“When You Are Gonna Sound Like You?” The Art of True Improvisation

So many students want to sound like Little Walter, Big Walter and a hundred other guys. I really cannot and will not teach this way. If that is what you want there are many fabulous books that will address those styles.

What I find interesting as a teacher is , those same students often come back to me feeling frustrated: that even though the licks helped them improve immensely, they still feel they haven’t found what they are looking for.

The good news is, we all go through this stage trying to sound like our heroes but we all wake up one day to reality we are NOT those players. This is the greatest lesson on harp or any musical instrument to realize our heroes had their own unique individual identity and musical voice. So the question each student must ask himself is: Why does Little Walter sound like Little Walter? Why does Sonny Boy Williamson sound like Sonny Boy? The answer is quite simply each artist follows his own path and takes musical risks on the way to originality.

Once a student reaches the stage in his development where he has the fundamentals down and has learned a great deal from his heroes he has to take the “Leap of Faith” and find his own way in the music he loves. (Jerry Portnoy quotes this in his Blues Harp Masterclass.

The quote is from Eric Clapton). The great news is that when you come to this stage you are ready to learn even more: you will open doors to your own original style and increase your ability to improvise on gigs and jams.

If you go back to the basics of what the Blues is all about, you will find first and foremost it is a Vocal Music, and if you listen closely to the instruments you will find that the music (like Jazz) is a conversation between instruments.

Your goal then is to learn how to get your harp to “speak” to other players on the bandstand. You do this by learning how to sing (at least a little!) and phrase ideas. Here are some important points that will definitely help you in your search for your individual voice in both singing and playing harp.

  1. Force yourself to start singing! You have to do this to really get in touch with your own original musical voice. When you sing a blues you should listen carefully to yourself :how you phrase lyrics or breathe between verses or the vocal decorations you apply to the song. These are great to apply to the harp. The throat vibrato you hear me use is a direct result of this. I know it can be scary at first, but it will do wonders in time.
  2. The next thing to do is- you guessed it! Record yourself singing to hear how close you got to the notes! This will improve over time as well. Once you do this you might just discover a couple cool sounding vocal phrases, so pull out your trusty harp and see if you can find the ideas on the instrument.

3.To create rhythm ideas try listening to the way you speak. For example, I might say “How you doin?” You might say: “Doin really great!” “Learnin’ tons of stuff!” You can hear and feel the natural original rhythms of your speech. This technique will give you endless ideas for rhythmic phrasing and improvisation.

  1. Take any phrase you would say in conversation and use it for a rhythm figure. This is by far the best method I know to break new ground and it is so obvious that most over look it as a learning tool!
  2. Also remember “Less is Best” when playing out at a jam when you are just starting out. If you can’t think of anything to play it is the same as you can’t think of anything to say! No problem there! Don’t play! You would be surprised how great a musical decision this can be.
  3. If you work on these points in your practice regimen, you will find new and original ways to play your instrument and they will fundamentally be your own.

Improvisation comes from so many sources that include imitating masters and technical development, but true improvisation comes from having the courage to “sound like you!”

The Art of Developing Musical Ears and Improve at Music Hearing

Let’s say you have mastered the basics of good blues harp playing. You can get around the 12 bar blues pattern really well, you can bend notes, can really cook on the blues scale.

You are getting a great tone, you can jam really well with CDs, and you are beginning to steal licks from your favorite harp players. But when you go to the jams or join a band, something happens: your licks won’t fit like they did when you practiced at home, you can’t get your tone, you find you have to play safe, and when you try to stretch out on solos, you sound like crap.

The good news is, you have come to a crossroad in your playing development. The great news is all harp players worth their salt have gone through this phase. It’s called “developing musical ears”, and it requires you to “relearn” what you thought you knew well and apply it in new ways to fit the new and sometimes tenuous world of playing live with other musicians.

If you are planning to jam or playing in a band, you must train yourself to hear not only what you are playing, but listen carefully to the musicians around you. Here are some suggestions and what I think to be foolproof principles to help you develop musical ears.

  1. “When In Doubt, Lay Out!!!”
    Sometimes the best musical judgment call is to play nothing at all!
  2. Remember: “Less Is Best!!!”
    If you are backing up a vocalist, or giving support to a soloist, play very simple ideas, such as: arpeggios (chord tones), or short simple riffs that blend with or complement the soloist (for more on this subject, get my CD/tape #4: “Roadmap to the Blues”).
  3. Drop Your Volume
    Encourage your band to do the same. This way the soloist really stands out.
  4. Suggest An “Unplugged” Set
    This adds variety and dynamics to your performance, and the club owners and the audience will love it!
  5. Do Not Play on Every Song
    Try adding a simple vocal harmony instead. One major complaint about harp players is that they play too much and all the time. Throw your band a curve, and lay out entirely on several tunes.
  6. You Get Better When You Play With Better Players
    Set your sights a little higher as you gain experience and confidence. You will find better players practice the points above, and if you follow these to the letter, you will be on the same page.

Technique and Method Valving A Diatonic Harmonica

One problem with diatonic harmonica is that there are missing notes. Some can be obtained through conventional bending, but there are still some missing. These can be obtained by overblowing, or by installing valves, also known as “windsavers”. It’s the same device, but is used for a different purpose.

Bending is accomplished by acoustically coupling two resonant devices so that one affects the pitch of the other. In conventional bending, the higher reed is bent by coupling it to the lower pitched reed in that hole. The lower pitched reed cannot be bent because the other reed is higher in pitch, and bending only works to lower pitch.

Using valves (or windsavers – little plastic flaps over the reed slots opposite the reeds) allows us to bend the normally unbendable notes, as single reeds, using our internal resonance as the “second resonance” in the bending process.

I feel that it is also a great way to develop your tone (resonance). If you can’t bend the valved notes, you are not resonant Your tone will be weak. It can be vastly improved. When your resonance is “right”, you will be able to bend valved reeds, and your tone will be spectacular.

Windsavers are available from Hohner, as well as other sources. The “technical” price is something like US$8 for enough to valve a 64 reed chromatic, but Hohner is pretty good about sending out samples – enough to valve a couple of diatonics. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You can make your own out of thin plastic, such as overhead transparency film. I’ve had good success with this. I’ve seen some made with nonadhesive ribbed surgical tape, backed with adhesive surgical tape. But it’s an awful lot easier to bite the bullet and order them from Hohner, especially for that first one.

To valve a diatonic for bending unbendable notes:

  1. Disassemble the harp, and lay out the reed plates reed-side-down.
  2. If you have precut windsavers, lay them out over the reed holes, dimpled end over the rivet, so they slightly overlap the reed holes, but not by much. If they overlap TOO much, they may interfere with the comb, especially on Oskars. Place them over draw 1-6 (lower reed plate, inside the comb) and blow 7-10 (upper reed plate, outside the comb), on the side OPPOSITE the reeds. If yours are not precut, or the wrong size, cut them so they overlap the reed slot by about 1/16th inch, or about a millimeter if you use that “other” ruler 🙂
  3. Place a drop of Superglue on a piece of cellophane, aluminum foil, or other nonporous surface. I like cellophane because it’s easier to see just where the drop is.
  4. SLIGHTLY dip the dimpled end (if it has a dimple), convex side up, in the superglue. One drop holds a ton, so a very little is all you need for a little tiny valve. If you use too much, you’ll get Superglue in the reed slot. I like to use tweezers, but they’re not required.
  5. Place the windsaver over the rivet, on the back side of the reed plate (not the “reed” side). Press into place with a little finger pressure, for just a scant second. Remove tweezers, press on the free end with your other finger, then remove your finger from the glued end. If you take too long doing this, you will become attached to your harp – literally. If it’s not on straight, it can be easily repositioned, so don’t worry too much about it. If the glue sets first, simply pull the windsaver off, chip the old glue off the reed plate, and reapply.
  6. Reassemble the harp and let it set an hour or so. Overnight is even better. It allows the superglue fumes to dissipate.

This will allow you to bend the normally unbendable blow 1-6 and draw 7-10 reeds IF you use the right technique – a very “open” mouth and throat. You won’t have to “force” these. They come quite easily and naturally with the right technique. I can play harp for twelve hours straight (with the traditional gaps and breaks of course), and I couldn’t do that if it were at all strenuous! This bending method (which I call “resonant bending” but you are free to call whatever makes your bobby-sox go up and down, produces a vastly superior tone, so if you have trouble bending valved harp, this will give you TWO eventual rewards; more bends and better tone.

How to Learn the Chromatic Scale with Chromatic Harmonica

These models incorporate the full chromatic scale and allow the player to play in any key using one harmonica. Chromatic models provide the complete 12 note octave with all sharps and flats. The preferred instrument for Jazz and Classical, chromatic harmonicas are also used for Popular Music and in some instances for blues.

Defining The Chromatic Harmonica
by  “G”

Reprinted here by permission of the author

When I first learned about chromatic harmonicas I found it confusing as to what harps did what and worked in what way. My first “chromatic harmonica” was a Hohner Koch which strictly speaking is a slide harp. I bought it as a result of asking the shop keeper for a chromatic harmonica. What’s more it was in key of G which only confused matters for me.  I made the same mistake again because I wanted a chromatic harmonica in C and I still didn’t know the difference between a slide harp and a chromatic. But this time around I also got Mel Bay’s “The Complete Chromatic Harmonica Method” by Phil Duncan and compared the Koch against the book and realized my mistake. I took both the book and the Koch back. I said “I just bought this harp, I want to exchange it for this.” and pointed at the cover of the book. At which point the shop attendant produced a Hohner Super Chromonica in key of C, I paid the difference and walked away a little wiser.  I now want to share what I have since learned for those who are as confused as I was. 

Typical Chromatic Harmonica
By Typical Chromatic Harmonicas I am talking about a harmonica that has a full major scale in the key of the harp repeated every 4 holes for each octave, and by pressing the button it raises the pitch of each hole by a semi-tone. The most common key available for a chromatic is key of C, the same as the white keys of a piano. To continue the comparison by pressing the chromatic’s button you can then play the black keys on the keyboard along with a few of the white ones.
The Bass harp & Chord harp can be considered chromatic harmonicas. And there are other harmonicas which could be considered chromatic harmonicas which I will cover and why I don’t consider them typical chromatic harmonicas.

Despite the fact a chromatic can be played in any key some are in fact available in different keys. 
There are a few reasons why: 
· Probably most understandably, if you want to be able to play chords in a particular key on your chromatic you need to have the right notes next to each other for the key you are playing in. 
· Having a harp tuned to a key can make playing in that key or related keys much easier as the amount of slide use is reduced. 
· A similar point is, some keys on a C tuned harp have predominantly draw or blow notes which can lead to breath control issues. 
· Also it can be easier playing by ear with a harmonica in the same key of the song. 
A key of C chromatic harmonica is a satisfactory instrument in itself. Its like a piano or wind instrument; by sticking to one tuning you can ingrain where all the notes are and go on to learn how to play in any key on that same instrument. Eventually with lots of practice and experience you will be able to work out how to transpose a tune into the key you want to play in without having to reach for another harmonica.  However if you enjoy playing chords or should you find it easier to play on different key harps in your favorite keys, you may consider what other tuned chromatics are available.

The 12 hole Chromatic Harmonica
This is probably the most common chromatic available. They have a 3 octave range with 48 tones. Most models are available in a number of keys. With practice these harps are reasonably easy to hold, cup and play. I would strongly recommend anybody wanting to buy their first chromatic harmonica go for a 12 hole chromatic in key of C.   A 12 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C major has the following note layout:

Slide OutHole123456789101112
12 Hole Chromatic, Key of C
Slide InHole123456789101112

Blow hole one blow is middle C. However when playing songs that go below middle C, it is common practice to use the lowest octave on the harp as the lowest octave in the song and work up from there, effectively playing the song in a higher octave. Of course the harp has a three octave range, so if your part extends passed this then you simply need to substitute lower or higher octave notes which is reasonably acceptable to the ear.  Note that every 4 holes has the same pattern, except for the last hole. This means that when you have mastered playing one octave, the rest are the same. So if you learn one octave, you have the lot as it’s just a matter of moving along 5 holes either way. 

The only trick with chromatic layout is the highest note, instead of continuing the hole pattern, which as you might see from the table means you have two C’s (B# & C are enharmonics, they sound similar) and with the slide in the draw note of hole 12 is a D. This gives just that bit extra range to the harp, and from experience I can say I am glad that this has been included. It takes a little practice, but when you are playing hole 12 it is hard to not know you are there, so remembering the layout is different only takes some practice.  The note range of a 12 hole chromatic harmonica is pretty much on a par with a lot of woodwind instruments. The Hohner Super Chromonica is one example of a 12 hole chromatic harmonica.  Hohner, Hering, Huang and Suzuki all sell 12 hole chromatic harmonicas. 

The 16 hole Chromatic Harmonica
These big animals are similar to 12 hole chromatics, their advantage is they have an extra octave below middle C.  Because of their size it takes more practice and attention to get a solid hold and cup around these harps. Also with the extra holes and octaves to switch between they require more practice to automatically know where all the notes are.   A 16 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C major has the following note layout:

Slide OutHole12345678910111213141516
16 Hole Chromatic, Key of C
Slide InHole12345678910111213141516

Hole one blow is C below middle C, so the next set of C’s are middle C. On some 16 hole harps the first octave holes are numbered 1 to 4 with dots above them, then the remaining holes are numbered 1 to 12. Other 16 hole chromatics are numbered from 1 to 16. It depends on the make, model and release date.
Hohner and Hering sell 16 hole chromatic harmonicas.

Varieties of Chromatic Harmonicas
Different tuned 12 hole chromatics are available in various keys or ranges, such as Hering’s Baritone or Hohner’s Tenor tuned CX12 and Chromonica, all of which are tuned in key of C but a whole octave lower than standard 12 hole chromatics. A bit like having the first 12 holes of a 16 hole chromatic. Also the Hering Baritono lacks the extra high note on draw 12 slide in.  There are a few 10 hole and 14 hole chromatics available that cover 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 octaves respectively. They work the same as 12 and 16 hole chromatic harmonicas, however their note layout starts slightly differently due to the incomplete octaves. The Hohner Chrometta is a chromatic harmonica that comes in 10 hole and 14 hole models. Hohner Meisterklasse is a 14 hole quality harmonica.
Also a lot of people customize and/or custom tune their harmonicas, replacing the comb, the mouthpiece, and possibly swapping the reedplates to change the way the harmonica plays which they find easier. C/F tuning is where the blow 4 hole is retuned from C/C# (slide out/slide in) to Bb/B which makes certain keys a lot easier to play with minimal disadvantage.  Flat slide tuning is where when you press the slide the hole goes down a semitone, this is a popular tuning for Irish music.  Customizers can usually improve the overall performance, comfort, feel and possibly the longevity of harmonicas. As you gain experience & wish to invest more in your instrument, this is definitely worth investigating.

Other Harmonicas
The remaining harps are not what I consider typical chromatic harmonicas, but I think they need to be included because of their chromatic ability.

Slide Harmonicas
Slide harps are two diatonic 10 hole short harp reedplates selected by a slide which when pushed in moves from the lower pitch reed plate to a semitone higher reed plate. Similar to the effect of the button on a chromatic, this almost gives a full chromatic range of tones.  The reedplates are different from diatonic reedplates because the draw and blow reeds for each hole are mounted next to each other. Not dissimilar to how chromatics are made. But they generally do not have windsavers on the majority of holes like a chromatic harmonica.  As the reedplate tunings are generally the same as diatonic short harps, to get the full chromatic three octave range you need to know how to at least draw bend to fill in the missing notes.  There are also variations on the slide harmonica available where pressing the slide lowers the tone by a semitone called “flat-slide” harmonica. This has the advantage of simulating bends on a standard short harp.
An example of a slide harp is a Hohner Koch which comes in key of C and G.

Valved Diatonic Harps
A valved short harp in the hands of an experienced player becomes a chromatic harmonica of sorts. It is simply a 10 hole diatonic short harp with valves. Using the same valves found in most chromatics.  Unlike chromatics the windsavers are only added to draw reeds 1 to 6 and blow reeds 7 to 10. By doing this and using a slightly different bending techniques, a practiced harpist can play many more tones than are normally available on a standard short harp. The advantage over a chromatic is the range of expression and tone.  Notes and bends available on a valved short harp by an experienced harper

BlowBend””’ CbD
BlowBend”” AbCEb
BlowBend”’ DbEADbE
BlowBend” BbDFBbDFAb
BlowBend’ BEbGbBEbGbC~EbGbB
DrawBend’ DbGbBbDbAbBbDbEAb
DrawBend” FAC

Quote from IronMike, an experienced valved harp performer:
“… If you use the typical bending technique, valved reeds will prove unbendable…”
“…I valve the bendable reeds in mine – 1-6D and 7-10B. This allows me to bend the normally unbendable reeds 1-6B and 7-10D, using a resonant embouchure…” 
However the clarity, quality, accuracy of pitch and availability of any bent note is highly dependant on the ability and experience of the player. To achieve all the bends on a valved diatonic requires a lot of work and practice.
(Thanks both to Ironman and BrassHa’per for this information.)

Suzuki sell Promaster harps which are allegedly good quality diatonic harps. They can be purchased with valves installed. Refer to the links page for online harp shops.

Playing 10 Hole Diatonic Short Harps Chromatically
This is beyond the scope of this page, however it is possible by using overblows and overdraws to play diatonic harps in a chromatic fashion and if I am going to make a site about chromatic harmonicas I have to at least mention this.  Some very skilled harp musicians have mastered the technique of overblowing and overdrawing certain notes on the diatonic 10 hole short harp which gives them the full 12 semitones for each octave. However like the valved diatonics the quality and accuracy of these tones is very dependant on the ability and experience of the player. I understand overblows require regular practice to maintain consistently accurate pitch.   To use this technique generally the short harp being played needs to be set up with the smallest practical reed gapping which requires some work on the average harmonica.