Long Tones

Playing LONG single notes is a GREAT exercise for any harmonica player to practice. You could blow in and out on every hole 1-10, each note playing until you run out of breath (or run out of room in your lungs on the draws.) Or, if you know how to bend, you could play the C major scale, or any other scale.

Practicing LONG TONES is magical. My wife plays trumpet and her mentor Ollie Mitchell, who was lead trumpet in the Wrecking Crew in LA (check out the movie about the Wrecking Crew if you don’t know who they are) and he turned her on to an exercise he would do 2-5 times a day playing long tones, to keep his chops in shape… She has now adopted the same practice.

But LONG TONES are GREAT for ALL MUSICIANS to practice including HARMONICA PLAYERS. Let me tell you a story….

A friend of my friend Micheal was a HUGE John Coltrane fan. (In case you didn’t know, John Coltrane is widely considered to be the preeminent modern jazz saxophone innovator of the 20th century.) Michael’s friend would frequently go and see John Coltrane play at various clubs around New York City.

One evening, after one of these performances, he approached Coltrane and said, “Hey John, I’m a huge fan of yours, and I come out to hear you play as often as I can. I was wondering if I could come and observe you practicing one day?”

“Yes, you can come by any day. I start practicing at my apartment every day, starting at 7am,” Coltrane replied.

A few days later Michael’s friend coordinated to drop by and watch John Coltrane practice. He arrived about 7:00, but Coltrane had already started practicing, and the ONLY thing he was doing was simply playing the C major scale REALLY SLOWLY. Like a whole breath on each note.

This went on for such a long time that eventually the friend had to silently excuse himself in order to go run some errands. When he came back, to his shock, Coltrane was still doing the same thing - playing LONG TONES…and this was for HOURS.

A few days later, the friend went to speak to Coltrane after again seeing him perform at a club, and said, “Hey John, I came by the other day , I don’t know if you noticed or not, but when I got there in the morning you were playing the C major scale really slowly, and I had to leave, and when I came back it seemed like you were still practicing the same thing. What’s up with that.”

Coltrane replied, “Yeah but at the beginning it sounded like a scale, and at the end, it sounded like MUSIC.”

My friend Michael who told me this story asked me, “Can you imagine how much humility he must have had to wake up at 7:00 and practice like that?”

I don’t know whether this story is true or not, but it inspired me to try and let go of all the flashy things I was practicing at the time, and to see how long I could spend playing long tones on the harmonica - one per breath for as long as I possibly could.

At that time I was doing a weekly gig with a group of Hawaiian musicians called The Brown Boys, and I had a commute that took nearly 2 hours to get to the gig. On my commute, I decided to try the exercise John Coltrane was doing in the story.

Ok here it goes. I took as deep a breath as I could and, starting on the blow 1, I played the C major scale on one full breath per note all the way up to hole 10, and then came back down. About 20 minutes into this exercise, my ears started opening up in a new way. I started noticing the sound of the note at the beginning, middle, and end in a new way.

I played with different articulations, dynamics, and endings to each note and changed the tone by moving the inside of my mouth. I began to feel like I was hearing INTO the sound, and it felt exciting.

Then the strangest thing happened. When I got to the gig, I played like I’d never played before. My playing felt more lyrical and creative. I was playing things I’d never played before. I couldn’t believe it. The other guys in the group also noticed, “wow you’re playing amazing tonight!”

I haven’t done it in a long time, but now writing this is inspiring me to try it again! I’ll let you know if I do. What about you? Do you ever play long tones? If not, I hope you’ll try it out!

Rock on,


Hallo @Luke,
habe es gerade als Antwort bei einem anderen Beitrag geschrieben.
Gestern habe ich erstmals etwa 20 Mal Ennio Morricones “Once Upon a Time in the West”. gespielt (Blues Harp G).
Das war richtig anstrengend und bei den letzten vier Tönen waren die Luft und der Speichel weg. Gerade am Anfang und mit dem Bending verbraucht man richtig viel davon.
Aber es funktioniert und ich habe mir einen kleinen Traum erfüllt. Vor vier Wochen klang es noch richtig nach :smile_cat:. :joy:
Ich wünsche euch ein schönes Halloween :bat:.
Beste Grüße Astrid


That’s an AMAZING post ! Thanks Luke !


Hi @Luke,

I always try to start my practice sessions with some scale or other (I guess you could also say with some harp position or other; I usually play one of the following positions in my practice: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th or 12th). This practice is actually more of a warm-up, to be honest, but it is very similar to the Coltrane story above – only much, much shortened (which is why I look at it as my warm-up).

Some days I do the long tone warm-up for only about five minutes, other days up to 20 minutes. It really does not matter how long I do it, the result is always that afterwards I play much better and relaxed than when I do not do it. :point_left:

I actually started doing this before I picked up the blues harp, using the technique on the flute (which I think that I play better than I play the harmonica). On the flute it always induces a trance-like state for me, but on the blues harp I have not noticed this so much. :thinking: Indeed, when I play the flute, especially jazzy things with improvisation, I almost always fall into this trance-like state, but not with the blues harp. Perhaps that is because I started with the flute at a much younger age, and only much later added the blues harp…

As a side note: Coltrane was and still is one of my all time favorite jazz musicians, but I never heard anything about how he practiced.

After reading your Coltrane story, I think I will try extending my warm-ups to see if I get even better results on my harps (and flute). Thank you very much for the story!! :sunglasses:

– Slim


So I tried it today and made some observations:

To go from hole 1 to hole draw blow on each (and I also did -2" and -3") it took me about 8 minutes. Then I took a phone call, so I did not get to finish going back down. It may take longer if I do it while not also driving a car.

I was playing my Hohner Crossover in the Key of A. I noticed on the low notes I was able to blow and draw a full lungful of air without in-gassing or out-gassing through the nose, but as I got to the higher notes, I found myself in-gassing and out-gassing. Of course, I was driving (as I am 90% of the time that I practice harmonica) and I didn’t want to risk passing out!!

The other thing I found myself enjoying playing with was seeing how quietly I could sustain a note without the note dying out. I think I will continue to practice this. I think I held some of the quietest long notes I ever have before, and I think practicing that puts a huge demand on focus and breath control. I’m feeling excited about it.

I agree that your connection to flute could be related to a longer standing relationship with it. Also, the interesting thing about the flute compared to the harmonica is that you’re playing only on exhales, and you breathe in in silence. This is another significant difference.

The way we’ve been describing the exercise on the harmonica involves no real pauses because a note sounds on inhales as well as exhales.

In fact, a really cool approach to Long tones could be to take a breath between each note, like this:

Play 1
Inhale, exhale fully
Play -1
Exhale, inhale fully
Play 2
Inhale, exhale fully
Play -2
Exhale, inhale fully

I think this approach would probably lead to a deeper meditative connection to the harp with this exercise, and thinking back I believe this was my approach on my way to the gig with the Brown Boys that I related in my story. On that drive I’m guessing I did it for at least 30 minutes and probably closer to 1 hour.

I’m with you @slim, I’m happy to be inspired to recommit to this practice as well!

Rock on,


Love the story about Coltrane. Who knows if it’s true or not, but it makes a great point.

Since reading this post on LONG TONES, I have been practicing them as you suggest @Luke. I’ve come to several realizations:

  1. I still have a lot to learn.

  2. Going up the major scale from the 1 blow is still a great challenge for me to get to the F and the A with full step draw bends on the 2 and the 3.

  3. Going through the Major Scale on my C harp, there is a similar “double draw” on -3" and -3 on the bottom end of the harp to get to B and A, and on the -6 and -7 to get to the same notes on the top end, right before coming to the top of the scale in both instances.

  4. I am really beginning to hear how different embouchures and movements of my tongue change the tone, particularly on the draw bends but also on all the other notes as well!

Now before I began playing, after having put down the harmonica for awhile, I go thorough the entire harp from top to bottom in slow, easy tones, really listening to the overall sound of each note as if for the first time, working on extending the sound as much as possible.

I’m still working on getting consistent, reliable tones on my bends, but understand from you @Luke and @Slim that it can be a lifetime endeavor.

I can’t wait to be able to get a nice reliable F’s and A’s on the bottom part of the harp on my bends so I don’t have to go up to the next octave to avoid them on certain songs.

LOVING YOUR LONG TONES suggestion @Luke!

Oh, by the way, be careful out there…

While practicing LONG TONES and walking up a hill today, I thought I was going to pass out… :upside_down_face:

When I grow up, I hope to challenge your 8 minutes @Luke and not faint in the process :joy: