A Lesson in Blues Harmonica by Richard D Ramsey

Today I will be teaching you about blues harmonica. Harmonicas are fun instruments to play and pretty hard to mess up on. You can start off just going to town on one and not worry too much about wrong notes. But, if you really want to play some down and dirty harmonica blues, this is what you have to do.
     Before we get into it, let’s talk about blues improvisation skills. In whatever key you’re playing in, you always have to resolve your runs to a note in the arpeggio. Since most blues are played in E, we’ll use examples in E. So, the notes in E are E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D# and E. The E arpeggio is E, G#, B and E. Those are the bass, 3rd, and 5th notes. When you make a blues run, it’s important to start or stop with one of those notes and try to hit them in the downbeat or the start of a phrase. This is good info for improvisation of any style. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, you just have to play around with it.
     Now, if you play an E harmonica you have the notes of the major scale spelled out for you. (We won’t get in to pitch bending here) The trick with blues is that it’s based on a blues scale (or mixolydian mode) in which the seventh note is down 1/2 step. That means in E the D# will be a D natural making our scale E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D and E. In this context, D is known as our dominant 7th. So, without bending, you can’t play a D on an E harmonica. So, how do you overcome this?
     Easy, you use what’s called second position. You play an A harmonica! That’s right! Your band is playing in the key of E and you’re going to play a harmonica in the key of A. The notes in A are A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G# and A. The only difference in this group of notes is the D natural. So, play an A harmonica with your E song, just remember to resolve to your arpeggio in E which is still E, G#, B and E.

     So, in summary, if you want to play the blues in E, use an E harmonica. If you want it to be funky, use an A harp!

Leave a comment