The Difference a B-flat Makes

I’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 Bichet, 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

note_chart_pointerWouldn’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

Harp QuestionsQuestion:

“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 on Love Me Do

Until 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 – Cross Harp

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.

Adjusting Reed Gaps

reed_gapHere’s an introduction to adjusting your reed gaps for better response, less air leakage, and easier bending. This technique is also essential for learning to overblow.

I recommend you experiment on an old harp, then move on to your good harps once you’ve had some practice.

What You’ll Need:
Old Harmonica
Small Screwdriver
Small slip of thin paper (receipt?)
Paperclip

What’s the Gap?
The reed “gap,” or “offset,” refers to angle of the reed above the reedplate. If you take the covers off and look at the reeds from different angles, you’ll see a small shadow along each reed. That’s the gap.

If the gap is too high, the reed will require more force to play, because more air is allowed to escape. As the gap is lowered, it takes less and less air to get the reed moving. In effect, the reed begins to respond more quickly. However, if you set the gap too low, it will jam, and refuse to play at normal volume. If you set a gap too low, you’ll need to lift the reed out of the slot slightly.

What To Aim For
Ideally, you’ll set the gap of each reed so that it plays easily at normal volume, but doesn’t leak air unnecessarily. Relatively speaking, lower pitched reeds like 1-3 need slightly wider gaps than middle-range reeds such as 4-7, while the high reeds, like 8-10, can be set even closer to the reedplate.

Remove Coverplates
Remove the coverplates with a small screwdriver. If you have a Marine Band that’s assembled with nails, you’ll need to do a little more research to learn how to take apart and reassemble your instrument. I can’t cover that here, so make your first gapping experiments on harps that are assembled with screws.

Visible Draw Reeds
You’ll see your draw reeds on outside of your lower reedplate. Each reed is attached with a rivet, with the other end swinging freely up and down like a diving board.

Press Near the Rivet
Most players have trouble controlling the 2 and 3 draw, so for your first experiment, use your thumbnail to press those draw reeds down closer into their slots. Press gently at the base of the reed, near the rivet pad, to avoid bending or curving the reed. We’d like to change the angle of the reed as it extends from the base, lowering it down slightly closer to the slot.

Plink the Reed
After you press the reed, use the edge of a piece of paper to flick the end of the reed up gently, making a “plink” sound. This will help the reed settle.

Play the Reed
Test the reed you’ve adjusted by playing the draw note. Try bending. Notice any changes. If there’s no change, press the reed (gently) closer into the slot, always applying pressure near the rivet end, then plink it again and play it.

Reed Won’t Play
At some point, you’ll probably press the reed too far into the slot. Never fear! Straighten out your paper clip or use your small screwdriver to reach deep inside the harp, through the comb (where you’d normally blow), and press the reed back outward again, always aiming your pressure so that it’s close to the rivet end of the reed. Raise the reed gap so that it again lies slightly above the edge of the reed plate, and it should play again. Always plink after making adjustments, to help the reed settle.

Super Close Isn’t Always Better
I think it’s generally a good idea to lower your gaps slightly for improved performance, but remember, if they’re too close, the reeds won’t play if you hit them hard. You probably play harder than you realize, so be sure to test any adjustments using both loud AND soft playing, so you’ll have a realistic sense of the reed’s response.

I know that when I first started adjust reed gaps, I set them all way too close, then realized I was getting frustrated because they’d stick whenever I tried to play them. Learn from my mistakes! Adjust your reeds slightly closer, but leave SOME gap, or they won’t play. Remember to plink constantly to help them settle.

Adjusting Blow Reeds
Your blow reeds are mounted inside the top reedplate. From the outside, you’ll see the slots with the reeds below them, inside the harp. You can adjust them without disassembling your harp – reach inside with a tool and press them upward into the slot to decrease the gap, or work from outside to increase the gap by pressing down through the slot (into the harp). You can’t plink the blow reeds while they’re still mounted to the comb, but for quick adjustment, this is the way to get started.

Think In Pairs
To improve bending, change the draw AND the blow for the hole in question.

Test the Limits
Adjusting your reed gaps can improve performance significantly, but it takes practice and each reed has to be tested. Go ahead and push one in too far on purpose, just to test the limits – press the reed all the way into the slot so it definitely won’t play, then test it, and bring it back by pressing outward from the opposite side. If you do this a few times, you’ll gain confidence that you’re not ruining anything permanently by adjusting your reed gaps.

Further Study
If you enjoying tinkering with your harmonicas and want to learn more about “harp tech,” I recommend visiting Richard Sleigh’s website HotRodHarmonicas.com Richard is a top customizer and I’ve learned a lot from his instructional materials. I’ve received no money to make this endorsement – it’s just a fact. Using his tools and techniques, my harps now work better and they’ve allowed me to improve as a player.

More Movies

store_screenshot_2I’ve been pretty busy with weekly lessons and performances, but in the last month and a half I managed to film and edit my next downloadable harmonica lesson video. This time, it’s an hour-long workshop on playing clear single notes.

Visit the Store for Previews and Downloads.

Just as with my previous lesson on bending, the bundle comes in three parts – the video lesson, a PDF e-booklet, and an audio-only version suitable for car practice or for students with limited vision. It’s a bargain at just $10.

With these two tutorials, I’ve laid out the core techniques for beginner and intermediate playing. Next on the agenda is what to DO with these techniques. Upcoming lessons should cover the next steps: position playing, modes, pentatonic scales, blues riffs and theory, Irish tunes. I’d also like to lay out some basic music theory, note reading, and ear training.

Do you have any lesson requests? Let me know.

Cross Harp Ear Training with Shania Twain

ShaniaI received a request for the harp solo from Shania Twain’s 1995 song “No One Needs to Know” from a reader named Alexus. I don’t have time to do a transcription, but if you have the right harps in hand, it might be a good project for you, the reader, to get some practice figuring things out by ear.

Even if you’re not a modern country fan, the info below and the general approach will help you with any cross harp song.

First, you’ll need to listen to it, so – here's the song.

Harp Keys:

From 0:00-2:00ish, it’s a high F harmonica

From 2:00ish – end, it’s a high G harmonica

Position:

The position is “cross harp,” also known as second position, and the scale being used is the major pentatonic scale.

That means the home base is the low draw chord, and your strong melody notes are going to be -2, -3, -4 and 6. Note that on the low end, your chord tones are all draw notes, except for that 6 blow.

The licks you hear will frequently use a whole step bend on the 3 draw, followed by a slide over to 2 draw or 4 draw on the same breath.

Major Pentatonic Scale:

To warm up, practice the major pentatonic scale in cross harp. Here’s the tab:

Low octave:

-2 -3″ -3 -4 5 6

6 5 -4 -3 -3″ -2

High octave:

6 -6 -7 -8 8 9

9 8 -8 -7 -6 6

Some Extra Low Notes
(not a full scale, but still useful)

-2 2 -1 2 -2

The Process:

Pick up your high F harp for the first half of the song. Listen for long, sustained harmonica notes, and try to match those pitches. Then switch to the high G for the second half of the song after the key change.

For the longer runs that contain more notes, it’ll probably be bits of the major pentatonic scale, starting on one of your cross harp chord tones: -2,-3,-4, 6.

One more thought: this tune requires two slightly weird harp keys, an F and a high G, which makes me think I probably oughta do another exercise like this using a song that calls for more widely-owned keys, like C, A, D, or regular low G. I’ll put that idea in the hopper and get to it later.

Anyhow, have fun and happy experimenting!

Howard Levy Workshop

duck_groupThis past week, I traveled from chilly New England down to the small coastal town of Duck, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for a 5-day harmonica workshop with jazz virtuoso Howard Levy. The setting was beautiful. A beach house with big windows overlooking the ocean waves, a stormy sky, sea birds flying by.

Where Ya From?
Howard traveled to us from Chicago, and the rest of us flew and drove in from NYC, Philly, north Georgia, New Hampshire, Connecticut, plus one student who flew in from Mexico but lives most of the year in the Yukon Territory in Alaska.

Technical Background
Five of us were overblow / pucker players who use tongue blocking for octaves, one was primarily a TB player who also used TB overblows, and one student got his first whisper of an OB on the 6 blow with coaching and reed adjustment by Howard. Congrats, Tom!

Tunes
Over the course of several days, we worked with tunes ranging from jazz standards, to Bach, blues, bluegrass, Eastern European folk, swing, and a Hindustani raga.

One highlight, song-wise, was Howard’s spontaneous adaptation of a recording of a tune played by a Romanian musician whose instrument was a fish scale, mouth-blown like kids do with a blade of grass – it sounded kind of like an oboe. Howard played it in either the 7th or 10th position, and was able to achieve a remarkably similar sound by placing the melody notes on overblows and bending them up in imitation of the Baltic “upwards vibrato” sound.

Technique
Techniques we explored included sweep arpeggios, melodic breath patterns, rhythm harp articulations, and harp in a cup.

Naturally, to play the melodies, we also needed bends and overblows, and Howard gave us feedback and pointers where needed.

A frequent theme was the goal of maintaining a supported, connected sound while changing breath directions.

Scale Work
Over the course of the workshop, we started out playing stuff using the diatonic modes, looked at some of the modes of the pentatonic scale, and to get further into jazz, we introduced the melodic minor scale and its modes.

Which Harp?
One of the great pleasures of playing diatonic harmonica is the art of experimenting with different harp keys and positions to find the one which best suits a particular tune. We played most of the workshop on C harps, for ease of naming notes, but branched out to match the standard keys for various tunes. A typical puzzle: Body and Soul shifts keys from Db to D to C – what key harp is the best to cover all three? Musical considerations aside, the mental challenge of key transposition is a great way to stave off Alzheimers, knock on wood.

Conclusion
I got some good stuff to work on, and gained insight into my own growing edges. An example: play longer 8th note lines with accents and full tone. As always, it was great to gather with other intrepid harmonica fanatics and talk shop. Margie from Class Acts on Tour was a fabulous host and cooked us amazing meals. Speaking for myself, Howard continues to inspire with his musical genius, his care and generosity as a teacher, and his commitment to playing soulful music without limits.

Irish Harmonica – Ms McLeod’s Reel

golden_melody_green_combHappy Saint Patrick’s Day! In honor of the day, I’ve posted the tab for a new Irish fiddle tune – Ms McLeod’s Reel.

Listen to the wee demo I recorded this afternoon, using diatonic harmonica, banjo ukulele, and acoustic guitar.

My arrangement uses a G harmonica, played in first position (straight harp). You can play it on any harmonica, the tab will sound fine, but you’ll want to use a G if you try it out at your local session.

Ready to play? Put on your green socks and head over to Ms McLeod’s harmonica tab page!