Blues Harmonica Experience

Blues Harmonica Experience

Do you know the answer to this question?

Q: What is the range of a harmonica?

A: It depends on the arm-strength of the pitcher

Why did I learn that insulting and rather snobbish joke? Because I was taking a class on harmonica.

Of all my posts, generally the most difficult are the ones I consider (or hope) are in the “fun category.”  This ‘difficulty’ leaves me pondering if either I am not a fun person myself, or if I experience too little fun?  Either could be true, but in loving defense of myself, I suspect that I am simply perplexed when judging what fun means to others.  And perhaps “fun” is retired with puberty, replaced by “enjoyment,” which may truly be what I am referencing in our mature life activities.

That brings me back to this harmonica class.  My first clarification is that this was a “blues” harmonica class.  I share this specific title because as it turns out the blues (in many ways) is easier than straight melodic harmonica playing – at least in reference to ‘wrong notes.’  I had a teacher (Irving ‘Big Irv’ Lubliner), who himself is a terrific player and beyond that is known to be ‘fun’ and up-beat (ha, pun intended).  He is also a helpful instructor.  For the ‘second 50’ crowd this is less stress for certain.  Being clear, none of us were gifted child-prodigies needing to be carefully shaped and motivated.  That’s not to say there weren’t some talented people in the room; it just didn’t matter.

Teacher Irv would be pleased enough for students to simply feel comfortable, or be able to stand up and improvise a bit.  Of course, that wasn’t me.  I bought a bottle of glue at Home Depot for application to my personal bottom, ensuring I would stick securely to my seat throughout the class.  It worked.  Nevertheless, like most of my classmates, I tried one small solo.  I finished, thinking ‘oh well.’  At least I knew ‘I was a bit better at home.’   Hmmmm.

Here is the interesting point for any of us. With blues harmonica, you do not need to read (or sometimes even understand) music.  It helps to have an ‘ear’ for the blues structure, but it’s not essential.  In college I remember one of my rather wise-ass professors lifting my hair [it was another time] and asking “do you have an ear in there?”  In defense of the action, at that moment I was sitting in an “ear-training” class – and was pathetically lame.  Yet, even with that history, I was able to ‘feel’ the blues – at least enough for a novice.  For this type of harmonica study, you learn ‘riffs’ and how to modify, add, and extemporize variations with them during appropriate times in the music.  I assure you that my explanation sounds harder than the reality.

I mentioned that you don’t need to read music, and you don’t.  You do need to know the number of holes, which are thoughtfully marked on the “harp” (another word for harmonica).  How many holes?  100?  Not exactly.  Most people concentrate on #2 through #6, and there are only 10 on most harmonicas.

The other ‘reading’ part is that you have two choices.  Sometimes you blow into the hole and other times (perhaps more often) you draw air out of the hole.  In or out.  Fairly straightforward.  You need to know “blow” and “draw” and many of the riffs are actually shown that way (as in the example below).  So, if you know “blow or draw” (the same as “in or out”) and how to recognize no more than 10 holes (perhaps only 6), then you are on your way…..

Here is an example of notation you might see:

If you have a harmonica at home, you can try this riff and experience the (almost) immediate success.  You might try changing your lips around the harmonica to get a better sound.

Generally you learn the rhythm of the riff by ear. So, no reading rhythmic notation either.  But for those of you preferring such things spelled out, this is what the pattern might look like for this two-measure 4/4 rhythm riff:

Playing in a different key for blues?  So why do you see harmonica players carry around a little suitcase filled with different harps?  Is it to match their outfits I wondered?  No, I didn’t really wonder that, but I didn’t actually know the answer either.  In simple (and a bit incomplete) terms this is because each harmonica only has notes for certain ‘keys.’  And strange as this seems, if someone is playing blues in the key of G, you are going to plan on using a ‘C’ harmonica. [Many people start with a ‘C’ harp.]  And if the piano or guitar accompaniment is playing blues in the key of ‘E’, then you will play on an ‘A’ harmonica.  There are few wrong notes when playing the blues this way.  Certainly, some sound better than others, but most aren’t wrong.

There are no bad notes,
only bad resolution.”
— Irv quoting a friend of his.

I had considered explaining why this is – why you play on a different key harmonica than the accompaniment. But I admit it isn’t worth it.  [For music people I will just say ‘Circle of Fifths.’  For others, I will say ‘just know it’s true.’]   Our teacher tried not to get into the weeds on it too much, and one of our classmates told the teacher he should just say “because I said so.”  That’s probably good enough right now. You just don’t need to know that much about the theory – even if you want to teach yourself.

The One Bugaboo

I once owned a little harmonica.  Who knows where it is now?  And perhaps I even taught myself to play something like O’Susanna or She’ll be Comin’ Around the Mountain. Or perhaps I never got past Mary and her flock of little sheep – memory doesn’t serve.  However, this was the first time I truly attempted to learn the instrument – so I wasn’t aware of the one big bugaboo.

I doubt you could ask anyone attending a blues harmonica class for more than a couple weeks who wouldn’t have the same answer – “bending.”  Bending?  Yes.  How to explain this sound?  A cat howl?  No, that’s my snippiness for being unable to accomplish it.  A ‘slurred’ sound is more like it.  It’s a little like the change in pitch you hear from the Doppler Effect (or shift) when a diesel locomotive passes by blowing the horn.  The sound kind of ‘bends’ – waaaaaahhrrrrrr.  [You can actually hear such Doppler sounds – although not exactly what we are looking for on the harmonica – at Pond5.]

To a music theory person, “bending’ is like a quick single-note modulation, or playing ‘accidentals’ (sharp and flat notes) outside the heptatonic scales (traditional major and minor octaves).  Changing your mouth position can bend the reeds of the harmonica (as is it often described).  Technically it may be more like bending the acoustical space between reed and mouth, but either way it lowers the pitch (so that a ‘2-bend’ is lower than ‘2-draw’). But this is a description no blues harmonica player need care about.  All that is important is to learn (one-day) how to accomplish the sound.  However, there is always faking it – ask a few in my class.

Just to be clear about my ability, it is totally hit and miss (well, maybe more like hit, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss) whether I can bend a note.  Why couldn’t I be like Queen Latifah who managed to bend a note the first time she picked up the harmonica as Megan Mullally instructed her?  Some things just aren’t fair.

Might a Better Harmonica Help?

Quite a few classmates purchased upgraded models, hearing that ‘bending’ would be easier than on our student versions. I was stubborn.  Figured if I could learn while playing on lesser quality, a new one would be gravy.  Those purchasing the advanced harmonicas indeed proclaimed greater ease and success.  I wondered if they were just justifying the money spent, but was assured that wasn’t the case.  So, it might be true.  The more money you spend, the better blow-hard you are.  Uh….. again with the snippiness.

Just as a reference, classmates bought different brands.  Those included ones from: Lee Oskar, Hohner and Suzuki.  Versus the fairly inexpensive student models, the upgrades tended to be in the $35-75 range.

Practice and Time – so what’s New?

When I was a kid, I never found enough time for music practice.  Some things just don’t change.  Or maybe we people just don’t change.  Nevertheless, even with limited time I could see improvement on the harmonica.  Plus, if you have a particular penchant for this instrument, you never know how quickly you might pick it up.  Although…………. If it’s really quickly, how about keeping it to yourself and don’t tell me about it.

The more you practice, the more you’ll improve.
It’s as simple as that.
However, my bottom line is that this experience should be fun for you.
So put the harmonica down if you’re getting tired
or no longer enjoying the practice session.

— Good advice from teacher and harmonica player, Irv Lubliner

Learn online

How great is it these days that you can learn stuff easily online (and often without cost)?   While sometimes you have to be careful of what you read or learn in the virtual world, playing harmonica is not in that realm.   And there are oodles of sites, videos and players waiting to share the knowledge.


You can get free weekly lessons for beginners or intermediates by signing up with Tomlin Leckie to teach you blues harmonica.  Everyone in my class was taken with his generosity and teaching skills.


I’s neat that you can find almost any answer to harmonica questions online.  For instance, lots of people complain about the sound when they first learn to draw on hole 2.   Here is a sample video regarding that problem: “What’s Wrong with my Harmonica

Almost any videos by Adam Gussow can be helpful (just search on his name with harmonica and any question in which you are interested).  An example is secrets revealed — blues harmonica.

The harmonica world seems especially generous in their willingness to help others.  Perhaps it’s a self-defense, sticking together so that all the bad harmonica jokes can be overcome.  [Overcome especially by the number of great players who are terrific musicians, and undeserving of sneers.]

It IS Fun

Maybe you will consider giving the harmonica a shot (and not in the bad joke way of using a 22 caliber).  After learning a few riffs, there are plenty of videos online with which you can play along.   [Some specify which harmonica you need to use.] Thinking intensely about something new, and enjoying a bit of music  — it’s all good.  AND fun.

Irv’s Riff — used with permission from Irving (“Big Irv”) Lubliner.
Picture credits: Blues kid  via nickverlaan courtesy of 718788_1280
Older harmonica player by river  courtesy of 643177_1280


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4 thoughts on “Blues Harmonica Experience

  1. hey, dr.B, congrats on venturing into new musical world! I think you’re so right about how lucky/important to have the kind of instructor like your Irv .
    In my local papers, I often see ukulele get-togethers, so maybe harmonica meet-ups will be coming along!

    • Hope you will let us know if you find out that the Ukulele is also a fun pick-up. Not sure it would be as easy as learning some blues riffs on harmonica; but then again I never knew about the harmonica short-cuts either. It’s surprising how many people have a secret harmonica stored in a drawer – perfect for a ‘meet-up’ group.

  2. Sounds like a fun class. It prompted me to go get my harmonic;a, and then all the sudden an hour had gone by, as I tried to learn to “bend” a note (using instruction from one of the online tutorials). I guess I’ll just have to be content with “Oh Suzanna”!

    • How ambitious of you! I wouldn’t have suggested that anyone start by trying to ‘bend.’ As a reminder to everyone however ‘O’Susanna’ is a melodic tune, and so — IN SOME WAYS — not as easy as playing blues. Hope you also try a simple riff or two to play along with a blues tune.

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