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.”
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.
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!
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.
There’s precious little Big Walter footage around and I must confess I’d never seen this before. Maybe not the greatest performance in the world but man it’s good to see Walter in his element. Looks like he’s really digging this, and getting the respect he deserves from a large audience. Very cool.
I’m ridiculously excited. Due to some fortunate circumstances my wife and I have the opportunity to visit San Francisco next June. A jaunt that would usually be way beyond our reach financially.
Cool in itself, but the icing on the cake is I’ve been able to book a three hour private harmonica lesson with my blues mentor David Barrett at The School of The Blues in San Jose.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I started his online course which taught me the skills I’m now sharing with you guys, and quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Not to mention the fact that I’ll get to check out the live music scene in San Francisco and San Jose.
Apologies for the bragging post but I needed to tell people. I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity, and of course to my amazing (and long suffering) wife for making it happen.
Enough of me gushing. Get some Barrett in your ears.
Excuse my indulgence but there’s a good point to be made. It’s really fun to find places with lots of natural reverb to play harmonica. The key is lots of hard surfaces which the sound can bounce around in. Good places to try are stairwells, underpasses, empty garages, kitchens, bathrooms (it’s not the best hygiene but some public toilets are great), warehouses and so on.