How to Practice Harp

I know players who never practice. They think that jamming is practice enough. Of course, they always sound like they are just practicing. The jam is a time to have fun playing with a band. Practice at home. Come to the jam with your best stuff already worked out.

You can get into bad habits when you practice and here are some obvious and not so obvious rules for practicing on the harmonica.

Set yourself a schedule. Fitting in a little practice from time to time is bound to get you in trouble. There is almost always something more important to do, and practicing is often not on the top of the list of things that you want to do at any one moment. Setting up a time and a place to practice will help. You don't need to be in the mood to practice. All you need is the idea that you will be happier playing harp if you do get to practice. Set up a regular time and a regular place. Let everyone know that at that time you will be practicing harp and that no one should bother you until you finish.

Practice an hour at a time. Ten minutes noodling around on the harp will hardly get you warmed up. You need to practice for at least a half hour, but longer than an hour will just make you sick of practicing.

Practice at least three times a week. If you skip more than a couple of days, you are going to lose the progress between practice sessions. If you practice every day, you might have to give up too much of your real life.

Don't practice while distracted. Especially don't practice while in the car. You need to study what you are doing and think about your mistakes and progress. Blowing randomly with one hand on the wheel does you no good.

Practice while standing up. You sound better standing up. If you go to a jam or ever get a gig you will be standing up. You breathe easier and bend easier while standing. You get more tone and volume out of the harp while standing up. Practicing while sitting down is a waste of time.

Use the rule of three. Play a riff slowly three times. Play it faster three times. Play it full speed three times. Move onto something else. The three repeats allow you to get the idea straight in your head. You need three to really get it to sink in. Any more than three is wasted. Once you get three repeats in, you can then program yourself at the next level, but only repeat three times. Three sets of three seems to be the best way to do things.

Concentrate on short patterns. Learn riffs that you hear on records or that you invent, but learn them in short bursts of 5, 10 or 15 notes. Don't try to learn long complicated songs all at once. The short riffs and phrases are your main weapons of attack. Being able to put these together in different order is how you jam. You string your best riffs together to make ideas. You present a series of ideas as a theme and then use the theme to present the song. It starts with the short phrases.

Use a keyboard to work out riffs. Even if you don't play piano you should get yourself a cheap little keyboard. Sometimes you can't find the right pattern on the harp and it helps if you can peck it out on the keyboard. You can usually find the right notes by ear on the keyboard. When the harp is in your mouth, you can't always make the harp play the pattern that you want. First figure it out on the keyboard and then one by one play the notes on the keyboard and repeat on the harp.

Buy a low G and a high G harp. Use these for practice because they are much harder to play. Bending notes on the low harp is hard. The 2 hole draw fights back on a low F or G. The higher notes on the high G are hard to play without choking them. If you practice with these then when you sit in at the jam with a C harp, you'll be amazed at how easy it plays.

Hum before you play. Hum a few bars of the song that you are working on and then play it with the harp. See if you can exactly match what you hum. Your goal is to make playing harp as easy as humming. You want to train the part of your brain that easily hums a song to use the harp to do the humming.

Use your hands. You need to learn to cup the mic and make wah wah sounds with your hands. Playing straight without hand effects is boring and begins to sound nasal and twangy. The best players use their hands a lot. Practice your airtight cup. You should feel the skin on your hands move when you draw hard.

Vocalize your phrases. Newbie harp players often play the right notes, but they slur them all into each other in such a way as to sound like dying cows. Practice playing each note as a separate syllable such as tuck, tick, dee or doe. This punches the notes. All the good harp players do it. You don't need to play every note this way and it is important to make each play a little different, as appropriate to the phrase, but letting all the notes have soft starts and ends or letting them bleed into each other is the mark of a newbie.

Play in positions. Learn a riff on second position and then see if you can play it in first or third position. Playing in positions teaches you to play the notes independently from the draw and blow patterns. You need to be flexible in your breathing patterns. If you get locked into a draw draw blow, draw draw blow habit, your playing becomes boring real fast. By playing the same riffs in different positions, you can add new dynamics to your playing. Even if you only play second position in the jam, your third position breathing patterns will creep in, giving new spice to your playing.

Use your tongue. This does not mean that you should tongue block exclusively. Most good players mix pucker and tongue blocking. It is good to play intervals, blocking the center notes with the tongue and playing two notes, one on either side. This is especially true on blow notes that don't always get punched the same way a draw note does. Your tongue should be on the harp at least a quarter of the time. You can flutter notes, rip notes into chords and play octaves and other intervals with your tongue.

Practice 90% acoustic and 10% amplified. You will probably play amplified harp at a jam, but playing amplified at home annoys everyone. You need to hear all of the subtlety of an acoustic session and get things right and then learn how to express that using the fat overdrive sound of the amplified harp. If you practice only amplified you begin to sound flat on the amp. You need to play loud and soft and use lots of hand effects and if you don't play a lot of acoustic harp, you turn into a one trick pony on the amp.

Record yourself. You can't really tell what you are doing wrong until you listen to a recording of yourself. Get yourself one of those cheap mp3 players for $20 that also lets you record voice. You don't need high fidelity; you just need to see how you are doing. Record your practice sessions and then listen closely to see how you can improve. It's hard to listen to yourself while you play, since you're concentrating on figuring out what you are playing. If you are really bad, you might not want to leave the recordings where a little brother can find them and upload them to the internet.

Use Jam tracks. Use at least a few minutes of each practice session to play along with your favorite songs or a good jam track. You need to practice WHEN you play as much as WHAT you play. One of the hardest things to do on harp is to time your notes correctly. You need to play along with music to get your timing and phrasing down pat. You need to play your riffs at a steady pace and not slow down and speed up.

Play your good stuff. At least once during a practice session try playing a song from beginning to end that way you'd like to play it at the jam. Practice being good. Don't spend all of your time trying to improve the bad playing. Don't spend all of your time trying to learn new stuff, either. Be good on the harp. Play well. Try to sell a song the way you want it to sell at the jam. Even if you only know one song well, make sure that you play that song at least once in practice. You need to teach your brain that you can sound good and have confidence.

 

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I cleaned up my tab for Sonny Boy's Help Me and made it into a short book. There's a Kindle version for 99 cents, and if you buy the paperback you get the Kindle free.

Playing "Help-Me" In the Style of Sonny Boy Williamson II: A step by step, note for note analysis of some of Sonny Boy's Signature Riffs

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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


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Harp Frequently Asked Questions