Blues Harmonica For Dummies book cover

Blues Harmonica For Dummies

By: Winslow Yerxa Published: 07-21-2020

Breathe the blues into your harmonica!

Blues harmonica is the most popular and influential style of harmonica playing, and it forms the basis for playing harmonica in other styles such as rock and country. Blues Harmonica for Dummies gives you a wealth of content devoted to the blues approach—specific techniques and applications, including bending and making your notes sound richer and fuller with tongue-blocked enhancements; use of amplification to develop a blues sound; blues licks and riffs; constructing a blues harmonica solo; accompanying singers; historical development of blues styles; and important blues players and recordings.

The accompanying website features all the musical examples from the book, plus play-along exercises and songs that let you hear the sound you're striving for.

  • In-depth coverage of major blues harmonica techniques
  • Blues song forms, improvisation, and accompanying singers
  • Information on blues history and personalities

If you're intrigued by the idea of understanding and mastering the compelling (yet mysterious) art of playing blues on the harmonica, Blues Harmonica For Dummies has you covered.

P.S. If you think this book seems familiar, you're probably right. The Dummies team updated the cover and design to give the book a fresh feel, but the content is the same as the previous release of Blues Harmonica For Dummies (9781118252697). The book you see here shouldn't be considered a new or updated product. But if you're in the mood to learn something new, check out some of our other books. We're always writing about new topics!

Articles From Blues Harmonica For Dummies

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Blues Harmonica For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 02-01-2022

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.

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Finding Good Harmonicas for Playing Blues Music

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Blues is played mostly on two types of harmonica, 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.

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Playing Blues Harmonica Licks and Riffs

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

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.

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Playing 12-Bar Blues on the Harmonica

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

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.

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Ten Important Periods and Styles in Blues Harmonica History

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Along with its cousins, the accordion and the concertina, the harmonica got its start around 1820 in the German-speaking parts of Europe. Right from the beginning, harmonicas were called mouth harps (or mundharfe in German). No one knows for certain who invented the harmonica. Early harmonica history in the United States At first, harmonicas were made by hand by part-time workers in semirural areas of Germany. The Hohner company, which later grew to dominate the world harmonica market, made only 650 instruments in 1857, its first year of production. By the mid-1870s, mechanization allowed Hohner alone to produce more than 50,000 instruments yearly. By 1900, Hohner was pumping out more than 3 million harmonicas a year, with most going to the United States. Meanwhile, mail-order catalogs helped distribute harmonicas to even the loneliest outposts. By the mid-1880s, Midwestern music publishers were producing harmonica instruction books, attesting to the harmonica’s growing popularity. The books made no mention of such blues techniques as bending notes or playing the harmonica in a key different from its labeled key. Prewar rural blues harmonica During the 1920s, several harmonica players made records that give a picture of the earliest blues harmonica styles. Those recordings reveal some interesting facts: During the 50 or so years since harmonicas had become widely available around 1870, southern rural players, both black and white, had evolved highly sophisticated abilities on the harmonica and developed styles that, though individual, shared many characteristics of technique, style, and repertoire. Rural harmonica players often recorded without accompaniment while playing imitations of trains and fox chases, sonic depictions of hunting expeditions with driving, rhythmic chords that propel the chase, punctuated by vocal cries that imitate the hunters’ calls and yelping dogs. Both black and white players played bent notes as a matter of course and used first and second positions about equally, but a few players also explored fourth, fifth, sometimes sixth, and even twelfth positions. Traveling life and the migration north In the South, black musicians gravitated to towns that offered relaxed racial attitudes, nightclubs for gigging, and radio exposure. The next step for the itinerant performer was one of the larger southern population centers, especially the so-called wide open towns where illegal Prohibition-era whiskey and Depression-era money both flowed freely under corrupt civic governments. The biggest population magnets, though, were the northern and western cities that offered steady industrial jobs at wages much higher than could be found doing seasonal farm labor in the South. Later on, during the 1940s, the wartime shipbuilding industries in Los Angeles and the San Francisco area attracted a large influx of southern black folks, leading eventually to the West Coast blues styles. Memphis and early urban blues Urban recording artists mixed ragtime, early jazz, and hokum blues, derived from the stereotypes of old-time medicine shows. Hokum featured humorous and often saucy lyrics with thinly veiled sexual references. In Memphis, Beale Street was the center of musical activity, and blues musicians there developed a ragtime-influenced style called jug band, named for the large whiskey jugs that players blew into to create trombone-like bass lines. Banjo, guitar, harmonica, and hokum lyrics with a jaunty air were typical of jug band music. The prewar Chicago style Before about 1947, two very different approaches to blues were heard: Sophisticated, jazz-influenced blues using saxophones, trumpets, and other urban instruments reflected Chicago’s role as a magnet for jazz musicians beginning in the early 1920s. At the same time, rural southerners brought country blues with them, but when transplanted to the city, it began to change. Guitars, harmonicas, and mandolins might still be the featured instruments, but lyrics began to reflect such urban concerns as bill collectors and the indignities of collecting welfare. The feel of the music changed, too, with the relaxed, stately country blues speeding up and becoming more rhythmically active. The rise of amplified blues harmonica Beginning sometime in the late 1940s, harmonica players started using amplification in a new way. With a small, portable amplifier and a cheap microphone, they would cup the mic in their hands, together with the harmonica, to create a highly concentrated sound that was loud enough to project over the din on street corners and in small nightclubs. By the start of the 1950s, electric guitars and amplified harmonicas were the rule in Chicago blues bands, backed by drums, bass, and piano. The postwar Chicago style Early postwar attempts at recording transplanted rural artists reveal an uncomfortable grafting of country blues onto an urbane, jazz-influenced backing that doesn’t serve the direct, earthy character of the featured artists. Here are some hallmarks of this style: Electrified rhythm and lead guitar, including delta-style slide guitar, begins to buoy up the rhythm, while bass lines borrowed from boogie-woogie piano but played on the bass strings of the guitar start to give the music its own up-tempo character. Amplified harmonica starts to take on a new role, as Little Walter adapts jazz and rhythm-and-blues saxophone stylings to blues harmonica and integrates swing seamlessly into down-home blues. Simple, to-the-point drumming propels the beat more aggressively than either jazz or older rural blues. Down-home piano that could be at home in a gospel setting embellishes the overall sound while staying within the flavor of blues harmony. Regional harmonica styles Small, independent record companies have long been important vehicles for blues artists to get their music to consumers. Some of the better-known regional companies highlighted blues harmonica and promoted early rock-and-roll. This combination later influenced the adoption of the harmonica by rock artists in the 1960s, who heard blues harmonica alongside the latest hits. Rock, blues, and the 1960s By the late 1950s, white teenagers were obsessed with rock-and-roll, while black audiences had largely moved on from the blues. The folk music movement of the 1950s presented Americans with an alternative to current popular music. Folk fans began to see blues musicians as a part of the folk movement, with several effects: College students hired blues artists and bands to play concerts and dances on their campuses, and a whole circuit of campus touring began. Young Caucasian males started taking up blues harmonica. European and British music fans, who had been fascinated for several years with American music, especially jazz and blues, began promoting blues concerts in the UK and on the European continent. Young British musicians started emulating the blues records they heard, resulting in British rock bands with notables on the mouth harp. Modern blues Musicians worldwide have been bitten by the blues harp bug, and the virus often mutates and starts to interact with its new host. Artists and the stylistic crossbreeding they’ve been working between blues and other styles include jump and swing's Dennis Gruenling, beatboxing's Son of Dave, and soul's Bobby Rush.

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What to Expect in a Musical Jam Session

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Jam sessions are for players to interact with other players and make music in a freewheeling environment, without having to be concerned about pleasing an audience. Some jams are impromptu, one-time occurrences, while others are weekly events that may happen in a private setting or in a public venue. Jams may focus on a particular style of music or even a particular instrument, and every jam has its own culture and etiquette. Though you can jam with live participants in virtual space, jamming live is always preferable. No matter how fast your Internet connection is, physical distance introduces a delay that prevents you from synchronizing your rhythm with your jam mates, and you can’t read the body language cues that help you collaborate and coordinate with other musicians on the fly. So where do you look for jam sessions where you live? You find jams the same way you find other players — by checking ads, entertainment listings, and local music associations that may hold jams. After you find a jam, don’t expect to show up and get playing time immediately. You could benefit from treating your first visit as a reconnaissance mission. Find out whether the jam excludes outsiders or snubs anyone who doesn’t play guitar, bass, or drums. And if you show up once or twice before you try to play, you’ll become a familiar face, and familiarity can help you gain acceptance. On your first visit, find out who runs the jam, introduce yourself to the jam boss, and ask how the sign-up process works. Expect to be viewed skeptically, because the jam boss doesn’t know you yet and because he often gets attitude from players who think they’re the world’s gift to music and have the right to dominate his session. The jam boss may even ask you to briefly audition to show that you can play. One unfortunate reality is that some folks believe that just owning an instrument — such as, a harmonica — means that you can automatically play it, and the jam boss has probably run across a few such characters in his time. After you do sign up, as a newcomer you’ll likely be at the end of a long line of regulars, all eager to play. But if you exhibit patience and respect for the regulars, you’ll feel more welcomed when you do get up to play. If you’re courteous and considerate to others, you don’t hog the stage, and you can start playing without a lot of fussing with your instrument or the sound system, you just may make a few friends.

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Tips for Playing Harmonica for a Live Audience

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Performing for an audience can be a major thrill; you just might get hooked on it as a harmonica player. But it can also be nerve-wracking, and it can be humiliating if it goes badly. To ensure that your musical performance goes well, spend a little time figuring out how to get ready, have a good time playing, and enjoy the results. Preparing for a harmonica performance To get your music, instruments, equipment, and yourself ready to play, follow the following advice: Make a set list Follow these steps to put together a set list: List your songs on a sheet of paper in letters big enough to read if you lay the sheet on the floor. Put the songs in set order — the order in which you’ll play the songs during your set or time onstage. Next to each song, list its key and which harmonicas you need for that tune. If you’re going to sing, you might also write in the first line of the lyrics, just in case you forget them. Rehearse your parts Practice singing each song from beginning to end, at the same volume level and with the same expression that you’ll use when you perform. Don’t just hum through bits of the tune. Memorize the lyrics to each tune, and also have an unobtrusive cheat sheet with reminders. Practice your harmonica solo spots, and memorize the first few notes of each solo. Play the solo over and over until it’s automatic. That way, if stage fright hits you along with the spotlight, you can go on autopilot until the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome subsides. Model your onstage setup When you rehearse singing or playing, stand the same way you will onstage, and if you’ll be holding a harmonica and/or a microphone while you sing, do that while you practice singing. If you’re using your own harmonica microphone and amplifier, practice playing harmonica using the same combination that you’ll be using onstage. Prepare your instruments and equipment Make sure you have all the keys and types of harmonicas that you’ll need, and ensure that they all work properly and play in tune. Replace or repair any harps that aren’t performance-ready. Don’t forget to bring your instruments or equipment to the gig. Make a list, and check it before you leave home. Prepare a way to lay out your harps onstage so that you can quickly reach them, pick up the harp you need, and put down the one you’re done with. For example, you could use a small table, the seat of a chair, or the top of an amplifier. As long as you can get at your harps easily and they’re not in danger of being knocked on the floor, crushed, or inundated with beer, you should be in good shape. Plan for an alternative in case your equipment fails, such as playing through a vocal microphone. Relating to your audience Audiences are out to have a good time and are looking to the musicians to help provide it. They want you to succeed and will cheer you on. You can return the favor by acknowledging them, feeling their goodwill, and letting it radiate back from you to them. To put yourself and your audience at ease, say a few words. Just a few, something as simple as, “How’s everybody doing tonight?” You might mention the name of the tune you’re about to play and then get down to business. When you talk to your audience, try to look just over their heads. They will see you looking sort of into their eyes, as if you’re talking to them personally.

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Harmonica Players: How to Find Compatible Musicians

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Harmonica players sometimes get up onstage alone and perform as true soloists, and unaccompanied virtuosity has a long tradition in blues harmonica. But playing with accompaniment and accompanying others can be very rewarding experiences. You're bound to wonder where to look to find other musicians to play with. After you’re connected with the local music scene, you’ll have candidates to choose from, but first you have to find the scene. Here are some ways to start out: Check local bulletin boards for musicians looking for collaborators, whether physical corkboards in music stores or online listing services such as Craigslist. You can also place your own ad seeking players. Scan the entertainment listings in your daily or weekly newspaper for local bars, restaurants, and nightclubs to see whether they feature blues artists or host a weekly blues jam. (Clubs often schedule jams at slow business times, such as Sunday afternoons or Monday evenings.) You can probably meet other musicians in the audience. Find out whether your area has a club or association devoted to blues or harmonica and whether it has meetings where you can go and meet other players. After you find potential collaborators, you have to figure out whether they’re a good fit for you. Whether you want to play in a duo or with a full orchestra, here are some things to consider when you start a new musical group or join an existing one: Complementary instruments: Harmonica plays in the middle-to-upper range of the sound spectrum, and instruments that can play in the spectrum’s lower-to-middle part, such as guitar and piano, can really fill out the harmonica’s sound. On the other hand, a trio of two flutes and a harmonica (all treble instruments) wouldn’t have any bottom end. It may sound rather ethereal in a blues context, and you and the flute players would likely have a limited repertoire in common. Similar musical styles: If you want to play acoustic, down-home blues and you hook up with a death-metal guitarist who wants to shred at stadium-level sound volumes, you have either fertile ground for a new stylistic hybrid or grounds for a quick musical divorce. Look for people who want to play the same kind of music that you do. Appropriate skill levels: If the difference in skill level is too great, you’ll end up being the weak link; you’ll sound bad by comparison and may feel inferior. On the other hand, if you’re by far the best player in a band, you may get bored or frustrated. Overall, try to find players whose skill level is near your own. Compatible goals: If you want to just jam in your living room or play at nursing homes while holding down a steady job but your prospective band mates want to go on an extended tour of punk clubs hundreds of miles apart and crash in the van between gigs, you may want to look for partners whose goals more closely match your own. Positive personalities: You don’t have to be best friends with your musical partners (though it’s nice if you can be). If someone you play with drives you nuts because of a personality conflict or irresponsible behavior, either the music had better be really, really good or you may want to part ways with that person. Matching schedules: Even if you find cool people who play complementary instruments in your desired style and share all your musical goals, you need to be able to get together in the same place at the same time on a regular basis. Compare schedules to make sure you actually have enough opportunities to do the things you want to do together.

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