Tips for Playing the Harmonica with Others

By Winslow Yerxa

Why make music on the harmonica all by yourself when you can multiply your fun by sharing with a partner or a group? When you play music with others, you need to find out what keys everyone wants to play in, and you need harps that match those keys.

Setting some ground rules when you play with others

When you play music with other people, whether for your own enjoyment or in front of an audience, you develop a way of working together. Sometimes things just naturally fall into place without discussion. Other times you have to discuss and resolve these issues:

  • Who’s going to lead? Most groups have a leader who directs what happens when. Everybody looks to the leader to:

    • Set the tempo and then count off the beginnings of tunes

    • Direct people when to solo and when to stop

    • Signal when to keep repeating something in a given situation and when to move on to the next part of the tune

    • Tell the group when to speed up or slow down and when to end the tune

    • Determine what tune to play next

    If the role of leader falls to you, be sure to give clear signals with looks, gestures, and body language when something is about to happen. And always encourage whoever is the center of attention.

  • Who’s the center of attention? At any given moment, the main role may be that of the lead singer or someone playing an instrumental solo. If you aren’t the center of attention, your job is to support the person who is and make her sound good. Sometimes the best way for a harmonica player to do that is to stop playing or, as musicians say, to lay out.

  • What type of music will we play? If you have an area of shared interest but no repertoire in common, explore some new tunes in that style. If the style doesn’t appeal to you, find other people to play with.

  • How will we make sure that we’re fitting together musically? If two or more instruments simply play a melody together, the tune may not be interesting for long. The same goes for a bunch of people just ignoring one another while they play whatever they feel like. It’s much more fun to look for ways to contrast and complement one another.

Knowing when to lay out

Laying out is the art of sounding good by not playing. However, especially for harmonica players, discretion can be a difficult lesson to learn. But you can win a lot of friends by knowing when less is more.

Here are some key times to lay out:

  • During a part of the song that you don’t know well.

  • When someone else is playing a solo.

  • When someone is singing. If you’ve been invited to accompany the singer, remember that it’s your job to make the singer sound good, not to draw attention to yourself.

  • During a breakdown, which is a time when just a small group of instruments play, such as just bass and drums or just guitar and vocals.

  • Just after your own solo. Finish and then lay out for a while before coming back.

Playing in a duo

A harmonica can pair with nearly any instrument, and playing as a duo offers intimacy and flexibility when you have a sympathetic partner. But you have to consider how the two instruments will fit together musically. To do so, ask yourself these questions and then find a musical way to use the answers:

  • Are the tone qualities of each instrument similar or different? If they’re different, try trading off playing the melody to create contrast.

  • Are the instruments in the same range where they can play the same melody or harmony notes? Being able to harmonize is always a plus, and sometimes simply playing the melody together can be effective.

  • Is one instrument in a lower range that could play (or simulate) bass? Try doing this to create an accompaniment.

  • Can one player produce notes or chords that the other can’t? Think about using those notes to provide accompaniment to a melody or solo.

Jamming with a band

Everyone in a band has one or more roles in playing a tune. If you understand the functions and roles of other instruments in a band, you can find ways to complement the roles played by other instruments. Here are the main roles:

  • Melody instruments and vocals render the melody or play a solo that temporarily replaces the melody. They may also play a harmony line that follows the shape of the melody but uses different notes that support the melody line and make it sound fuller.

  • Horn sections play long chords that swell. They also play short punctuating bursts and simple melodic lines called riffs, which help emphasize the rhythm.

  • Rhythm guitar and keyboards play the chords, which are several notes played at once that coalesce into a single sound. Chords set the mood and fill in the middle of the sound spectrum to provide the background to melody.

  • The bass player has two important functions:

    • Interact with drums to enhance the underlying rhythm

    • Anchor each chord played by guitar or keyboards with low notes that give depth and fullness to the chord

  • The drummer keeps time and sets the overall rhythmic feel of the tune. The drummer also often helps everyone else know where they are in a tune. He does so by using rhythm to signal changes in a tune.

On harmonica you can play all the chordal, melody, harmony, and horn section roles. However, you need to be sure that you’re playing notes, chords, and rhythms that don’t clash with what someone else is doing. It’s best to follow one simple rule here: When in doubt, leave it out.