Article 1 - Tips & Tricks #1

Written and copyrighted 12/01/1997 - by Bob "Hoochie Coochie" Paolucci

Bob "Hoochie Coochie" PaolucciThis is an article about a topic that I and many musicians agree is the one instrument, besides guitar, that is central to the Blues; the harmonica.

OK! Let’s start somewhere. We’ll start with you and end with you. You are the giver and taker of style, technique and tone and no amount of equipment will change that. So first, what you really need to do is examine yourself and determine what kind of music YOU want to play and how YOU want to play it. Ask yourself why you picked the harmonica as opposed to picking some other instrument. Are you a blueser or really a rocker trying to play the blues. Do you want to be traditional or break out and create your own style (we’ll be waiting). This is very, very important so read the next line twice. Define yourself and you will define your style. This is not to say that you can’t play it all, just “to thine own self be true”. If you read a well written book, it captures you and moves you through the pages. It has a theme and builds on it. Once a plot is well developed, the author moves freely through it, adding or changing moods at will - a master of his art. You are your own musical author and your style lets you do that. Become one with the harmonica.

So now you’re playing and chugging along and you stop and ask yourself, “Now I’m playing and chugging along but what are the tricks and techniques? How do I get that big, fat, juicy tone? What is third position”. For arguments sake let’s say you are a blueser and want to play electric harmonica, well here are some of the important basics. I’ll outline them here and get into the details in upcoming columns:

I firmly believe that breathing right is important to good tone as well as not passing out while trying to impress your date at a gig. You will be making tons of starts, stops, ins and outs and correct, RELAXED breathing will allow you to play WITH the instrument instead of against it. Have too much or too little air in your lungs in the middle of a riff? Well, you might try breathing through your nose at the same as blowing or drawing some of your notes. Be mindful of the noise this might make if you are amplified. Maybe you are having a hard time bending a draw note. It might be that you are inhaling through your nose at the same time as trying to bend that note. Too much air diverted from the hole makes it very difficult to draw down on a reed. These things may seem painfully obvious and not even worth mentioning, but it is precisely these types of problems that are commonly encountered. Play patterns that exercise your breathing. I have my students do things like play an entire 1-4-5 blues progression strictly on draw notes in a cross-harp position or just blow notes in a straight-harp position.

The one great thing about the harp is that it is an instrument that can emulate characteristics of the human voice. We can color the tone by altering the shape and position of our mouth, tongue, lips, cheeks, etc. We can coax out brighter or darker tones just as we accent our words. Since the shape of our mouths greatly influences tone, each person naturally has his or her own tone. In order to get the most out of what God has given you, try this. For a good, round, bottom tone try keeping your mouth cavity as open as possible, opening your jaw and/or keeping the tongue towards the back and bottom of your mouth. To get a brighter, sharper timbre try moving your tongue towards the top and front of your mouth and/or closing your jaw. Just remember, YOU are the tone machine.

One last point I would like to make this time is about the “any tool as long as it’s a hammer” style. I know everyone wants to be able to play fast and loud, especially newer, inexperienced players or young players with lots of energy to burn off and resilient eardrums. Please listen to the old timers. They can play fast and loud, they just don’t want to do it all the time. Fast and loud are just tools in your toolbox, not the only ones. To me, music is like another language; if you’re talking too fast, I can’t understand you and if you’re screaming at me I’ll just turn you off. Consider your musical dimensions to be more than just the pitch of the notes you play. Use all aspects of the senses to express yourself, such as “is that note bright or bottomy, quiet or loud, fast or slow, harsh or soft. Use them all, maybe even in the same passage. This puts us back to the beginning of this article...use substance with soul and style, not instead of it. The best musicians aren’t always the best technicians.

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email me.