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Jamming with the Blues Harp

Updated on February 26, 2012

Learning Tips for Beginners

The most important step is to buy the right instrument, and treat it with respect. Don't smoke or drink anything besides water before playing. Many begin with a Hohner "Blues" Harp, which is best because the metal reeds inside are not too stiff to bend and not too soft, so they last a long time. I also vary the mix with other Hohner types: Marine Bands, which have pretty good sound but a little stiffer reeds, and Special 20's, which are the favorites of many experienced players because they are easier on the lips and, in my experience, can be played a little faster .

These harps can be costly in music stores, though bargains can be found on Amazon and similar sites. Start with the key of "C." It is the most common. If you can afford it, get an "A" and and "E" as well for comparison. Generally speaking, the higher keys like E and F are going to be easier to "bend" on the lower end of the harp. All of these are diatonic harps with only 10 holes, so they are easy to learn.

Bending notes is going to be essential for playing blues, but it's not necessary to start that way. Beginners should find books that start with baby steps, such as playing "Old Susannah" and other classic folk songs, with arrows showing to blow out or suck in on the numbered holes. Practice in your bedroom with the door shut at first: it's going to take some practice before people (and dogs) stop covering their ears. Once you have five or six songs learned, it's time to progress from playing "straight harp" to wailing some blues.

"Bending" creates that eerie, mournful, soulfull, heart-rendering, crying sound unique to the blues. Every harp player bends differently: I cheat a little by pointing the harp slightly upwards creating a little air pocket under my tongue that alters the air flow, and drawing in hard. I never cover any of the holes with my tongue, but rather play one at a time. It works for me, and nobody has complained about my tone in 40 years of playing.

Start out by listening to a song with bent notes, then try playing along. Bending alters the key being played. For example, a C harp plays in G when bent, known as "cross-harp." Don't worry about the technical stuff at first: just play the song! If you are playing the right harp key, it will sound right. Keep changing how you breath, the angle of the harp, how it's being held, and the position of your tongue until you can mimic the same sound as the recording. Everyone's style will be their own, so don't worry if yours is different. Just make sure to play around a microphone sometimes so you're used to playing into it.

Within a few weeks, your passion and persistence will pay off with a song or two that make people tap their feet and listen. Within six months, when people tell you not to stop playing, you will know you're on the right track. Within a year or so, you will become good enough to learn harder songs and start developing a reputation.

Follow your heart, and your ear.

Find a local mentor to listen to live if you can. Also pick a favorite legendary harp player to follow. I started with the best, "Little Walter" Jacobs of the Muddy Waters band. Start by playing one of their easier songs. You don't have to know music theory, just have an ear for it. If you don't how to read music and figure out keys, just play your harp at the same time as the song is playing and listen for the fit. After a few times, you will know if you're in the right key or not. Repitition is the key. If you want to be good, practice at least 15 minutes every day. That's a secret that creates success because that 15 minutes becomes an hour very easily. It's the law of inertia. If you have the basic talent inside of you, your practicing will bring it out.


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