1st Position Blues Harp – An Introduction (Part 1)

Harps and Guitar 1A guide to straight blues harping

No force, however great, can stretch a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line which is accurately straight. Elementary Treatise On Mechanics (William Whewell)

The classic blues harmonica journey starts with a crusade to the Holy Shrine of cross harp. Whereupon, straight harp (normally in the guise of Oh Susannah) is swiftly abandoned. Drunk on the glories of success, and soon lavishly equipped with assault amplifiers and bullet microphones, the crusade continues.

New techniques are won – including tongue blocking, vibrato, blow bends and third position blues – before a dark specter looms like a cloud on the horizon; the ghost of first position past. It’s been neglected for too long and now it’s broken our serenity, and it’s raining torment. Here’s how to make amends…

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Misty – Jerry Portnoy [..with tab]

On my own, would I wander through this wonderland alone.. Misty (Johnny Burke)

In 1995, Jerry Portnoy recorded his landmark harmonica album Home Run Hitter with The Streamliners. The record’s producer was Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, while Duke Robillard contributed guitar and vocals to the project. The result is a collection of songs that bounce, groove and swing like a beast.

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For harmonica players, the album provides many rewarding avenues for exploration. This is partly owing to the diverse rhythms and styles Jerry uses, but more importantly because of his unerring attention to detail. The title track Home Run Hitter for example, is one of the finest examples of first position blues harping you’ll ever hear. If this position is new to you, or you just need to brush it up a bit, grab an E harp and play along.

In Misty (the 1954 jazz standard written by pianist Erroll Garner, adopted by Johnny Mathis with lyrics by Johnny Burke), Jerry demonstrates his ability to hit and hold those awkward cross-harp bends that would leave most of us audibly exposed. Add in the exciting transition from ballad to swing time at the midway point, and we have two and half minutes’ worth of sublime jazz. (more…)

Why Are Draw 2 And Blow 3 The Same?

Every truly cultured music student knows

Find your 10 hole C diatonic harmonica and blow hole 3. You’re playing G natural. Now draw hole 2. You’re also playing G natural. So why do we have duplicated notes on our instrument?

Well before we get all technical, for beginners it’s a great way to check that your 2 draw is true and not partially bent when you’re playing. When starting out, 2 draw can be hard to master. It can help to blow 3 and see if you are in pitch by comparing it with your 2 draw. If you’re experiencing problems, check out this helpful post ‘Why is 2 draw so difficult?. Now back to our two note conundrum. No it’s not a mistake, and yes, it does seem strange.

To solve the apparent mystery, let’s first consider blow 3. Our blow notes are arranged uniformly in terms of pitch. If we blow them in sequence from hole 1 to 4, we’ll hear the C major arpeggio. The same goes for holes 4 to 7, and 7 to 10 respectively. It’s the same result in three different octaves, each one higher in pitch than the previous, rather like a piano keyboard. (more…)

One from the Archives… Jason Ricci – Biscuits and Blues, San Francisco 5th Dec 2007

Prelude

Jason RicciDeeply disturbed by my chance encounter with Barry Manilow outside Tiffany’s this afternoon, I was in serious need of rehabilitation. Mercifully the Copacabana was closed for staff training, so Biscuits and Blues it was to be my place of convalescence and, to my good fortune, harmonica wizard Jason Ricci would be there, weaving his harp hoodoo  and performance mayhem.

To be brutally honest, I had actually never heard of Jason before, but he came highly recommended by Dave Barrett (Harmonica Master Class) and I intended to atone for my ignorance. Dave couldn’t make the gig, but Aki Kumar, one of his protoges, was at the bar nursing a beer. We made our acquaintances and Aki initiated my path to harmonica nirvana. Jason, he informed me, was originally from Maine, but currently works out of Nashville. His influences include Pat Ramsey and Johnny Winter, while his style includes fast flowing third position patterns, overblows and licks drawn from jazz, rock, samba and swing.

Jason took the stage playing through what looked like a Shure SM57 or Unidyne mic, into a 4×10 tweed 59 Bassman. The sound he created was at times reminiscent of Johnny Mars in full flight. Avant garde in urban blues terms, it is not your classic Chicago crunch, but a synthesised variant. The tone is specific and unfamiliar at first, it’s ‘in your face’, but you soon acclimatise to its punk compressions and focus on the artist.

Musically, Jason is as challenging as his adopted harp sound. He has planted his flag on the ramparts of Fort Radical. His persona is gloriously complex and countercultural. His energy is arresting. His playing is simply astonishing. If I had to credit specific harmonica players and bands for redefining the blues’ boundaries, Blues Traveler, Alabama 3, Little Axe, Lee Sankey, Lee Oskar and Sugar Blue readily come to mind. Jason Ricci vaults them all.

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Guitar Licks For Harmonica – You Don’t Love Me

Allman BrothersYou don’t love me, pretty baby

The Good Doctor, Greasy Rob from the garage and Barry the Landlord were enjoying some time out on the patio, shelling a mountain of fresh prawns and sipping ice-cold pilsner. Amidst occasional quacks from the village duck pond and the chirrup of sparrows in the privet hedge, they could detect the approaching whistle of Otis the postman, who was steadily making his rounds.

Shrimps and BeerHow do all!‘ Otis leaned over the Surgery gate, tugging the peak of his hat and holding out a letter for the DocThanks Otis old boy, have you time for some of our splendid seafood?’ the Doc enquired. ‘Sorry’, Otis replied, ‘I’m in a bit of a rush right now – an Otis rush you could say’. Otis was visibly pleased with his impromptu blues pun.

‘Aaah!‘ said the Doc, ‘You Don’t Love Me!‘ Otis looked a little surprised. I wouldn’t go that far‘, he replied, straightening his cap. ‘No, no, no…the letter old boy! It’s from Tom Esposito. He wants to know how to play the riff for You Don’t Love Me by The Allman Brothers’. ‘Now we’re talking!‘ whooped Otis, as he pulled a Special 20 from his pocket, ‘I likes a drop of the AB’s.’

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Harp Accesories

pinegrove-logoHigh quality leather accessories for harp players

For the past two summers, I have had the great pleasure of leading the beginner’s harmonica workshops at Blues Saturday in High Wycombe (UK). Organised by the utterly wonderful Aron Woodall’s (Big Azza to his mates), Blues Saturday is a great day, and night, out. 8-pack-leather-harmonica-case-iIn 2015, Azza adopted ideas from our annual Harpin’ By The Sea festival, and now produces his own programme for folks closer to the Central Southern UK. It’s a fabulous event, which we highly recommend. This year it takes place just before the May half-term break and you can find out more by clicking the red text in our workshop link to the right of the screen.

single-harmonica-pouchBack on message. Last year, half way through the day, Azza gathered his attendees for the prize draw. And as he announced the list of sponsors, heads turned involuntarily at the mention of Pinegrove Leather. Was this a secret fun day for harp swingers, as well as slingers? Was there cheap furniture up for grabs? The attendees shuffled their feet and avoided eye contact.

We needn’t have worried. Pinegrove is synonymous with top-of-the-range, hand made, leather accoutrements for musicians. Their portfolio includes shoulder straps and plectrum cases for guitarists, stick holders for drummers, and a host of well-designed bags and pouches for harmonica players. Everything is made in England from high quality leather, which is beautifully hand stitched and expertly finished. Proper craftsmanship, with highly desirable results.

ever-ready-case-iI contacted Rod Boyes at Pinegrove’s Yorkshire headquarters in Hebden Bridge for a chat, and his knowledge about the professional needs of harp enthusiasts was immediately apparent. He ran through his range of harmonica carriers, all of which are illustrated on Pinegrove’s website, and we talked about new ideas he’s developing. Pinegrove’s products are now sought after, and being shipped, right around the globe. And we can proudly announce that Pinegrove has also agreed to sponsor this year’s Harpin’ By The Sea festival.