Single Notes

How are you at playing single notes?

I was feeling pretty cocky going up and down the harmonica, matching sounds as best I could on my trusty C Diatonic. Then, I realized I wasn’t really playing nice, clean single notes, rather dirty notes and combinations of chords.

I was brought back to reality trying to play the old classic song “BOXER” by Simon and Garfunkel. I just couldn’t get the middle part of the first phrase. When I got into the upper notes, it got screwy and didn’t sound right.

Then I remembered @Luke 's post here on the Major C scale and how the notes change sequence between 6 and 7 (dividing the harmonica between upper and lower parts). Nevertheless, I just couldn’t get it right. I looked up the tabs for the song, and sure enough, I found this sequence giving me problems: 6, 7, - 7, - 6.

Boom!! There it was, that strange change right in the middle of the first phrase. As I started to practice it, I realized it was nothing more than jumping up a step and half from the 6, and then coming back down the scale three notes in a row.

After practicing it for several days while looking at the tabs, I still only got it right only about half the time. For some reason that sequence of notes was particularly troublesome for me.

Though I was able to play parts of several songs, I couldn’t figure out why I was I having so much trouble with this song and this sequence.

Then I finally figured that I wasn’t playing single notes. That was the problem!

So I came back to @Luke 's video here on single notes to watch it again and see if I could improve my ability to hit them. It’s still difficult for me to get a good clean sound on the draws of some of the higher notes, but I’m starting to get them to sound a bit crisper and fuller with a more deep, relaxed mouth position, as Luke suggests.

I have come to realize this: THE HARMONICA IS AN AMAZING AND VERY FORGIVING instrument even when we can’t draw single notes.

As mentioned in one of Luke’s other videos (I think the one in chords), blowing and drawing on the harmonica sounds pretty good due to how the notes are set up on it. But at the crossover between 6 and 7, draws just don’t sound right.

The other thought I have had with this experience is that playing chords and dirty notes can enhance the sounds of some songs, producing a nice rich organ type effect and sounding like a whole Dixie Band, particularly when playing songs like “When the Saints Come Marching In.” You can blow and draw just about anywhere on the harmonica and if your rhythm is right, people will likely figure out what you are playing.

Playing clean, crisp notes seems to be much more like a guitar solo or singing, with chords and dirty notes providing backup. Single notes make it more obvious if we are hitting the right notes or not.

Along this same line, I always wondered what I could do to get away from the “tinny” sound of the whole Dixie Band thing. Obviously, going cross harp to the Blues Scale and working nice deep bends is one option. Another seems to be effectively isolating notes, bringing a new dimension to pretty much every song that can be played like a Dixie Band. Yet, sometimes it is nice to have the whole band on board or go down into the blues… hahahaha…

Bottom line is that I still have a lot to learn. My eyes still go cross-eyed when I see tabs. I’ve been working on BOXER now for about a week, and it still gives me trouble, while other songs I can hear once or twice and follow along pretty easily on the main riffs without isolating notes, though certainly not always “perfectly”.

Thanks @Luke. Because of you and harmonica.com, I feel like I’m getting a bit better at getting nice clean, crisp notes and a little closer to being a BOSS, rather than a HACK.

What has been your experience with learning to play single notes?

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Hallo Bobby,
wenn ich deinen Text lese, habe ich einen Spiegel vor mir und sehe mich.
Als ich euch noch nicht kannte, habe ich die gängigen Sachen mit Einzelnoten gelernt und ja, es war nicht sauber.
Jetzt kippe ich die Harmonica hinten etwas schräg und es ist deutlich besser, vor allem, wenn die Harmonica warm ist. Die Übergänge 6 /-7 teste ich zuhause immer kurz bei jeder Gelegenheit. Ohne Druck, leicht und entspannt.
Da ich mir fast zu Beginn auch eine G Harmonica gekauft hatte, begann ich mit ihr die Einzeltöne zu üben. Das hilft mir sehr!
Wir lernen weiter und die Zeit wird es bringen, so wie wir plötzlich lesen, schreiben, :swimming_man: und :bike: fahren konnten. :smiley:
Beste Grüße Astrid

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Hi @AstridHandbikebee63 and @HarpinBobbyMcB,

An exercise that I posted here on the forum that is somewhat challenging but is great to work on getting clean single notes and controlled, accurate bends in the lower half of the blues harp, is something that you both might enjoy trying to master. :notes:

Do not get discouraged if you cannot play it immediately – and be sure to start learning it slowly to improve your bending skills and ability to play clean single notes. All sorts of variations of this exercise are possible, so feel free to modify it as you wish. :point_left:

Regards,
– Slim :sunglasses:

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My mind still gets fuzzy when I see all those numbers… When I listen to the notes being played it’s easier for me to play along. The numbers still seem like alphabet soup to me but… In numbers! :joy:

That being said, definitely going up and down the scales getting nice clean crisp notes with a a deep relaxed technique is spot on in terms of learning.

Something I need to do much more to get smooth transitions on the changes in the scale and the harder to hit notes…

Thanks @Slim :blush:

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Hi @HarpinBobbyMcB,

You are very welcome. I know that feeling you mention about the numbers :sleeping: – but the point of those is not so much to learn the numbers, but to learn the muscle memory that comes with repeatedly playing certain sequences/techniques (such as bending & playing clean single notes).

In the beginning one typically does not know where to start or which sequences might be useful or will sound good – and that is where the numbers can help you reach your goals more quickly. :point_left: And, unless you can read musical staff notation, they provide about the best way of keeping records of songs, riffs, etc. In fact, I find using the numbers better because you can notate things on your telephone (or even on a napkin or on the edge of a newspaper page, for us old-timers who still read newspapers :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:), but I have yet to find a musical staff notation app that works on a telephone. :wink:

Happy harpin’,
– Slim

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I like the way you think @Slim and yes, I do need to get better at the number thing in order to expand my horizons :blush:

As you say, it’s not the numbers themselves that are important but how they direct us on where to start and then where to go.

Great advice, thanks!

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This is such a great post Bobby! Thanks for posting it here. Taking the time to master good clean notes is a worthwhile endeavor, and part of the reason that the single notes module is the longest module in the Beginner to Boss course with like 49 lessons I think? Something like that…

Kudos to you my friend. And I’m looking forward to hearing other folks’ experiences with working on single notes.

Rock on,
Luke

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Yes, Astrid! Glad you’re working on getting nice clean single notes! This is time well spent, and as you pointed out with your great analogies of riding a bike and swimming, there WILL come a time when you no longer have to think about it, as long as keep on practicing and never give up!

Rock on,
Luke

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Hey Bobby - yeah man, scales are great for practicing single notes, as are melodies, even very simple melodies like children’s songs. @Sim’s exercise is more advanced as it has A LOT of bending in it.

Awesome excercise for folks who have gotten comfy with bending. Just wanted to point out that I recommend really getting very secure in playing nice clear single notes consistently before trying to worry about bending.

Folks who try to bend before mastering playing single notes well tend to end up poor tone from what I’ve seen. That’s why I advise this way. And I know several other teachers like my friend Joe Filisko agree!

Rock on!
Luke

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Absolutely RIGHT, @Luke !! :point_left:

I should have mentioned that as well – but I seem to write too much as it is :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Regards,
– Slim

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Your advice is always welcome @Slim, whether it be short and sweet or long and verbose…

It’s great to have a community here of folks who are all interested in one thing:

The HARMONICA

All y’all rock!

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It’s funny you say this @Luke because while I have been learning to bend and can do it to some extent, since I have been concentrating on single notes, I haven’t been doing my bending exercises nearly as much. Seems like isolating notes is fundamental not only to play melodies with more precision, but I think also will pay off when I get back to my “Deep Blues Bends” :sunglasses:

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Exactly. Wise choice, Bobby. Get those single notes nice and clean while keeping that top lip nice and deep on the cover plate!

Rock on,
Luke

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Tight, clean notes?

I debated whether to ask this question here or on the bending topic but chose to post it here since it came about while I have been learning to isolate notes.

Over the past several days I have been taking my most basic songs and transposing them from the harmonica to the piano. If notes are the same on a piano and a harmonica, it just made sense.

As a result, I can play a pretty mean “Where is Thumbkin” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider”.

As I was going note by note on “Old McDonald had a Farm”, I noticed that my 3 draw didn’t quite sound right to get to his “farm”. I looked up the tabs and found that rather than starting on the middle C that the tabs start on the high C and drop to an A on the 6 draw, getting the right sound.

The solution I figured was “simple” but far from easy. Since I like the song better in the middle octave, all I have to do is bend the 3 draw down a full step to an A and continue on to Old McDonald’s farm.

Here’s where my question comes. I’m able to bend down to the A when I really focus on the bend (according to the Better Bending Tool), but rather than getting a nice crisp A like the 6 draw an octave higher, I get a sound which sounds a lot like a dying duck gasping for its last breath. It reads right on the bending tool but sounds terrible to me…

@Luke, any secrets on getting individual bent notes to sound crisp and clear rather than weak and sickly? :thinking: :thought_balloon:

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I love everything about this post, lol. First and foremost, let’s get the cart and the horse positioned properly here… :wink: DEFINITELY practice it up the octave. Being able to get nice clean single notes, draw and blow, holes 1-10 is the most important fundamental technique to master right now. Once you can do that, then start working on your bending.

BUT…to answer your question, the BEST way to play the -3" and have it sound great is…practice it every day for 10 years! :rofl: Nah, I hate to say that, but yeah, that’s the truth. Getting the -3’ -3" and -3’’’ to be in tune and have good tone truly seems to take a lifetime to master in my experience. The reason I say that is I’ve been working on it my whole life and haven’t mastered it. :rofl:

Wish there was more of a “trick” to it then that. Maybe @slim has a trick he can share with us?

Rock on Blazing Bobby,
Luke

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Hi @Luke and @HarpinBobbyMcB

You have both hit upon what I think is the most difficult thing to master on the blues harp (excluding overblows and overdraws): clean, accurate and acoustically crisp hole three bends. While there are various practice methods that are very important to get your technique perfected, it is also an unfortunate fact that the “mechanical” aspects within the harp are perhaps equally important.

I will touch upon those “mechanical” factors here and then in a later post here I will mention some of the practice methods – otherwise this will become too long for a single post.

Bobby’s analogy of the “dying duck gasping for its last breath” is very appropriate here: think of the reeds in your harp as being the “duck”. They need the air to move them. The more air that passes by them without doing this, the less air the “duck” gets! It just “wooshes” past the “duck” (reed) making a “windy” sound :dash: rather than producing a tonal vibration :musical_note: in the reed. Very inefficient!! :-1:

To improve efficiency there are all sorts of places on which to focus your attention and efforts:

  1. Are the reed plates really flat?

  2. Is the comb really flat?

  3. Can air slip by between the reed plates and the comb?

The above 3 things are what the “experts” are referencing when they say that a harp is or is not “air tight”. This also explains why (some?) custom combs can be worth the extra expense. I say “some combs” because I have not tried everything out there and there could very well be some that are just fancy colored junk that look cool but are worthless when it comes to air tightness.

This is also why I always disassemble a new harp and at least check the flatness of the reed plates and comb (as best I can, without special equipment) by, for example, placing them on a glass pane.

Moving along now: the next areas to improve your “duck’s” breathing :duck:

  1. Reed shapes

  2. Reed gaps

  3. Slot width

  4. Reed alignment

The shape of the reed is primarily referring to the shape from the rivet end to the free end of the reed – and this is seldom optimal, even on more expensive harps. :rage: Although they can often be played quite well straight out of the box, they all can be improved if one is willing and able to spend the time and effort required. The main problem area is at the rivet end (basically about the first 20-25% of the reed’s length) where essentially ALL mass-produced harps permit too much air to slip past the reed because there is too much space there for the air to escape without moving the reed (= inefficient!). :point_left:

The slot width on most harps is too large compared to the width of the reed (not so serious on more expensive harps, but still worth examining and possibly correcting). This is where the technique of embossing enters the arena. This essentially involves pressing down the rim area of the slot so that the space between the slot rim and the sides of the reed becomes smaller and thereby limits the amount of air that passes by without vibrating the reed (i.e. embossing increases the efficiency of the airflow around the reed). :+1:

Embossing goes hand-in-hand with reed alignment. If the reed is even slightly off-center then it can rub against the slot rim – and this MUST be avoided at all costs! This also is what makes embossing difficult for a beginner to master: too much embossing and the reed will stick or hang on the rim of the slot. It is possible to reverse the embossing to correct this, but it is still a lot of trial-and-error and learning-by-doing, and can test most people’s skill and patience beyond their limits! :exploding_head: :boom:

Enough for now, but at least this all can help prevent your “duck” from gasping or even dying because of lack of air! :duck:

Regards,

– Slim :sunglasses:

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Thanks @Luke and @Slim for your explanations… :wink: :+1:

@Luke, you help me to understand more about the journey to becoming a better player, rather than just focusing on immediate results; and @Slim, you help me to understand the inner-workings of the harp which fascinate me.

I have opened up and inspected my harp several times and am awe inspired about how it all works! Your explanation @Slim really helps me to know what I am looking at, and more importantly, what to do if it’s not right.

I’ve found that on my “Old McDonald” song playing on middle C that if I bend the B down even just a little a bit during the two beats it lasts, it sounds quite a bit better even if I don’t make it down to the A… But your suggestion @Luke is valid because I still have trouble blowing clear, crisp notes at the upper end of the scale…

Practice, practice, practice…

I’m having a ball and even find my family humming along to some of my tunes. I generally take one song a day and try to work out the principal part of the melody…

Having a blast on this magnificent instrument!

Thank all y’all for bringing it to life!

:sunglasses::notes:

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I can play single notes pretty well (except I’m still(!) struggling with going from -2 to -3 and -4 in one breath or vise versa, but I think that still has more to do with breath technique and not embouchure.

But in the 1st position from 4 to 7 things go rather smoothly. Well most of the times. Sometimes no matter how good I think my embouchure is, the notes keep coming out in pairs, then I get annoyed with myself that I can’t get it right, and take a break. Other times I simply tilt the harmonica a bit more and the note plays isolated.

I will say though, I also face the opposite problem, where you wanna play simultaneous notes, but only a single one comes out.

It’s a never ending struggle, but we’ll get there

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Often happens to me @Vibe also that I seem to be trying so hard and nothing comes out right…

Notes that normally come clear don’t come at all and I end up trying to do all different kinds of things.

Like you, sometimes it seems to be best to rest a bit and then come back to it.

Like @Luke says, gotta keep relaxed. I find when I tense up it gets more difficult to play and when I relax it seems to go better.

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Hallo @Stimmung, hallo @HarpinBobbyMcB,
meine Erfahrungen sind ähnlich.
Wenn ich ohne Zeitdruck, entspannt und ausgeruht uebe, funktioniert es gut.
Je länger ich an einem Tag damit arbeite, umso schlechter wird es, trotz Pausen. Meine Konzentration lässt einfach nach und bis jetzt gelernte Automatismen sind einfach weg.
Inzwischen habe ich keine Probleme mehr mit der Atmung. Aber wenn es zuviel wird, ist die Anspannung da und die Atemprobleme fangen an.
Dann mache ich Feierabend und am nächsten Tag funktioniert es wieder super. Ich habe neulich geschrieben, man scheint im Schlaf zu lernen… Heißt für mich, manchmal ist weniger mehr. :grin:
In diesem Sinne, Ommm! 🧘‍♂️🧘‍♀️
Beste Grüße Astrid

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