The Harp: The Twelve Commandments
Updated: Jan 2
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. Holes one through ten, blow, draw, and bend: that’s it. If you are like me, you will be very glad that you don’t have to read music to play harp. Butterfield could read music well, but you don’t have to.
2. Play some simple melodies. Childrens’ songs or folk tunes. Play them using the middle octave.
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.
5. Improvise a little bit with a backing track, using those single notes and bent notes.
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. Mastering the 12-bar blues format is crucial to playing blues harp. Memorize it, now. Or else.
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 (1-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. 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? Tomlin has a couple of nice 10-minute lessons on playing octaves here: https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/free-harmonica-lessons/page/111/ and here https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/free-harmonica-lessons/page/2/. These might require you to bend a note or two, but you will get it. The call-and-response theme 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, using bends if you have to, then, if you are really feeling feisty, do it again on the upper octave. Scroll up to the first diagram of the notes of the harp, and look for the notes that you will want to duplicate from octave to octave. Scroll down a page or two to see the diagram that includes the bends, too. 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. Or else.
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.
10. Remember those nice diagrams of the harp back near the beginning of this posting, on pages 3 and 4, and again on page 12? Memorize the first one. Do it now. As to the second one, showing the bends: it will take longer to commit it to memory, so first get it so you understand the principles in 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? Because when you are drawing on the 2 hole, you will be able to bend the note in that same hole immediately following, without having to reverse your breathing from draw to blow. And 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 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 changes, you 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?" 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. Stick to 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.