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Beginner Harmonica Practice Exercises

Way back in around 2008 I wrote up a doc with a list of beginner harp exercises and practice riffs, at the time it was uploaded to a few forums and a shared Google doc - both have since disappeared. To this day I still get regular emails asking for a copy of it so I thought I’d copy it to a post here.

Note: I haven’t updated these since around 2011.

Practice Exercises (skip forward for the riffs)

Scales

The Blues Scale

2 3’ 4+ 4’ 4 5 6+

Practice jumps

4B 4D 4B 5B 4B 5D 4B 6B 4B 6D 4B 7D 4B 7B
-2  6 -2 -5 -2  5 -2 -4 -2  4 -2 -3 -2

Hans Scale

4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B 8D 7B 7D 6D 6B 5D 5B 4D 4B
4B 4D 5B 4D 4B 4D 5B 4D 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 5D 5B 4D

Good Practice for endings (But sounds annoying!)

8B 8D 7B 8B 8D 7B 7D 8D 7B
6D 6B 5D 5B 4D 4B 4D
5B 4D 4B 5B 4D 4B 3D 4D 4B
5B 6B 7D 7B 7D 7B 8D

Triplets

(4b) (4) (5)
(4) (4b) (3)
(3) (3b) (2)
(2) (2b) (1)
(3b) (3) (4)
(4b) (4) (4b) (3)

Practice scaling from 4B to 10D as and even.

Vibrato

Practice vibrato on 2D and 4D (and blows) - (Try coughing lightly!)

2D~ 2D~ 4D~ 4D~ 2D~ 2D~

Tone

Lee Sankey - Improve your tone - Thin vs Thick sounds

Think about the kind of air you’re using, for example - the difference between blowing fog on a window and trying to blow a feather along a desk and don’t use your hands.

Thin note - focus on the lips ( think of it as being forward in the mouth system )

(2)

Thick note - focus on swallowing the note down into your system.

(2)

Work on going from thin to thick on (2), then try other holes.

(2), (2), (2), (2)

Lee Sankey - Harder exercises for high low transitions

4 (4) 5 (5) 6 (6) (7) 7 (7) (6) 6 (5) 5 (4) 4

This found this scale very good for practising bends.

4 (3) (3bb) (2) (2b) 2 (1) 1

Then join them, do this both ways.

7 (7) (6) 6 (5) 5 (4) 4 (3) (3b) (2) (2b) 2 (1) 1

This is to be played slowly and carefully, over time it will start to sound nice.

(1) 2 (2) (3bb) (3) (4) 5 6 (6) (7) (8) 8 9 (10)
(4) (5) (6) 7 (8) (9) 9 (8) 7 (6) (5)
(4) 5 6 (6) (7) (8) 8 9 (10)

Practice blues scales

2D 3D' 4B 4D' 4D 5D 6B 5D 4D 4D' 4B 3D' 2D
2D 3D" 3D 3D" 2D 3D" 3D 3D" 2D 3D" 3D 4B 4D 4B 3D 3D"

I find this one quite hard:

2D 3D' 2D 3D' 4B 3D' 4B 4D' 4B 4D' 4D 4D' 4D 5D 4D 5D 6B 5D 6B 5D 4D 5D 4D 4D' 4D 4D' 4B 4D' 4B 3D' 4B 3D' 2D 3D' 2D

Second Position Scales

Practice 2nd position scales (I find this very hard)

6B 6D 7D 7B 8D 8B 9D 9B 10D 9B 9D 8B 8D 7B 7D 6D - played twice, then

6B 6D 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 6D 6B 6D 7D 7B 8D 7B 7D 6D - played twice, followed by the first phrase, played twice.

Bending

Other bending practise, Start slow - as you get cleaner start trying it faster (From the song June Apple)

4D 4B 3D 4B 3D 3D" 2D 2D 3D" 3D 3D" 3D 4B 4D 2D
2D" 2B 2D" 2D 3D" 2D 2D" 4B 3D 4B 4D 5B
4D 4B 3D x4B 3D 2D" 2D 2D 3D" 3D 3D" 3D 4B 4D 2D
2D" 2B 2D" 2D 3D" 2D 2D" 3D" 2D

Peter Gunn Bass Line

“This is the hardest bend practising riff that there is.” This uses the 3 hole bends, Play it (if you can) until you can do it very fast.

More bending practice

-1 -1d 1
-2 -2d 2
-3 -3d 3
-4 -4d 4
-5 -5d 5
-6 -6d 6

Then do it in reverse, for example 1 -1d -1 etc.

-2 -3b 4 -4b -4 5 6

Then try the following.

-2 -3 4 -4 -5 6   6 -5 -4 -3 -2
4 4 -3 -2  4 4 -3  -2 -3 4 -4 6
-5 -5 -4 -5  4 4 4 6
6 6 -5 -5 -4 -4 4 -3 -2 -1 -1

Speed and Breathing Pattern Practice

6 (6) (7) 7 (7) (6) 6 ::| Repeat endlessly!

Riffs / Licks

Walter’s Boogie (great repeating riff)

5 4 5 5+ 4+ 5+ 4 3 4 5+ 4+ 5+

Trouble Riff

4 5 4 5 6+
Easy Blues Riff
2 3 2 3 4+ 3 2

Hoochie Coochie Man Harmonica Tab

1 2” 1 2” 2

My take on Modern Blues Harmonica - (Gussow.052)

G-Harp - Make a really forward ‘tuk tuk’ sound with the draw chords

(1234) (1234), 1234, (1234) (1234)
(1234) (1234), 1234, (12) (12) - then back to the bar above again.
(5)(5)(5)(5)5(4) , (4)(4)(4)(4)4(3)
(1234) (1234), (1234) (1234)

Fun simple riff to fiddle around with.

(1234) (1234)
4
(3) (4) (3)
3
(1234) (1234)

Great, really fun riff taken from A. Gussow .24, You can fiddle around with this one a lot and have a lot of fun making variations up as you go. Adam plays this on a C harp.

(2) (2b) (2), (3b) (2)
(2) (2b) (1), 2 (2)
(2) (2b) (2), (3b) (2)
(4-4b-4)~(4-4b-4), 4 (1+3+2)

The (4-4b-4)~(4-4b-4) - sounds like wee-o-wee-o-wee, you can also add in a bit of 5 to make it (45-45b-45)

More things to try with this riff:

(34) 34 (23), 23 (12) - Start each d

(4)(3)(4)(3)(4) 4 (3+2) - Raw with a small bend

Adam does something like a - 4-5-4-5-4-5-4 (3) (2) (2B) (1) (2)

(2) (1) (1) , 2 (2)
(4) 4 (3b) 3 (2)

Leo - Harmonica Lesson - Lick 2

-2 -3 -2 -3 4 -3 4 -4 4 -4 -5 -4 -5 6

Im a man riff

3 4 3 (3) (2)

Common Bent Riff

2D 2D" 1D 2D , 2D 3D' 4B 4D

Simple Blues Jams

3 4 (~3) 3
3 4 (~3) 3
4 4 (~3) 4
3 4 (~3) 3
3 (~3) 4 (~4)
4 4 (~3) 4
{::}

Sammy Riff One

3 4 (4b->4) 4 (3b->3) 3 2 (2)
3 4 (4b->4) 4 (3b->3) 3 (1) 2 (2b)->(2)v

Easy Blues Riff from PlayHarmonicaEasily on YouTube

(12) (12) 34 34 (34) (34) 34 34 (12) (12) 34 (12)

Lee Sankey Backing+Riff Building

Brilliant video and teacher - Really try to feel the bend, you can use 4b-3b or whatever - timing is key.

(123) (123) 123 123 (123) , (3B)
or
(123) (123) 123 123 (123) , (3) (2) (3b) (2)

Ronnie Shellist Blues Riff

(1-slide-3") (3) (2) 2 (1) 2 (2) 2 (2)
(1-slide-3") (3) (2) 2 (1) 2 (2) 2 (123)

Gussow - Best played slow on _A _ harp.

Release lips and let air out the top of the harp through lips on the 234 blow.

(1) (2b) (1) (2) (123) 234 (3b) (2)
(1) (2b) (1) (2) (1) (2b) (2..)

Gussow - Mojo Riff

(2) (2) (2)-(2b) (1)-(2)

Boogie Riff (Something like this, you really have to ‘feel the groove’ of this one)

(2) (2), (2) (2), (2) (2), (2) (2), (2) (3) 4 (3) (2)

Little Walter Lick

Play slurred to sound best.

(2) (3) (4) 5 (5) (4) 5 (4)

Isaacullah riff of the day

(4) (5) (4) 4 (3b) (2) (2) (1) (2b)-(2)

Catfish Blues Lick

Played quite quick when you can.

(5) (4) (4b) (3) (2) (2b) (2) (2) (2) (123)

Play each note twice like ‘tah-tah’ except for the last 4D

2D 3D 4D 5B 6B 5B 4D 3D ::|
4B 5B 6B 6D 7B 6D 6B 5B
2D 3D 4D 5B 6B 5B 4D 3D
4D 5B 5D 5B 4D 5B 6B 5B
2D 3D 4D 5B 5D 5B 4D

12 Bar Blues Boogie

(2) (3) (4) 5 (5) 5 (4) (3)
(2) (3) (4) 5 (5) 5 (4) (3)

1 2 3 (3bb) (3b) (3bb) 3 2
(2) (3) (4) 5 (5) 5 (4) (3)
(1) (2b) (3bb) (3) 1 2 3 (3bb)

(2) (3) 4 (4b) (4) (4b) 4 (3)

Here I’ve used dots and spacing to emphasise the notes length (I don’t know how well this works without hearing it!) - this has a swing to it.

(2)..  (2b)(1)(2b) (1)...  , (2).. (2b)(1) (2)....

Saw waw-waw on the 6’s and the second 6 is played for half the length of the first.

(2)  (3)  (4)  5  6 - 6  

(4) (5) (6) (7) 4 5 6 (6)

(4) (4b) (3) 4 (3b) (2) (2)

(3b) (3) (4) 5 (4) (3b) (2)

(1) 2 (2) (3b) (3) (4)

(4) (4b) (3) (2)

Harder Riffs / Licks

Adam Gussow - boogie blues lick.

Hit the bent 4’s hard!

(4b) (4) (5) (4b) - (3) - (2) (123) (2) ,  (3) (234) 345 (2)

What A Woman

4 (3+4b) 4 (3+4b) (2) 4 (3+4b) (2) (3+4b) (2)

Charlie McCoy Harmonica lick

(9)
(8) (8) 9 9 (8) (7) (6)

Juke Intro Riff

3B, 3Dbb-3D-4D, 5B, 6B, 6B (or 6-3B or 6-9B)
2D, 3Db, 3D, 4D, 5B, 6B, 6B (or 6-3B or 6-9B) - alt version

Dan Gage - Box Shuffle (harder bends)

I Chord: (2), (2), (4), (4), (5), (5), 6, 6
IV Chord: 1, 1, (2), (2), (3b), (3b), 4, 4
V Chord: (1), (1), (3bb), (3bb), 4, 4, (4), (4)

Advice

Other advice / things to keep in mind.

  1. The 10 Principles Of Blues Improv (Gussow)

  2. Know 12 bar changes.

For example: -The (1) played cross-harp is the root of what chord? (Answer is the VI chord) -The 6 is the root of what chord on the 12 bar blues? -What hole on the harp is the flat 7th? (Answer is (3b))

  1. Know the basic blues scale - make every note sound good.
    (2) (3b) 4 (4b) (4) (5) 6`
    
  2. Keep time, play in time.

  3. Learn some repeated riffs, repetition with variation.

  4. Call and response - keep it in mind.

  5. Don’t start your solo too loud. Build it up - know your power moves.

  6. Simplicity is ok.

  7. Practice hard, pattern and repeat the things you want to work into your improv, then forget about them and just play.

  8. Think song. Think how this song is going to be different from your next song.

  9. Change textures. Linear melodies - repeated riffs - one long note - warble - staccato.

  10. Move out of places of safety.

Unfinished

The following are unfinished ideas, riffs, exercises.

Diatonic practice exercises

This is a collection of assorted exercises that will help one get comfortable with the whole range of notes on a diatonic harmonica.

Scales

Low

+1 -1 +2   -2'' -2   -3'' -3 +4
+4 -3 -3'' -2   -2'' +2   -1 +1

Middle

+4 -4 +5 -5 +6 -6 -7 +7
+7 -7 -6 +6 -5 +5 -4 +4

High

+7  -8   +8  -9 +9 -10 +10' +10
+10 +10' -10 +9 -9 +8  -8   +7

Ex. A

+4 +5 -4 -5 +5 +6 -5 -6 +6 -7 -6 +7 -7 -8 +7
+7 -6 -7 +6 -6 -5 +6 +5 -5 -4 +5 +4 -4 -3 +4

Ex. B1

+4 +5 +6 +5 +4 +5 +6 +5 -4 -5 -6 -5 -4 -5 -6 -5 - (repeat 2x and end w/ +4)

Ex. B2

+1   +2   +3 +2   +1   +2  +3 +2 -1 -2''
-3'' -2'' -1 -2'' -3'' -2'' - (repeat 2x and end w/ +1)

Ex. B3

+7 +8 +9 +8 +7 +8 +9 +8 -8 -9 -10 -9 -8 -9 -10 -9 - (repeat 2x and end w/ +7)

Ex. C1

+4 +5 +6 -7 +6 +5 +4 +5 +6 -7 +6 +5
-4 -5 -6 +7 -6 -5 -4 -5 -6 +7 -6 -5 +4

Ex. C2

+1 +2   +3   -3 +3   +2   +1 +2   +3   -3 +3   +2
-1 -2'' -3'' +4 -3'' -2'' -1 -2'' -3 +4 -3'' -2'' +1

Ex. C3

+7 +8 +9  +10' +9 +8 +7 +8 +9 +10' +9 +8
-8 -9 -10 +10 -10 -9 -8 -9 -10 +10 -10 -9 +7

Ex. D1

-1 -4 +4 -4 -1 -4 +4 -4
+3 +6 -5 +6 +3 +6 -5 +6
-1 -4 +4 -4 -1 -4 +4 -4 -1

Ex. D2

-4 -8 +7 -8 -4 -8 +7 -8
+6 +9 -9 +9 +6 +9 -9 +9
-4 -8 +7 -8 -4 -8 +7 -8 -4

Ex. E1

+4 -4 +5 +4 -4 +5 -4 +5 -5 -4 +5 -5 +5
-5 +6 +5 -5 +6 -5 +6 -6 -5 +6 -6 +6 -6
-7 +6 -6 -7 -6 -7 +7 +4

Ex. E2

+1   -1   +2   +1   -1   +2   -1   +2  
-2'' -1   +2   -2'' +2   -2'' +3   +2 -2''
+3   -2'' +3   -3'' -2'' +3   -3'' +3 -3''
-3   +3   -3'' -3   -3'' -3   +4   +1

Ex. E3

+7   -8 +8  +7   -8  +8   -8  +8  -9 -8 +8  -9 +8
-9   +9 +8  -9   +9  -9   +9  -10 -9 +9 -10 +9 -10
+10' +9 +10 +10' +10 +10' +10 +7

Ex. F

Play in reverse or play only a portion and then reverse. Try this pattern on any scale: 2nd note, 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, 3rd, 5th, 4th, 6th, 5th note, etc.

-1 +1 +2 -1 -2'' +2 -2 -2'' -3'' -2 -3 -3'' +4 -3
-4 +4 +5 -4 -5 +5 +6 -5 -6 +6 -7 -6 +7 -7 -8 +7 +8
-8 -9 +8 +9 -9 -10 +9 +10' -10 +10 +10'

Rhythm Exercises

Note: *=1/8 note or note played at 2x speed; **=1/16 note or note played at 4x speed.

Ex. G

(-2-3)  (+1+2)  (-1-2)  (+1+2)
(-2-3)* (-2-3)* (+1+2)* (+1+2)* 
(-1-2)* (-1-2)* (+1+2)* (+1+2)*
(-3-4)  (-3-4)  (rest)  (rest)
(-2-3)* (-2-3)* (+1+2)* (+1+2)*
(-1-2)* (-1-2)* (+1+2)* (+1+2)*

Ex. H

(+1+2)  (+1+2)  (-2-3)  (-2-3)
(+1+2)* (+1+2)* (+1+2)* (+1+2)*
(-2-3)* (-2-3)* (-2-3)* (-2-3)* 
(+1+2)  (+1+2) 
(-2-3)* (+1+2)* (-2-3)* (+1+2)*
(-2-3)  (-2-3)
(+1+2)* (-2-3)* (+1+2)* (-2-3)*

Ex. I

If you tap your foot to get a steady beat, you should be playing 4 rapid notes for every tap below.

(-1-2)** (-3-4)** (-3-4)** (-3-4)**
(-1-2)** (-3-4)** (-3-4)** (-3-4)**
(-1-2)** (-3-4)** (-1-2)** (-3-4)**
(-1-2)** (-3-4)** (-3-4)** (-3-4)**
(+1+2)** (+3+4)** (+3+4)** (+3+4)**
(+1+2)** (+3+4)** (+3+4)** (+3+4)**
(+1+2)** (+3+4)** (+1+2)** (+3+4)**
(+1+2)** (+3+4)** (+3+4)** (+3+4)**

Bending Exercises

Ex. J1 (draw 2 bends)

-1 -2  -1 -2' -1 -2'' -1 -2' -1 -2 (repeat)

Ex. J2 (draw 2 bends)

-3 -2  -3 -2' -3 -2'' -3 -2' -3 -2 (repeat)

Ex. K1 (draw 3 bends)

-2 -3   -2 -3' -2 -3'' -2 -3'''
-2 -3'' -2 -3' -2 -3 (repeat)

Ex. K2 (draw 3 bends)

-4 -3   -4 -3' -4 -3'' -4 -3'''
-4 -3'' -4 -3' -4 -3 (repeat)

Ex. L (note 5 draw does bend ever so slightly, but don’t force it).

-1 -1' +1 -2 -2' -2'' +2
-3 -3' -3'' -3''' +3
-4 -4' +4 -5 -5' +5
-6 -6' +6 (then play in reverse)

Octave Exercises

You’ll need to tongue block.

Ex. M

(+1+4) (-1-4) (+2+5) (-2''-5)
(+3+6) (-3'''-6) (-3-7) (+4+7)
(reverse here or continue)
(-4-8) (+5+8) (-5-9) (+6+9)
(-6-10) (-7) (+7+10)
(repeat in reverse)

Ex. N

(-1-4) (+2+5) (+3+6) (-3-7) (-4-8) (+5+8)
(+6+9) (-6-10) (then play in reverse)

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