The Keep

In Olde English, The Keep was a castle within the castle, a stronghold within the fortress. The word survives today with a modified meaning: to hold safe or to hold strongly. To hold for one's self, not surrendering. This post will relate a kernel of that meaning to playing Blues Harmonica, thus...

Keep the Fire Burning 
Learn the music. Learn the music as fully, completely, literally, exactly, as you are able. Don't cut corners on your understanding. Learn the difference between The Walters, The Sonny Boys, Jimmy, Junior, SuperHarp and Memphis Charlie, Gwen Foster, DeFord Bailey, and all. Learn to quote them chapter and verse (not their words, their music). What's that? You don't think that's necessary? I'll tell you what: There's not a Top Level harmonica player today that can't do exactly that. You need to know the vocabulary. Learn it by heart, by ear, commit it to memory, refer to it often.

Keep It Up
Stay positive about your life, your music, your vocation, your instrument of choice. Life is good. It sure as Hell beats the alternative. The best way to meet adversity is with a smile on your face, a gleam in your eye, and The Fire in your belly. Laugh, grin, laugh some more. 

Keep It Down
On the bandstand, play what must be played. Play succinctly. Play with conviction, determination, a full heart, but mostly with brevity. Don't give your listeners the idea you're getting paid by the note. Listen to the band. Leave some air around your notes so they're not strangled to death. Lay out sometimes. 

Keep Conjuring
Play 'The Devil's Music' like you mean to conjure Old Scratch himself to the Joint. Don't just talk it. Don't pretend. Play from the soles of your feet, from way down deep. Mean it!

Keep Em Clean
Take care of your instruments and they'll take care of you. A filthy instrument, mic, amp, or other piece of gear, does NOT make you look road-weary and authentic; it makes you look like a slovenly pig. Clean your shit up and keep it in tune and operating correctly. Show some self-respect. (Take a shower while you're at it!)

Keep Em Close
Don't walk away from your gear - keep a sharp eye out. I know more musicians who have lost something irreplaceable because they took their eye off it 'for just a second'. Remember that not everyone at or near the Joint is your friend or even your fan. There are hunters and scavengers all around, and they're often hard to spot. Don't sustain them.

Keep Em Warm
Play your instrument(s). Every. Single. Day. Without fail. PLAY.

Keep it to Yourself
Living a hard life? Landlord throw you out? Broke? Your partner leave you? Keep that shit to yourself, don't bring it to the gig. Smile. Don't bring that RBF to the gig either.

Keep It Going
Don't quit. DO NOT quit. Never ever fucking quit, never stop playing the music. This music is a gift, born from circumstances and history we in this century will never really understand. It deserves a revered place in American culture more than most of it's current practitioners. Honor it. Preserve it. Keep it.

Keep It Real
Don't try to fool yourself (cause you sure as Hell ain't fooling me). Don't be a poser or a minstrel. Don't 'Ape it'. Stick to Karaoke and Open Mic Night if you're a hobbyist. If you don't feel it, don't try to 'fake it 'till you make it'. Keep it fucking real. 

That Guy

Some of you struggle with practice as much as I do. I worry that I don't practice enough, or that my practice isn't effective enough, focused well enough, or as intense as it ought to be. Maybe it's just human nature.

It's not that there aren't enough effective strategies out there. It's not that I don't have goals...maybe it's just motivation or maybe I'm not desperate enough, hungry enough, driven enough.

I was reading an article recently about running on The Oatmeal and 'the Blerch'. Basically, Matt Inman (The Oatmeal creator) motivates himself to run with his imaginary Blerch antagonist, and rewards himself with Birthday Cake when he completes a milestone objective.   

Motivation. Visualization. Objective. Reward.

Rick Estrin uses that visualization motivator (subtly) on his 'Tips and Tricks' DVD.

Here's what I propose we use as a motivator: Imagine 'that guy' - you know, the one that comes up to the stage and wants to 'try' one of your harmonicas. Let's call him 'Gus'. The guy that plays loudly in the back of the room during a show - plays badly, off-key, out of time, trying to bend the wrong notes, tin-eared and absolutely unaware how horrific he sounds. The guy that can't play Juke, or splits, or that really cool Big Walter slap, or... ok, I admit it that guy was ME.

Now visualize: With every practice session, every scale mastered, every skill acquired 'That Guy', Gus recedes a little further into the distance, and is a little harder to hear. Visualize him shrinking into the distance as you practice. Pretty soon you won't be able to hear him at all!  

Seriously, check out the link above. Matt has the right idea, use it to come up with your own motivation and reward system to energize your practice. Cheers!

Zen of Harmonica

A harmonica student wanted very badly to be a very good harmonica player. In fact, he wanted it so badly that one night he dreamt he met Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Walter, Sonny Terry and Big Walter Horton

He spoke first to Sonny Terry, "If I work hard to learn harmonica, how long before I can play as well as you?" He asked. "Ten years, at least", said Sonny Terry.

"But if I work twice as hard", he said, turning to Big Walter, "How long, then?" "Twenty years, minimum", said Walter

Desperately, he turned to Sonny Boy "But if I work ten times harder, how soon can I be as good as you?" Sonny Boy stroked his chin and said "30 years, for sure", and all of the four nodded in agreement.

Panicked, he said to Little Walter "I don't understand - every time I say I'll work harder, one of you says I'll be further from being a great player. How can that be?"

Little Walter leaned in and said "it's like this: If you always have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path."

27 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. I'm working my way through many of the 101+ ways and elaborating on the points. This entry is number 27.
27. Spend a few minutes each week or each month working on some instructional material. Doesn't have to be for harmonica. Just work on something unfamiliar.
 You're going to eventually develop your own practice routine. Perhaps early on you'll be searching around for something that suits you. Maybe you start working on Jerry Pourtnoy's material, or perhaps David Barrett, Richard Sleigh, Adam Gussow, or Ronnie Shellist turn out to be 'your guy'. (If any of these names are unfamiliar to you, search for them on YouTube).

Whatever you work on consistently, it's important to vary your routine. Reach out for something new and unfamiliar. You don't have to torture yourself with it or get sidetracked from your routine (because routines can be important to learning), but it will help you to keep your perspective to focus on the unfamiliar on occasion. It's refreshing, invigorating.

Lose the volume control

I know (if we pretend for a moment there are actually people reading this blog) that many of you will disagree with this post. Fine, disagree. For those of you who are interested in sounding better through your amp, this post is for you. I'll warn you that this goes against common practice:

Ditch the volume control on your mic.  It will make you sound better. 

How's that??

It will cause you to be more dynamic. You'll have to develop control of your volume and tone through your breath control, embouchure and hand technique.

It will cause you to turn your amp down. When you turn down a little, your amp can sound the fundamentals of your notes better.

You'll have to find other ways to control the SPL onstage. Get your guitar player to turn the hell down - or get a new one. If the musicians you play with don't understand the value of space and dynamics, you should find better musicians to play with.

You'll learn to play your instrument better without the crutch of a volume control. Your command of your whole instrument (body AND harmonica AND amplifier) improves.

Finally, you'll play softer more of the time, you'll learn to play expressively without being at 9/10ths effort, and you'll respond better - and instantaneously - to subtle dynamic changes during performance.

Then, after you've mastered the rudiments and understand how to control your instrument without it, then see how you feel about a volume control.



1. Seek out the best private instruction you can afford.

2. Write/work out a regular practice schedule.

3. Set realistic goals.

4. Concentrate when practicing

5. Relax and practice slowly

6. Practice what you can't play. - (The hard parts.)

7. Always play with maximum expression.

8. Don't be too hard on yourself.

9. Don't show off.

10. Think for yourself. - (Don't rely on methods.)

11. Be optimistic. - "Music washes away the dust of everyday life."

12. Look for connections between your music and other things.

26 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. I'm working my way through many of the 101+ ways and elaborating on the points. This entry is number 26.

 26. Next time your guitarist (keyboard player, horn player, drummer) is on a good blow, LAY OUT.

Seriously. Read that again, and take it to heart.

OK, let me elaborate...

I've been attending a few Blues jams recently, and I'm having a hard time with it, because some of the players I hear at these jams are playing like the stereotypical "Garage Rocker" - the kind of players most informed cats refer to as 'Alligators' - all mouth and no ears. Often the best thing you can do for a song is to lay out. I realize a lot of folks don't have much chance to play on stage (there's probably a good reason for that), but when you get up there, try to show some respect for the MUSIC, and the other players, too.

People, music is art. Art is often deft, subtle, nuanced, humorous, empathic, and dynamic. LISTEN to the people on stage with you. If one of them is really knockin' it out, stay out of the way. If you have something interesting to say when it's your turn, you will be afforded the same respect. If you do not respect the people you're playing with, they will not respect you.  

Neither will the audience.

23 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. I'm working my way through many of the 101+ ways and elaborating on the points. This entry is number 23.

23. Don't play like Dylan, but you also don't have to always play perfectly either. Loosen up - make a mistake now and then, get a little sloppy. It's all good, as long as you play expressively, from your heart.
Bob Dylan is well-known for his wide-mouthed chord-suck-and-blow style. While that's OK for a folkie, it's not the way a melodic player approaches the instrument, and it 'doesn't play' for a riff-based Blues harmonica-player either. You need to learn the correct riffs, runs, phrases and motifs to play Blues harmonica like a real musician. You need to focus on melodies, arpeggios and improvisation to play Jazz. You need to play melodies to play fiddle-tunes, Old Time, Bluegrass.

But you don't have to be straight-razor clean all the time.

Next time you're chugging away, breathe through the harmonica during a part of the phrase when you normally wouldn't. Have fun with it. Grunt through the harp. Holler! You'll be surprised the response you'll get. The point of this post is to have fun with it, b-r-e-a-t-h-e through your instrument, don't sound stiff.

SilverWing Leather

Photo - Hailey Terry

I just received this beautiful hand-tooled and custom fitted Harmonica Case (for a Hohner 280) from SilverWing Leather.

Photo - Hailey Terry

What a nice case! I've never seen such a luxurious, distinctive case for a harmonica. Most folks 'adapt and re-purpose' cases intended for other small items to keep their instruments safe. Now there's a high quality alternative that's handsome, durable and protective.

Photo - Hailey Terry

It's fully lined (with pigskin) and includes a 'block' inside the case to ensure the button and slide aren't damaged in handling.

Photo - Hailey Terry

I'm told this one is Bridle Leather. I like the warm brown color, and the contrasting strap with the Maker's Mark that buttons the flap closed "Sam Brown" style.

Photo - Hailey Terry

Notice the nice, smooth finish - even on the edges!

Photo - Hailey Terry

That's hand stitching that holds everything together.

Photo - Hailey Terry

The proprietor (and craftswoman), Michelle LeFree took the time and care to discuss design options with me at length. This sort of 'bespoke' service is almost unheard of today in my experience.

Photo - Hailey Terry
Photo - Hailey Terry
Photo - Hailey Terry
SilverWing Leather also offers a diatonic harmonica belt-case, and I understand multiple-instrument cases are coming soon.

I enthusiastically endorse SilverWing Leather!

You can contact The maker for your own bespoke (or standard) harmonica case at:

Michelle LeFree
SilverWing Leather
Montrose, Colorado, USA

21 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. I'm working my way through many of the 101+ ways and elaborating on the points.

21. You have two ears, one mouth for a reason. Listen to your bandmates. Give them the same respect and space you appreciate.
Honestly, there's no more important skill for a musician to develop than that of listening. How can you know how to fit in with the other musicians if you're not listening? How can you tell if you're playing on-pitch, in-key, or on time and tempo if you're not listening.

The most common mistake an inexperienced soloist makes is losing his or her connection to the tempo with soloing. That's not the band's fault that you were 1/2 a bar ahead of them at the change - it was your fault for not listening.

You need to listen:
  • For the pitch
  • For the tempo
  • For the changes
  • For the feel
  • For the mood
  • For the music
I will tell you this - you can sometimes get away with not listening at a hack jam - most of the guys you'll be playing with are just there to get their nut and won't be listening to you either. But if you want to play music with real musicians, you better learn to listen. If you don't, you won't be invited to sit in again!

Listen to the Guitarist - he's got both rhythm and melody responsibility in his hands. If you're not familiar with a tune, listen to the guitarist and when you get thrown the solo, just play the melody the first time through, listen to the band to confirm you're doing it right, then take-off the second time through.

Listen to the Bassist - he's got the feel and the fundamentals in his hands. Learn the changes by listening to the Bass. Learn the swing and tempo, too.

Listen to the Drummer - you can tell by his attack about the mood, by his fills about the location of the changes, by his beat what the feel (swing/shuffle/rock, etc.) is.

Listen to the Horns - you'll find out where to put your fills, you'll learn some tasty fills from them, learn harmonies, and learn where to fit into the piece.

Listen to the Vocalist - s/he may call you out, signal the punches, or say "Hold the One" - s/he will teach you the melody and give you all kinds of cues to the song.

Listen to the Greats - find some Little Walter, Big Walter, Charlie Musselwhite, John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson, Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson), Jr. Wells, James Cotton, George "Harmonica" Smith, Jimmy Reed, but don't stop at the Harmonica PLayers - check out all the source material you can find, and LISTEN. Listen to one instrument at a time. Listen to one song 25 times, finding something new each time to hear.

Yours is an instrument that lends itself to 'playing by ear'. Everything you have to learn to do is hidden, concealed. You can't see the fingering, the tongue movements, the throat opening, the diaphragm contractions, you can't see clearly even what's happening with a player's hands initially. Bill Barrett calls the harmonica a blind man's instrument.

You best friend in learning is listening. 

17 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. I'm working my way through many of the 101+ ways and elaborating on the point.

17. You know all those contemporary players you enjoy listening to? Find out who they listen to. Then find out who those guys listened to. Go to the source.

Whether your interest is in Modern or Traditional music, you're really short-changing yourself if you fail to dig all the way back to the source - those early players innovated, too, and in ways you might not imagine!

Find an interview with your 2 favorite players. Read who their influences are. Now read their interviews and do the same. Keep drilling down until you find the guys that your guy's favorite player loved, then their favorites.

Drilling down in to the remote ancestry of the music you love will teach you more about the music than any other research you can do. Dig deep for the stories, anecdotes, secrets, but more importantly for names. Dig deep to learn who to listen to.

Here's a free tip for you: If you're a San Diegan, find Lou Curtiss and ask him what to listen to. Really.

13 of 101+

Play at appropriate volumes, even when amplified.

John Lee Hooker, when confronted with a very loud room (loud audience), would play very softly, until the audience quieted down. So should you.

Think this is a case of "if it's too loud, you're too old"? Wrong.

Blues music (or really, most roots-based American music) gets its intensity from dynamics and feel. Volume is a fairly recent addition to music, and is mistakenly substituted for feel and dynamics to bring an intensity to the listening experience. Volume is a 'rock thing', it has no place in traditional music.

If you're playing in a stadium, good on ya - but let the sound man handle your volume. you don't have to overwhelm your audience to make your point - finesse them instead. Lull them, swing them, surprise them, make them laugh or cry... but you don't need volume to do any of those things. Once your volume goes to an assaultive level, you have nowhere else to go - you've lost the opportunity to nuance your listeners.

Here's another point: If you're in a bar band playing several sets a night, your volume will have a tendency to creep up. Don't let it happen. Keep the volume under control and you'll have a LOT less fatigue at the end of the night. You'll also be able to hear your bandmates better in the last set!

You only need 'enough' volume. Enough to get your tubes or speaker singing the the way you need them to. Enough to stay in the mix. Enough to be heard in the back of the room.

This is important: If you can't hear yourself, DON'T turn UP - get everyone to TURN DOWN. If you can't do that, find another band. I'm serious here.

You do NOT need (this is important, read it twice if you need to) enough volume to play over your drummer.  

If your drummer cannot moderate his/her volume, 
s/he has no business on stage with a pro band, 
especially a Blues band

Get another drummer. Good musicians (even drummers) play at appropriate volume levels, period. Be a good musician, not the other kind.

12 of 101+

Don't cling too much to any one idea - especially one particular approach to your sound over any other - and especially if you find yourself 'forcing' that sound into everything you play.

Ok, this can go deep...
I hear a lot of harp guys with less experience that are just way too focused on mics and amps. All an amplifier does is amplify what you put into it. If you don't have great technique and tone, you won't get a GOOD sound.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love to hear an amp break up, and I like a nice bullet mic.
But that's NOT where your sound is. Your sound comes from your embouchure and your good technique.

The pros can play through anything (or nothing) and still sound like themselves. That's because they have great technique, and they have mastered their own style of phrasing.

Try this: if you play mostly Chicago Blues, listen to some Early Country Blues like Gwen Foster, (Ashley & Foster), or some Jug Band Music, or some John Lee Williamson. Or try a little Chromatic Jazz, or some Bluegrass. The important thing: diversify!

Oh, and practice acoustically, leave the mic and amp alone most of the time. Learn what YOU sound like. Maybe even try to play a set of music without a Harp Amp (just play through the PA) - I guarantee it'll be very instructive if you listen.

Monk's Advice, 1958

[Saw this on a friend's feed, had to transcribe it and re-post. All emphasis is the author's]

  • Just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean you don't have to keep time.
  • Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head when you play.
  • Stop playing all (that bullshit) those weird notes, play the melody!
  • Make the drummer sound good!
  • Discrimination is important.
  • You've got to dig it to dig it, you dig? All reet!
  • Always know... (Monk -->)
  • It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn't need the lights.
  • Let's lift the bandstand!!
  • I want to avoid the hecklers.
  • Don't play the piano part, I'm playing that. Don't listen to me, I'm supposed to be accompanying you!
  • The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.
  • Don't play everything (or every time), let some things go by. Some music [is] just imagined. What you don't play can be more important than what you do play. Always leave them wanting more.
  • A note can be as small as a pin, or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.
  • Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, & when it comes, he's out of shape & can't make it.
  • When you're swinging, swing some more!
  • What should we wear tonight! Sharp as possible!
  • Don't sound [like] anybody for a gig, just be on the scene.
  • These pieces are written so as to have something to play, and to get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.
  • You've got it! If you don't want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn't want to solo.)
  • Whatever you think can't be done, someone will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
  • They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

8 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. I'm working my way through each of the ways and elaborating on the point.

8. Don't tighten up - keep your upper body, neck and face as relaxed as possible. It will open your tone.
Good posture is important - for some of us, it's as important as good hand technique or even good embouchure. Stand to play when you can, only sit when you must. It's easier to breathe correctly (from your diaphragm) while standing. If you must sit, find a chair that allows you to keep your upper body upright but not rigid. Most folding chairs fail at this. Straight-backed wooden chairs are usually best.

Breathe from your diaphragm, from your guts. Breathe in a relaxed manner, but deeply, and don't try to hold in your gut. As you breathe and play, you may find that you can 'sip' some air to keep your lungs partly filled, or you can 'vent off' excess, by opening your mouth between notes and 'breathing (just the tiniest bit) around your harmonica. Takes practice, you'll get it.

7 of 101

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. For the next 100 or so posts, I'm going to go through the ways, and elaborate.

7. An old sound-man/engineer trick: Use 2 mics when recording your amp - one near, one further away. This can make a tiny amp sound enormous!
I have used a "Legendary Pignose" amp on more than one recording and gotten very good results ('big' sound) from it. Now rather than elaborate on the recording strategy, I'm going to veer slightly from the initial point of item 7 and hip you to something else that's more important, and it's related to the listening theme that's a main undercurrent of this site. Here it is: You don't have to play loud. You don't have to be loud to be intense. You don't have to be loud to blow people's mind. You don't have to be loud to sound good.
This runs contrary to the way a lot of musicians play, especially guitarists, bass players and drummers who grew up on rock. This probably also runs contrary to what you believe, but this is gospel-level truth, that less volume is better. You can convey more feeling, dynamics, drama and every good thing that music provides with less volume.

Ever hear a symphony orchestra? Ever listen to great acoustic music?

  • If you start on 10, (or even 7 or 8) you have nowhere to go to increase your intensity.
  • If you play 3 sets at high intensity, by end of the night, you and your listeners are fatigued, and can't even hear the music as well as your first set. If you can't hear it, how can you play it?
  • Understand this: Tone does not equal SPL. (SPL: Sound Pressure Level)
  • You can get a great sound from a little amp with less SPL and preserve your feel, intensity, tone and hearing.
  • Musicians that can only play 'with feeling' at max volume are not better musicians, they're just louder musicians.
  • Music is about dynamics; tension / release, give / take, hot / cool. If you haven't figured that out, you haven't understood the heart of music.
OK, sorry to rant. Try a smaller amp if you like cranked tone. Better yet, try getting a good tone out of your amp that doesn't sound cranked. There are lots of ways you can play with high intensity without speaker distortion, tube distortion, or really, any kind of distortion at all. Better still, try getting a good tone from your instrument without the benefit of any amplification at all, then amplify that.

Can't be heard over the guitar, bass or drums if you play at a lower volume? Fire them, and find somebody who will play at appropriate volume levels, they'll be a better musician. Seriously.

Play the amp that works, at a reasonable level, and let the sound man worry about the SPL.


Something I've noticed about the best musicians that contrasts very sharply with those having less experience is the ability to listen discretely, accurately, minutely.

For example, when I am coaching kids or less experienced players, they may experience a little difficulty hearing the correct note, or the correct interval, or even the exact timing of a phrase. This is not a fault, only a lack of experience and good listening habits. It's especially difficult for newer players, and it's always tough to hear one's self.

Contrarily, very experienced, expert players hear more and better than those who are not such masters. Top tier musicians hear every nuance, every inference in a piece, and they do it with ease. I remember a conversation with Rod Piazza when he 'quoted' a Little Walter passage note-for-note to illustrate a point. I not only didn't imagine his understanding to be so complete and perfect, I was flabbergasted that his playing could go there!

In speaking with a super-experienced guitar player recently, my hunch was confirmed - the 'space' I was hearing in a preferred band's performance he heard. The 'clutter' I heard in another band's cover was noted by him as well. The nuance (or lack of it) of every phrase did not escape his attention.

I notice the same thing in audiences. Those less familiar with Blues music often think of a much broader variety of musical styles a "Blues" whereas an experienced musician will have a highly developed understanding of Blues music - and may also be a more discriminating listener in terms of what a likes.

So I have 2 pieces of advise for newer players:

  1. Practice listening objectively. Whether you have to use a tuner to assure your notes are on pitch, or the acoustics of your bathroom to hear the reflection of your playing, or even recording your playing so you can review it side by side with the target piece, find ways to hear your playing objectively. Also, practice listening. Listen for timing vagaries, pitch variables, and nuance. Then try to play.
  2. Have a more experienced player offer (gentle) critique of your playing. Don't ask him/her to listen to a solo you made up, or your 'style' of vamping over changes. Pick a specific solo to learn and master, and find an experienced player to let you know how close you got. While you're working on that solo piece, record it so you can hear what others hear.


As a musician, I spend a good portion of time "in the woodshed". My practice time lately has been changing. Since I'm learning chromatic harmonica as well as diatonic, my practice is often focused on one instrument, not both.

On chromatic, I focus mostly on scales, learning "Heads", and reading (music).

On diatonic, I've been focusing on certain techniques: blow bends, chugs, and whoops.

For those of you who are engaged at any level with learning a skill, I want to share with you the words of a teacher of mine:
"Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect"
What does that mean? Just this: Go as slowly as you need to, as carefully as you must, to learn the skill correctly. If you must learn a foundation skill first, do that. Even if you must go very slowly and think about each step as you take it in order to do the thing correctly, that's ok. It's not a race, it's a practice. Go easy, gradually build on what you learn, and practice the skill in a way that allows you to make fewer mistakes as you go.

Most teachers will tell you that you should only practice a particular skill or rudiment for a brief period, say 10-20 minutes at a time (I shoot for 15 minutes). Working too doggedly or obsessively on a single action can burn you out. Break up your practice. If you're working on bends, alternate that with working on chugs, ear training, and even reading. Keep your sessions fun. Oh, and it's often helpful to record your practice on rudiments, in order to hear and measure your progress in a detached way. Practicing in this way (small bites, detached review) can be a very positive experience if you remember to take your encouragement from small improvements.

Remember that your instrument is the most portable one there is, aside from the human voice. You can easily tuck a harmonica in a pocket or purse (inside it's case, though!). Take it with you, and if you have one of those inevitable little gaps in your day, have a little harmonica break - it'll help your smile-age! (But NOT while you're driving, of course!)

Finally, I'll remind you that the best players are outstanding listeners. I know from personal conversations with some of the best players in the world that they listen in a much more detailed way than novices do. Strive to listen better than you play - listen for the details, nuances, even the suggestion of a hint of a nuance...

6 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. For the next 100 or so posts, I'm going to go through the ways, and elaborate.
6. Miles Davis advised "Think of a note. Now, don't play it." Pick a note in your solo to avoid. Now solo all around it. Now, try the opposite - pick a note in your solo to repeat as much as possible. You maybe wouldn't want to do that onstage, but it will teach you things in practice.
One thing you might want to work on is minor pentatonics. There's a note in the minor pentatonic scale you can easily avoid and it sounds better that way in a Blues context. I leave it to the reader to TRY the scale and find the note to omit.

Now the other way: you know, one thing that's cool about horn players is that they understand that it's OK to repeat a note. Or a phrase. Or even an entire passage.

HINT: A really good time to repeat a phrase is when you make a mistake. Usually 2 repeats is a good amount.

5 of 101+

I have a page on this site entitled 101+ ways to sound better playing harmonica which was inspired by a Guitar Player Magazine article similarly titled. For the next 100 or so posts, I'm going to go through the ways, and elaborate.

5. After you learn how to make good tone acoustically, learn to get a good sound plugging straight into your amp, without reverb, delay, or other effects first. Learn to make that work before you start layering effects into your sound.
 You may have already heard this: An amplifier amplifies what you put into it. And that's really what it's supposed to do. There are a lot of beginning players who put a lot of effort into covering up their own sound - disguising themselves - with their amplification. They plug in a bunch of pedals, they search for the perfect microphone, or amplifier...

Now don't get me wrong, I like playing with gear as much as anyone, and I like to 'put a little stink' on my sound when I plug in. But that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about how you the player sound. You know, all the great harmonica players sound fantastic with no amplification. Not just good, not even 'just' great; fantastic. Acoustically. You have to get there first if you're going to be a great player: get to that tone.

Learn to make a good sound with your instrument acoustically. If you don't do this first, you'll have no real foundation upon which to build.

After you can make yourself sound good acoustically, try working with your amplifier 'unadorned', by which I mean just the amplifier, no effects. Build slowly on that, without adding too much artifice to your sound.

The big message that you must learn here is it takes work to sound good. You can't short-cut it, you have to do the work. If you try to layer other stuff into your playing before you have that solid foundation of acoustic 'tone' (good sound), you'll sound weak. And you'll still have to go back eventually and learn this stuff.

When I got serious about learning this instrument, I worked only on tone for years before really trying to learn riffs, songs, or other techniques. A good place to work on your tone is in the bathroom, because you can hear yourself better with your ears there (brighter room, more sound reflected back to you), and there's usually a natural reverb quality to what you hear. Work on long tones. Work on your vibrato (slow, medium, fast). Work on your breathing. Make the harmonica sound pretty.