Harmonica Players · Playing Tips · Videos

“… A Part of Your Mouth”

A friend and student pointed me towards this short video on South London harp man Errol Linton (cheers Paddy).

It’s a great video and piece of history in it’s own right, but there’s a quote near the start which really resonates with me.

“I read in this blues harp book you’re supposed to start slowly … gradually it starts getting louder .. gradually it starts feeling like a part of your mouth.”

Errol Linton

I remember the first few times I started to feel like it was me who had control of the harmonica rather than the harmonica having control of me. This was way before I started taking a more structured approach to learning. It was in my old damp, dingy room in South Leeds and I was probably a few scrumpy’s in.

I was playing a chordal rhythm, dropping a few melody notes in here and there and it was like the harmonica was suddenly sounding like I thought it should. I was doing it almost without thinking about it. Nothing fancy or complex mind, but the sound I was making suddenly sounded like actual honest-to-goodness harmonica playing and not just like a fat bloke huffing and puffing.

It was one of the great “ah-ha!” or breakthrough moments when I realised I might actually be able to do this.

The path to learning a skill of any sort is littered with moments like these. As a rule they tend to occur when you’ve been feeling like you’re stuck in your current skill set, like you’re not advancing and you’re on the verge of giving up the whole crazy venture as a dumb idea. It’s the kind of moment that can unleash a torrent of enthusiasm and – if you’re lucky – elevate your playing to a new level.

So, I guess what I’m saying is when you’re frustrated don’t give up hope. All players go through this process of advancement and then what feels like stagnation. The good news is that it’s usually just when you feel you can’t do any more that you make your most significant breakthroughs. And for those that really want to play, that’s one of the best feelings there is.

Errol Linton is still playing and recording today. He’s the real deal. http://www.errollinton.com/

Playing Tips · Videos

3rd Position Quick Start

Thought I’d kick off the new year with a quick primer on third position playing. There’s a lot more to it than this of course, and I’ll write about third position a lot more in the coming year. Meanwhile, if you’ve not ventured into third before here’s a way to get started.

The other day a student asked me how to play the harmonica riff at the start of this JD Wilkes tune.

Turns out JD is playing an A harmonica in second position putting him, and the band, in the key of E. For kicks I improvised along for a short while in third position on a D harp – that’s also the key of E – and it worked out really well.

Third is an extremely useful position for playing very bluesy or minor feeling tunes as you can access a whole minor pentatonic scale in the middle octave without needing any bends.

We’re used to using draw 2 and 6 blow (both G) as our “home” note in second position. Third position uses the draw 4 and 8 (D) instead. Try playing this up and down:

4 5 6+ 6 7+ 8

Sounds pretty cool and is quite simple to learn and play. This is called a minor pentatonic scale. Minor because it’s a minor scale and penta, meaning five, because it’s got five notes.

You can turn the minor pentatonic scale into a blues scale by simply adding the bend on 6 draw.

4 5 6+ 6 6' 7+ 8

That’s really cooking now. Grab your D harp and you can jam along with JD all day long using just those notes and sound great. Enjoy!

Harmonica Music · Playing Tips · Study Tools · Videos

Christmas Horns

A great – and seasonally appropriate – tune here from Lowell Fulson. A lovely loping blues.

There’s no harmonica on it, but there’s a great horn section, and those parts can be played on your harp. In fact, approaching accompaniment as if you were a horn player is a great way to play, especially if you find yourself relying on a few cliche blues licks.

Listen to those nice swells that follow the chord changes. Try playing an octave on the 3+ 6+ for the I chord and 5+ 2+ for the IV. Start as quiet as you can and slowly build in volume as Lowell sings. This is great breath control practice by the way.

The lick that comes in on the V chord is 1+ 1′ 1 repeated (or 4+ 4′ 4 if you want to do it an octave higher).

It’s a fun way to play, and sounds especially good amplified through a nice warm tube amp.

Here’s the song pitch shifted so you can play along on a C harmonica. Enjoy!

Harmonica Music · Harmonica Players

Noah Lewis, the Cure for the Winter Blues

There’s something about this time of year that makes me want to listen to a lot of Jug Band music. Something to do with the dark nights and over-abundance of forced jollity and crass sentimentality I guess. Or maybe I’m just a grinch. In any case the desire to get warm, pour a large liquor,… Continue reading Noah Lewis, the Cure for the Winter Blues

Playing Tips · Study Tools · Videos

Expectation Management!

“Man, this is harder than I thought,” is the inevitable reaction from new players after a few weeks. Yup, I nod. But it’s cool, and look what you’ve already achieved.

Harmonica is challenging. All musical instruments are. And intrinsically understanding and feeling the music in your bones then channeling it through your instrument is more challenging still.

It’s trite but true: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

You’ll never be the player you want to be. You’ll never know it all. But every time you pick up your harp you are developing, learning, living in a moment when you are making something from nothing.

And no matter how far on the journey you are, you’re making music. To my mind that’s a pretty awesome thing to be doing.

I’ve watched this video dozens of times over the years and it always entertains and inspires.