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Harmonica Lessons: Finding The Right Harp

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Okay, this is a very
important subject.
Finding the right harp,
just for playing blues.
There's a lot of different
ways to go about this.
Now, when someone's playing a tune,
hopefully before they play the tune,
they'll tell you, so blues in E.
But they're not gonna tell you,
so blues in E and
we're gonna wait a minute for
you to go through all your harmonicas and
find out which one is the right one for
playing in E.
They're just going to say
its a blues in E, okay?
One, two, three and then they expect
you to just like grab a harp, okay?
Well there is a bunch of
different things going on here.
First off, you have to have your
harmonicas accessible to you.
There's several different
ways you can do that.
If you look over here, I have a case.
And it's got little slots in it,
and they have elastic loops.
This is a very popular
kinda harmonica case.
There's two sides and
you can arrange them in order if you want,
going up from the lowest key.
You can have G, A-flat, A, B-flat,
B, C, you can do it that way.
You can find a barstool.
If you're in a bar,
you can put your case on the barstool.
They make products, little things
that attach to a music stand,
little square things that
attach to a mike stand.
You can put your harps on there.
There are all different
kinds of things sold.
You can look it up online,
what to put your harmonicas in.
Makes it easy, laid out.
And one of the other things,
a little preparation for
what I'm gonna explain to you, is it's
really good to have them marked a little
bit bigger than what
the manufacturer puts on there.
There's a little tiny letter that
tells you what key it's in, but
it's stamped into the metal.
You can just get some these things,
I don't know where you these labels,
someone gave them to me,
but you can make your own.
Just go to an office supply store and
get a bright orange dot and write F
on it and put it on your harmonica.
Make sure that it is back away
from where your mouth is gonna be.
So that's why it's best to put
it in the right hand corner,
up on the top where your lips
probably not gonna ever hit.
So that's one important thing.
And then sometimes guys wear these belts,
I'm sure you've seen them.
Look like bandolero belts, and
they have these belts that have
all the harmonicas in them.
That's great, so you know where
the belt is, you can yank it out.
I personally don't like it,
because I don't like feeling
all this weight hanging around
my waist pulling me down.
Cuz if you're wearing 12 harmonicas,
it's surprisingly heavy.
So they say it's time to play
a blues in E one, two, three.
My God, blues in E, what do I do?
So here's the way it works.
To play the blues in cross harp position,
which is 95%
of the time what you're gonna wanna do,
you have to say,
you have to work backwards from the key
down to the key of the harmonica.
Because E is gonna be second
position of what harp?
So you have to say,
he is second position of
the harp of fifth down, so you count
five letters down the alphabet E,
D, C, B, A.
So it's an A harp, and that is called
a fifth above the key of the harp.
Or you could do it the other way.
You could say go up four notes because
you can either go down four notes and
get to A, or
go up four notes from E and get to A.
So E, F, G, A.
That's kind of faster,
actually, to go up four notes.
So if someone says, we're playing the
blues in E, you need a what kinda harp?
E, F, G, A.
Okay, grab my A harp.
And here you are, here's E,
[SOUND] here's the A harp,
there we are.
We are in the key of E.
After a while you won't have
to do this calculation,
you'll just know, E is an A harp.
But at first you will
have to figure it out.
Some people will actually write out
a little diagram, a little cheat sheet.
And they'll have it on the lid of
their harmonica case, written down.
For playing blues in these keys blah,
blah, blah and blah.
If it works for you, fine.
But I think if you're in a dark bar,
there's a lotta noise and
there's, well there's no smoke anymore.
But, maybe the lights are kinda bright and
they'll wipe out what you've written.
It's best to really learn
the principle behind the thing.
So if someone says play the blues in A,
what harmonica do you get out, blues in A?
You don't get an A harp.
You go up four notes.
I think it's a little easier.
A, B, C, D.
You pick up your D harmonica.
I'm gonna hit the A on the keyboard here.
Low and behold, that's it.
So, suppose, they don't tell you what key
they're in and they just start to play.
[LAUGH] Well you can do one of two things.
Whoever you're standing next to, not the
drummer because it doesn't matter what key
it's in to him, any of the other
guys could, what key are we in?
And the bass player will say, we're in C.
And you go, okay, C.
So we need to go C, D, E, F.
Grab the F harp,
which I have sitting here.
It's nicely marked.
So, there in F,
excuse me, there in C.
But you know what?
Maybe it's an F sharp and
he's like in a hurry.
So what I would do, instead of
jumping in real loud on your F harp,
just toot it a second off mic,
whatever kinda mic you're using.
[SOUND] And make sure that it is indeed
the right key because if you're a half
step off and you start to really blow,
it's a really bad sound.
[LAUGH] If it's a jam session maybe they
might never let you back in the place.
So you have to be careful.
What if no one's telling
you what key it's in?
What if these guys are just in a bad mood?
[LAUGH] What if they're not very friendly?
What if it's just a guitar player and
a drummer, and
the guitar player is singing,
my baby left me.
You can't go, excuse me, what key
are you singing my baby left me in.
He's not going to say, excuse me,
i'm in A, this morning.
He's not going to stop.
So, if you play the guitar,
you might look over at his hands.
And see, you know,
he's playing an A chord.
I play a little guitar.
It's helped me out in many,
many situations.
I'm standing there on the stage.
Someone said, and now Howard Levy.
And I had my harmonicas and
I'm not set up or anything.
I just have a few harps sitting around and
I'm looking at their hands and
I see, they're playing in C.
So I just pick up my F harp.
I don't have to ask anybody.
It really helps to know the guitar.
But, suppose you don't know the guitar,
and he's playing.
And he's playing a blues in.
Any key in the world.
if you know the notes on your C harmonica.
You'd pick up your C harp and
find the note that he's on.
And you say,
fifth hole draw it's F.
Wow, he's playing the blues in F.
Well I have to find
the right harmonica for F.
So I go up four notes, F, G, A, B.
And you pick up the B harmonica.
It's not right.
Because now you're getting in
to the realm of the flat keys,
which I was telling you
about a little bit before.
This is, unfortunately, when you have
to learn the names of the notes.
However you learn this is okay.
If you learn it relative to a guitar,
the saxophone,
the flute, the piano keyboard,
however you learn it.
It's fine.
Because the important thing
is that these black keys,
things get a little bit different.
If someone's playing in F.
You have to play it on a B flat harmonica.
It's a great sounding harmonica.
So if you are playing in using
the B flat harmonica, see this little,
funny little B over here?
A small B means flat.
So if you see B and it looks like Bb,
it's not BB King, it's B flat.
This is a B flat harmonica and
if it's a sharp key,
the symbol for
sharp is this little pound sign.
That means it's a half-step higher.
This is an F sharp harmonica.
So it's good to know that.
When you buy the harmonicas from
the store, you can look, and it's, lo and
behold, it'll have one of
these two symbols on it.
All right, so you see that if
you're gonna go and play blues,
even just sitting in casually,
you're gonna need a few harmonicas.
Because if they're in a key that
you don't know how to play in,
in one of the other positions, let's say.
If you want to play
everything in cross harp,
you need to own,
I'd say at the minimum, a G harp,
an A harp, a B flat harp,
a C harp, a D harp and an F harp.
An E harmonica,
it depends on who you're playing with, but
most people don't play in the key
of b which is the blues for E.
There aren't a lot of guys in
blues bands playing in B flat.
Jazz, all the time,
they play in B flat blues.
So if you're gonna sit in with a jazz band
and they're gonna be playing in B flat.
Anything in B flat and
you wanna play in cross harp,
you'd better own an E flat harp.
Either a low or a high E flat.
Hard to find the low E flat sometimes.
High E flats sound a little bit high for
This is kind of a problem.
You notice I didn't say a B harp.
Cause B harmonica's play
the blues in F sharp.
See this is another thing where
you need to know music theory.
So I'll lay this thing out for
you right now.
I'm gonna play for
you the first five notes of every scale.
I'll do it that way and you'll see
what harmonica you need to play.
And I'll also play it
from the key of the blues
up four notes to the key of
the harp you need to play.
So If we want to play the blues in G.
If I go down, it's a C harp, okay?
So if I play up C, D, E, F, G.
That way you play
the blues in G on a C harp.
If I go down from G five notes,
to C, blues and G on the C harp.
If I go up four notes from G
in the C scale.
You still,
you're playing the blues in G on a C harp,
four notes up to the key of the harp.
That you need to play in cross harp.
Okay, I'm just going to go up the white
keys for now,
just an arbitrary way of doing it.
So I'm just going to
go up now from G to A.
So what key harmonica do you
need to play the blues in A?
If I go down five notes [SOUND].
Go back up those five notes [SOUND],
it's D, E, F sharp, G, A.
You need a D harmonica
to play the blues in A.
I go up from D, four notes
A, B, C sharp, D.
That's the D major scale.
Those are the notes on the D harmonica
Plays the blues in A
The next common white key for
playing blues,
C, you need an F harp to play in C.
If you go down five notes
in the F major scale,
it's C, B flat, A, G, F.
You go up from C to F, C, D,
E, F, it's an F harp
Play the blues in C.
If you play the blues in D,
you go down five notes, D, C, B, A, G.
It's a G harmonica to play the blues in D.
Or go up four notes from D, D [SOUND],
E [SOUND], F sharp [SOUND], G [SOUND].
G harmonica, G major scale
Playing the blues in D [SOUND].
The next common white key that you
play the blues in, is F [SOUND].
If you have to play the Blues in F,
this is where we get into the flat keys,
it's going down a fifth.
[SOUND] A fifth below F is B flat.
And so how the scale sounds,
F, E-flat, D, C, B-flat.
F, G, A, B-flat,
it's a B-flat harmonica
that plays the blues in F.
Okay, blues in G,
I think you know that it's a C harp.
We've been doing this for quite a while.
Go down five notes, G, F, E, D, C.
Up four notes, G, A, B, C,
however you want to do it.
So to play the blues in
G on a C harp [SOUND].
Those are all the white key,
keys that are common for blues.
If you want to play the blues in B,
you'd use an E harp
Okay, I think that covers
all the white keys.
Okay, now we're talking about finding
the flat key harmonicas, and
this gets a little bit trickier,
because we get up into the black keys.
So if someone is playing the blues in F,
as I said before,
we can go down five notes.
If you just go down five
notes on the keyboard.
F, E, D, C, B.
You get to B, which is not a fifth.
[LAUGH] That's the problem,
you have to go down a fifth.
It has to be five notes in the scale of
the key that F is the fifth of, and
since F is the fifth
note of the B flat scale.
And therefore you need a B flat
harmonica to play in the key of F.
And the same thing if you
go up from F four notes.
F, G, A, B flat.
So the B flat harp plays the blues in F.
After a while you'll just know this.
I'm just showing you the theory behind it.
If sometimes it helps like I said to
have a little cheat sheet out, and
sometimes if someone's just playing in
some weird key and not telling you, or
if you don't have enough time,
you can just do the hunt and peck thing.
Let's see.
Is it this?
No, it's not right, and you can look
around your harmonicas, especially
if you have them set up in a row.
If it feels like something is even close,
maybe you could find
another one that's close.
I mean this does work to a certain extent,
but I think it's better to
really know what you're doing, and if you
need to find a note somewhere, if you
know where the notes are in a C harmonica,
it helps at least find the note.
Like I know it's an F,
aha, now I can look for
the right harmonica to
play the blues in F.
So the next key that goes up in
the black keys, is the key of B flat.
[SOUND] I'm following the circle
of fifths, which is music theory,
which I'm gonna explain in
the advanced part of the website, but
B flat has two flats in the scale.
And so, if we wanna play
blues in the key of B flat,
we have to go down five notes.
[SOUND] To the key,
that's a fifth down from B flat.
And that key happens to be E flat.
If you go down in the E flat scale,
it sounds like this.
It happens to be B flat,
A flat, G, F, E flat.
So you go up four notes from B flat.
B flat, C, D, E flat.
So it's an E flat harmonica, and
you pick up your E flat harmonica when
they're playing the blues in B flat.
Because all these instruments are exactly
the same layout,
they're just different keys.
Okay, the next flat key
would be the key of E flat.
Now E flat just so happens that I have
the right harmonica here in my pocket.
[LAUGH] It's, if you go down five
notes from E flat, the fifth.
[SOUND] A fifth below E flat is A flat.
If you go down five notes
in the A flat scale.
It' s E flat, D flat, C, B flat, A flat.
Go up four notes it's E flat, F, G,
A flat.
So it's either a fifth above or
a fourth below the key of
the harp you're looking for.
E flat.
You play the E-flat
blues on an A-flat harp.
I like that
key harmonica,
it's a good range.
So the next one, the next key past E
flat going up in the circle of fifths,
going around the flat keys,
is to play the blues in A flat.
[SOUND] I wonder if I have this guy here.
Do I have him out?
I'm gonna have to reach
down into the second case.
Here it is.
Here he is.
That's when it's very helpful to have
the name of the harmonica, the key of
the harmonica on the harmonica very large,
so you can see it, on a dark stage.
So, to play the blues in A flat,
[SOUND] if we go
down a fifth from A flat,
[SOUND] there we are.
D flat, [SOUND] five notes
down in the D flat scale,
A flat, G flat, F, E flat, D flat.
If you go up four notes from A flat.
A flat, B flat, C, D flat.
So it's a D flat harmonica [SOUND]
that plays the blues in A flat.
Moving right along.
I was gonna say north of A flat.
The next key is the key of D flat or
C sharp.
[SOUND] This is where music
theory starts getting a little
weird because you can call these keys,
either one of those two things.
So, if someone says to you
we're playing in C sharp,
it's the same thing as saying
to you we're playing in D flat.
And a fifth down from C
sharp [SOUND] is F sharp.
A fifth down from D
flat [SOUND] is G flat.
Same notes,
they're just called different things.
But if someone says we're playing in
D flat, and you think,mm, G flat.
You look for your G flat harp.
They don't call it G flat.
[LAUGH] They call it F sharp.
I happen to have a low F sharp harp.
They make them in low and high by the way.
Just as they make F in low and
high, and this,
to play blues in D flat or C sharp,
you need the F sharp harp.
It's five notes down from C sharp, [SOUND]
C-sharp, B, A sharp, G sharp, F sharp.
[SOUND] Four notes up is F sharp,
D sharp they call it E sharp,
this is really a drag.
E sharp, F sharp it's music theory
you'll learn more about it later.
So the F sharp harp,
[SOUND] plays the blues in C sharp.
next after C
sharp comes
F sharp.
[SOUND] We can also call it G flat.
I'm not gonna call it G flat.
[LAUGH] And to play blues in F sharp,
you need the B harmonica.
Here it is.
B harmonica.
Because F sharp is the fifth
note of the B scale.
So we have the B harmonica and
if you go down from F sharp,
[SOUND] five notes, you get to B.
You go up four notes from F sharp,
it's B.
F sharp, G sharp, A sharp, B.
And then you play the blues in F sharp.
B harp is right next
to the C harp.
And it's kind of a nice instrument.
Sometimes it's a good
idea to change things up.
And to buy one of these harmonicas and
tell your band,
let's do a blues in F sharp, because that
key, people don't play in it too often.
For guitar players it doesn't matter,
and it'll be a fresher sound
than hearing the blues in G and
A all the time.
And some guys really prefer
playing in keys like that.
Also for singers, sometimes you
might be playing with a singer who
really likes singing there,
it's the perfect spot for his voice.
You better get yourself two B harps then,
because they do go out of tune.
The next key above F sharp
is actually the key of B.
Which I didn't cover in
the white keys the first time.
Because it isn't one of the main keys
that you would play in on a harmonica,
so I'm going to cover it now.
Now B is a fifth above E, and
a fourth below E.
So you need an E harmonica to play in
the key of B, and I think I'm gonna have
to reach down to my second case under
the piano, so excuse me a second.
By George here's an E harp.
It's a low E harp [SOUND].
So here's an E harp that plays in B.
And of course
E harps come in
low and high E.
So whichever one you prefer.
Usually, the standard one that's
sold in the store is high E, but
you can get low Es pretty easily.
Now we've been through all 12 keys for
what key harp you pick for
playing the blues.
Okay, so now, obviously,
if you want to play in third position, or
fourth position, or fifth position,
you have to do a very similar thing.
Third position is really easier,
you just have to go down one key,
because it's the second note
of the scale of the harmonica.
It's the easiest thing in the world.
You wanna play in G in third position,
you get an F harp.
You wanna play in A,
you use a G harp, B using A harp.
It only gets a little hard with some of
the scales that use a lot of black keys.
For example, if you're gonna play in C,
you need a B flat harp.
If you're playing in C sharp you
need a B harp, similar idea.
But I'll let you figure
some of this stuff out and
we'll get into more of that
in the advanced section.
The same thing with playing
in fourth position,
where you have to go up a sixth or down
a third from the key of the harmonica.
So that fourth position on a C harp is A.
You go C, B, A.
If you wanna play in fourth position in B,
suppose the tune's in B minor, you have to
think, what's three notes up from there,
B, C, in this case C sharp, B, C sharp, D.
Since a D harmonica plays in
fourth position in the key of B.
So you use the same theory,
the same idea, for all the positions.
Fifth position is the third
note in this scale.
If fifth position is E on C harp,
so C, E, C, D, E, and
if you're gonna play, if suppose
somebody has a middle-eastern piece in D
that they want you to play, so
D is the third note of what scale you go.
Well, D, C, and happens to be B flat.
So you need a B flat harmonica
to play in D fridgian.
This is where you start
realizing that when you start.
The more you start using these other keys
in the harmonica, the more you will just
naturally learn some more
about either the guitar or
the keyboard, or some instrument
where you can really see these notes.
Because it gets a little frustrating
to have to figure it out all in your
head on the harmonica, it really does.
For me the piano has been
an invaluable tool for
my learning how to play all of this stuff.
Not for
my learning how to play blues licks.
I mean I could play,I taught
myself how to play blues without
thinking about the piano at all.
It's just that when you get
into these other keys and
start figuring out what keys you need for
what then you really
start to need to relate to
some overall scheme of music.
And in my mind, I just wanted to let
you know this, when I close my eyes,
I'm seeing these guys in
my head most of the time when I'm
thinking about what notes I'm playing,
cuz that's my musical framework.
And, I think it's a good thing to aim for,
most good harmonica players,
most well known harmonica players,
they play some guitar,
they'll play a little bit of keyboard.
Musicians, they can sit down
at an instrument and play.
And it's a good thing to know how to do,
it really is.