Blues Harmonica For Dummies
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From the beginning, the harmonica has been an integral part of blues music. The blues is a uniquely American art form that got its start from the collision of African and European cultures in the American South. And the harmonica has a natural genius for the blues, with its ease of producing the moaning, wailing sounds often associated with this style of music.

Two types of harmonicas for playing blues music

Blues is played mostly on two types of harmonicas, diatonic and chromatic. Either way, the really important things about a harmonica are that it be airtight, in tune, and not likely to make you bleed, turn green, or otherwise endanger your health. If it also plays easily, makes a big sound, looks cool, lasts a long time, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, then it’s a winner. Your best bets:

  • Diatonic harmonica: Most of the time you’ll use this type of harmonica (often referred to simply as the diatonic). It has a few important characteristics, including

    • Being tuned to a single key: The word diatonic is musical lingo meaning “only in one key.” Each diatonic harmonica includes the notes that belong to just one key, such as the key of C, G, or B flat. So you’ll eventually own several diatonics to play in several keys.

    • Having a single reed for each note: The diatonic is a single reed harmonica, with only one reed to play each note. Double reed harmonicas, with two reeds per note, such as tremolos, are very common, but they’re almost never used in blues.

    • Having 10 holes: You can get diatonics with 4, 6, 10, 12, or 14 holes, and you can use any of them to play blues. But most of the time, you’ll use the 10-hole diatonic.

  • Chromatic harmonica: This type of harmonica is bigger and more expensive than the diatonic, and you may use it for one song out of ten. Yet, its distinctive sound is an important element in urban blues harmonica.

Playing blues harmonica licks and riffs

When you play the blues on your harmonica, you use short sequences of notes called licks and riffs as building blocks for longer musical statements.

Both riffs and licks usually emphasize the notes of the chord being played in the background. Blues musicians often emphasize the notes of the home chord (the I chord), even when another chord is being played. Blues tends to stick close to home in this way.

Riffs often help define the signature sound of a tune, and you usually repeat them several times in a verse of a song. Examples include a catchy rhythmic bass line that immediately identifies a tune before you hear the melody or a repeated melodic line played by melody instruments behind a singer.

Licks tend to be shorter than riffs, and you can play them anywhere within a song and combine them with other licks in different sequences at will. Often a solo by a guitarist or harmonica player is just a showy, well-crafted series of licks.

Have a look at five of the most common riffs that most blues musicians know:


  • The first riff is a common bass line that’s also often played by melody instruments. It uses the home note as both the lowest note (Draw 2) and the highest note (Blow 6) and places both home notes on the strong first beat.

  • The second riff is a common swing-era, big-band riff that has also been used in harmonica instrumentals such as Snooky Pryor’s “Boogie” and, in a slightly altered version, Little Walter’s “Juke.” Like the first riff, it begins and ends on the song’s home note, rising to place the final home note on the first beat of the bar.

  • John Lee Hooker often used the third riff, as did the band Canned Heat, notably on the song “On the Road Again,” featuring the harmonica of Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. Sonny Boy Williamson II also used this riff for the instrumental backing to his song “Help Me.”

  • The fourth riff is often played behind a singer, who sings between each riff. Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” featuring Little Walter on harmonica, is probably the most famous of many songs to use this riff.

  • The fifth riff also punctuates statements by a singer. Bo Diddley used this riff most famously in “I’m a Man,” with Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica.

Playing 12-bar blues on the harmonica

Most blues songs follow a form called the 12-bar blues. In addition to being 12 bars in length, the 12-bar blues has its own internal logic. After you grasp that logic and use it to shape your phrases, playing the blues on your harmonica will seem as natural as talking. A verse of 12-bar blues has three parts, and each part is 4 bars long.

Each part does several things:

  • It advances the narrative of the words.

  • It builds on the previous part.

  • It prepares the following part.

Some 12-bar blues just use one background chord that plays behind the entire tune. However, most blues tunes have a chord progression, or sequence of chords. Each part of the blues verse starts with a different chord, and that helps you know where you are in the verse.

Musicians have come up with thousands of variations and sophisticated elaborations on the 12-bar blues chord progression. However, here, I stick with the most basic, down-to-earth version. It uses just three chords, which you can identify by their relationships with one another, using roman numerals:

  • The I (one) chord, which is also the home chord that’s identified with the song’s key

  • The IV (four) chord, four steps above the I chord

  • The V (five) chord, five scale steps above the I chord

The following figure shows 12-bar blues as a chord chart, which presents the chord progression of a tune and how long each chord lasts. Each diagonal slash represents one beat, with the vertical bar lines marking the end of each 4-beat bar. The chords in parentheses are optional. They don’t occur in the very simplest version of the 12-bar blues, but players use them very often.


About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Winslow Yerxa is a widely known and respected harmonica player, teacher, and author. He has written, produced, and starred in many harmonica book and video projects, and provides harmonica instruction worldwide. In addition to teaching privately, he currently teaches at the Jazzschool in Berkeley, California.

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