No More Excuses
By David Barrett
I’m writing this article sitting in a plane on the way back from the SPAH convention (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica). At last night’s blues jam (hosted by Joe Filisko) the focus was on country blues and any blues progression other than twelve bar. It was tons of fun. Though I was able to hold my own, it was obviously time for me to get MUCH better at dealing with non-twelve bar blues progressions—I was really racking my brain to hear the chord changes and find something to play that would sound nice. The younger talented players (pro or getting ready to go pro) were very versed at this, and it became very obvious to me that the playing field has changed. If you fancy yourself as an accomplished diatonic harmonica player, you have to be fluid with ALL chords, not just the standard I7, IV7 and V7. It’s time to get to work!
Let’s start with the basics—which notes match the three blues chords for each hole on the harmonica in second position. This is your first step in moving from being an intuitive player to a purposeful player. This knowledge is also imperative for accompaniment playing.
Grab your C harmonica and let’s dig into blues in the key of G.
We’ll start by listing the notes in the Key of G Major. Memorize this scale.
G A B C D E F# G
The three chords used for the twelve bar blues progression are as follows. Memorize these chords.
I7 = G B D F
IV7 = C E G B-flat
V7 = D F# A C
Here’s the same information in graph form:
Now here’s the note layout of the C Harmonica. Memorize this.
These notes can be found by playing the following holes. As you continue to work on memorizing the chords and where the notes are found on the harmonica you won’t need this chart.
Here’s the twelve bar blues progression for reference:
There are some challenging bends involved in the following exercises, especially on the V7 chord. Take your time and dial in your half step bends to make sure you’re playing in tune—this is imperative if you want to sound good. A bend slightly out of pitch can be very dissonant.
The following two examples are presented in the common Charleston accompaniment rhythm.
Ex. 1 – Hole 1
Ex. 2 – Hole 2
Follow this process for each hole on the harmonica. Also experiment with different combinations. Notice how Example 2 used the 2 blow for the IV7 Chord (third of the chord)—you can also choose to stay on the 2 draw (fifth of the chord). Explore these options. It’s important to say the note names in your mind as you play them. As I play the I7 Chord I’m talking to myself, saying “2 draw… G… G is the root note of the one chord.” For the IV7 Chord I say “2 blow… E… E is the third of the four chord.” For the V7 Chord I say “F-sharp… F-sharp is the third of the five chord.” This is essential to this study… don’t skip this.
Now that you’ve spent a couple of days per hole on the harmonica (expect this to take about a month’s time of daily practice) you’re ready to move to arpeggio playing (playing the whole chord one note at a time). I’ve done this for you on the first three holes for Example 3. Like in the pervious examples, I’m not providing the rest of the holes for you—YOU must do this. YOU must work on these yourself to get your brain engaged in this process. Reading the music notation is of no help—YOU need to be part of the creation process.
Ex. 3 – Arpeggio Exercise for Holes 1 through 3
In our next issue we’ll explore the ii7 and vi7 chords.
About the Author David Barrett