I was browsing Chet Cannon's Good Blues Update recently and followed a link to this Guitar Player Magazine article entitled 99 Ways to Play Better.
Inspired, I decided to write a 'translated' version for harmonica players. Please keep in mind these are intended as practice strategies to 'open things up' for you. Not every strategy will work for every player, and some strategies may seem pretty elementary to more advanced players. I've tried all these strategies at one time or another with varying degrees of success - hopefully, one or two of them will help your playing.
[NOTE: I continue to update and add to this as time passes and I gain experience. For those of you who like to read the last chapter of the book first, I'll share this: The most important attribute of a good musician is the ability to LISTEN and respond appropriately. This includes playing at the appropriate volume. If you don't take away anything else from this post, I hope you'll think about those two points when you play, and I guarantee your band-mates will consider you an improved player for it.]
1. Even if you haven't 'mastered' all the tunes and tricks you want to, shuffle new tunes, licks and techniques into your practice routine to keep it fresh - you might pick up something that will help you break down some of the barriers in your regular routine.
2. Even if you don't sing well, sing anyway - at least in the woodshed. Sing the melody, sing your riffs, sing everything. It will make you so much more familiar with the music you're trying to play, and singing is it's own reward.
3. Clap your hands, shake a shaker, stomp your feet, move your butt! Get intimately familiar with the rhythm of the music you're playing. Rhythm is PARAMOUNT. Even melody is meaningless without rhythm.
4. Learn to play with facility at a whisper as well as a wail. Vary your dynamics - it adds drama, and drama is good for your musical performance.
5. After you learn how to make good tome 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.
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.
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!
8. Don't tighten up - keep your upper body, neck and face as relaxed as possible. It will open your tone.
9. Especially if you usually play into an amp in the Chicago Blues style, try playing some ballads or melodies acoustically for a change. Play with lots of heart, but leave out the tricks. See how it affects your playing.
10. Always stand when you play, and always use good posture. Critical for good sound and breathing.
11. Don't get in a 2nd-position rut. Learn to play as much as you can in alternate positions. For instance, explore 3rd position for Major-keyed tunes. Don't forget to work on 1st position as well (sometimes first sounds cool for minor key songs). See how many of your 'go to' songs you can play in 2, 3, or even 4 different positions.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. Don't blow (or draw) your notes flat. Poor technique can push you off-pitch. Listen for pitch all the time, and adjust as necessary, especially on your bends.
15. As much as possible, associate with musicians who play better than you. Listen to them, watch them (on and off the bandstand), learn from them.
16. Keep your instruments, mics and amps clean. Keeping your amps and mics clean shows some pride of ownership. Keeping your harmonicas clean inside and out makes them play better, and makes you sound better.
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.
18. Seek inspiration for your music in other places than the woodshed and old recordings. Sources other than music, even.
19. Tell a story with your solos - stories, you'll remember, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And drama. And sometimes, even humor.
20. Kim Wilson takes pride in the accuracy of his bends, especially on the 3-draw. If you listen to him he rarely 'pulls' a bent note down or up - he usually nails it spot-on, unless he needs to pull it for expressive reasons. Takes LOTS of practice on every key harmonica you play to get that good.
21. You have two ears, one mouth for a reason. Listen to your bandmates. Give them the same respect and space you appreciate.
22. Learn to determine the key a song is in by listening to it, with only your harmonicas and your ear as your tools. Play a CD or playlist all the way through (preferably one with NO harmonica) and challenge yourself to identify the key of every song within the first verse, or the first two measures, and so on.
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.
24. Don't follow contemporary players with no creativity. Find artists that play other instruments than you and draw your inspiration from them.
25. The harmonica is about the most expressive instrument there is. It evokes emotion almost by itself. Use that. Drama!
26. Next time your guitarist (keyboard player, horn player, drummer) is on a good blow, LAY OUT.
Seriously. Read that again, and do it.
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.
28. Attempt to play along with Jamey Aebersold's Blues in All Keys. You don't have to master it, just attempt it. Extra points if you do this on only one harmonica (Chromatic, preferably).
30. Be a good accompanist for someone who doesn't really need the help. Figure out how to fit in with them.
31. Record yourself. Play what you feel (eyes closed would be good). Play it back and discover yourself.
32. If you're a Blues player, you've noticed that lots of songs have similar riffs and motifs. Break it up when you play these - use a different position, use a Low-key harmonica, switch to Chromatic, or just a different approach. Make each song individual.
33. Learn to work your mic. Play at every possible volume level using only your hands and technique, without touching the volume knob. In fact, take that sucker out - it just robs your tone.
34. Play for the song, not for your ego. Lay out if that's what works for the song.
35. Vary your attack. You can't play every solo, every note with a huge, dark-sounding tight-cupped honk. Throw in some sweet gentle tones, some screaming wails, some long tones and shakes.
36. Learn to syncopate - play on the back beat sometimes just to mix things up.
37. Playing those 2-draw bends, and those 8, 9 and 10-blow bends and shakes - man people love those! I know, they're very common and over-played, but hey, you gotta play for the audience.
38. Stomp your foot. Make it funky. Keep it up. FEEL IT.
39. Use the vocal mic some of the time. This will give you an opportunity to explore your hand effects, mic proximity, and tone.
40. Play rhythm, in earnest - not fills, not solos; just pick a couple of songs and support the song by being a good rhythm player. Listen to the drummer. Help him out. Make the drummer sound good.
41. Open up. Play with your throat wide, relaxed. Play from your guts - even your toes.
42. Sometimes, you may need to take a little time away from the woodshed to gain a fresh perspective. It's OK. Remember, "All work and no play makes for some boring s***".
43. On the other hand, sometimes you just have to apply a good-old American work ethic: don't be afraid to dig in and work to get the sound/emotion/effect you need to produce to make the song right.
44. Try playing through two amplifiers (stereo, not bi-amped), or a stereo PA. This is not to get more volume, but more separation of your sound spatially. Huge sound can be had.
45. The greatest compliment you can be paid as a musician is to be told by a better musician that you have big ears. Strive for that.
46. Vibrato: Fast, medium slow. Throat, diaphragm, hand, tongue-flutter, bend. Learn them all, use them all.
47. Try some low-tuned tuned diatonics, a high-G, or some minor or other alternate tunings. Even if you only use it once in a night, it can change things up in an interesting way for your audience. You are playing for the audience aren't you?
48. Try starting a solo on a seemingly random note. If you make a mistake repeat it. Twice is usually the right amount of times to repeat a mistake.
48a. As an exercise in creativity, try to avoid playing anything the way Little Walter did.
49. Watch your SPL (Sound Pressure Levels) onstage. When you can't hear yourself onstage, the natural tendency is to turn up. Don't do it - turn down instead, and make everyone else do the same. If they won't, get another band.
50. To beef up your solos, try alternate positions (even change keys if possible or necessary) to make your phrasing strong in the appropriate places.
51. Always have a good harmonica handy. Don't carry a clunker, and don't carry one without a case (that will turn a good harp into a clunker double-quick). Play that sucker several times a day, even if only a few minutes at a time; it'll keep your head in it.
52. Hand, arm and neck position are also part of good posture. Be mindful of how your body is positioned - it can make the difference between enjoying a 4-hour gig or barely surviving a 4-hour death march. (Don't forget to stretch between sets!)
53. Fast playing starts with correct slow playing that builds speed gradually andincrementally. As my Martial-Arts Instructor said said:"Practice doesn't make perfect; Perfect practice makes perfect"
54. Turn down your amp a little before you adjust the tone - then adjust it by listening. Then turn up, only if you must (see #49).
55. When you sit in with more experienced musicians or musicians you haven't played with, listen. You better listen, man! They've got a lot more to show you than you have to show them. Listen and learn. (You'll earn their respect.)
56. Attack, vibrato, hand effects, mic use, amp volume - these are all components of your personal sound. Not so much the brand of your equipment; more how you use it. Remember that.
57. Listening is as much a part of improvising as wailing. Make it a conversation; give others the opportunity to say something and respect what they've said.
58. Cover those unused holes when you play! It makes your instrument sound bigger, stronger, more powerful and airtight. I use my cheek. (Some cats even use their fingers.)
59. Listen to great stylists like Jimmy Vaughan, Stanton Moore, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young. Don't copy them, just listen and learn. Play to your strengths. What makes a blues musician a stand-out is the ability to exploit their strengths.
60. When using a vocal mic or playing acoustically, try closing your hands, or use a drinking cup or a small juice can for resonant effect. Shape the notes with your hands when you play.
61. When you play, just play. Don't play in the car, or while you're riding your bike or skateboard. It just makes you do neither one very well, no matter who you are.
62. Learn tongue-ing - use slaps, pulls, trills and flutters on both sides of your mouth (and in the middle). You will be like a God to the rest of us!
63. Use a tube amp with a tube rectifier. The compression you get with a tube rectifier is especially sweet....
64. A guitar player friend of mine once said, "Time takes time". Take it easy, it's hard to realize you're making progress sometimes, but don't get frustrated - it'll come if you're patient and persistent.
65. Go easy on the effects. Your instrument sounds unlike anything else - don't obscure the sound - highlight it!
66. Practice playing legato, staccato, fortissimo, pianissimo.
66a. Learn these terms and what they mean. You won't ever use them on the bandstand, but knowing how to DO them will make you a better player.
66b. Study music. You don't have to go to school if that's not your thing. You don't even have to take lessons if you can't go the cost. Just go to the library and get some books to learn from. You don't have to memorize all these terms, but even a passing familiarity with musical theory will make you a better musician.
67. At the risk of repetition, play to your strengths. Your quirks don't have to be limitations. Can't do a side to side tongue-flutter? Use something else, don't get all hung-up over it. Find a new way to use a shake or a horn-pop, or an octave in it's place. Don't try to force yourself to be Howard Levy if it ain't your thang - just do what you do.
68. Enjoy yourself. Don't be too timid, or scared - people want you to have fun, be passionate, and succeed onstage.
69. Learn to play triplets on your solos. Trip - Pull - Let. And not just while your playing those Paul Butterfield Rolls, either - work them in to arpeggios and runs. Triplets sound cool.
70. Play out, in front of an audience, as much as possible. Music takes on an entirely different meaning when it's performed for an audience.
71. Experiment with approaches outside your norm. You could specialize in Sonny Terry whoops, you could be a moaner, you could focus on hand techniques, tongue-tricks, or percussion. Or, you could get yourself a JamMan and learn how to Beat-box. Search YouTube for Son of Dave for something different, or listen to the instrumentation, approach and incredible musicianship of Hazmat Modine, Tom Waits, The Latin Playboys. Try playing in a Jug band, or form your own. Get out of your rut and stretch. You'll bring some really cool stuff back with you and you'll grow as a player.
72. Explore fiddle-tunes on harmonica - check out Glenn Weiser, or Brendan Power.
73. Learn to count. Learn to play in odd meters. Go beyond 4/4, 3/4, 2/3.
74. Play for the groove. Songs can be too driving (yes they can) sometimes. Try slowing the tempo, or changing the rhythmic approach to find the groove. Always groove.
75. Play something new every day. Listen to the radio, or make it up. It doesn't have to be perfect, or even sound good; the mere act of learning to play it will help you to grow.
76. You don't have to learn a riff note for note, or at speed. Take it easy, learn it slower, let the speed come with familiarity.
77. Don't be too hard on yourself. Play with a light heart - have fun. The other way kills creativity.
78. Eat well, exercise, take care of yourself. Playing harmonica, like singing, can be a physically demanding activity - it takes a little wind, a little stamina. Keep your body in good shape to play well. Four-set nights can really take their toll!
79. Sometimes you have to try to detach a little from what you're playing so you can hear what you're playing.
80. Listen to the spaces between the notes. Try to play those spaces.
81. To get really good, you have to be in love with your instrument, and in love with the music you're playing on it. Immersed. Passionately.
82. Don't over-think your playing, or your approach; don't over-analyze. Just blow!
83. Good music is all about tension and release. You have to be mindful of how to create that tension (dynamics, voicing, attack) in order to deliver the release. And the release is what makes the audience happy.
84. Steal all the cool stuff you can from everyone you hear, but you must integrate it into your own style.
85. Advanced players: Avoid the obvious stuff that everyone's heard. Play that boogie in 1st, that Major shuffle in 3rd, that minor in 2nd. Avoid the obvious and the predictable; don't be afraid to work at it a little.
86. Feel it. Close your eyes and feel what to play, without thinking so hard. Feel what your bandmates are doing and respond to that.
87. Study the music you play in earnest. That doesn't mean you have to learn to read, or learn theory (and it doesn't mean you shouldn't, either). It means learn about the music you perform. Learn about it's beginings, it's offspring, even it's proponents and detractors. But most importantly listen to (and learn) the music.
88. Keep it simple. It's much harder to play in a 6-piece band than a four piece and have it sound good, in my opinion. Too many cooks really can spoil the broth. Strip it down. Less is more; it leaves you more space to create in.
89. Try soloing against the harmony of the melody instead of the actual melody.
90. Don't throw out everything you know in the first set. Meter it out carefully, delicately, like serving a 7-course meal. Hit them in the face with your most blazing solo the first song, and they have nothing but disappointment to anticipate. Remember that your performance is all about tension and release.
91. Accept a little slop, if you're playing from your heart. This instrument is an emotional one - emote! But don't worry about a little slop - it's cool.
92. Explore some of the sounds you can coax out of your instrument acoustically. Apply those techniques to your amplified approach. Expand your pallette.
93. If you can relax, play from your heart and emote, you will touch your audience in a very significant way. Just play with them like their your teammates on a ball-field. Engage them, enjoin them. Let go and play with them.
94. When recording, don't beat a tune to death with 10 takes. If it doesn't come in the first few takes, something is wrong; the approach, the players, or maybe just the fit between you and the song. Let it go and play something you love instead.
95. Use the instruments in your band to paint a tone-picture. Layer the colors one by one until the picture takes form.
96. Most of us harmonica players like to 'put some hair on it' - play with a distorted tone. Find a little amp to play through to get that - you don't want to have to play with a big amp 'on 11' to get your sound. Use a little amp and mic it - that little amp will sound huge through the PA, and you can play it as loud or soft as you want.
96a. A "Legendary Pignose" #7-100(the little portable with the AA batteries) makes a great little practice amp with the right mic. It's low-cost, portable and has a classic sound. I know a big-name pro player who uses one of these. Place it in the middle of your dining room table to improve it's bass response.
97. Playing through the PA can also give you access to effects you wouldn't have ordinarilly without 'sucking your sound'.
98. You're performing a show. Everything you do on and off-stage, the way you behave, the way you dress, the way you look - either contributes to or detracts from that show. Everything.
98a. Be genuine, not jive.
99. Trust your heart - the rest will follow. Play what feels right without forcing it, let it wail when it needs to, let it cry, let it moan.
100. Learn good hand techniques with and without a bullet mic - they're a huge part of a harmonica players toolset. You must know them.
101. If you have a little tube amp like a Champ, get a line-out box, or have a line-out jack installed in it. You're not getting as much of 'your sound' from the speaker as you think, and it will let you use a bigger amp or the PA for more volume, without losing that tiny terror's tube goodness.
Learn to play Horn-pops with the horn section. Also, learn to play bass lines correctly and accurately.
Octaves make your harmonica sound bigger, even acoustically. Get comfortable playing them - especially on Chromatic.
Play around with your instrument. Explore it and learn what chords and double-stops you can use. You don't always have to play single notes, and you don't have to sound like Alanis Morrisette when you play chords.
Play harmony to the lead guitar or horns melody line or the hook. Or play a melody line with double-stops, playing both melody and harmony yourself.
Learn to adjust your instrument. Not every harmonica comes out of the box in fully playable condition, nor perfectly in tune. Learn how to do this for yourself, even if it costs you a few harmonicas to learn it (try working on the ones that are already hopelessly blown-out first).
About once every 6-8 weeks (more frequently if you play a lot), take your harmonicas apart, and give them a thorough cleaning in warm soapy water (except if they have wood bodies). This is also a good time to touch-up the tuning on any that need it, or to replace noisy, sticking, leaky or missing valves (windsavers) on your Chromatics.
Always keep your harmonicas looking sharp and wiped off with a clean towel when you're not using them.
Keep a good playable 'short set' of the keys you play most in equally good shape, and close at hand while you're onstage. You need them as a backup in case you blow a reed.
Keep fuses for your amp, and a spare mic and cable handy at gigs. If you want to be the 'always prepared Boy Scout' of your band, keep a guitar strap, power tubes, cable (guitar and mic), and a couple 9-volt batteries in your gig bag/box.
...And one final, advanced, bonus - tip:
DRAMA!Grunt, groan, scream, holler, wail, trill, shake, flutter, slap and pull. Clap, stomp, thump the mic, dance, fall down, crawl, shake and shimmy. Play percussion, make faces, cry, laugh, hoot and holler. Use every trick in your bag - just be entertaining - they'll love you even if you think it makes you look a little crazy. Audiences love crazy - don't forget it's a show.