Written and copyrighted © 12/01/1997 - by Bob "Hoochie Coochie" Paolucci
This is an article about a topic that I and many musicians agree is the one instrument, besides guitar, that is central to the Blues; the harmonica.
OK! Lets start somewhere. Well start with you and end with you. You are the giver and taker of style, technique and tone and no amount of equipment will change that. So first, what you really need to do is examine yourself and determine what kind of music YOU want to play and how YOU want to play it. Ask yourself why you picked the harmonica as opposed to picking some other instrument. Are you a blueser or really a rocker trying to play the blues. Do you want to be traditional or break out and create your own style (well be waiting). This is very, very important so read the next line twice. Define yourself and you will define your style. This is not to say that you cant play it all, just to thine own self be true. If you read a well written book, it captures you and moves you through the pages. It has a theme and builds on it. Once a plot is well developed, the author moves freely through it, adding or changing moods at will - a master of his art. You are your own musical author and your style lets you do that. Become one with the harmonica.
So now youre playing and chugging along and you stop and ask yourself, Now Im playing and chugging along but what are the tricks and techniques? How do I get that big, fat, juicy tone? What is third position. For arguments sake lets say you are a blueser and want to play electric harmonica, well here are some of the important basics. Ill outline them here and get into the details in upcoming columns:
Learn thyself. Youre not Little Walter, Sonny Boy or Butterfield. Forget about it! Nobody is you, either! Its your style!
Learn to breath.
Remember that a good tone MUST be had acoustically or youll NEVER get one electrically.
Learn to breath.
Strive for good, clean single notes both up AND down the instrument. These are two totally different techniques!
Learn to breath.
Get a good, solid vibrato, on both blow and draw notes, from the gut not by shaking the harp.
Learn how to bend every bendable note, even overblows/overdraws, and do it with precision, again up and down the harp. Each bend IS different.
Be able to both tongue block and lip purse to get both single notes and partial chords.
The harp is an extremely modal instrument. Learn to play in ALL 7 modes because you WILL use it. Hear it in your minds ear.
Learn some basic music theory, at least the circle of fifths and how it relates to modes (positions) and the harmonica.
Practice your scales. ALL of your scales. In ALL modal positions.
If youre going to play electric, get the RIGHT equipment. That probably means vintage amps, mics and speakers if youre going for that Little Walter sound.
Play WITH the other musicians in the band. You are not alone. Thats why they call it a band!
I firmly believe that breathing right is important to good tone as well as not passing out while trying to impress your date at a gig. You will be making tons of starts, stops, ins and outs and correct, RELAXED breathing will allow you to play WITH the instrument instead of against it. Have too much or too little air in your lungs in the middle of a riff? Well, you might try breathing through your nose at the same as blowing or drawing some of your notes. Be mindful of the noise this might make if you are amplified. Maybe you are having a hard time bending a draw note. It might be that you are inhaling through your nose at the same time as trying to bend that note. Too much air diverted from the hole makes it very difficult to draw down on a reed. These things may seem painfully obvious and not even worth mentioning, but it is precisely these types of problems that are commonly encountered. Play patterns that exercise your breathing. I have my students do things like play an entire 1-4-5 blues progression strictly on draw notes in a cross-harp position or just blow notes in a straight-harp position.
The one great thing about the harp is that it is an instrument that can emulate characteristics of the human voice. We can color the tone by altering the shape and position of our mouth, tongue, lips, cheeks, etc. We can coax out brighter or darker tones just as we accent our words. Since the shape of our mouths greatly influences tone, each person naturally has his or her own tone. In order to get the most out of what God has given you, try this. For a good, round, bottom tone try keeping your mouth cavity as open as possible, opening your jaw and/or keeping the tongue towards the back and bottom of your mouth. To get a brighter, sharper timbre try moving your tongue towards the top and front of your mouth and/or closing your jaw. Just remember, YOU are the tone machine.
One last point I would like to make this time is about the any tool as long as its a hammer style. I know everyone wants to be able to play fast and loud, especially newer, inexperienced players or young players with lots of energy to burn off and resilient eardrums. Please listen to the old timers. They can play fast and loud, they just dont want to do it all the time. Fast and loud are just tools in your toolbox, not the only ones. To me, music is like another language; if youre talking too fast, I cant understand you and if youre screaming at me Ill just turn you off. Consider your musical dimensions to be more than just the pitch of the notes you play. Use all aspects of the senses to express yourself, such as is that note bright or bottomy, quiet or loud, fast or slow, harsh or soft. Use them all, maybe even in the same passage. This puts us back to the beginning of this article...use substance with soul and style, not instead of it. The best musicians arent always the best technicians.
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email me.