If you’re like me, goals can become overwhelming in your mind. If your goal is to learn harmonica, where do you focus your attention when there are a million and one things you could practice? Let me simplify it for you; there really are just 3 things:
Tone is everything. No, I mean…it’s literally what we sound like.
You can play so simply, but with a sweet tone, and you can soothe a weary soul. And you can play the fanciest licks, but with a harsh tone, and send ‘em running for the hills!
So how do you dial in your tone?
When you were just a little baby, every time you inhaled, your belly would puff out. As we all became adults many of us lost this habit, replaced now with rigid, shallow breathing. Put your hand on your belly. Does it go out when you breathe in? If not, practice correct belly breathing. #1 priority. Ever seen the bagpipes? Imagine the musician trying to play that with an empty bag with no air. Air is your musical lifeblood; Breathing is the FOUNDATION of good tone.
Without a good lip seal on the harmonica, you’ll never have good tone. If you haven’t already, learn the Deep Relaxed Mouth Position.
Chances are you are using way too much air pressure when you play. Try practicing songs like you are whispering. This will help your technique immensely.
Play with the vowel shapes AW and EE and see how they affect the tone from dark to bright. >
Relaxation is a HUGE secret to good tone. Your shoulders should be relaxed, your lips should be relaxed, and your jaw should be relaxedand dropped. Train your body: when you pick up your harmonica, tension drains out of you. (Which brings us full circle to deep breathing again!)
Finally, when it comes time to play, close your eyes, have fun, and put all of your emotion into every note. There’s no substitute for authentic emotion. The listener will hear and feel the difference, I promise!
While tone IS what we sound like, our feel for groove and time IS what’ll make people bob their heads and move their bodies. Or as Ella Fitzgerald put it:
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing
The importance of Rhythm can’t be overemphasized, and that’s why it’s so deeply woven into my entire Beginner to Boss course, from the very first lesson, to the very last.
Learning about time will be a HUGE help: how to feel 16th notes, how play in the pocket, how to feel swung 8ths vs straight 8ths, how to use a metronome, how to feel 4-bar and 8-bar phrases. Once you understand these concepts you can practice them by ACTIVE listening.
But ultimately we develop great time on the harmonica by:
Playing with other musicians who have great time
Playing along with recordings or jam tracks
Playing with a metronome
Playing while walking
If you’re enrolled in Beginner to Boss, you’re already doing this. If not, make sure you’re doing one of those 4 things like 80% of your harmonica playing life, and you’ll be on the path to developing a great rhythmic feel.
Even if you’re playing with great tone and great time, it ain’t gonna sound good if you don’t have the right key harmonica for the song!
If it’s a folksy kinda song it’s easy, just grab the same key harmonica as the song you are joining in on. Like a G harmonica to play in the key of G (this is called playing in 1st position).
If it’s a bluesy kinda song, you’ll need to grab the harmonica up 4 letter names from the song you are joining in on. Like a C harmonica to play in the key of G (this is called playing in 2nd position). If you need help with this, check out my Keys for Beginners lesson.
And that’s it! If you have just 3 things: Right Tone, Right Time, and Right Tool, then YOU are the RIGHT person for the job, an effective harmonica player ready to rock.
Hey, we’ll always be learning new techniques, new songs, new tricks, new licks… That’s the fun part about music; it never ends!
BUT if we focus on these FUNDAMENTALS, while we are learning new things, then we can be effective, wherever we are on our journey.
We’ve seen recently in songs like Sweet Virginia and the Juzzie groove, you don’t have to be complicated to be impactful. Period. You can impact people with your harmonica RIGHT NOW.