The Harp: The Twelve Commandments
Updated: Mar 6
The Twelve Commandments
Let’s be specific and concrete, then, about the techniques you will conceptualize and assimilate in order to be a good player of and listener to blues harp.
1. Get familiar with harp notation, called "tabs.". Holes one through ten, each one numbered, blow, draw, and bend: that’s it. If you are like me, you will be glad that you don’t have to read music to play harp. Butterfield could read music reasonably well, but you don’t have to. Tabs.
2. Play some simple melodies. Childrens’ songs or folk tunes. Play them using the middle octave. Mary Had a Little Lamb.
3. Play those single notes. Forget chords, and avoid playing more than one hole whether blowing or drawing. That’s just sloppy.
4. Bend some notes. Gussow, Gindick and Tomlin have excellent video lessons on how to do it. Tip the back end of that harp up toward your nose and draw on the one, two, three, and four.
5. Improvise a little bit with a backing track, using those single notes and bent notes. Find a backing track online in G, and use your C harp. Don't ask why; just do it. Play the 2-draw throughout at first, then poke around and familiarize yourself with other notes during subsequent changes in the backing track. It will sound great.
6. Listen to and then play along with the 12-bar blues in the I-IV-V format, anticipating the changes and nailing the timing as they occur, using the tonic notes only: 2-draw during the I, 4-blow during the IV, and 4-draw during the V. Mastering the 12-bar blues format is crucial to playing blues harp. Memorize it, now. Or else. Of course you will find lessons on it at Tomlin, Gussow, Ricci, and Gindick.
7. Improvise again, using a 12-bar blues backing track, playing other blue notes, especially the blue 3rd (3-draw with just that small ½-step bend), the flat 5th (one-draw bent and 4-draw bent), and the flat 7th (2-draw whole-step bend, and 5-draw).
8. Practice and master the three octaves on the harp. Tomlin has a nice 10-minute lesson on playing octaves here: https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/free-harmonica-lessons/page/111/.The call-and-response theme that is part of that video is excellent, too, and you will come to recognize this pattern in Butterfield’s playing. After that play a nice short 3- or 4-note pattern on the middle octave, duplicate that same riff on the lower octave, then, if you are really feeling feisty, do it again on the upper octave.
Here again is a diagram of a C harp. Sorry to print so many of these, but you have to know the how and why of its structure:
Look for the notes that you will want to duplicate from octave to octave. C (one-blow), C (4-blow), C (7-blow), and C (10-blow). Blow on that one hole, then blow on the 4, then the 7, then the 10. Each is a C note, and you can hear it. Nice. Sounds and feels good, doesn’t it? Find the E's and the G's among the blow notes, as well, and blow on them. Then do the same on the draw notes, being careful to look for the repeated notes. I'm sorry that this #8 is so long, but octaves are crucial. All good harp players understand them and use them, and you will, too. I promise.
9. Know what second position (cross harp) means on the harp, and how to determine the correct key based on what the band is playing. Gussow has terrific video lessons on this.
10. Here is a diagram of the C harp showing the bends:
The bends are in blue. Don't worry about the ones on top of the blow holes, for now. At this point we are concerned with the ones below those draw holes, 1-6. No, you don't have to memorize it, but you have to understand it: that bending simply lowers the notes, that some holes have multiple bends in them, and those multiple bends are defined in term of whole and half steps.
11. Get comfortable with some of the idiosyncrasies of the harp. First, that 2-draw and 3-blow are the same note – G, on a C harp. You will hardly ever actually play the 3-blow, preferring instead to play the 2-draw. Why? Just because, for now. You will be bending that 2-draw often, to hit the G-flat and F (again, on the C harp). Secondly, that the blow-draw pattern in which the draw is the higher note in the same hole reverses when you get to the 7 hole. 7 draw is lower than 7 blow, as we have seen, and that pattern continues right up to the far-high end of the harp. Sorry for all the italics here, but certain things have to be emphasized.
12. Get out there and play at an Open Jam session or an Open Mic (and pronounce that "Open Mike" or you will sound stupid) opportunity. Where: you can figure it out, but start by inquiring at your local music store where they sell equipment and offer lessons. Call around to some bars: you can find one that schedules a regular open jam session where you can go and sign up. Of course you will have to bring your complete set of harps, and maybe a microphone and amplifier, as well. Ask. You don’t think you’re ready? I have news for you: if you can play a 12-bar blues and anticipate the I-IV-V changes, you absolutely are. Find out who the bandleader is and take your cues from him. The most important question you will ask: “What key is the [next] song?" Count up four letters from that key, including the key, and use that harp. For A, use the D harp. For G, grab the C harp. And so on. Then when the guy nods in your direction, you’re on. Stick to the tonic notes in the I-IV-IV 12-bar progression, and you can’t go wrong. When it’s time for your second solo, throw in a couple of other notes. Stay on the low octave of the harp, especially holes 2-4; fool around a little bit with a 5-draw, a 6-blow, and a 1-draw, and you have nailed it. Tomlin has a nice video of how to get started at a jam session at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jf563V0YuPk.