How to Play the Blues Harp




















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Bending Notes

Just like a blues guitar, the blues sound on a harp is achieved by being able to bend notes. By bending notes you will obtain many of the notes that you thought were missing when you first picked up a harp.

Once you have achieved a bend, you will be on your way to playing blues but some people take months to master the technique. Others produce a bend but use so much air in the process that they are breathless after a few notes.

Everybody has their own suggestions for beginners wishing to produce bent notes for the first time including dropping your jaw when you draw and tilting the harp upwards. Although these tricks sometimes work, you should stop using them as soon as you have got the hang of bending notes. My own experience is that, by imitating a police siren as you draw breath (Eee Yaw Eee Yaw) without moving your lips or dropping your jaw, you should find that your tongue is moving correctly to produce a bend. Just hold the draw note steady while you move your tongue and you should hear the variation in pitch. Over time, you should find that the less you move your mouth while you bend, the more focus and control you will achieve, you will get a better seal and you should require less air.

Hole 3 on a C, D or F harp is the easiest hole on which to start to produce draw bends and there are three, one a semitone below the straight draw note, the next a whole tone lower and the last a semi tone below that.

Once you can produce a bend on hole 3 (or better still all three bends) move on to holes 4 and 2. Once you have got to this stage, it's time to try producing blow bends on holes 7, 8, 9 and 10. To produce a blow bend using tongue block embouchure, blow steadily and simply articulate a slight "eee" sound with your tongue. Relax your tongue and repeat the movement until you hear the note changing in pitch. Listen to Sonny Boy Williamson's "Trust my Baby" to hear blow (and draw) bend mastery at its best.

Many beginners, particularly those learning on "bargain" harps, find the top notes particularly difficult to sound. If this is the case, it is well worth investigating how to adjust the reeds. You will be surprised at what a difference this can make. For the first five years that I played the blues harp, I was absolutely convinced that the top two notes on an Echo Super Vamper were unplayable. Now, in less than ten minutes it is possible to adjust the reeds on a harmonica and get it to play the way you want. Follow this link for more details of how to do it.

Finally it is time to attempt to produce clean draw bends on hole 1.

I have left hole 1 until the end because they are the most difficult for many beginners to master but they are very rewarding and can form the basis of some very telling riffs. The secret is to try and achieve a good seal on the note that you are trying to bend without any leakage from the neighbouring note. Personally, I find these notes easiest to bend by puckering rather than tongue blocking but try both types of embouchure to see which gives you the greatest successs.

If Dizzy Gillespie played the harp.... would look like like this.

An early attempt to help novice harp players, the Hohner Trumpet Call automatically produces bent notes.

As you can see here, they come out straight and are bent upwards by the trumpets.

In fact, this harp is not very good for playing blues as it is valved which means that the notes can only be slightly bent. However it has a good stirring sound particularly if you play octaves and is quite good for marches, hymns and anything with a bit of an Oompah feel.

It's also very good for comic effect when produced at the right moment on stage.

Being a Man of Taste and Discernment, Bob Jones, my partner in R&B Jones hates it.


How to Play the Blues Harp

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