Learn to Play Blues Harp Harmonica
The Blues Harp – Learning to Cross Harp
Filed under: Harping the Blues andHohner

The Blues Harp – Learning to Cross Harp

The Blues Harp – Learning to Cross Harp

By Anthony Moschetti

A diatonic instrument is designed to play in only one musical key. You need a different one for every different musical key that you want to play in. An instrument that can play in any key is a chromatic instrument. The diatonic harmonica was first mass produced by Matthias Hohner in 1857. By 1858 he began shipping them to America. They were designed to play German and European folk music. They adapted well to American folk and Country music. The harmonica that I learned to play on was the Hohner Marine Band. It was the basic diatonic ten hole harmonica which has been sold in that form from 1920.

The basic diatonic ten hole harmonica is designed to play simple major key songs. The harmony of these songs is based on the tonic major and dominant seventh chord of a major scale. As these are built on the first and fifth note of the major scale they are often identified with roman numerals as the I and V7 chords. Blues harmony is different. It’s two main chords are based on the first and fourth note of the major scale. In roman numerals that would be a I and IV chord. Also both these chords could be dominant sevenths. Lets use the C major scale to help explain.

The natural music tones are a, b, c, d, e, f, and g. If you start on the note c, you have c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c. this gives you the do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do of a major scale. Start on any other note and you need sharps or flats to make it a major scale depending on which note you start on. In the key of C major The I and V7 chords are C and G7. Suppose we want to play blues in the key of G major. The major scale notes are g, a, b, c, d, e, f sharp, g. The I and IV chords would be G or G7 and C or C7 for blues. The fifth note of the C scale is G and four up from that is C. So you can see that if we take the chords for a simple song in the key of C major and play them backwards, using the V chord for the I and the I for the IV, we have blues in G major.

Now we need to know the notes in the chords. For many chords, we take the note we start with and then every other note. The formula is 1, 3, 5 for a major chord. So for a C major chord starting on c, the notes are c, e, g. When you blow into the ten hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C major, the notes are c, e, g, c, e, g, c, e, g, c. In other words when you are blowing into the harmonica, you are playing a C major chord. Starting on a g for a g7 chord we have 1, 3, 5, 7. So the notes in the G7 chord are g, b, d, f.. When you breath in or draw on the ten hole diatonic harmonica in the key of C major, the notes are d, g, b, d, f, a, b, d, f, a. The note a is not one of the basic notes of the G7 chord but it goes well with it. So when you are drawing on the harmonica, you are basically playing a G 7 chord.

When you play the diatonic harmonica the way it was designed to be played, you learn to play the melody notes as you cover and uncover the other holes with your tongue. With you tongue beating out a chord accompaniment to the melody and your cupped hands creating other effects, you truly sound like a little band. How did this simple folk instrument become a blues harp. In the 1920’s harmonica players began to discover how to get a different sound. They found that if you played it backwards, using the draw chord as your primary chord and the blow chord as your secondary chord, you got a blues sound. It’s called cross harping. With your chords being G7 on the draw and C on the blow, you are playing blues in G on your C harmonica. This is called cross harping. Add the technique of over drawing to bend the notes and amplification and you have the blues harp. When you hear it performed by a accomplished player, it’s amazing the sounds that they get out of such a simple instrument.

The diatonic harmonica is the first instrument that I learned to play. The first song I learned to play was “Oh Susanna”. I didn’t learn to play it as a blues instrument until many years later. I have a lot of free music lessons on my website but not on playing the harmonica. Now that I’ve written this article, I’m going to put one there. Until I do there are lots of free lessons on music and playing piano and guitar.


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Can you Suggest a Good Blues Harp Book Based on the Sonny Terry Style?

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