How to Play the Blues on the Harmonica

By Contributor
Play the Blues on the Harmonica

How to Play the Blues on the Harmonica. Blues is the most popular musical style played on the harmonica, as well as the most effective. Before trying it, you should know the basic harmonica technique described in "How to Get Started on the Diatonic Harmonica," under Related eHows. You also need a 10-hole diatonic harmonica.

Getting a Feel for the Blues

Listen to as many blues recordings as possible.

Pay attention to the chord changes and try to anticipate them.

Try to single out the different instruments.

Clap your hands and tap your feet to the rhythm of the songs.

Count 1-2-3-4 to find the 4/4 rhythm common in blues.

Emphasize the 2 and the 4 (shuffle rhythm), which is 1 and the2 and the3 and the4 and the ... rather than straight 1-2-3-4. (See "How to Play the Blues on the Guitar," under Related eHows.)

Bending the Blues

Draw on hole 4 of your harmonica, breathing deeply; avoid sucking. (For breathing technique, see "How to Play the Harmonica," under Related eHows.)

Say the vowel "e" ("yeeee...") while drawing.

Change your mouth and tongue position to say the vowel "u" ("eyuuu..."). This should lower the pitch of your tone.

Go back between "e" and "u."

Note how the pitch changes while you're playing. This is called "bending" notes, a technique essential for playing the blues.

Try bending on holes 5 and 3 of your instrument.

Try it on all 10 holes and note the differences in how difficult they are to bend.

Close both hands around the harmonica while still drawing.

Open the right hand and note the "waaah" sound - another nice bluesy effect.

Practice opening and closing your hand to create the effect.

Try the bending technique while blowing - rather than drawing - on different holes. Note how much more difficult it is to create the effect.

Draw on the second hole of your harmonica. On a harmonica in the key of G major, that would be the C note, the first note of your five-note scale.

Draw on the third hole, bending the note down a halftone; this would be Eb, the second note on the scale.

Blow on the fourth hole (F), the third note.

Draw on the fourth hole (G), the fourth note.

Draw on the fifth hole (Bb), the fifth note.

Blow on the sixth hole, the octave of the first note. You've just played the notes predominant in blues music, which would be C-Eb-F-G-Bb-C' in the key of C.

Practice the blues scale up and down until you can hit all of the notes clearly.

Note that the harmonica you're playing is in the key of G, while the scale (or the song you're playing on that harmonica) is in the key of C. This is called "crossed position" as opposed to "straight" harmonica, where the harmonica you use is in the same key as the song (C).

Practice bending notes on holes 4 and 5. These are the bends most frequently used in blues.

The Blues Progression

On your G harmonica, play the C-major chord (draw on holes 2-3) counting 1-2-3-4 four times (four bar measures).

Play the F-major chord (blow on holes 4-5) two times.

Play the C-major chord again two times.

Play the G7 chord (draw on holes 4-5) one time.

Play the F-major chord one time.

Play the C-major chord two times. You've now played the 12-bar chord progression typical for blues: C/C/C/C F/F C/C G7/F C/C.

Practice this progression, playing along with different blues recordings using harmonicas in different keys.

Put all the elements together: the shuffle rhythm, the bending, and the 4/4, 12-bar chord progression. Presto - you've learned the basics of blues harp playing.

Start tapping your feet, put your harmonica to your mouth and go.

Tip

Note that you can bend notes only down, not up, on any hole. This is not due to any lack of technique, but to the way the reeds of the harmonica are laid out. Keep that in mind when playing melodies. Though blues songs may be played in different keys, the progression will remain the same. Practice in different keys.