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The Harp: How to Play the Thing, Part 3

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

How to Play the Thing, Part 3

You have been using the C harp, playing in 2nd position, cross-harp, while the band in playing in G. You understand that by now. But there other harmonica keys, as you have probably figured out by now. Maybe you have tried to find other blues songs on YouTube, picked up your C harp, and tried to play along with the music. Wow, that sounds awful. Of course it does, because the band, the recording, the performance – all are in another key. What key, exactly? Any key, actually. You use the C harp for only music that is in G. You use, and Little Walter and Big Walter and both Sonny Boys and Paul Butterfield used, harps in every key, from C to B flat. Different music key from the band, different harp. The C harp is common, for music in G, which bands like to play. So is the A harp, for music in E. F is the highest-key harp; G is the lowest. Right next to it, A, is also very low and, as you might expect, the low notes on the G and A harps are real low, and hard to play properly. Bending notes down in the G and A harps is difficult, but that is what good blues-harp players do.


As you broaden your listening to blues from other individuals and bands, it will be rare, of course, to find the music in G, and it is not easy to even figure out what key the backing music is in. You will develop a feel, a sense, for that as you listen to more music, and if you are lucky you might guess correctly the first time. If not, the second or third time. Unfortunately, recordings rarely identify the key of the music on the label or in the liner notes, so you are on your own most of the time. The good online blues-harp teachers out there – Tomlin Leckie, Adam Gussow, Ronnie Shellist, Hakan Ehn, Jon Gindick -- always tell you what key harp to use in the lesson. Most of them have standardized on using the C harp. Gussow has a nice 10-minute lesson on how to determine the key of a song, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFyZWBQmcek. Among these online-harp teachers, Gindick, Gussow, and Tomlin are probably the best. Gindick has been publishing how-to books on harp since the 1970s, has made the transition to online instruction seamlessly, and he established and ran the blues camps in Clarksdale, Mississippi about 20 years ago. These are still ongoing, though Jon himself has stepped away from them. But If you have the motivation, time and a thousand bucks, you simply MUST attend one of these 5-day blues workshops. There is no place like Clarksdale, no accommodations like the ShackUp Inn (“The Ritz We Ain’t”), (http://www.shackupinn.com) no group of 30 fellow friendly and focused students, and no concentrated tutorial with several terrific coaches, anywhere. I attended in 2019, and – here it comes – the experience changed my life. They will be staging these blues camps next year, 2022. Reserve early, and you might be as lucky as I was to stay in the Crossroads Shack; look around and you will see my initials scribbled on the wall above the 100-year-old piano. For these harp camps in 2022, go here: https://theharmonicaexperience.com/. To get a sense of how truly exceptional these camps have been, go to Gindick’s site at https://www.jongindickband.com/blues-harmonica-jam-camp and http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?llr=dpb7kqsab&oeidk=a07egkmis4b5ae47165.

Back to that C harp in your hand. If you want to play along and accompany various songs (and who can resist?) you will need other harps. For a couple of hundred dollars, buying the absolute best that Hohner has to offer, you can complete the inventory of harps that you will need. You already own the C, though you might want to get a new one to replace that 24-year-old puppy that Uncle Ted gave you. Then purchase an A, a B-flat, a D, an F, and a low G. Don’t bother buying an E harp; bands generally won’t be playing much music in B. But don’t forget about the Bb (B-flat) harp: it is very handy when the band is playing in F. Tomlin Leckie has some similar advice online at https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/free-harmonica-lessons/page/132/.


Up on the bandstand you will have asked the bandleader what key the next song is in. Then you will count up those four letters, starting with the letter that the band is playing, and take out the right harp. So if the band is playing in G, you count up G, A, B, C, and use your C harp. Be vigilant there, too: if you have the wrong-key harp -- if the band-leader somehow misinformed you, or ignored you -- and you start blowing, you are going to be embarrassed. And rightly so. For a good illustration on how to find the key of a song on your own, watch Adam Gussow work on that skill at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFyZWBQmcek. The trick, as Gussow illustrates, is not complicated: sing along with the band as they play, and listen for the tonic note, the 2-draw, then pick up a harp and play that 2-draw. Spoiler alert: he is good at it, often nailing it on the first try.


But be careful if the band changes keys in middle of a song, as sometimes happens. You will have to change harps to the new key, as well. And watch out for the bandleader who might want to test you. Jerry Portnoy, a modern master of the harp, recalled the chicanery that Big Walter Horton would inflict on him. Big Walter was one of the best harp players at the apex of blues popularity in the postwar years in Chicago. Walter would call Portnoy to come up and sit in, then change keys mid-song, and the younger man would be caught playing in the wrong key. (https://web.archive.org/web/20070611131214/http://www.cascadeblues.org/History/WalterHorton.htm).


And while you are at it, make sure that you are holding the harp with the low numbers to the left, with the name of the harp facing up. You don’t want to be looking for that gorgeous 2-draw note, get caught holding the thing upside-down, and play the 9-draw instead: disaster. Yes, we realize that the subject of this entire web site, Butterfield, held the harp upside-down. He was one of the few, along with Sonny Terry and an excellent harp-player known as Dr. Ross, who also did so. Paul was a lefty, so he held the harp first in his right hand, with the low numbers cradled between his thumb and first finger. You won’t.


Then buy a nice case made especially for the purpose of storing and carrying around a dozen or more harps: Velcro, zippers, compartments. Or a hard case with slots for the harps. Throw away those cheap plastic or cardboard cases that the harp came with; they will just get in the way. Then print or buy a set of letters that correspond to your new harps. Of course each harp is labeled directly on the wooden comb and/or the metal cover plate, but the inscriptions are very small and faint, and you will have to strain to read the letter. Stick-on labels are readily available that are fully legible and large enough to see in the dim light up on the bandstand. Do you think that Butterfield, getting ready to play “Mannish Boy” to accompany Muddy Waters at the “Last Waltz” concert, was fumbling around in the dim lighting for the right harp? Of course he wasn’t; he was prepared. So, too, will you be. Now you are getting ready to be a player of the blues harp. Just as Paul Butterfield was.


One last thing before we leave this how and why of playing the blues harp. There are several manufacturers and models to choose from: Hohner, Seydel, Suzuki , Lee Oskar. Among the Hohner models are the Marine band (classic and deluxe), Crossharp, Proharp Crossover, Big River, Special Twenty, Pro-master, Blues Bender, Golden Melody. My recommendation: purchase the Hohner Special 20 harp. It has a plastic comb, not wood like the Marine Band. Some harps have a metal comb. The Special 20 has a nice warm tone, is easy to play without having to use a lot of air, and you will find that you can bend the notes nicely. You can’t go wrong with the Special 20. Many of the best harp players use it. Or even better, if you are willing to spend a few dollars more for what looks, feels, and plays like a truly professional instrument, try Hohner’s new model, the Rocket. It has a plastic comb like the Special 20, with brass reeds that are very responsive, and is very easy and rewarding to play. It has a rich, warm tone that lets you hit the bent notes efficiently. I have found that the Rocket is the best harp out there. And don’t get distracted by other choices among harmonicas: chromatics, tremolos, octaves, orchestras, etc. Stick with the 10-hole diatonic. Butterfield did, and so should you.

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