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How to Play the Blues on a Harmonica

Learn how to play the blues on a harmonica with this Howcast harmonica lesson taught by John Popper of Blues Traveler.


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.

There's several positions on a harmonica. Again, we'll start with a C harmonica, 'cause it's easiest to remember the transpositions. If I'm using the tonic, la la la la, la la la. La la la la la la la. That's melody, right? Tonic means "la" in that song I'm singing, the bottom, what feels like the bottom is the tonic. "La" becomes what they call the one. And that means 2 is, la la, 1, 2. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. So there's 8 notes to a scale. 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. This is just basic code for music. So if I'm playing in a major scale, in a C harmonica, I'm gonna use as C as a tonic, which sounds very major-y, and like a folk instrument. Now, if I wanna play blues, I'm gonna use the G as the tonic, so I can get that flat 7. And that's what blues harmonica players do, largely. And again, these are all relative, as far as, it's not the only thing blue players do, and it's not the only think folk players do. 'Cause you can be a folk player, and still play that second position. You can be a blues player, and still play that first position. There's even a third position, where, if you're playing with a C harmonica, you can be using a D Minor, and that means. And that's a very minor-y sounding thing. And there's even other positions you can do. Like, I always liked the Phrygian Mode. See, each mode or scale, the first, the major one, da da da da da da da da, is called an Ionian Mode. And the one with that bluesy one is called a Mixolydian Mode. And these are all named after islands in Greece, where the various tribes played songs that favored these modes or melodies. And that's really all this is, is just, different lingo for different scales that support different chords. So a Phrygian Mode would be. Now that's playing in a C harmonica, I'm playing in the Key of E. And then there's one for if I really want to be super minor-y. I use a C harmonica to play an A. You have to be really sensitive to use that one. The most popular tends to be the second position or first position, if you're a folk guy or a blues guy. Or a polka guy, I guess, for the first position. But don't let any of these things throw you. Again, if it sounds good, it's right. And these are just ways to communicate with other musicians. You wanna know what key the other guys is playing in, so you can pick the right harmonica to use.

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