Why You Should Learn to Play in Different Positions.

Playing second position or cross harp is the way we all start out with blues. The first obstacles are playing that clear single note and then bending clearly and accurately. After that, learning the standard cross harp cheap tricks and riffs is all that stands between us and Blues Harp stardom.

But what tends to happen is that the blues harp student gets to a certain level where he can’t seem to break out into the freedom of expression that he desires. I think of this as only being able to do what you have done. It’s a catch 22. To improvise, you want to do things that you’ve never done before, but you can’t do anything except the things that you’ve already figured out and practiced. You can hear in your head what you want to play, but when it comes down to it, you only play what you already know. The freedom never quite happens.

This is typical when you teach yourself something. You reach plateaus and then you break through and get stuck on another plateau.

There are different ways to break out of your rut. I talked to Charlie Sayles about this and he was very strong on experimentation. He said: play some garbage – anything at all, but listen for any cool thing you hear and isolate that piece. Play runs and trills and odd stuff that sound terrible, but look for that new combination that sounds right. Do this over and over again. No one will be able to stand listening to you at first, but this is the only way to develop your own style.

The wrong thing to do is copy note for note something that you’ve heard on a blues record. This learning by rote is just a way of memorizing someone else’s licks. You will always sound like a cheap imitation of the original. Blues is not like classical music. There are no dots on a page. I wouldn’t dream of tabbing out the complete Juke or Off The Wall. Blues is an expression of feelings. It is pure emotion expressed through the harmonica.

Not that there is anything wrong with copping licks. Don’t steal the whole song or performance, though. To steal a lick, you must make it yours and have it fit into your style.

Playing Juke note-for-note is a stunt, not blues. If you all you want to is to be a stunt man, then I don’t want to listen to you. Learning from tab is shortcut to mediocrity.

Thelonius Monk would often make mistakes when he played, but he viewed this as an opportunity. He’d play the mistakes again and fiddle with them and play them again until he could call it Jazz.

One way to get a breakthrough in Blues Harp is to learn the other positions. You can learn the basic riffs and patterns in one position and then you find them creeping into the other positions. You can learn the Juke Riff in straight harp. You practice it. The breathing pattern is different and the holes are different. By repetition, you teach your brain stem to do it without intellectual intervention. It becomes an automatic part of the way you play. Then, when you go back to a Cross harp piece and your brain stem wants to play a certain sound, all of sudden you are playing that first position juke riff, but in cross harp the same holes sound completely different. Different, but very cool!

The positions each have their different sounds and signature riffs. You wind up doing different things in first position than in cross harp. In third position you spend more time in the 6,7 and 8 holes than you would in cross. In straight harp you wind up bending 2 and 3 followed by a blow note. In cross harp this first position pattern sounds cool.

So how do you play the other positions? Blues harp involves playing notes of tension, color and resolution. These notes are in different holes in different positions so you have to learn the important notes and where to find them.

This involves some theory. Oh no! Not theory!



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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 JT30.com 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 Harpamps.com 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