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10 Steps to Becoming a Harmonica Super Star

Updated on July 17, 2008

Learn to Play Blues Harmonica

Playing a harmonica is one of the easiest things in the world to do. It is the only instrument that you play just by breathing.

Playing harmonica well, being a Harmonica Super Star, is very difficult, but not impossible.

Whether you want to play like John Popper, Little Walter, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or Clint Black, just follow these 10 easy steps and soon you'll be playing like a Harmonica Super Star.

You too can be a Harmonica Super Star

I've been playing harp for almost 20 years, and I'm still no damn good at it. I know why. It's because I have to invest my time and effort towards the goal of becoming a good harp player, something I don't do. I have a life and a job and I don't spend enough time playing harp. I do, however, know lots of great harp players. They generally don't have much of a life or a real job. I've met and had long talks with some of the best out there and I know what I should be doing. I am a slacker and I'll never be a Harmonica Super Star.

If one of you should want to become a Harmonica Supper Star, I know the basic steps.

  • Step 1) buy yourself a few good harps. You should start with the harps that are easy to play and bend like the Hohner Special 20 or Lee Oskar. Later on you'll want to go for stiffer harps that last longer and are easier to control. While you are learning, it is less frustrating if you have a nicely made lightweight harp that doesn't fight back. You will have to spend more than $10 per harp and as much as $20 each. Cheap harps are hard to play and will just frustrate you.
  • Step 2. Buy a good beginners guide to playing blues harp. You need the basics. You need to learn how to blow clear single notes and to bend. You need some practice riffs that are not too hard. There are lots of good ones around. I liked Gary Primich's instruction CD. Gary was great guy and a good teacher. You can walk into any music store and pick up a dozen decent beginners books. Expect to buy more than one. One book and CD that you absolutely need in the beginning is one of Jon Gindick's books. Jon has a real feel for what a beginner needs to know.
  • Step 3) Listen to blues harp. Start with the first Sonny Boy Williamson - John Lee Williamson. There were two harp players calling themselves Sonny Boy and they are both great. The first Sonny Boy plays a very simple country style with some sophisticated little twists. He is easy to study and learn. All of the great Blues Harp players from the 50s and 60s started by imitating John Lee. He is a good place to start. John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson is at the very foundation of blues harp. The other Sonny Boy, Rice Miller, is great and has a lot to offer in learning harp, too, but he is a little harder to follow.

    By following the history of blues harp and trying to imitate the players at each phase, you can build up your riffs from simple to more sophisticated. The exception is Little Walter. Walter is the shining example of what we want to sound like. Listen to him every day, over and over again. Get his tone and tricks and riffs embedded in your memory. You don't want to be a Walter clone, but you do want to be able to pull weapons from his arsenal of tricks - he invented most of the good ones.

  • Step 4) Buy a slo-mo machine or software like Audacity that lets you slow down CD tracks so that you can learn to play riffs. You want to develop your own style, but you also want to find out how harp players do their stuff. You need to slow it down to learn the riffs. Once you can duplicate a riff, you can incorporate it into your own style and vary it to your own taste.
  • Step 5) Get some Jam Tracks. There are a good bunch of Blues Jam Tracks for Guitar. These are a band playing along with an imaginary lead guitar and are designed for practice. These blues jam tracks work as well for harp as they do guitar and the nice thing is that they announce the key so you don't have to fumble for the first minute of the song guessing the key.
  • Step 6) You've got to move! Don't practice sitting down. You have to move with the music. Every great harp player moves his legs and body in time with the music. Your brain needs the kinetic feedback in order to time your notes. If you sit still you will play boring, flat and uninteresting notes. In the beginning, one of the hardest things to do is time your notes. You need to get the phrasing to work and the best way to do this is to move with the music. If you feet are flat on the floor, you won't sound very good.
  • Step 7) Buy a cheap guitar amp and a Blues Blaster microphone. You will be amazed at how bad you sound when all your mistakes are amplified. Your goal will be to learn how to play through the mic and amp without feeding back. You have to cup the mic, protect it from the front of the amp and learn how to play loud, hanging right on the edge of the feedback to create that horn tone. A tube amp is a luxury you can buy eventually, but a simple solid state amp is not too bad and it will teach you how to use the mic.
  • Step 8) You have to spend time in the woodshed. This means find a quite place where no one can bother you and figure out how to play. Do this for an hour a day, at least. You have to play to be able to play. You have to practice with the Jam tracks and learn how to make the harp do what you want it to do. I am not saying that you need to practice scales or riffs. That will bore you until you don't want to play. Play with the music. Play along with Little Walter, Big Walter, Kim Wilson and anyone that you really like to listen to.
  • Step 9) Learn positions. Learn to play first and third positions. There is no better way to break out of a mental block than trying to play a song in another position. You start to learn new ways of thinking about music. When you go back to second position, you try new patterns and riffs that you learned from first and third. Playing positions is the best way to jump-start your playing.
  • Step 10) Play with real People. As soon as you learn a few simple riffs and how to wail on the 4 and 5 holes, find a band in a garage and talk them into letting you play with them. With luck they will be patient and teach you what you are doing wrong. You have to learn when to come in, when to be quiet and when it is OK to wail.

    Go to the Jams. There are jams all over the country and it should not be hard to find one. You have to be bad before you can be good, and believe me; most harp players at Jams are just awful. The guitar players and singers will hate you. Be polite. Don't step on anyone's riffs. Be ready and make sure you know what key they are playing in. Even if you suck, they won't mind playing with you if you aren't rude. The only way to get good is to play and the best way to play is with a group of real people.

If you follow these steps and really learn your instrument, there will come a day after a Jam when someone will walk up to you and say their band needs a harp player. You'll be invited to sit in and if the vibes are good, you will be invited to join.

About 20 years after that, you too can be a Harmonica Super Star.

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