How to Play the Blues Harp

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Learn not to look down the holes! don't know what you'll see in them!

Seriously though - although tutors give you notation which tells you which number holes to blow or suck, the sooner you can learn not to look at the holes, the quicker your fluency will improve. If you produce a bum note when you are playing, learn to slide along or reverse your breath automatically until the correct note is produced - your ear will tell you when you have got it right. Once you have developed this ability, you will be on your way. Its like touch typing only much more exciting.

I have to confess that I taught myelf to play by ear without the benefit of tab. The upside of this is that I can generally play a tune within 2 or 3 hearings - something which is very useful for jamming. This means that you don't even need to know the number being played so long as you can detect the melody or the riff which drives it and you know what key the band is playing in (Most important!)

The main value of tab is that it can provide a useful reminder of a riff or if you can't quite work out how a note is played (hole 2 draw and hole 3 blow on any harp are identical for instance) then tab can help.

If you have ambitions to become a real musician rather than someone who can play reasonable blues harp, then using tab will be like the stabiliser wheel on your kids first bycycle. Once you realise that all diatonics are laid out the same way and you learn how to play scales, you can move on up.

However, not doing this does not prevent you from becoming a perfectly acceptable harp player. Here is an example of someone who is currently attracting a lot of favourable comment on YouTube and harp players bulletin boards who has stated categorically that she does not read music or tab but plays by ear. (Possibly for the benefit of people who can't be bothered to work it out for themselves and keep e-mailing her for the tab.)

If your ultimate goal is teaching harp, then you will be stuck with having to be able to play tab since you will be writing it for the benefit of your students. If you want to see really top quality tab with every nuance of a piece captured, Joe Filisko produces the best that I have ever seen. Joe has an uncanny ability to get even the most complex pieces and reproduce them. If you are interested in the original country blues harp players, Joe's take on De Ford Bailey at the NHL Festival in 2006 will give you an idea

You'll notice that he looks deeply into the holes before he plays but I think this is more of a zen harmonica thing than a need to memorise where they all are!