Identifying the Harp Key of a Song.

I went to Madison Square Garden about 15 years ago to see a John Lee Hooker tribute. I got to see Willie Dixon for the last time and I saw Johnnie Winter and Albert King jam and many other great things. It was a good show. It was emceed by Charlie Musslewhite. Charlie played harp on every song, even when there was another harp player, but the band (the backup band was Little Feat) did not always call the key out. The stage was noisy. On one song, I saw Charlie go through every harp in his box trying to find the right key. He then started over again. He didn't find the right key until the song was almost over.

If Charlie Musslewhite couldn't find the right harp after playing for 40 years, how are we mortals ever expected to pick a key?

It would be nice if there were a good reliable way to find the key of a song. It is frustrating to hear a good song come up on the CD or the radio and waste half of the song finding the key. It's more frustrating when you are jamming and the song leader is not polite enough to mention to the harp play what the key is. But, there is no magic formula for finding the key of a song.

Unless you have perfect pitch, the only way to find the key of a song is through hit or miss.

You can, however use a search method to help you find the key faster. I teach binary searches in my computer classes to help speed up finding things and a similar method in harp can decrease the time, somewhat, of finding the right key.

Note of caution: this means nothing unless you have trained your ears to recognize the changes in 12 bar blues. This is not hard and requires no special talents, but it does mean that you understand 12 bar blues. You can only train your ear to blues by listening to blues and understanding what you are listening to. Check out my little discussion about 12 bar blues if you are unclear. You must also be able to bend the 2 whole draw down a full step with fair accuracy. (Not the half step, not the 3 half steps, but a full step.) You can skip the bend steps below, but the process may take longer and you might have to go to the D or F harp to finish up.


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The JT30 Page Popular links

I began collecting data about the microphones used by blue harp players before there was an internet. I began organizing it into in the late 1990s. I accumulated more stuff than I remember. This is some of it.

Street Theory

A Harp Player’s Guide to Music Theory

Learning Harp

Picking Up Blues Harp

A guide to learning to play Blues Harp

Microphone Information

Usenet Articles

Harp Amps

I've been collecting Harp Amps for a while. This is the old website. There is lots of information here. Here a coupld of links.

Harp Tab

A collection of songs and riffs that I’ve worked out over the years, plus some libraries of stuff I’ve converted to tablature. I’ve included most of the notes and instructions that helped me when I was learning to play blues harmonica.

Basic Riffs Simple harp tabs for songs Blues riffs and phrases.

Harp-L Archives 1992 to 2002


Harp Frequently Asked Questions