Influential Harmonica Players

Larry Adler, born in 1914, is widely regarded as one of the most skilled harmonica players. The chromatic harmonica was basically invented for Adler, who almost single-handedly represented the instrument and its capabilities. Larry Adler’s sole wish in playing the harmonica was to develop a “singing tone.” “If you can get a singing tone in your  playing, that’s as far as you can go.” The following video shows the incredible extent of Adler’s playing abilities.

Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs), born in 1930, fundamentally altered many listeners’ expectations of what was possible on the blues harmonica with his great virtuosity and musical innovations. He was a key member of the Chicago blues scene and was originally a key contributor to the Muddy Waters’ group.

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Blues Scales

Personally, blues is the most important style to learn on the harmonica. It produces the most characteristic sound, and it is a relaxing, enjoyable tone both to play and hear.

Using the scale degrees of the original scale, a blues scale consists of the root note (1), the flat third (b3), the fourth (4), the flat fifth (b5), the normal fifth (5), the flat seventh (b7), and the root again (8 or 1). The following diagram shows an example of the blues scale of two different keys. I have learned blues scales before when practicing jazz on saxophone, but it was much harder when I still wasn’t very familiar with the instrument on which I was playing. 

The first scale I learned was the C blues scale, represented in the following diagram.

The diagram is confusing, but it reveals the basic way to play a 1st position blues scale (and in different keys) on the harmonica.

Folk Songs

I continued my practicing by learning traditional folk songs. These have the sort of ‘lonely’ aspect that is generally associated with songs played by the harmonica.
I learned different pieces, such as ‘Red River Valley’, ‘Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie’, ‘The Storms Are On the Ocean’, and ‘Cowboy Jack.’
My favorite, although one of the more difficult to learn, was Streets of Laredo. My book offered the tablature in two octaves, one in the middle octave and one in the higher range. Alternating between the two octaves adds more variety, especially if I were to play in front of a live audience, but it makes it a little difficult to play with a backing tape accompaniment.
This link shows an online version of the middle-ranged tab: http://www.harmonicacountry.com/songs/streets_of_laredo.html

Vibrato

vibrato – a rapid, slight variation in pitch in singing or playing some musical instruments, producing a stronger or richer tone.

Vibrato is an important part of the blues harp sound, the characteristic harmonica playing most might imagine. There are two different ways to achieve this effect on the harmonica.

Hand vibrato: If the position of your hands makes a good seal as you cup the instrument with both hands, you can release one hand to let the sound out. You can then vary the speed to suit the music. This felt a little silly at first, but I found it the easiest because it doesn’t require extra air or throat work.

Throat vibrato:  My mentor taught this technique to me as a laughing type action, which blocks and releases air from the throat. This technique can be used on both draw and blow, single notes and chords, and can also semi bend a draw note, creating a sort of warbling effect. I find it difficult to control my vibrato, its speed, volume, and extent, when using this technique. It also involves extensive control of the diaphragm. I’m having trouble learning this technique, but my mentor encouraged me to keep trying, because mastering it is an important part of playing blues successfully.

Reflections after Basic Techniques

Learning to play this instrument has been much more difficult than I anticipated.

I thought the instrument would be simple to learn, especially with my prior musical experience. However, I underestimated the difficulty of the harmonica. The instrument is small, but that only made it harder to learn. I often lose track of where my mouth and tongue are against the reeds of the harmonica, causing me to play in the wrong key. My hand position, although more consistent now, also slips up sometimes, and I cannot produce the intended vibrato.
I also wasn’t aware of the many different techniques you could play on the instrument. I was used to playing instruments such as piano and saxophone, on which my fingers control the notes produced, but with the harmonica, my mouth and tongue positions were forced with added responsibility. I am glad that I am learning these new techniques, despite my struggles. I definitely know not to look down on seemingly simple instruments now.

Note Bending

Note bending is a technique used to change the pitch of a note, allowing a player to reach notes unavailable on a diatonic harmonica. For example, if you take the fourth hole on a key C harmonica, the blow note is a C and the draw note is a D. It is possible to play a C# by bending the 4 draw down by one half tone. This is accomplished by using a combination of your tongue, throat and lungs to vary the pressure of the air across the reed.

Bending notes is pretty difficult, and I’m still having some trouble with it. Note bending lends that bluesy sound for which harmonica is known, and can be used in combination with other effects such as a wah-wah sound effect to add more style and diversity to one’s playing. The 4 Draw was the first note that I learned to bend.

First Song: Shenandoah

“Shenandoah” is the first song I’ve learned to play well. The song, a traditional American folk song, sounds much like the ideal quiet tone “lonesome” variety of harmonica playing. Learning the notes and rhythms didn’t require too much time, but, with any piece of music, it took a lot of work to fill it with expression and give the music a meaning. This was also the first piece to which I tried adding some vibrato and pitch bending, techniques I look forward to improving.

A picture of the music for "Shenandoah", taken from "The Everything Harmonica Book"

A picture of the music for “Shenandoah”, taken from “The Everything Harmonica Book”

Tonguing

Similar to my inconsistent hand positioning, I didn’t think much about my tonguing until my mentor pointed it out to me.

The tongue is pretty important in controlling the harp: it’s used in note bending and overblows, and it can be used to change the tonality of a note. In my opinion, the simplest form of tonguing is with a “t” start. It’s easy to blow air onto your hand in short “tuh” spurts, but it was actually a little difficult to play on the harmonica. The “t” start also allows a player to accent a note, and it is well-suited to playing stacatto. Another form is similar to double-tonguing on band instruments: almost repeating “tuck-uh-tuck-uh”, with the “t” and “k” as the starts of the notes. These can be used to create a sort of train effect and other interesting sound effects.

A Simple Scale

“whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half”

If asked, any musician will be able to rattle off the components of a one octave major scale, myself included. I played my first scale when I was 6 and learning how to play the piano. I sang my first scale when I was 9 and in my elementary school choir. I played my first scale on saxophone when I was in Beginning Band in middle school. However, I seem to have forgotten how difficult playing a scale on an unfamiliar instrument is.

Honestly, I’ve had a little trouble learning how to play this instrument, and my inability to play a simple major scale is dumbfounding. My mentor told me I should practice a simple C Major scale before tackling any actual songs, and I’m glad he gave me this to work on, because if such a simple task is so frustrating, how can I even manage the blues techniques I set out to learn?

Ignoring the blow bends and draw bends, two concepts I’ll write about later, this diagram presents the basic notes produced by a C Major diatonic harmonica.

Following the diagram above, a C Major scale would be: 4 blow (C), 4 draw (D), 5 blow (E), 5 draw (F), 6 blow (G), 6 draw (A), 7 draw (B), and 8 blow (C).

Single Note Techniques

Oftentimes, when you hear the word “harmonica”, you think of country blues chords and folk songs. The reeds of the harmonica come tuned to harmonize with their adjacent notes, which makes chords simple to play. However, producing a single, clear tone on the harmonica is an important skill for all harmonica players. Lessons with my mentor and online tutorials have greatly improved my ability to play single notes on my harmonica, although I still struggle with this concept.

There are two main techniques to playing single notes on the harmonica. The first is by lip-blocking. To do this, you need to form a deep relaxed embouchure with your mouth, allowing the lower lip to block out the undesired reeds.

This sketch represents the necessary embouchure to produce a single note on the harmonica.

The second is by tongue-blocking. I struggled much more with learning this technique. This method requires you to blow air normally through three or four holes, and use your tongue to block the undesired notes.

This diagram demonstrates the way your tongue blocks off the extra reeds, leaving only the desired note.