hohner Marine Band has been one of the most popular harps for many decades - specifically for blues players - does say something. From my own personal experience, I have never played harps that sound and respond like, or as good as, a good Marine Band or Crossover. I officially endorse Hohner harps because I believe they are the best harps out there, period.

Having said that, many people try out all kinds of harps while developing techniques, and when they develop further as players, they settle on a harp they feel comfortable on and one that they can get the sound they want on.

Older wooden comb harps (and some new models) can swell if they get excessively wet, yes. However, the new Hohner Marine Band and Crossover models are sealed to get rid of this issue.

Also, in my experience (and with many other players/students I know) the initial period of learning tongue-blocking is when most of the excessive salivating problem occurs. Most of time when we put something between our lips, our mouth is preparing to eat it (one cause for "excessive salivation"), but also as we learn and get better at tongue-blocking, we can learn to control our technique more and even learn to not salivate nearly as much. It seems to be part of the natural process. Some players do prefer a plastic comb harp (such as a Hohner Special 20), but the resonance of a wooden comb makes playing all the more personal and the feel of playing more "real" in my opinion.

To start off, let's clear up these terms that are being used. Generally the term "left-side tongue-blocking" refers to the technique where you use your tongue to block holes/notes to the LEFT of the single hole/note you want to play, as in blocking holes 2 & 3 while playing hole 4. Therefore a "right-side tongue-block" is the exact opposite - using your tongue to block holes/notes to the RIGHT of the single hole/note you want to play.

As far as what is more "useful" or more "used" - the normal way is to block to the LEFT or LOWER SIDE of the hole/note you are playing, having the chord you play (when your tongue is removed from the harp) being made up of the single note PLUS the next few lower notes on the harp (either 2 or 3 notes are usually blocked). Some people play "upside down" (as have some great players in the past including Sonny Terry, Paul Butterfield, William Clarke, etc...) with the numbers on the harp coverplate facing downwards, or on the underside of the harp, as opposed to having the numbers on the top coverplate of the harmonica visible & facing upwards. If you play "upside down" (no offense meant, it's just that what's meant as the harp's top coverplate is now on the bottom...) then playing with the "right-side tongue-block" would be the "correct" way since the LOWER holes/notes are now on the RIGHT side.

In addition to this, sometimes there is an advantage to executing a musical passage while utilizing the opposite/higher side block (normally being the left-side tongue-block) for part or all of the passage. For instance on hole 1, there are NO lower holes to block, and if you want to do some chording along with the note, you will want to block to the higher side - which is normally the right-side. However, if you are playing right-side-up and for most practical purposes, the correct way would be to block to the LEFT of the note you are playing.

I get this question a lot. To start off, I will say that I recommend all your practice for any harmonica techniques, licks, songs, etc...to be done without holding a microphone. When you are learning a technique on the instrument, you want to be able to focus on the mechanics & muscles it takes to accomplish this, and have your body get used to doing it step-by-step. Adding a microphone into the mix will usually only complicate the practice and/or focus. So I recommend that you practice acoustic.

HOWEVER, if you want to get better at your amplified playing (or playing while holding a microphone) and/or this is fairly new to you, I would recommend practicing while holding a microphone as a technique to practice in & of itself until you get more used to holding the harp with a microphone. But at first, I wouldn't worry about practicing something difficult or new while holding a mic...just get used to holding the harp with the mic while playing things you already know and things you can comfortably play.

THIS is a very important question! The spaces or "pauses" in your playing as you play solos or passages on the harmonica (or ANY instrument) are as much a part of the music as the notes and chords you play. Music is like a language, and if you were to speak some words in your native language without any pauses, how would someone know when one thought or statement ends, and the next thought or statement begins? The same thing can apply to music. You may want to create some structure so people can follow your ideas and enjoy them with you.

In addition to this, the silence or "pauses" in a solo also acts as a contrast to what IS being played. This contrast will bring the listener in to focus more on what you DO play, WHEN you play something. Ever wonder why a constant background noise eventually disappears from your conscious awareness...? Because it is constant. I would imagine that is not what people want to happen with the music they make. Create tension & release it. Use dynamics to bring the listener in, then let them wait a second (or more) for the conclusion or continuation...instead of posing a question, explaining it and offering an answer all in the same breath. Spaces and pauses in your playing can help your music make more "sense" to the listener, and more fun to listen to.

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 blues players out there. I have also worked at understanding what works for blues on a chromatic harmonica, studied the greats, 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 those effects, 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 well), but take advantage of other techniques such as octaves and tremolo.

Turning up the amp will just make the amplifier louder. In some cases it will help you get the amp closer to 'breaking up' (overdriving the tubes and getting some distortion from them) but that's only if they are pushed the right way, and THAT depends on the other factors involved. The other factors will include the microphone, how you are playing, how you are using your hands around the harp & microphone, etc... There are many factors involved, and each playing style and microphone shape and element will have different results. Ideally, I think you want equipment that can break up when you push it to break up, but not by playing too hard, just by compressing the sound a bit in your hands with the microphone. Having a good microphone that will allow this, and has a nice, 'musical distortion' helps quite a bit.

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 (#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 since 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 (chronologically speaking 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, or hear. 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 chord 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.

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 so 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 in more ways. 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 (just about 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 occasionally set up my harps to do so, I can 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 definitely 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 while learning TB. 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.

The answer to this question partially depends on what your goals are and where you are at 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.

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.

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.

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!

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 only 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.

George 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.

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, to correspond with those 11 other keys. 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 parts of scale that are used a lot are easily available in those positions. 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.

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