A guide to straight blues harping
In previous posts we considered why 1st position blues can sometimes be left in the shadows. We also touched on building a general awareness of positional playing, how some positions are interchangeable, the Ionian Mode, the low end 1st position blues scale and some low end 1st position signature riffs (links below).
One thing is certain; played well, the top register of the blues harp packs a mighty punch and it’s a crowd pleaser. Any blues harp player who likes to showboat will agree. John Popper of Blues Traveler rips it up with his quickfire high end licks. Sugar Blue blows us away in high altitude 3rd position, while Magic Dick blows the roof off with some soaring cross harp blow bends. A long list of stars knock us down every time with their death defying high wire antics. But it’s not only the fast stuff that delivers.
To the toppermost of the poppermost!
For the cross harp blues player, a few comfort zones are threatened when venturing into holes 7 to 10, leaving them apparently inhospitable. Firstly, all those neat blues patterns in the lower register are rendered useless simply because the reed layout in the upper octave is different. Then there’s the technique necessary to play accurate and controlled blow bends. And ultimately there appears to be no bluesy way of connecting the two opposing ends of the harp, just a big old gap in the middle.
On today’s menu
We won’t dwell on blow bending technique in this post, as you can investigate this for yourself in our Harp Skills section. If you are not yet proficient, take some time out, master it, then come back and see how it can be applied. It will be a very good investment. Meanwhile in this, part 3 of our guide to 1st positon blues harping, we will be exploring:
- The high end blues scale
- Some high end signature riffs
As you are well aware, blues harps come in a variety of different keys. Most top end blow bending, regardless of the position adopted, is played using a lower harp key. This is simply because the top reeds in lower key harps are marginally longer than in higher keys. Consequently they’re easier to control and more responsive to the level of air pressure we can supply most comfortably.
This is not to say that blow bends are completely impossible in the higher key harps, but the upper reeds are significantly more resistant and require an inordinate amount of work. Furthermore they become so shrill, they lend little or no musical benefit to our playing. On the other hand they can double-up as a great dog whistle. So our recommendation is to hone your blow bend skills on regular low harps such as G, Ab, A, Bb and perhaps B, or investigate customised harps such as a Low D, E and F.
Mapping it all out
Here’s the 1st position high end blues scale tab. The sound clip is played on an A major harp.
7B 8B’ 9D 9B’ 9B 10B” 10B
10B 10B” 9B 9B’ 9D 8B’ 7B
Now let’s look at a graphic of what’s going on. Click the image below to enlarge it or print yourself a copy here. All the safe notes have been highlighted in red. The great news is that, unlike the lower octave with it’s blues wannabe notes, we have a complete blues scale up top. You just need to master three important blow bends (8B’, 9B’ and 10B”) to crack it.
Honey knock your self out
Now we’ve nailed the scale, let’s learn some high end signature blues riffs together. We’ll start with Jimmy Reed and Bright Lights Big City. You’ll need your A major harp.
Jimmy played almost exclusively through a rack mounted harp. Furthermore he played acoustically. To replicate his style, while the rack is not essential, you will need to adopt a laid-back, acoustic feel. Importantly, no hand effects are required.
Portamento, the movement up from a blow bent note (indicated by parenthesis in the tab) into a clean note, is the essence of Jimmy Reed’s delivery. In this number he also drops in an un-bluesy 6D and 8D to mimic the vocal line.
(8B’)..8B (8B’)..8B Spit technique to trigger the 8B’
8B’..7B 6D 8D 7B Echo the vocal line
(8B’)..8B..8B’..7B Over the IV chord now, so heavier on the 8B’
8B’..7B 6D 8D 7B Echo the vocal line
8B’..8B..8B’… Over the V chord now dig into the heavier 8B’
(9B’)..9B 10B (10B’)..10B Keep that spit trigger going
(9B’)..9B..gliss..7B..7B Catch a few crabs for that authentic touch
Now you’ve tried this one out, investigate some more songs by Jimmy Reed. Honest I Do and Down in Virginia are two more classics. Be sure to nail his rolling, laid back feel. You might also want to check out the album On The Jimmy Reed Highway by Omar Kent Dykes and Jimmie Vaughan.
I have a right to trust my baby
Let’s move on to another classic now, featuring Jimmie Vaughan’s old Fabulous Thunderbirds buddy, Kim Wilson. This example demands the highest standard of control on your blow bends. It’s that Sonny Boy II number Trust My Baby again, covered by Kim Wilson on his Tiger Man album. In Part 2, we tabbed out the low end intro lick to this number. Now grab your G major harp again and let’s look at that killer top end break.
By using a low harp key, the blow bends are more co-operative and relatively easier to hold. Neverthless you will need to apply a large amount of air pressure to control and direct the reed movement.
The solo features a sustained 10B” vibrato, that famous glissando, a weeping harp and finally the standard jump to 2nd position over the V chord before returning to the lower register for end of the solo. There is another example of a sustained 10B” in the opening mix to this post; it’s played by Lester Butler of the Red Devils.
For the opening vibrato, you’re moving from a 10B” into a clean 10B, then easing back to the 10B” by maintaining plenty of air pressure. The vibrato is created by rapidly repeating this sequence. Control comes from a gentle movement of the upper-mid area of your tongue. You’re effectively applying and releasing a squeeze on the reed while pushing from your diaphragm. The repeated lick in the second line needs a punch at the start of each cycle. We call this a spit trigger.
(9B’)..9B (1oB”)..10B..10B”~……(10B’)…..10B portamento
9B’..9B..9B’..8B..7B a rapid repeat lick
9B’..9B..10B” 9B’..9B..9B’ weeping harp – milk it to the max
9B’..9B..9B’..8B..7B 8B~9B..8B’~9B’..8B~9B dipped trill
Bad boy barking at the moon!
Here’s a fine examples of 1st position top end Soul style harping. Gary Primich’s Dog House track from his 2002 Dog House Music album. Check out how Gary locks into the main melody, developing it in the same way a Sax player might. The phrasing that results is rhythmic and imaginative. Also, note how he hits those squawk notes, signaling in no uncertain terms that this is a harmonica break, not a horn break.
As an aside, consider how the harp break is somehow reminiscent of Junior Walker. In another series we will be exploring the harmonica’s role in Soul and Motown music. Borrowing from the great horn parts, as Gary Primich does here, and steering them into harmonica territory is an important part of this subject. But more of this another time. For now, grab your Bb harp and let’s get to work on Gary Primich’s solo.
10B” 9B..9B’ 8B
10B” 9B’ 8B’..7B
(7B 8B’…8B 9B 8B..8B’ 7B 8B’..8B)
7B (8B’)..7B-8B (8B’)..7B-8B a hint of 7B for that squawk effect
7B (8B’)..7B-8B (8B’)..7B-8B
(8B’)..7B-8B (8B’)..7B-8B 7B
(8B’)..7B-8B (8B’)..7B-8B 8D
9B (10B”)..10B 10B” 9B..9B’..8B
8B’..7B (8B’)..8B (8B’)..8B..7B
Note how Gary goes that extra mile to follow the chord changes. He tucks in two real gems – an unorthodox 8D and 10D. By including these two notes, the solo becomes more melodic than a standard blues. It’s more soulful and very pleasing to the ear. Now source the full track and see if you can figure out the song’s intro which uses similar licks.
.. And I can hit ’em all night long
Finally, check out the high end break on this Harp Surgery house favourite by Jerry Portnoy, Home Run Hitter. Grab an A major harp and start work. As far as standard shuffles go, this one’s an absolute dandy. And as ever it’s down to Jerry’s tone, accuracy and attention to detail.
Now that you’ve mastered the art of blow bending and already tackled some examples above, this one should be within your bailiwick, as Jerry might say. Note how his cute roll down 10B..10B”..9B..8B’..7B is actually very similar to our series theme tune by Nine Below Zero (see below)
I can’t do my homework any more
To close, we recommend you buy a copy of Dave Barrett’s book on Exploring 1st Position. It has a heap of practice riffs to work through that will develop your bending muscles! Dave also has books which cover 2nd and 3rd position. We also recommend Winslow Yerxa’s book Harmonica For Dummies as a neat way of exploring this feature of the diatonic harp. Check out our Music Store page for both these books.
In the fourth and final part of our guide to 1st position harping, we will investigate the missing link – that big gap in the middle we keep referring to. We might even throw in a couple of extra 1st position tips along the way. Meantime back to Nine Below Zero to play us out.