Blues Harmonica For Dummies

Category: Music
Author: Winslow Yerxa
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by winslowyerxa   2018-11-10

My books are widely regarded as excellent resources to help anyone from beginner to intermediate (see links below). There is also freely available video and audio material from one of the books on the publisher's website.

Theres a lot of information on the internet, some of it good and some of it bad. The problem for the beginner is knowing which is which. Some of the good resources include the work of Jason Ricci, Adam Gussow, Jon Gindick, and Ronnie Shellist.

Taking one-on-one lessons, either in person or via video chat, can give you immediate, personalized feedback and guidance.

In terms of stepping stones, the most important stones are the ones that form the foundations you build on:

  • breathing,

  • holding the instrument,

  • getting it in your mouth properly,

  • starting to associate physical actions with the sounds they produce,

  • getting single notes,

  • learning melodies,

  • and bending notes.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-11-10

You're welcome. I teach by Skype and have written two well-regarded harmonica instruction books.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-11-10

Twelve holes is non-standard for a diatonic harmonica; most have 10 holes. It's not a chromatic, just a diatonic with more holes.

From your description, it's in solo tuning. Solo tuning is the note layout used on chromatic harmonicas. This doesn't correspond all that well with the note layout used for blues, but it can work very well for melodic songs. However, you won't be able to use tab (which tells you which hole and breath to play) that's written for diatonic harmonicas (and most blues is played on diatonics). However, you could use tab for chromatic harmonica, as long it doesn't require use of the button to change the pitch.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-03-19

First, listen to harmonica music to give you an idea of the sounds you can make. YouTube has hundreds of good videos.

The harmonica is actually a family of related instruments. The two most popular types in North America are the diatonic and the chromatic.

The diatonic is what you hear most of the time in blues, rock, country, and folk. In classical, jazz, and R&B, you'll hear more of the chromatic harmonica. The two instruments have many similarities, but also lots of differences. (there's also the tremolo harmonica, which is popular in Asia and Europe, but not so much in North America.)

Rather than give you an overwhelmingly long list of stuff to check, give me an idea of what (or maybe) who is inspiring you to play.

Once I understand where you're coming from in terms of inspiration and motivation, I can make some recommendations for what type of instrument to start with, and some listening.

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Winslow Yerxa - available for lessons in person or online

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-03-19

Nearly all music has breathing points at the ends of phrases. If you're playing a song, think of the words. The lyrics will break up into phrases, and those phrase ends are where you breathe. For instance:

Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee (breathe)

And Im goin' to Louisiana with my true love for to see (breathe)

Oh, Susanna, oh, don't you cry for me (breathe)

I've come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee (breathe)

TIPS:

  • Remember that you're as likely to need to exhale when you breathe, rather than inhale.

  • You can breathe without taking the harmonica completely out of your mouth by letting it rest on your lower lip and dropping your jaw so that you can breathe over the top of the harmonica without sounding any notes.This lets you quickly resume playing in the spot where you left off.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-02-16

Chromatic harmonicas were designed for melody playing, in contrast to the already existing diatonic harmonicas that were designed to provide their own chord accompaniment to the melodies they played.

However, diatonic harmonicas have only a few chords, and they don't even have all the notes of the scale in the key of the harmonica. (Some melody notes are sacrificed to make the chords stronger.)

For a little perspective, chord harmonicas, whose only function is to play chords, have 48 chords.

A chromatic harmonica has only six basic chords, which may or may not fit the chords of any given tune.

However, those chords share fragments with many other chords.

The study of which fragments fit which chords is a subject too big for a single post.

When to use chords is when they sound good. :)

OK, that may seem too obvious, but there are two main criteria for making that judgement:

  • When the notes of the chord fit the chords that a guitar or piano (or a chord harmonica) would play to accompany the tune.

  • When the chord enhances the delivery of melody by supporting and filling in the background of the melody, by adding rhythmic support, and by adding to the overall arrangement of the performance.

Players have three approaches to using chords on the chromatic:

  • Completely ignoring chords and treating the chromatic as purely a melodic instrument, like the trumpet or saxophone. Most jazz harmonica players do this.

  • Using chords carefully when they fit. Maybe only sparsely, or maybe fairly extensively (for an example of extensive, intelligent chording, check out Bill Barrett's phenomenal work.)

  • Using them indiscriminately just because.

I realize that this answer is long and vague, but to really use chords well takes a fair amount of study.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-02-16

Thanks for the recommendation!

By the way, Steve Baker's the Harp Handbook, while not an instruction book per se, is a wonderful addition to the library and knowledge of any harmonica player.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-02-16

The posted version is in the key of D, but played on a G harmonica, using the inhaled D chord in the first four holes as the "home" chord.

Any harmonica in the roughly $50 range is likely to be good; avoid the cheap ones - they're cheap for a reason.

Hohner Special 20, Marine Band, Crossover, are all very good. Lee Oskar Major DIatonic. Suzuki Bluesmaster or Harpmaster, or Manji. Easttop T008 or Blues PLayer. Seydel Session Steel.

The Blues Harp is not better than the Marine Band, just different. (Fifty years ago it was the same harp with different covers, but that changed in 1993.) However, the Blues Harp is likely to be less airtight, as only two screws are used to fasten the reedplates to the wooden comb. The reeds themselves are robust and the overall construction is good.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-02-16

Your breathing can be very light; it doesn't take much to get the harmonica reeds to sound.

Leaking air through your lips or nose will make a sound, weaken your tone, and use up your breath faster.

Check out some of the videos for Chapter 3 of Harmonica For Dummies. They can help you with some of these things (find the videos on the scrolling menu on the right side of the window for that chapter:

http://www.dummies.com/book-extras/harmonica-dummies-2nd-edition-resource-center/#ch3

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Winslow Yerxa - available for lessons in person or online

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-02-16

Just to be clear, "blues harp", while it's the name of a specific Hohner model, is also a generic term for all standard diatonic harmonicas, including the Marine Band.

You have plenty of good models to choose from. One low-priced brand that's getting a lot of good press is the EastTop brand. made in China but comparable in quality to Hohners or Suzukis. such as:

https://rockinronsmusicsd.com/easttop-blues-pro-with-welded-reeds.html

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2018-02-16

I have one in C and it's a very good harmonica. Plays well, and is in tune, airtight.

EastTop uses durable phosphor bronze reeds (as does Suzuki), which stay in tune for a long time and fail rarely.

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Winslow Yerxa - Take a lesson with one of the world’s foremost experts and teachers

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2017-12-06

Bluesharmonica.com is excellent for blues harmonica (as the name implies). It's one of the most thorough, comprehensive sites out there and is rich in not only lessons, but video interviews, a forum where you can ask questions and get answers from experts on a whole range of harmonica topics (i'm one of the forum experts). If you can get free access for any length of time, take full advantage of it!

Youtube is full of stuff both good and bad. You're wise to ask for recommendations.

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Winslow Yerxa - available for lessons in person or online

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2017-12-06

When you play the harmonica, the lips should be as relaxed as possible. Their only job is to create a seal around an opening that directs air to and from the hole(s) in the harmonica that you're playing,and excluding any air leakage around the edges. There's no "biting" down and there's no tight puckering, either.

When you narrow the lip opening, it's like you're going from "eee" to "ooo," with your cheeks doing the work of pressing your lips into a puckered shape.

You can see me demonstrate single note embouchures in two videos from Chapter 3 of my book Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition (select from the right-hand-side menu in the window for Chapter 5. List 2.

Pucker is Video 0501, and tongue block is Video 0502, on the second.

http://www.dummies.com/book-extras/harmonica-dummies-2nd-edition-resource-center/#ch5

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Winslow Yerxa - available for lessons in person or online

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2017-12-06

The great thing nowadays is the many excellent choices available to harmonica players.

When I started you could get a Marine Band, a Blues Harp (back then it was the same harp with different covers) and one or two cheaper garbage-y harps produced by Hohner subsidiaries. That was it.

Now you can get Lee Oskar (whose harps gave Hohner a much-needed ass kicking when Hohner quality took a steep dive in the 1980s), Seydel (a German company even older than Hohner), Suzuki (whose depth of product and quality stands head to head with Hohner), Tombo (but not in the US, where Lee Oskar controls their distribution), and, increasingly, Chinese companies that are actually making good harps at low prices, including EastTop and KongSheng. Every now and then the Brazilian Hering company flickers on for a moment before disappearing again.

But please note that Shrocklover has found – not what you or I or someone else might find ideal – but what (s)he finds ideal. (S)he has found the key that is unlocking – for him/her – the magic of harmonica playing. Which is great!

Will that magic change over time? It may well. But telling him or her "Hey, I hate that harp; you should try this instead," misses the point.

I personally have all sorts of harps in my kit, along with chromatics, bass and chord harmonicas and on and on. I remember having a similar magic moment with the chromatic when I bought a Hohner 270 Super Chromonica and experiencing the harmonica coming alive in my hands. Like the Marine Band, it's Hohner's oldest design, with reedplates nailed to an unsealed pearwood comb. I played that model for a long time before moving on to others, but I still treasure the moment that really unlocked the chromatic for me.

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Winslow Yerxa - available for lessons in person or online

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2017-12-06

Yo can play folk music on the harmonicas you have. I play Celtic and Nordic music on them. They don't sound horrible, but you have to know how to apply them to the specific music.

Here is a recording I made with Marine Band-type diatonic harmonicas: Cape Breton Set

Here's one played on chromatic: Little Brown Island

Here's a Nordic tune played on chromatic, in duet with violin: Lammen Laine

You don't say why you feel they sound horrible. You can get good tone out these instruments, so are you talking about the available notes?

You can get better quality versions of these instruments, though. The Chrometta is not the best 12-hole chromatic out there. Something like a Hohner CX-12, Suzuki SCX-48, or Seydel Deluxe would all be improvements.

Likewise, the nailed-together original Marine Band could be replaced by a Marine Band Deluxe or Special 20, or a Suzuki Manji or Seydel Session Steel. But in any of these diatonic harmonica, you need the right keys for the music you're playing. They come in minor tunings, as well, if that's what is required.

Winslow Yerxa

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition and Blues Harmonica For Dummies

Available for lessons in person or online

by winslowyerxa   2017-12-06

All harmonica learning books use tabs. Some also use music notation. But blues harmonica is best learned by listening and imitating, not by reading.

That said, I'm the author of the book Blues Harmonica For Dummies, and it uses both notation and tab, along with an audio CD. It also has an extensive list - in fact, a whole chapter - of songs to listen to, together with the key of harmonica used, for a wide variety of top blues harmonica artists. Many of the songs are chosen by the artists themselves, or by known experts on their styles. You can follow a link at the bottom of this post to see more about the book at Amazon.com

Here's a quick list of important blues harmonica artists. You can find most of them on Youtube.

Little Walter Jacobs

Big Walter Horton

James Cotton

Junior Wells

Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller)

Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson)

Carey Bell

Sonny Terry

Hammie Nixon

Jazz Gillum

Noah Lewis

George "Bullet" Williams

Kyle Wooten

De Ford Bailey

Rhythm Willie

Jimmy Reed

George "Harmonica" Smith

Papa Lightfoot

Rod Piazza

William Clarke

Mark Hummel

Charlie Musselwhite

Paul Butterfield

Rick Estrin

Sugar Blue

Billy Branch

Winslow Yerxa - Available for harmonica lessons in person or online

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition and Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2017-12-06

Some players shape the lower lip into a sort of U-shape to channel the air to a single hole.

My approach is:

  • Jut the lower lip out slightly, as if pouting.

  • Rest the harp on the lower lip like a shelf.

  • Let the upper lip drape over the cover and seal the sides along the front of the harp.

  • Let your lips form a good seal without worrying about getting a single note.

  • When you get a good seal (don't forget to close off your nasal passages to prevent air from leaking through your nose), then you can approach getting a single note.

  • To get a single note, leave your lips as relaxed as you can, and use your cheeks to press inward at the corners of your lips - think of saying OOOOH.

You can see me teaching this in Video 0501 from Harmonica For Dummies (choose from the list in the right side for Chapter 5, List 1:

http://www.dummies.com/book-extras/harmonica-dummies-2nd-edition-resource-center/#ch5

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Winslow Yerxa – available for lessons in person or online

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

by winslowyerxa   2017-08-19

New players often bend Hole 1 or Holes 2 without trying or even wanting to - it can actually get in the way of playing normally.

You might be bending it by partially blocking the hole. or you may simply be shaping your mouth in a way that tunes it to bend that note, but not others. For a bit more on bending, checking out the Harmonica For Dummies video here:

Video 0801 - Bending a Note

Winslow Yerxa

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition and Blues Harmonica For Dummies

Available for lessons in person or online

by winslowyerxa   2017-08-19

Playing with others is a great complement to all the practicing and figuring out stff that you do by yourself. You get to have fun making use of all that stuff, and you learn another skill - the listening, give and take, and interaction that brings a whole other dimension to music making. And it's just plain fun!

Winslow Yerxa

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition and Blues Harmonica For Dummies

Available for lessons in person or online

by winslowyerxa   2017-08-19

Sorry, but my answer was to give the OP accurate information, not to attack you. And the OP has thanked me for providing that information.

My answer was partly in response to yours, because I felt that your answers were biased toward the diatonic and showed an incomplete and, I have to say, distorted perception of the chromatic. Again, this was done to help the OP with balance and accurate information, not to attack you, though by necessity it called on me to disagree with you.

You're still completely wrong about the "recital" part. "Generally" is still not true. Did you listen to the links I gave? Every single one shows fluent, extended improvisation on chromatic harmonica. And those are only a few of hundreds I could cite.

You're also wrong in assuming that I don't know the diatonic well. I've been playing both diatonic and chromatic for the same amount of time, and play them both well enough to have the respect of professional players worldwide.

Here are two brief examples of my diatonic playing:

At a jam session at the Harmonica Collective, a teaching event I co-produce with Jason Ricci in 2016:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQjWST4Gvhw

And at the 2009 West Coast Jazz Harmonica Summit:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOOt-CIl-bM

Now as to the two-minute novelty remark. Sorry, that's not a slam at blues harmonica. I have the deepest respect for well played blues harmonica. And I have positive mutual relationships with blues harmonica names that include Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel, Joe Filisko, Dennis Gruenling, Magic Dick, Adam Gussow, and many others living and dead. And I'm mentioned twice in Little Walter's biography. I also was the MC for a tribute to Sonny Terry at the 2016 SPAH convention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ycKmefNKfg

However, it's true that anyone can get up in front of an audience and make noise with harmonica, and, for about two minutes, people will love it. But unless that player has some skill, they will wear out their welcome after two minutes. But a lot of budding harmonica players don't seem to know it and will stay on stage stepping on singers and others' solos and doing all the things that give harmonica players a bad reputation. I mentioned this mainly to point out that initial audience excitement is not an accurate gauge of how expressive an instrument is. Excitement, past that two-minute window, is generated by the ability of the player, not by what instrument s/he plays.

OK, so you're one of those who has taken the hard road of learning to play chromatically on the diatonic. I applaud that. But you're extremely rare. And yes, playing chromatically on the chromatic is easier because you have a reed for every note instead of having to create notes that don't exist. But for the vast majority of diatonic players, they're taking the much easier road of learning to play in two or three key positions and then just switching harmonicas, and find the whole idea of learning twelve keys - on any instrument - to be a forbidding proposition. Doesn't mean they can't make good music within their chosen parameters. But it is a major reason that fewer players take up the chromatic.

Winslow Yerxa

Author, Harmonica For Dummies, Second Edition and Blues Harmonica For Dummies

Available for lessons in person or online