3 Famous Harmonica Players

Songs of 3 Famous Harmonicists

Those new to playing the harmonica may be surprised to find out just how many famous harmonica players have elevated the art over the years. Here we take a look at 3 of the most prolific.

Bob Dylan: Legendary folk singer, Dylan has been recording and performing for decades and shows no signs of slowing down. Dylan is believed to play the Hohner Marine Band harmonica, a standard usually used in folk and country genres.

He has recorded a wide range of songs and some of his more popular tunes featuring harmonica playing are “On the Road Again,” “I Shall Be Free” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Dylan is so well known as a harmonica player that books and websites devoted to studying his work are available. Dylan also has a signature series harmonica with Hohner.

Stevie Wonder: Wonder began playing different instruments at a young age including the harmonica. By the time he was 13, Wonder had released “Fingertips (Part 2)” which featured Wonder singing vocals and playing the harmonica. He can also be heard playing the harmonica on Chaka Khan’s single “I Feel For You”. Wonder usually plays a chromatic harmonica on his songs for a wider range of sound.

Little Walter: When it comes to harmonica players, Little Walter has been called revolutionary, legendary and innovative. The blues diatonic harmonica player defined Chicago blues and enjoyed the height of his success during the 1950s. Walter’s was noted for his use of electronic distortion the first harmonica player to utilize this technique, he is also noted for his versatility in non-standard cord changes.

Walters has the distinction of recording the only harmonica instrumental to come in at number one on the R&B charts. The song “Juke” has since become a standard performed by other harmonica players and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Other popular harmonica songs released by Walters include “Mean Old World,” “Blues with a Feeling” and “Key to the Highway”.

Harmonicas Made of Gold

Materials Used to Make Harmonicas: Do Gold Harmonicas Sound Better?

A gold harmonica is not just a luxury for the rich and famous. Although harmonicas are made out of a variety of different materials, the most common materials used to construct harmonicas are wood, plastic and metals such as aluminum.

Most harmonica players believe that the type of material used in the harmonica’s construction will affect the quality of sound that the instrument produces, for instance wood is thought to have a warmer sound while plastic is believed to have a colder sound. Most experts, however, believe that any difference is sound is not distinguishable to the listener.

One problem with the materials used in harmonicas, however, is the fact that certain materials can wear over time. For instance, wood harmonicas are often preferred for playing blues music, wood instruments; however, may also leak air and the wooden comb may swell with moisture and warp overtime.

Wood can also be subject to humidity related changes in size, splintering and so on. Although plastic and wood are relatively economical to purchase, there is a concern about their durability.

For those who want to protect their harmonica against damage and want an instrument that is virtually indestructible gold is becoming the material of choice. 24-Karat Gold harmonicas provide visually stunning style appeal and can be engraved at the top and the base with the musicians name or other words for a completely unique and personalized instrument.

Gold harmonicas are useful for professional players but also work well as a gift for casual harmonica players who need a little extra encouragement to keep playing. Yes, gold will cost more upfront, but players rave that the material gives their harmonica a boost in performance providing exceptional volume, clarity and a smooth feel that is easy to grip.

Bending For A Soulful Harmonica Sound

Making It Sound Soulful

It has been said that harmonica bending, the practice of bending notes is the most important technique that a harmonica player can learn. It has also been described as the most difficult technique to master! Therefore, it is usually not recommended for beginners until they have mastered the basics.

Note bending adjusts the pitch of a note by changing the direction of the airflow and the amount of force directed at the reed. It also requires using the tongue, throat and of course, the lungs. Due to the ability to manipulate sound by blending, it is an extremely popular technique for playing notes on a diatonic harmonica, giving that bluesy soul and feeling so desirable in playing blues and rock music. Blending can also be combined with other techniques to add versatility and style to your playing such as the train whistle effect.

The standard bend used on harmonicas, is the draw bend, which goes down in pitch. Different holes on the harmonica also have different capacities for bending. For instance, hole #1 on a C harmonica bends down a full note or one half tone or step, going from D to #C. Note that this is the same note that is played on the fourth hole but is now being done an octave lower. Hole #2, on the other hand, can bend down an entire 3 notes or one whole step, going from G to F.

The first six holes on the diatomic harmonica are also draw bends, meaning that the player inhales to change the pitch not exhaling or blowing into the harmonica, blows are down on holes 7 and up. For beginners, the draw blends tend to be easier to become skilled at. By mastering harmonica blending, you can get pretty close to playing all the notes that appear on the piano, both black and white keys.

The Basics of Playing The Harp

Foundation For Playing Harmonica

Want to learn harmonica? Then you have some work to do! Some individuals may think that the harmonica is a difficult instrument to learn how to play. Others may think that the instrument looks so easy that it will be no problem to master. The truth, however, tends to lie somewhere in the middle.

Understanding Airflow

Before you get serious about playing the harmonica, you have to become familiar with the instrument and how it works. Practice blowing air in and sucking air out (drawing) and listen to the sounds that are being produced. During this process, you will likely notice that some holes are easier to play than others and you may run out of air on some notes. Take note of what you notice, so you can begin improving your technique.

Mouth Positioning

To play the instrument, correctly you have to form a complete seal with your lips and the instrument. This seal can be done with the harmonica on the edge of the lips with the lips tight and the mouth closed, many players however, tend to prefer to keep the harp deeper in the mouth and to leave the lips relaxed to avoid producing thin and weak tones.

While playing, the goal is usually to keep the lips somewhat puckered while also keeping the mouth and jaw relaxed. The jaw can also be moved up and down while playing to change the pitch of the sound.

Positioning

After getting familiar with the harmonica, you need to learn the correct way to position it. The harmonica is usually held in the left hand with the harmonica numbers facing up. Players are usually taught to tilt the harmonica slightly down and to keep their fingers along the rear part of the harmonica. Doing so will allow you to play without blocking the playing surface and affecting the sound quality.

Conclusion

When you start slowly and use simple and straightforward techniques and melodies then the process of controlling small streams of air becomes easier to learn. Take your time and consider using learn harmonica books, CDs and websites to correctly learn the instrument.

What Is A Mouth Organ?

The History Of The Mouth Harmonica 

The mouth organ or mouth harmonica that is so popular today can trace its history back to Europe. Free reed instruments had been in use in East Asian countries for centuries and many of these instruments were known of in Europe as well. Small free reed instruments refers to wind instruments that produce notes by forcing air into a channel by blowing it in or sucking it out.

Some attribute Freidrich Buschmann of Berlin with inventing the harmonica in 1821; his version featured 21 blow notes and was named the Mundäoline. Other music historians, however, note that similar instruments appeared around the same time at other locations in the world including the United States.

In just a few years time, Joseph Richter, an instrument maker, created a variation featuring 10 holes and 20 reeds designed on two separate plates, his variation would become the standard enjoyed around the world today.

Today a wide number of harmonica types can actually be found. Although the diatomic harmonica, which only plays one key is the most popular type, many other kinds are also available including bass harmonicas, glass harmonicas, tremolo harmonicas echo effects harmonicas and chromatic harmonicas that can play more than one key.

The term mouth harmonica is also sometimes used as a generic term to refer to any free reed instrument. Other instruments that are commonly called mouth organs are bamboo-based instruments that are played throughout Asia such as lusheng or the sheng. In fact, the sheng is considered to be the instrument on which early European harmonicas were based and is nicknamed the Chinese mouth organ.

These instruments are composed of bamboo pipes in different lengths and use free reeds but provide a sound very different from the western instruments. Similar to the Western harmonica, however, the Asian mouth harmonica is considered relatively easy to master for those willing to invest some time.

Harmonica Tabs For Those Who Don’t Read Music

Music Tabs to The Rescue

For those who cannot read sheet music, harmonic music tabs are a popular alternative that can help you learn to play the correct notes. These tabs shows the note for a song number that corresponds to each hole on the harmonica, for example the number 3 is usually used to let players know to blow into the third hole of the harmonica.

Harmonica music tabs are very poplar and entire websites are devoted to providing them and provide instructions for playing solos and riffs. Tabs can generally be found that are designed for basic songs and intermediate and advanced tunes.

For those new to playing the harmonica, beginner levels songs should be used, these are songs that are played in the 1st position, more advanced learners can play songs in the 2nd position.

To indicate when bends are used tabs usually use plus and minus signs, for instance, a -3 would mean that you inhale on hole 3 while a + 3 would mean you blow into hole 3. An unsigned number also usually means to blow Additional notations may also be used to let a player know other alterations. For instance, arrows may be used to let the player know which direction to blow.

Tabs can be useful and offer a quick indicator of knowing how to play numerous songs, however, they usually do not provide much assistance with music timing or rhythm and therefore, those who rely on these methods may find that the music they play does not sound as it should!

Once harmonica players began to be proficient with playing songs on the instrument, learning sheet music is usually recommended over tabs to offer a much greater variety of songs to play. Harmonica music tabs can also be provided with sheet music to help harp players better understand harmonica-specific techniques.

Diatonic Harmonicas – The Right Choice For Beginners

Why Diatonic Harmonicas  Are Best Starting Out

The harp or harmonica is available in a number of different types and one of the most popular harmonica types are diatonic harmonicas. In fact, the most popular type of harmonica is actually a diatonic harmonica known as the Blues harp or the 10-hole harmonica. Unlike chromatic harmonicas, diatonic harmonicas are designed to only play a single key. For instance, the key of C harmonica is tuned to the C major scale.

Diatonic harmonicas are so popular because they work well with blues, country, jazz, rock and folk music. By using advanced techniques such as bending which lowers the pitch of a note or changing the way the instrument is held, players can get more expression from the harp, brining in vocal sounds such as shaking and wailing desired in these types of music. Since the key of C is right in the middle of the scale, such harmonicas can also help beginners better understand music theory.

Most beginners start out with a single diatonic harp, and then as their music progresses to the point that they are playing along with singers, CDs or other musical instruments, they buy other harmonicas in the set to represent additional keys. The most common keys to get besides C are usually D, F and G; single key harmonicas also come in the rest of the 12 keys.

Despite their popularity, diatonic harmonicas do not have to be expensive, reasonably priced harmonicas can be found for just a few dollars and provide new harp players with consistent volume and tone. Look for brands with good solid construction that do not leak air. Most materials will provide the same quality, however, wooden diatonic harmonicas are generally not as desired since the wood can shrink and cause air flow problems. For health reasons, a new

Thielman Getting Jazzy With The Harp

Jazz Harmonica

Although many of the uninitiated to not consider the harmonica when contemplating favorite jazz musical instruments, quite a few musicians have made their name playing jazz both in the past as well as the present.

In fact, traditional jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman, encouraged harmonica playing with the traveling orchestras of the day back in the late 30s and throughout the war years as well. One such musician was Toots Thielmans, a Brussels, Belgium native that Goodman encouraged to come to New York to play. Thielmans soon made harmonica history.

Carving Out a Spot

Not only did Thielemans take Goodman up on his offer to come to New York to play, the guitar-playing, whistling harmonica enthusiast soon went solo – on the harmonica. He is now credited as being one of the, if not the, greatest harmonica player from the 20th century.

Thielemans found the riveting, upbeat Bebop jazz style that originated out of Kansas City in the early ‘4os much to his liking. In fact, Thielemans is credited with bringing harmonica playing into mainstream jazz recording with contemporary stars such as Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson and Jaco Pastorius. Now at 90, he plays occasionally in public although he recently suffered a stroke.

Passing the Torch

Although there was hardly a harmonica player that could come close to Thielemans in the 30-odd years of his popular reign, there were many who came close throughout the world such as Mauricio Einhorn from Brazil, Charles Leighton, Pete Pedersen and Les Thompson from the U.S. as well as Frenchman Glaude Garden.

Then in the 60s enters a young, soon-to-be star that produced his own individual approach to harmonica playing just as Thielmans did. The young 18-year-old phenom who even recorded with Thielemans playing the latter’s famous “Bluesette” was none other than Stevie Wonder.

Traditional Style Remains Valid

While Thielemans and Wonder were developing unique and personal harmonica playing styles that would help etch their vaulted spots in the history of the chromatic, others continued pursuing traditional swing or Dixieland styles.

Musicians like Harry Pitch or Jack Emblow have been performing for more than a half-century in the United Kingdom as the Rhythm and Reeds. Harmonica player Joe Martin has been playing with Jazz a Plenty in the US for more than 70 years. Harmonica playing styles can differ throughout the jazz landscape.

Present-Day Resurgence In Playing Interest

There’s been a recent resurgence interest in jazz harmonica playing, in short because of the popularity of the Internet. Young players are mixing use old techniques marrying these to new influences. Two of these young players that are emerging on the scene today are from the UK. One is Julian Jackson and the other is Adam Glasser, a South African born but London-based musician. Not to be outdone, the French are also producing their own crop of young artists that are led by Greg Szlapczynski, Olivier Ker Ourio, Sébastien Charlier and Frédéric Yonnet.

In the US, watch for performances by Gregoire Maret (Swiss transplant).

 

Harmonicas And Its Role In Religion

Gospel One-Man Bands Favor Harmonica

The harmonica has always been a very popular instrument with musicians conducting “one-man band” performances. This is because a harmonica can easily be fitted on a holder that keeps the instrument in front of the face of the player.

This will leave the musician’s hands free to operate another instrument such as a piano or guitar. Therefore, the harmonica became quite popular with gospel musicians making it just as popular as it was with blues music players.

Many Have Religious Songs in Repertoire

In fact, many a blues harmonica player has quite a few religious songs in their repertoire since many of these people in the early part of the 20th century were wandering minstrels like Blind Roger Hays. Although also noted for playing in honky-tonks, Hays would occasionally pick up a church gig, if not for money, but for food and a place to rest his head at night while on the road.

Other blues harmonica players of the era also recorded religious songs such as Jaybird Coleman, who played under the alias of Frank Palmes when playing spirituals. Other popular blues players of the day, such as Sonny Terry, recorded religious spirituals with other people like Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red as “Brother George and his Sanctified Seniors.”

Preachers Look to Harmonica Back-up

Due to the popularity of the blues during the Depression years, many church pastors in traveling preachers found the harmonica to be a popular choice and actually employed a great deal of blues influenced instrumental backing up when performing really just pieces.

A good example would be Elder Richard Bryant who made recordings in 1928 in Memphis using a backup jug band that had a stylish, blues-like, harmonica player named Will Shade. Jug bands were quite popular since these used low-cost instrumentation such as “blowing a jug,” a washboard (percussion), kazoos and a harmonica.

A preacher who played a guitar and sang would typically look for a jug band to help back him up during special events like tent revivals. Costs during the depression prohibited churches from hiring bands with pianos, organs, drum kits and other “professional” instrumentation relying on a band with a harmonica to focus playing gospel music.

A Good Religious Blow

Gospel preachers realized in the early 20th century the harmonica could provide a great deal of “uplifting, joyful noise.” One of the more popular players from that era, Elder Roma Wilson, is still alive today. Born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1910, Wilson was one of 10 children growing up on the family cotton farm.

At the age of 15, he grabbed a hold of a discarded harmonica and taught himself to play. At 17, he became an ordained minister and went on the “evangelical” traveling circuit preaching at many different churches until he finally found a pastor’s slot of his own.

This preaching touring was characterized by Wilson’s musical talents making his Sunday at the local church a popular choice that easily could fill the house.

Stevie Wonder’s Harmonica Hits

Stevie The Great

It actually was a wonder when Steveland Hardaway Morris, a blind-since-birth 11-year-old signed a contract with Motown records. Once hitting the stage with his newly ascribed name of Stevie Wonder, this young and deeply talented musician stole every show. He would open for such famous Motown acts as James Brown, walk out onto the stage wearing a white tuxedo with a red shirt and launch off into his own stylized version of “Fingertips” playing a chromatic harmonica.

A Lot to Admire

For a half-century, Wonder has developed a litany of achievements and accolades and has been acclaimed as one of the all-time greatest musical geniuses. He is not only an accomplished and talented singer, songwriter but plays van orchestra-full complement of instruments – including the harmonica.

He is responsible for penning dozens of hits that are now classic songs, many where his harmonica playing is a key focus and with hearing but a few notes, an avid listener knows it’s Wonder playing. His style has been referred to as the musical version of a smile that produces utmost joy as “bright as a cloudless spring day.”

Established Style Since Early On

Wonder had already perfected his signature style when recording “Fingertips – Pt 2” at the age of 12 for his well-titled album – “The 12-Year-Old Genius.” He was soon thereafter sought by many megastars of the music world for “guest” album appearances playing harmonica including the Eurythmics, Elton John, Sting, Chaka Khan and many others.

Part of the reason that Wonder has developed his own style is due to his primary choice for harmonica being a chromatic, rather than a diatonic is typically employed for blues music.

A chromatic harmonica can be quite harder to master and play. It has 16 holes added to the mix of manipulating as opposed to 10 holes found on a diatonic harmonica. He also plays different solos in different keys all over the alphabet, for example:

  • Fingertips – D
  • Isn’t She Lovely – E
  • Creepin’ – F
  • Please Don’t Go – G
  • For Once in My Life – F#
  • Gotta Spend a Little More Time With You (James Taylor’s Hourglass) – C

Harmonica players will also understand what makes Wonder a distinct player in that he uses the slide on the harmonica that several musicians have attempted over the years to imitate.

Blowing at Age Five

Wonder was placed in an incubator when born receiving too much oxygen, leaving him blinded. His parents sought activities he could handle at an early age and he became self-taught on the harmonica at age five.

By the time he hit his teens, Wonder was putting out tunes such as 1964’s “Hey, Harmonica Man.” Throughout the years Wonder has leant his playing prowess to other artists. Some non-Wonder harmonica songs include:

  • Will It Go Round in Circles (Billy Preston)
  • I Feel For You (Chaka Khan)
  • That’s What Friends Are For (Dionne Warwick)
  • Alfie (Eivets Rednow)
  • I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues (Elton John)