Beginning Blues Harmonica Songs? Do they Exist?
By David Barrett
The following forum question to me offers our discussion for this article…
“Hello David, please tell me what would be the most important songs for every beginner to learn? I’ve just finished [insert study material here]… and I am looking for great songs that I can learn with my level of skill. Can you please suggest a short list of songs to learn alongside with my regular lessons?” Signed, LearningTheHarp
My initial reaction was that they don’t exist. For a blues harmonica song to exist, it’s assumed the player has reached a high enough proficiency level to warrant recording their work for prosperity. These players use all of the skill sets they posses to present their music and, as you know, each blues harmonica technique requires focused practice, with some of them requiring many years of daily attention to sound musical. This leads us to the fact that a proficient blues harmonica player incorporates many techniques in each lick they play. Check out the common blues harmonica lick below. Though it’s one of my favorite licks, there’s nothing special about it—it’s not fast, nor is it considered to be a very difficult lick by blues harmonica standards. So, here it is…
Let’s talk about the skills required to play each note in this lick.
The 3+ can be puckered or tongue blocked—your choice. The skill here is to play a single note.
The 3 is dipped (that’s what the little caret indicates above the note head), which requires the player to start at a half step bend and release it quickly to normal pitch. To start in a bend requires mastery of the third level of bending proficiency.
The 4 is slapped (indicated by the open circle above the note head), which is produced by your mouth being over four holes, first sounding the draw chord (holes 1 through 4) and then placing your tongue on holes 1 through 3, resulting with the 4 sounding.
You then slap the 6+.
The 5 is presented with a slap and then continues as a flutter (indicated by the three slashes on the stem of the note). The flutter is created by alternating between the single note (tongue on the harmonica) and the chord (tongue off the harmonica), resulting in a cool wash of sound.
The triplets (5 6+ 5) use exaggerated slaps, which essentially means to start your chord early for each slap so that the passage is exaggerated.
The 4 starts with a dip (slight bend) and is blended with just a touch of 5 (maybe 30% vibration of the 5) to achieve a more dirty sound. This sounds simple, but it takes focused practice to control how much of the upper note sounds in the texture—too much 5 will overpower the 4.
You then slide into a deep bend on the 4 (notated as 4’) followed by the 3 draw unbent. To do this means that the player has mastered the second level of bending proficiency—to bend a note and then play a non-bent note without unintentionally bending this second note.
Then the 2.
Then 3’, which requires the fourth level of bending proficiency, to be able to control the middle bends—the half steps found on the 3 and 2 on the harmonica.
And finally, though not notated, a tremolo and decay added to the final 2.
Wow… and this is an average lick!
To make all of this more challenging, the rude reality is that 99+% of the music recorded on the harmonica is not notated. Can you imagine hearing all of the techniques for that lick from just the recording? This leads to LearningTheHarp’s response to my, “sorry, you’re out of luck” answer…
“Hello David, I just read your answer again and realized that I have three options…
#1. I can try to learn (prematurely) new technique and struggle with trying to get the correct sound, etc… fail and get discouraged, which is what I think you are warning me of, i.e., ‘don’t try to bite off more that you can chew!!’…
#2. The other option is to learn in the simplest way without any frills… the note movement—at least the ones I can get by listening and only playing what technique I know—and enjoy the song and increase my knowledge of how different note movements sound… while I continue with your lessons and learn new stuff that I can then incorporate into what I learnt…
#3. Or just stick with your lessons and have patience… I know with your teaching method—If I follow it closely—I will eventually learn all that I need to learn.”
The fact exists that I and my peers, as well as the great players that preceded us, learned without a teacher by ear (though most of us had some help along the way… for me it was Gary Smith… thanks Gary!). No serious blues harmonica books, cds or videos existed more than fifteen years ago (I know, because I wrote the first one! . In other words, we learned from our mistakes. Or, we learned from trying… making mistakes… and then visiting past material over and over through the years, picking up the technique we didn’t, or couldn’t hear, in the past. Nobody wanted to go through this long, daunting process, but we had a passion and there was no other way to go about it… so that’s what we did. With this said… harmonica players don’t have to go through this any more.
Let’s get back to LearningTheHarp’s list of options…
Item #1 is how we learned, but you don’t have to. I’ve put thousands of hours into decoding technique and writing lessons to help students achieve their goals. So, I guess it’s a “no” to #1… there’s too much wasted time and danger of encoding wrong technique… he’ll have to relearn it and in the end it will take him longer. He’s better off focusing on the beginning LESSON material available on the market and waiting on the more advanced discipline of studying artists’ songs down the road. Keep in mind that once LearningTheHarp has reached an advanced proficiency in his lesson material he’ll be able to do this on his own. He’ll have already learned all of the common blues harmonica techniques and will be able to recognize these techniques when used in a song. Learning songs will just be an exercise in where to place those techniques in the context of the licks he’s learning… a great reward for all of his hard work in the lesson material!
Choice #2 makes a lot of sense as long as it doesn’t take time away from his primary lesson material.
Choice #3 is the surest way to learn, avoiding wrong turns before they happen. I have over twenty years of full-time teaching and writing experience and know every twist and turn of the learning process. I know what mistakes he’s going to make before he makes them… because thousands of students have made them before him. Each individual is of course—well… individual—though my instruction method has found the best path for most and will most likely do just fine for him.
So… back to the original question: is there such a thing as a “beginning blues harmonica song?” Yes, but I’ve written them for you… and believe me, they’re MUCH harder to write than advanced songs. It’s very challenging to write something bluesy when you have to pull out many of the common techniques used on the blues harp—but this is the necessary process… building blocks to success instead of stumbling blocks to failure.
With this said… there ARE songs out there by professional players that happen to—by pure coincidence—not use a lot of technique and are accessible by players with only a couple years of experience. Listed below are some of these songs. Keep in mind that you’ll not be able to play ALL of the passages, but the majority of the songs will be approachable.
- 1. “Need My Baby” by Big Walter Horton (Fine Cuts)
- 2. “Easy” by Big Walter Horton (Blues Masters, Vol. 4: Harmonica Classics)
- 3. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Big Walter Horton (Fine Cuts)
- 4. “Sharp Harp” by George “Harmonica” Smith (West Coast Down Home Harmonica)
- 5. “Scratch My Back” by Slim Harpo (The Best Of Slim Harpo)
- 6. “Blue Midnight” by Little Walter (A Proper Introduction to Little Walter)
About the Author David Barrett
Thank you to Diane Smith for Proof Reading!