Blog

Diminished Tuning

I recently got a diminished-tuned diatonic harmonica from Seydel, using their custom tuning service, and it’s really fun and logical.

The Bad News

“Wait, this harmonica doesn’t work!” If you just blow and draw, nothing sounds good. In Diminished Tuning, you have to be conscious of your scale pattern, and you’ll have to play lots of half-step bends. Also, a ten hole harp doesn’t quite cover three octaves in Diminished Tuning, so you either have to live with reduced range, or get a 12-hole model.

The Good News

In Diminished Tuning, for each scale and lick, there are only 3 breath patterns, and the only bends required are small, half-step draw bends. This approach will cover you for all 12 keys. If you’re a minimalist and only want to carry one blues harp, Diminished Tuning is extremely attractive. Especially if you love playing melodies and improv that don’t fit easily on a Richter-Tuned harp.

Moveable Shapes

The three patterns are based on the location of the tonic note: there’s one pattern that starts on the blow, one pattern that starts on the draw, and one pattern that starts on the draw bend. Playing by ear is easy, just find the tonic note and ask yourself, “Is this a blow, a draw, or a draw bend?” then play the pattern that matches.

Here are some examples, starting at Hole 1, but which can be moved to any other hole with the same relationships.

Major Pentatonic Scale

Blow Position

          _____________________
Draw Note |X|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|
Draw Bend |_|X|X|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|
Blow Note |X|_|_|X|X|_|_|_|_|_|

Draw Bend Position

          _____________________
Draw Note |_|X|X|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|
Draw Bend |X|_|_|X|X|_|_|_|_|_|
Blow Note |_|X|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|

Draw Position

          _____________________
Draw Note |X|_|_|X|X|_|_|_|_|_|
Draw Bend |_|X|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|
Blow Note |_|_|X|X|_|_|_|_|_|_|

Note Layout

Here are the notes, if you started with a C on 1 blow. Notice that every blow and draw are a whole step apart, with a half-step bend available in between. Simply by playing blow, draw-bend, draw, you get a full chromatic scale.

Draw Note  D   F   Ab   B    D   F    Ab   B    D    F   
Draw Bend  Db  E   G    Bb   Db  E    G    Bb   Db   E   
Blow Note  C   Eb  Gb   A    C   Eb   Gb   A    C    Eb 
Hole #     1   2   3    4    5   6    7    8    9    10

Is This The End of Overblows?

Rest assured, I’m not abandoning standard Richter tuning and the overblow approach to chromaticity. Mainly because I’m used to it, but also because I like the deeper bends on holes 2, 3 and 10, I like the full three octave range on 10 holes, and I like the direct connection to the playing of great players of the past. Plus, standard tuning plays in a single primary key MUCH more easily than diminished tuning does.

But I really like the logic and ease of play of diminished tuning, especially for covering all keys and scale types on a single 10-hole blues harp. Yes, practice is required to get good intonation on the half-step draw bends, and the interval relationships from hole to hole are new.

But even after just a week, I’m confident that I actually could play a whole pop-rock gig with just one diminished harp. I’d have to keep things simple, but I think I could do it. I mean, heck, it’s just three patterns. Find the tonic note, and go!

Where to Get One?

I retuned an old Hohner Blues Harp for my first experiments, then ordered one custom tuned from Seydel, using their Harp Configurator. It cost about $80 and took about three weeks to ship from Germany. Another option would be to reach out to a domestic harmonica technician near you and request a quote for retuning.

Moonwalk Leapfrog

Here’s a fun variation on the basic Leapfrog scale pattern – it’s a step backwards, then a leapfrog forward.

Imagine a frog that moonwalks backwards one place, then hops over the next frog.

For our example here, let’s use the 1st position major pentatonic scale, played on a C harmonica, in the middle octave to minimize bends.

Major Pentatonic Scale

C  D  E  G  A  C
4 -4  5  6 -6  7

and

C  A  G  E  D  C
7 -6  6  5 -4  4

Going up, this should sound kind of like the opening riff from “My Girl,” by The Temptations.

Moonwalk Leapfrog Pattern

First we go up…

 D  C      E  D
-4  4      5 -4

 G  E      A  G
 6  5     -6  6

 C  A      D  C
 7 -6     -8  7

…then we come back down.

 A  C     G  A
-6  7     6 -6

 E  G     D  E
 5  6    -4  5

 C  D     A  C
 4 -4    -3" 4

Extra High, Extra Low Notes

Notice that because of the leapfrog approach, we end up shooting past the C on both ends, and grabbing an extra note on the outside edges of our octave. Going up, that means a high D on the 8 draw and coming down, that means a low A on the 3 draw, whole step bend.

That low A is the only bend required when you play this pattern in the middle octave. Play it if you can, and if you don’t have that bend yet, focus on playing the rest of this pattern fluidly.

Other Positions

A good next step with the Moonwalk Leapfrog pattern would be to try it with the second position major pentatonic scale, starting at 2 draw. Then try the 12th position major pentatonic scale, starting on 2 draw, whole step bend.

I like taking the same scale through different positions, because your ear will recognize the sound, even though you’re starting relatively higher or lower. That’s why we’re focusing here on one sound, the major pentatonic scale.

Minor Pentatonic

But of course, this will also work with the minor pentatonic scale. Build your cross harp blues skills by trying this on the second position minor pentatonic scale, and the relative minors of the positions previously discussed – 4th position minor pentatonic (same as 1st pos maj pent), 5th position minor pentatonic (same as 2nd pos maj pent) and 3rd position minor pentatonic (same as 12th pos maj pent).

Scale Degrees

Did I just totally make your head spin by talking about other positions and scale relationships? That’s ok. Take the first part of this article and get comfortable with it. As you move along, you might want to spend some time studying scales and patterns in terms of scale degrees, for example, in the key of C, the note C is 1, the note D is 2, the note E is 3, etc. This will help you move musical ideas (scales, melodies) more easily from one position to another.

Just Like A Woman


Bob Dylan Solo Transcription
I recently posted a short lesson video covering the recorded intro and outro solos for Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.” The solos use an E harmonica, and are played in 1st position, with single notes which open periodically into doublestops.

Learn to Sing It
The solo melodies are based on the vocal melody for the verse and chorus, so I recommend learning to sing the vocal, since it will give you the outline for the solo and help you play it better by ear.

I can hear the protests – “C’mon! I just want to play harmonica!” – but in order to play the harmonica well, you have to develop your ear. And singing is the simplest way to train your ear. Plus, bands love it when players can sing backup, so it will make you more valuable as a bandmate. Learn to sing the songs you play, and you’ll find it so much easier to make the songs speak on the harp.

Visit my Tabs page for more free harmonica tabs.

Need a tutorial on how to read harmonica tab?

I Was Made To Love Her

Intro
For this post, I transcribed Stevie Wonder’s intro solo on “I Was Made To Love Her,” and adapted it to play on 10-hole diatonic harmonica. Stevie played the original solo on a C chromatic harmonica, and my goal was to try and play it as faithfully as possible on the blues harp.

Which Position and Which Key?
“I Was Made To Love Her” is in F major, but the solo contains bluesy minor sounds. What harp and what position would be good for bluesy minor sounds in F? The meat and potatoes blues solution would be 2nd position on a B-flat harp. All the notes are there, from hole 2-6, but it sounds an octave lower than the recording. And the higher octave, holes 6-9, requires an overblow on hole 6. Another option would be first position, up high on an F harp, from holes 7-10. This puts you in the right octave and all the notes are there, but only if you have strong blow bend skills. Most beginners play blow bends better on low harps, I find, and an F is the highest harp most people own. So in the end, I decided to use 3rd position on an E-flat harp, since it gave me the octave I wanted, with a minor sound, and only one really crucial bend.

Eb Harmonica
Many students tend to favor harps in the keys of G, A, Bb, C. In comparison, E-flat is kind of a high harp. But since most of the song is played in the middle octave without bends, the short, stiff reeds actually work for us, by making the harp more responsive and snappy.

Three Challenges
1) Play the 8 draw gently, or it will stall.
2) Go easy on the 5 draw bend, it’s only a quarter tone bend, and you don’t have much wiggle room.
3) The last note, -3″, will require practice. Three draw with a whole step bend can be tricky to dial in on your normal harp, and it will feel different on a higher-pitched Eb harp. But even if you NEVER get that last note, the other 99% of the tune should sound great immediately, as long as you have clear single notes and go easy on the 8 draw and 5 draw.

Spoon Bending – Improve Your 3 Draw Bend

Landing consistently on the 3 draw with a half-step bend is essential for cross harp blues, and it’s especially important if a song is in a minor key. As many have noted, you can play minor over a major song, but you can’t play major over a minor song.

For example, if a song is in E major and you grab your A harmonica to play cross harp, you can either play cross harp major (unbent 3 draw) or cross harp minor (bent 3 draw). Major will sound sweet, minor will sound bluesy.

However, if a song is in E minor, you can only play cross harp minor. Gotta land on the 3 draw with a half-step bend, every time. Playing an unbent 3 draw during a minor key song is the musical equivalent of chewing aluminum foil or scratching a chalkboard with your fingernails.

Ear Training

Building consistency with your 3 draw, half-step bend is a challenge in two parts. Sure, it’s about your bending technique, but it’s also about your ear. If you can’t hum, whistle, or sing the notes you want, you won’t be able to tell if you’re in tune or not. And staring at an electronic tuner is not an option when you’re in the middle of playing a song. You have to know the SOUND you’re aiming for.

This is why Adam Gussow’s “Spoonful” exercise is so perfectly on the money. It’s a dead-simple riff that everybody knows – and if you don’t know it, listen to my demo (or to Howlin’ Wolf or Cream) and after about 20 seconds you’ll have it in your head forever.

Spoonful

-2    -3'    
That spoon   

-2    -3'    
That spoon   

-2    -3'    -2
That spoon - ful

Spoonful, played on C harp
What To Do
Listen to the song, get it in your head, then sing, hum, or whistle that part to yourself. Now try to play it on your harp. The “spoon” part has got to be bent slightly, or it sounds too bright. It just doesn’t sound like the song unless you get that bend. Make it sound like you’re singing it, every time, and you’ll be on your way to a more consistent 3 draw half-step bend.

3rd Position on a G harp

Musical Crossword Puzzles
I’m kind of a music theory nut. I just like playing scales, and I enjoy the puzzle of figuring out what scale and what position works best on a particular song. Practicing scales has made me more confident when I’m improvising or trying to figure out a melody by ear.

Third Position
Popular songs are great examples to think about in terms of their scale position. Lately I’ve been calling 3rd position the “Carlos Santana position,” because the Dorian minor scale, easily played in 3rd position, is used on “Soul Sacrifice,” “Oye Como Va,” and other Santana classics. But third position isn’t just for psychedelic Latin blues-rock! It works over lots of minor-key songs.

Last Dance with Mary Jane
For example, the Tom Petty song “Last Dance with Mary Jane” has harp breaks in the key of A-minor. Based on my own listening and experimenting, I think his specific harp part is played on a G harp in 3rd position. Before we get to the specific riff, though, take a second and practice the scale:

-4  5  -5  6  -6  -7   7  -8
 A  B   C  D   E   F#  G   A

This pattern will give you a third position minor scale on any harmonica, but on a G harp, it gives you these specific note names in the key of A minor.

What About the Riff?
For the Mary Jane riff, aim for 6 draw and follow this pattern:

Draw
Blow-Draw-Blow
Draw-Blow-Draw

Move slightly left (lower in pitch) while following this breath pattern, and you’ll figure out the part by ear. Remember to check with the original so you know how it’s supposed to sound. Put on the recording, listen, then sing it back to yourself.

Learn the Scale!
I highly recommend learning the 3rd position minor scale, starting on 4 draw, ending on 8 draw, and playing it up and down, forward and backward. Why? Because it gives you a roadmap that will contain Mary Jane’s Last Dance and other songs played in 3rd position, so the next time you come across a minor-key song played in 3rd position, you’ll pick it up faster.

More 3rd Position Songs

With your G harmonica, you can jam along and even figure out melodies to the following songs:

Soul Sacrifice – Santana

Oye Como Va – Santana

Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin

Moondance – Van Morrison

If you get deeply into these songs, you’ll notice that Stairway and Moondance have a few spots where 3rd position doesn’t fit. For those spots, maybe switch to a C harp and play 4th position. Or you could stay on the G harp and avoid the 7 draw at those moments.

Rolling in the Deep

I got an email from a student recently – his band plays “Rolling in the Deep,” by Adele, in the key of C minor. What key harp to use?

Cross Harp on an F

2nd position on an F harmonica gives you C minor, as long as you’re precise about the 3 draw. EVERY time you hit it, make sure you land on it pre-bent a half step. If you play the 3 draw unbent, it will sound major, which is a lousy sound over a minor key song. Here’s the scale:

-2 -3′ 4 -4 -5 6

Also, unless you’re used to playing high harps, an F harp might be a little stiff feeling, especially when that precise bend on -3′ is required ALL the time. A low F might be nicer. Finally, even though cross harp is the most comfortable and familiar position for most players, it wouldn’t be my first choice. Personally, I’d go for 3rd or 5th positions.

5th Position on an Ab

An Ab harp will give you C minor in 5th position. Fifth position is great if you’re already comfortable with the MAJOR cross harp sound and can bend the 3 draw a whole step. Here’s the 5th position minor pentatonic scale:

2 -2 -3″ -3 -4 5

Compare to the 2nd position major pentatonic:

-2 -3″ -3 -4 5 6

Same notes, but starting and ending one note lower than normal.

3rd Position on a Bb

A B-flat harp gives you C minor, when you play in 3rd position. This is probably the easiest, once you’re used to it, especially the middle octave:

-4 -5 6 -6 7 -8

No bends required! The opening breath pattern (Draw Draw Blow Draw) is similar to cross harp, just starting on 4 draw instead of 2 draw. And you can bend on 6 draw for a flat-5 sound.

4th position on an Eb

Similar to straight harp (1st position), but with the root on -3″. Since your low root is a bent note, you have to learn to land there with confidence. Work on landing directly on your bent notes, rather than sliding every time.

-3″ 4 -4 5 6 -6

In the low octave, you won’t have a flat-5th unless you can overblow on hole 4, so when you also consider that Eb is also kind of a high-pitched harp, it’s not my first choice for bluesy sounds. For simply playing dark, minor sounds along the Do-Re-Mi seven-note scale, though, I’m all for it! Here’s the 4th position minor scale (7 notes):

-3″ -3 4 -4 5 -5 6

6th Position on a Db Harp

Just to be complete, let’s not forget that a D-flat harp will give you C minor if you play in 6th position. And the minor pentatonic scale is super easy using the middle octave in 6th position, no bends required. That is, as long as you don’t mind having a flat-5th ALL the time. Here it is…

-3 -4 5 -5 -6 -7

If you step carefully, it’s a really easy, dark, bluesy pathway. However, it’s easy to make unintentional international sounds by accidentally playing 4 or 7 blow and getting a flat 2 sound. That move gives you a flamenco, Arabic, klezmer-type sound, which is probably not stylistically appropriate, even if you have a fearless, boundary-crossing musical outlook.

Actually, I suppose 5th position holds a similar peril around the 5 draw. So whichever way you go, remember to practice the scale, learn your pathway, and be patient with yourself. Try not to jump out of your skin and become totally mortified when you hit weird notes. Everybody plays weird notes sometimes. Find your way back to the root and minor 3rd and hang there as needed.

Conclusion

If I were playing C minor with a band on “Rolling in the Deep,” I’d probably use an Ab harmonica in 5th position, or a Bb harp in 3rd position. Since I overblow, both those positions give me the option of a 7-note diatonic mode or a 5-note pentatonic scale. But even if you don’t overblow yet, 5th position gives you minor pentatonic using only standard technique and 3rd position works without any bends at all!

Footnote

This advice assumes you’re playing fills and pure improv, not the song melody itself. The song melody uses the Aeolian minor, which is a minor with a flat 6th scale degree. It’s nice sometimes to follow the lead singer with the actual melody, so if you want that option, you gotta use 5th position in the low octave, or 4th position anywhere you like. 3rd position middle octave doesn’t have a flat-6th, unless you play an overblow on 6 blow, or transpose those phrases down an octave.

Surviving An E-Minor Emergency

E-Minor Emergency Scenario

Let’s say the band wants to jam in E-minor. Being a cross harp enthusiast, normally you’d grab an A harp and play 2nd position (cross harp) using the minor pentatonic scale (-2 -3′ 4 -4 -5 6). But when you reach into your bag, all you can find is a C harmonica! Is there no hope?! Must you sit down and give up all that free beer?!

Never fear – you can prepare for this emergency right now, by brushing up on the MAJOR version of the pentatonic scale. We’re going to use a hidden feature of the diatonic scale system to solve this problem…

2nd Position MAJOR Pentatonic Scale

-2 -3″ -3 -4 5 6

On a C harp, second position gives you G major. “Ok,” you say, “but how does playing in G major help me with an E-minor song?” Here’s the secret: because G major is the RELATIVE MAJOR of E minor, they’re basically the same scale. If you are comfortable playing 2nd position MAJOR pentatonic, you’re also covered for songs that use the relative MINOR.

Relative Major / Relative Minor

Relative major and relative minor have a special relationship, where the root note of the minor scale is a step and a half lower than the root note of the major scale. The note E is a step and a half lower than the note G. So if you’re playing the G MAJOR pentatonic scale, it’s exactly the same notes as the E MINOR pentatonic scale. This actually simplifies things for you: the same scale pattern will fit over two different song keys (G major and E minor).

5th Position

Anyhow, if you want to zero in even closer to the perfect Em position, try starting and finishing on E notes – that’s the 2 blow and the 5 blow on the C harp. Now the scale looks like this:

2 -2 -3″ -3 -4 5

You have just learned to play the 5th position MINOR pentatonic scale! It should feel pretty much exactly the same as the 2nd position MAJOR pentatonic scale, it just starts and finishes a little bit lower, and on blow notes. But the notes in the middle lay out the same.

Try it out – grab your C harp, practice the 5th position minor pentatonic scale a few times, then dial up some E minor songs and start jamming. Here are just a few:

E-Minor Song Examples

Come As You Are – Nirvana
Enter Sandman – Metallica
Got My Mojo Workin’ – Muddy Waters
Living on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
On the Road Again – Canned Heat
Riders on the Storm – The Doors
Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd

Footnote

Please note, blues scholars, I’m not saying Alan Wilson or James Cotton played 5th position on “On the Road Again” or “Mojo Working.” Interestingly, since much of what they play has a minor feel, you CAN pick up many of their licks in 5th position on a C harp. However, if you want to REALLY get their parts the way they played them, you’ll need an A harp, played in 2nd position. And in the case of Blind Owl’s parts, you’ll need to tune up your 6 draw a half-step. At any rate, I included these two songs because they’re both awesome blues songs for jamming, and 5th position on a C harp gives you some cool sounds in the key of E minor.

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.