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.