4 Phases to Harmonica Improvisation

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How do you improvise on the harmonica? Well I am just learning like everybody else, but right now I have four phases. And each phase has a different mindset and different approach.

I call it “Listen and the 3 Ps”

Listen – Put Music In Your Head

OK, the first phase is to listen to all kinds of music to put music in your head. Here you need to listen to great harmonica players from the past and the present. But not just harmonica music, but also listen to great singers. Study them. In addition, listen to great instrumentalists of all kinds like trumpet players, sax players, guitarists, keyboardists, etc.

In addition, you want to listen to a lot of different styles of music. All of this will help your musicianship, especially improvisation. It will put some riffs (small pieces of musical phrases) that will come into your head when you are playing. If you want to be a good musician, then you need to do some listening.

Listen closely. What is the singer doing? What is the rhythm section doing? What are the horns doing? What kind of riffs are the folks using. Get it in your ear. You must have a lot of music in your head if you are going to improvise. Get the choices that folks take in your head.

Practice – Put Music In Your Hands and Mouth

OK you have listened to great musicians. Now you need to get your instrument (harmonica) and practice it. Play it. Try to emulate what you have heard.

Go grab some riffs off the music and try to play them in your chosen style. First sing it. You can’t play what you can’t sing. So go sing it first. And then try to copy it on your harmonica. Go try to copy something Mahalia Jackson sang onto your harp. Go copy Sam Cook’s yodel thing he does only instead of the voice do it on your harmonica. Go listen to the organist for that choir and try to copy it.

Now you have some riffs. Go head and play them over and over. You are putting them into your muscle memory. You are also putting them into your head. So now your head is full of not just the great musicians, but also your appropriation of the great musicians.

You also can grab some riff-exercises you have seen in other places. I like to grab some of the riffs from Blues and Rock Harmonica chapter Chapter 6 and put them to a generic blues progression. Or maybe get Gindick’s Country Blues book and CD and play along. A couple months of  20 minutes a day of jamming with Gindick’s book and CD will help you put a lot of sounds in your head.

But more than any of these, go put a 12 bar blues backing track. I like to use Band in a Box to create these background tracks. There are a number of other tools you could use as well. But I strongly suggest getting Band in a Box. It is a music teaching tool in a box. check it out here.

The point here is to listen to how you sound doing these things. You are just trying to emulate the style..

Polish – Put Music In Your Song

Now take a song you want to play and actively attempt to put these things you have tried into the songs.

In the previous step you have played around with a little of the 12 bar blues. Or simple generic background music. Now you want to play with the songs you want to play.

For example, let’s assume you are working on the first part of Amazing Grace. You play it and you actively work hard to put riffs into it.

So I would first suggest listening to a lot of other folks take on That particular song. So we are not looking for generic riffs, but riffs connected totally to the song you working on.

So you listen to Shirley Caesar sing it. You listen to Aretha Franklin Sing it. You listen to a harmonica player play it. You listen to a man sing it. You listen to a saxophone player play it. And now you try actively to take what you hear to put it in that song you working on.

So you start Amazing Grace. And you remember that a lot of musicians add a sliding down riff in that word “Amazing”  so you add it.

The word “Grace” is one that some play with and some don’t. What do you think you want to do? How about grabbing a riff there and add it.

Then you continue and you start to wonder if that riff from Gindick’s book might fit in somewhere. You force it in and see how it sounds.  You continue and then you start to wonder if you can use that riff that a guy on You Tube used to spice up an old blues song he played. Put it in.

The key here is to see how these things sound when we force it into the song.

Get a jam track for Amazing Grace somewhere, maybe off of YouTube or use Band in a Box..

Perform – Put Music In Your Listeners

Now you think you are ready to perform. Let’s do some practice performing. Here there are two rules:

  1. You only play what you hear what you hear in your head. (Don’t force what you have practiced into your song.)
  2. Make sure that you keep the melody of the song in the center.

Remember to keep the sound of the melody in your head and just play. You aint’ forcing anything. Here you must play what you hear in your head.

So you playing Amazing Grace and when the first phrase comes a Mahalia riff comes to your mind. Play it.

Then you continue on and a riff that you heard a harmonica player use comes to mind. Play it.

And so on. The key here is that you only play what you hear in your head. You do not force anything in performance. As you play you will begin hearing bits and pieces a fraction of a second before playing. That’s what you play.

Some musicians mess up by practicing here. By that I mean they force riffs that they don’t “hear” into a performance. And then their performance begins to sound like a practice exercise. In addition, sometimes people lose track of the melody of the song.

No, play what you hear. and you will be on the right track.


That’s it. You got 4 phases. Listen and you listen to everybody. Then there is Practice. Here you are practicing methods and sounds that you have heard with your ears on your instrument. Then you Polish. Here you explicitly apply these things you practiced to songs. And finally, Perform. Now go head and play, but only what you hear in your head.

A more involved improvisation method can be found in Glenn Weiser’s excellent Textbook Blues and Rock Harmonica here.

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