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Blindness and Learning Harmonica

Originally posted July 7, 2016

Rose_p03-300x187I’ve been working for the last couple of years with harmonica students who have limited vision. They needed large-format music, and the dots and lines were becoming too difficult to discern.

So we shifted gears to using a combination of large note names and audio demos. The audio is essential, since it allows students with a visual handicap to learn to sing or whistle the melodies by ear, and internalize the rhythm and phrasing. The note names provide a starting point, and they put it all together using their ear.

I recently combined the “audio + note names” format in several videos.

The Rose By the Door

My Favorite Things

What a Wonderful World

Not much good if you only read tab, but tab would work in this format also. Display it full screen, and you have essentially an auto-scrolling piece of music with an accompanying soundtrack.

These particular students have spent time studying large harmonica note charts and have learned the note layout of the chromatic or diatonic harp. They can visualize the chart and point out where the notes are located, and in a melody, show the moves left and right, in or out breath.

I think it’s helpful to develop this kind of spatial sense, to be able to gesture towards the notes on an imagined harmonica. Since the instrument is in your mouth and “invisible” when you’re playing it, as Howard Levy has pointed out, we all are functionally blind while playing.

My visually impaired students work on ear training and music theory on an ongoing basis, so that they can transition to learning music purely by ear if their vision becomes too limited to rely on. And in the meantime, they learn new pieces using a combination of ear and large note names.

As I mentioned, the videos above require a little more study upfront than reading tab, since you have to learn the note layout of your harp. Not a bad thing to learn, though. Use a C chromatic or diatonic for these examples, and enjoy!

To conclude, I want to share how inspired I am by these students, who push themselves to learn new skills in spite of their difficulties, for the love of playing music.

My New Book: “First 50 Songs”

Originally posted June 2016

first_50_songsLast summer and fall I arranged a bunch of popular songs for diatonic harmonica, and they’ve recently been published in Hal Leonard’s “First 50 Songs” series. You can get it here.

Styles Covered
The song list is wide-ranging, including melodies to blues, folk, rock, country, gospel, Motown, Broadway and jazz standards. Songs include: Ain’t No Sunshine * Blowin’ in the Wind * Edelweiss * Isn’t She Lovely * Jambalaya (On the Bayou) * Kum Ba Yah * Let It Be * Michael Row the Boat Ashore * My Girl * Puff the Magic Dragon * Ring of Fire * The Sound of Silence * Sweet Caroline * What a Wonderful World * You Are My Sunshine * and more.

Tab and Music
If you don’t read music, you can simply follow the harmonica tab. If you want to practice reading, I transposed all the songs so that the music notation is readable on a C diatonic harmonica. And of course, if you want to play the songs in a different key, you can always follow the tab, which will work with any key harmonica.

No Bends Required
Nearly all the songs are playable with basic single-note technique. You can play most of the fifty songs without bending a note! For an extra challenge, I included bends on maybe three of the arrangements, but most of the tunes lay really nicely in the middle octave or higher.

Straight Harp, Cross Harp, and Beyond
Most of the tunes are major key in first position (straight harp), a few are in second position (cross harp) and require bluesy bends, and a handful are minor key and play smoothly in third or fourth position.

I’m particularly happy to have included the minor key tunes, because they add variety – minor key tunes are darker and moodier, and again, I arranged them so they’d be playable by beginners with single notes, no bends required.

By the way, you don’t have to know all this position stuff in order to play the songs and enjoy the book, but you might notice that some songs sound bright and happy, some songs have a bluesier feel, and some songs are darker and more mysterious sounding.

Short and Long Songs
There are short tunes here which fit on one page, perfect for when you want to flip to a new song and just try it out without investing too much time. There are other tunes which stretch over several pages if you’re up for a longer story.

My Life With Songbooks
When I started playing music as a kid, I loved browsing through anthology songbooks like this at home. I couldn’t play every song, but I picked through and tried out bits here and there. When I found a song I was familiar with, playing the notes felt like running into an old friend. I enjoyed figuring out what all the notation meant, and gradually learned a lot about music, along with the specific songs.

Conclusion
There was a lot of work involved in choosing the songs in this collection, and even more in notating and arranging them. It feels like a real accomplishment to have it out there now! Go check it out here.

Melodies on a Low D

Originally posted Feb 2016

low_d-300x225I play Celtic music on the diatonic harmonica, and have noticed that my standard high D harp, when played in the middle octave, holes 4-7, sounds an octave higher than the fiddle and fits into the mix similarly to a tin whistle. It’s a nice sound to blend, but it can get a little shrill, especially by itself.

I usually mellow this out by aiming for the lower octave, holes 1-4 on a high D, but it requires a lot of bending. Life is much easier if you simply play holes 4-7, but it can be hard on the ears over the course of a long session.

A few years ago, the intractable choice between constant, rapid bending and high, shrill sounds led me to explore alternate tunings, especially Paddy Richter and spiral turning, which allow you to play in the low octave without bending.

After awhile, however, I returned to standard tuning for all my music, and resolved to improve my bending skills, accepting that I’ll have to move a little slower if I want to play cleanly in the low octave.

Enter the low D.

The low D harmonica gives you easy melodies without bending from holes 4-7, in the same octave as a fiddle.

It’s not a perfect solution – the tradeoff being that the longer reeds take a little longer to start swinging when you breathe across them. It seems the high D will always be a more responsive instrument for quick playing.

However, a low D works well for fiddle tunes at relaxed tempos, and does even better on waltzes and less note-intensive songs.

Plus, you sound more in tune if you’re not required to bend every other note! Yes, we all should aspire to bend in tune, all the time, at any speed.

While we work on that lifetime project, a low D harmonica can provide a bit of relief for overworked note-benders, and their bandmates’ ears.

As a concluding footnote, low tuned harps are available in pretty much every key, starting at low F# and going down to low low F, and they work in lots of styles of music, not just Celtic, both as melody and rhythm instruments. For melodies, you’ll want to focus on holes 4 and up, since draw bends on holes 1-3 become more difficult the lower you go. However, improved tone on all harps is there to be gained for those brave few who take the time to develop the throat relaxation and breath support required for bending on low low harps.

Overblows, Chromatic & Alternate Tunings

Originally posted Dec 2014

Do you want to play in multiple keys on one harp? Or to play slightly jazzier melodies? Or play classical and world music? Here are some options…

Overblow Diatonic Harmonica
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, requires specialized bending technique, 12 patterns to learn. $50 if you customize it yourself, $200+ for technician to customize.

Chromatic Harmonica
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, no bends required. 12 patterns to learn. $120 and up for standard 12-hole models.

Half-Valved Diatonic
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, requires specialized bending technique. 12 patterns to learn. Around $50.

Triple-Reed Diatonic
3 full octaves, fully chromatic, standard bending technique. 12 patterns to learn. Basic model $120, more if customized.

Diminished Tuning
2.5 octaves on a ten-hole model, 3 octaves on 12-hole model. Fully chromatic, standard half-step draw bends. Only 3 patterns to learn. Around $50 from Seydel’s custom tuning page.

Augmented Tuning
3 octaves on ten-hole model, fully chromatic, standard half-step and whole-step draw bends. Only 4 patterns to learn. Around $50 from Seydel’s custom tuning page.

Newton Fourkey Tuning
2.5 octaves on ten-hole model, 3 octaves on 12-hole model. Fully chromatic with only 2 draw bends required. 12 patterns to learn. Around $50 from Seydel’s custom tuning page.

Those are the basic stats! Now, let’s take a closer look at how each of these options works…

Overblow Harmonica
It’s a standard diatonic, with gaps set fairly tight, slots embossed for airtightness, and reeds adjusted for better response. Fully chromatic once you learn to blow and draw bend reliably. Overblows and overdraws are an extension of the basic draw/blow bends, just performed on the opposite end of the harp. Whenever bending is a big part of your style, you have to work on playing in tune and on articulating your low-end notes so it’s not a big slide-y mess down there. Bending and overblowing are your two big technical projects, along with the basic customizing skills so you can set harps up for better response. Plus, learning the note layout, and internalizing the music theory to know how to use those notes.

Chromatic Harmonica
Get one! I call it “the sane person’s harmonica,” because it plays three octaves easily in a single key AND it has all the chromatic notes built in. Those chromatic notes are accessible without bending, simply by pushing the slide button, they have a consistent tone, and they’re reliable and in-tune, unlike the bent notes which I and other (insane?) diatonic players rely upon. The big projects here are single notes, learning the note layout, and internalizing the music theory to know how to use those notes. Even if you’re a die-hard diatonic person like me, you’ll learn deep lessons about the fundamentals of music by playing in different keys on a single chromatic harmonica.

Half-Valved Diatonic
These are standard diatonic harps with valves over half the reed slots. Unlike fully-valved harps, you retain the standard double-reed bends AND you get a whole set of new single-reed bends. Those single-reed bends take some getting used to, but they add a new dimension of expressiveness to standard playing, and they can be used for chromatic accidentals. Also, the valves have the effect of evening out the response and volume of your blow and draw notes.

Triple-Reed Harmonicas
We’re talking here about the Suzuki SUB30 and products offered by X-Reed Harmonicas and a few other customizers. A triple-reed harmonica is a diatonic, 10-hole harp with an extra set of reeds that allows normal bends on every hole, blow or draw. These bends are interactive, double-reed bends, unlike the half-valved single-reed bends, so they sound and feel like traditional bends. Most folks do a bit of modification (or pay someone else to) in order to take full advantage, but it’s less work than customizing a harp for overblows.

Diminished Tuning
A diatonic harmonica in Diminished tuning has a consistent blow-draw pattern. The draw is always a whole step higher than the blow, all the way up the harp. This means you can achieve every chromatic note with simple, half-step draw bends. Because of the tuning, every scale you play will require bends. But if you’re good at draw bends, it’s surprisingly easy to pick up a Dimi harp and start playing anything, in any key, by ear. Also, because of the symmetry of the tuning, you only have to learn 3 patterns in order to play in every key. Compare that to the 12 patterns you have to learn in standard tuning! On the other hand, what we gain in easy chromaticity, we lose in range: a ten-hole dimi harp only covers a little more than two octaves. Thus, dedicated dimi players sometimes opt for 12-hole diatonic models, to get the full three-octave range found on a standard harp.

Augmented Tuning
Similar idea to Diminished Tuning, but with a step and a half between the blow and draw. This means you can play two different bent notes in between the blow and draw notes, just like you do on hole 2 of a standard tuned harmonica. With all this bending, intonation and articulation will be the focus of much of your practicing. But if you LOVE to bend notes, it can be a wonderfully expressive tuning. Again, the symmetry of the tuning simplifies things: instead of 12 different patterns for fully chromatic playing, there are only 4 patterns. Also, with a step and a half between the blow and draw, there’s no loss of range. With Augmented Tuning, a ten-hole diatonic plays three octaves fully chromatically, using only draw bends.

Newton Fourkey Tuning
Fourkey tuning allows you to play in four different keys without bent notes, and fully chromatically with only two draw bends total. The blow notes give you a pentatonic scale, and the draw notes give you a different pentatonic scale. This means that for those keys, if you just want pentatonic sounds, you just blow across the harp, or draw across the harp, like a panpipe. All together, to play in all 12 keys, you have to learn 12 patterns. Range is again limited to slightly more than 2 octaves, so some players opt for longer diatonic models to get a few more notes.

Conclusion
If you want to play a lot of different keys on a single instrument, you’ll probably want to weigh the pros and cons of each of these options, and possibly get a few of them and give them a fair try. Each approach has things it does well and things that are difficult. In all cases, ear training and music theory are essential. The upside to all that study is that ear training and music theory are applicable to any musical project, whether it’s learning a different style of harmonica or another instrument entirely.

Overblows

Originally posted Dec 2014

Introduction

On a diatonic harmonica, you can get ALMOST all 12 chromatic notes using basic draw and blow bends. There a few missing notes, however.

Are these missing notes needed? For me, yes. Here are a couple real-world reasons.

Example #1: Middle Octave Cross Harp
In Cross Harp, you can bend the draw notes from holes 1-4 and get expressive, soulful MINOR sounds. As soon as you cross over to hole 6 and higher, however, you’ll notice that traditional players switch to a MAJOR sound. They can’t play 2nd position minor stuff up high, because normal bending won’t give you the minor 3rd or flat 5th of the scale. It’s true, you can get a super-high minor 3rd using the 10 blow bend, but there’s a whole middle octave that you miss out on without overblows.

Example #2: Quirky Major-Key Melodies
The melody to The Star-Spangled Banner mostly follows the major scale, which makes 1st position our preferred position. However, the phrase “By the dawn’s early light” contains a “sharp 4th” scale degree. That’s F# when the song is played in the key of C. This note is available in the low octave using a draw bend, and it’s available in the high octave using a blow bend, but it’s missing in the middle octave, where most people prefer to play major key melodies in first position. There are lots of folk songs, anthems, fiddle tunes, and pop songs that are 90% fine in first position, but require a sharp 4th scale degree somewhere along the line.

Getting the Missing Notes
Overblows and overdraws are bending techniques that give you those missing notes. The techniques have been around at least since the 30s, but only became really popular after the pioneering work of Howard Levy in the 80s and 90s. Other modern overblowers include Youtube favorites Adam Gussow and Jason Ricci.

Most blues-oriented players will, at minimum, be interested in the 6 overblow, since it gives you the minor 3rd in cross harp, a note you could previously only get on the low end.

How To Overblow on Hole 6:

1. Make sure you have consistent, clear single notes.

2. Learn to blow bend really well on holes 8-10. It’s a good idea to practice blow bends on lower harps, like G and A.

3. Switch to a higher harp, such as a C or D.

4. Adjust your reed gaps so they’re very close on 6 blow and draw, but just open enough so they don’t jam when you play at normal volume.

5. Attempt to blow bend on hole 6.

6. The blow reed will choke, then you’ll hear a pitch that’s a step and a half (aka minor third) higher than the blow note.

Troubleshooting:

1. Make sure you’re actually on hole 6 blow. Lots of folks land accidentally on hole 7 and are amazed at their ability to “overblow,” when they’re actually just bending the 7 blow down slightly. An overblow chokes, then produces a HIGHER pitch.

2. Distorted sounds: if you get both reeds playing at the same time, you haven’t properly choked the blow reed. Take it back a step and spend more time learning to play normal blow bends on holes 8-10 on a low harp.

3. Shrill Ringing / Squealing: this is torsional vibration (think of that oldtimey video of the suspension bridge twisting). Gap the reeds a little closer. Consider putting a small amount of soft wax or a light dab of nail polish on the rivet head and base of reed. If using nail polish, LET IT DRY COMPLETELY. You don’t want to breathe nail polish fumes.

Frequently Asked Question:

“Are any harps better for overblows than others?”

In general, I think higher-pitched harmonicas like C and D will tend to be easier for beginners to learn to overblow on.

As far as brand and model, I think with good technique, you can play limited overblows on almost any reasonaly well-made harp, out of the box. With gapping and other setup techniques, you can overblow fluently on pretty much any harp.

That said, the ideal out-of-the-box harmonica for overblowing will come from the factory with close tolerances (ie slots and reeds well-fitted to each other) and close-ish gaps.

I had a good experience with my Suzuki Firebreath in C. It was noticeably more airtight and responsive than my Special 20s and Golden Melodies. It also cost twice as much!

Basically, the higher-end models from most brands will require less setup. However, even these will probably require slightly tighter gapping. Off the top of my head, we’re talking about the Suzuki Firebreath, the Seydel 1847, and the Hohner Crossover.

Learn to do basic setup, though, and you can get good results from the standard models at half the cost.

Richard Sleigh is a good resource for materials on how to set up harmonicas for overblows. I’m not a paid affiliate or anything, I’ve just learned a lot from him and think he’s the clearest, best authority out there on setting up your harp.

Summary

Learn to blow bend. Learn to gap your reeds. Get the 6 overblow, then the 5, then the 4. Learn to play the 7 overdraw and the 9 overdraw. It’ll be tough, but you can also get the 1 overblow and the 10 overdraw.

Further Study

Learn the note layout on your C harp, and take time to absorb some music theory, so you’ll start to understand better how the overblow notes fit into the positions you want to play in, and how to use them musically in the style you’re working on.

The Difference a B-Flat Makes

Originally posted Nov 2014

pboro_jazz_workshopI’m playing diatonic harmonica in an Early Jazz ensemble at the Vermont Jazz Center right now, and part of the fun is looking in my harp case at the 12 different keys and deciding which one best fits the song.

Or rather, that WOULD be fun, if I had multiple harps that were properly set up for overblows.

Right now, however, my C harp is it. Especially since I have to do a lot of reading for this band.

So I’ve been playing everything on one diatonic harmonica, pretty much. It’s hard! I’m glad I did a lot of scale homework over the last few years.

We’re playing songs from Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, and various combos nobody’s heard of, from the 20s and 30s.

Imagine you only have a C harp and you have to play: C blues, F blues, G major and minor, B-flat major, E-flat major, D minor. Some of those keys lay out well because they relate closely to the home key of C. But others, not so much…

On top of the scale work, to really approach anything like hipness, you’ve got to arpeggiate just about every chord in the tune. Over the course of a few songs, that can end up meaning playing in all 12 keys, albeit briefly. Which is a great accomplishment, and I want to get better at all that, but after a month of rehearsals, I figured there must be an easier way.

A few of the melodies required notes that were too low for my C harp, so I spent a couple of evenings working on a new B-flat harp, and boy, what a difference it makes. I’d only expected to get some lower notes, but I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that horns like to play in Bb, F, and Eb.

I seem to have stumbled by accident into the magic “key of jazz.” It might not work out for every song in the world, but for the setlist I’m working on, sure enough, using a B-flat harp, half my songs are now playable in 1st, 2nd and 3rd position. And the other half are possible using the same easy positions on a C harp.

Yes, overblows are still necessary, and yes, bending accurately on holes 2 and 3 is always a challenge. Keeping track of where you are as you switch positions to follow the chords is still a lot of mental math.

But using a B-flat harp on these songs puts those changes in slightly easlier positions (for me, at least). It’s a real relief. Here’s hoping that now that the “good notes” are more easily accessible, I can focus my mojo on making it all swing a little more.

PS: full disclosure, the picture above isn’t from my Vermont jazz class, it’s from an earlier workshop I participated in. But it IS pretty much what our rehearsals look like.

Visual Learning

Originally posted Oct 2014

note_chart_pointer-300x251Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to see what a harmonica player is playing, in real time? In my latest downloable harmonica lesson video, titled “Blues,” I added a split-screen view of a harmonica note chart, which I use to show you exactly what I’m playing.

I’ve been using diagrams with my students lately, and it really helps folks to put their finger on the chart and say “That’s where I am.” Draw notes are on the top row, blow notes on the bottom. In the lesson, I show you what I’m playing while I play it, and the visual element makes learning the riffs intuitive and spatial – less like reading music and more like learning “moves.”

Guitarists have always learned visually by watching others play, and I feel this approach has a lot to offer harmonica players.

Check out my new Blues harmonica lesson and watch the preview to see this visual learning approach in action.

Weird Sound On 7 Blow

Originally posted Aug 2014

weird_harpQuestion:

“I have a little bit of a problem with my harmonica when ever i blow into 7 its wavy is that normal or am i doing something wrong??”

Answer:

Sorry, I don’t really know what you mean by “wavy.” Maybe you’re
accidentally blowing two notes at the same time, like 6 and 7
together, or 7 and 8 together. In that case, try to isolate 7 and see
if it helps.

If you have a clear single note on 7 blow and the pitch drops
downward, you might be bending, in which case, ease off on the breath
pressure and relax your tongue.

Or, if the pitch drops regardless of what you do, you might have a
worn out reed that’s about to snap.

Or, if there’s a buzz or rattle, the reed could be misaligned and
hitting the edge of the slot.

Or there could be a bit of gunk on the reed. Rinse with water, tap
out, and let it drain with holes facing down. Poke gently with a
toothpick.

Good luck!

Harp Switching in “Love Me Do”

Originally posted July 2014

lennon_harp-298x300Until now, the bridge on the Beatles classic “Love Me Do” either required careful bending in the low octave, missing notes, or overblows.

Based on reader requests, I’ve created an alternate version of the bridge using harp switching, with a C and a G harp. No bent notes. Same melody.

According to experts, Lennon played a chromatic on the recording, and we’ve had to be creative on the diatonic to match the pitches.

Go check out my updated Love Me Do harmonica tab!

Pentatonic Scales in Cross Harp

Originally posted July 2014

Each position has strengths, but cross harp, also known as 2nd position, is so flexible and expressive that it’s worth your time to just live there for awhile, especially in the lower octave, from holes 1-6.

The minor and major pentatonic scales each have five distinct notes, then an octave repeat of the root note. The following examples use a C harmonica.

Minor Pentatonic in Cross Harp

-2	-3' 	4 	-4 	-5 	6
 G	 Bb	C	 D	 F	G

You’ll have to land on the 3 draw in a bent position, lowering it a half-step from the unbent position.

Major Pentatonic in Cross Harp

-2	-3"	-3	-4	5	6
 G	 A	 B	 D	E	G

For this one, you’ll need to land on the -3 draw, bent down a whole step.

Whoa! They’re Really Different!

Our normal minor and major scales, which I refer to as the “Do Re Mi” scales, each have seven notes. A pentatonic scale, by definition, leaves out two of those notes. And major and minor pentatonics leave out DIFFERENT notes.

G minor scale: G A Bb C D Eb F G
G minor pentatonic scale: G Bb C D F G

G major scale: G A B C D E F# G
G major pentatonic scale: G A B D E G

See what I mean?

The minor pentatonic skips the 2nd and the 6th notes of the seven-note Do-Re-Mi scale, which leaves us with notes 1,3,4,5,7,1.

The major pentatonic skips the 4th and 7th notes of the seven-note Do-Re-Mi scales, leaving just 1,2,3,5,6,1.

The High Octave

Major Pentatonic is no problem in the high octave:

6 	-6 	-7 	-8 	8 	9
G	 A	 B	 D	E	G

Once again, that’s root, major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 5th, major 6th, and the octave. No bends required!

Minor Pentatonic requires an overblow:

6	(6)	7	-8 	-9	9
G	Bb	C	 D	 F	G

We’ve got a root, a minor 3rd, a perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 7th, and octave.

To get the minor 3rd, the Bb in the key of G, you need to play an overblow on 6 blow. Overblows are played similarly to blow bends, except they’re played on “unbendable” blow notes on holes 1-6.

Unlike a blow bend, which lowers the pitch, an overblow results in a pitch that’s a half-step higher than the draw note. It’ll help your overblows if you take the coverplates off and adjust your reeds lower into the slot, a procedure called “gapping” or “adjusting reed offset.”

Before you learn to overblow, though, you’ll need blow bends. One way to start is to learn some first position, Jimmy Reed-style blues licks that require blow bends on 8,9,10. Then move the same technique over to the 6 blow in cross harp.

Conclusion

Cross harp is where it’s at. The low octave contains the history of the blues. Gotta get the bends on 3 draw dialed in – a half step for minor, a whole step for major. Learn your major and minor pentatonic scales in the low octave first, then move them up. There’s a strong case to be made for exploring the second octave of the minor pentatonic scale using an overblow on 6. If the lower octave contains the history of the blues, the higher octave may hold the future.

Need help with your bends? Download my bending lesson.