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How to Take Your Harmonica Playing to the Next Level

Learn how to take your harmonica playing to the next level with this Howcast harmonica lesson from John Popper.


Hi, I'm John Popper, lead singer of the band Blues Traveler. I also play harmonica, and am arguably one of the best in the world. But thank God, there really never can be an actual best, but I'm damn good. I'm gonna teach you a few things about the harmonica.

What you've got to start doing to take your harmonica playing to the next level is start listening to harmonica players you like and then this gets really important, what I like to do is listen to saxophone players I listen to guitar players I like because Jimi Hendrix, the best guitar player in the world, again arguably because there is no best. I think he's the best, but then again I'd be in an argument with someone but Jimi Hendrix didn't care that he was playing things that a guitar didn't normally do. He would be like [harmonica playing] and it's like, that's not a guitar, that's an ambulance in Europe and see he was just getting any sound he could out of that thing, and that's really the epiphany I had was like, why can't I do that on a Harmonica, why do I have to sound like you know [harmonica playing] which is good, but that's like what Little Walter would do in the 1940's, and I was in the 1980's, this little white kid in the suburbs in New Jersey. Why do I have to sound like an African American gentleman in the post-depression era projects of Chicago. That's not natural, I'm pretending, I'm pretending to be a bluesy guy. This is something that someone said about the blues which is really wise, the blues is a sound a baby makes when it cries for the very first time when it's born because it doesn't know why it's crying, after that he knows he will be picked up and it's all show business. You want to cry that first cry, you want to like really just be impulsive, instinctual cries is what you're at. That means you can be from anywhere, you don't have to have a string tie like you're from the Mississippi levees in the late 1800's or something, that's not what the blues is. It's about playing honestly and so what you want to do is make sounds that mean something to you. One of the first things I was trying to play was [harmonica playing] and I just loved the flow of the violin, it let me practice, you know, hitting some notes heavier than others and that gives you a sort of touch about dynamics and when you're playing a [harmonica playing]. Now someone once told me that any line like that elaborate was supposed to be for a horn like a saxophone or a trumpet and why? There's no reason why not and other than that as far as technique goes, develop rudiments, you learn just a little pattern you want to play and just get good at doing it well. Enjoy the sounds you're making on the instrument even if it's repetitive and redundant. You're enjoying it. You're friends can't stand it, but eventually one day they turn around, "Wow I didn't know you played that well." And the thing is they were listening to you learn how to do that the whole time. They were just trying to block it out of their head when you sucked. Let everything be on the table, and I think that's a great way to sort of aesthetically anyway up your game on the harmonica.

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