In the great musical scheme of things, most tuitional material for the harmonica is at the beginner's level. Not that there is anything wrong with that - we all have to start somewhere. Also, harmonica books tend to teach you how to play what someone else has played. Again, not that there's anything wrong with that - analysing someone else's playing is a great way to find out what music is all about. However, for the harmonica player who is trying to find his or her own voice on the instrument, there is comparatively little useful material available. On this page I've made a list of some tuitional material that I think would be useful to the advanced player, or the player who wants to expand their musical vocabulary and perhaps explore some new directions. I have provided convenient links to allow you to get further information, or to order these titles from Amazon.com (click here for more details).
The Harp Handbook, Steve Baker
This is the standard reference book for the diatonic harmonica and as such belongs on every harp player's bookshelf. It covers all the basics, as well as some not so basic stuff, such as bending, overblowing, alternate tunings, history, maintenance, reed adjustment, tuning, exercises to develop technique and much more. A CD is included to demonstrate some of the musical examples. Perhaps inevitably, I do have a few small quibbles with some of the points raised in this book, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to any player, whether a seasoned pro, or someone who has just bought their first harp. I only wish there were something like this available for the chromatic harmonica. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Jazz Harp, Richard Hunter
Don't let the title put you off - this book is not just about jazz and will be of benefit to you regardless of whether you play jazz, blues, rock, pop, country, classical, folk or any other style. The book includes some harp-friendly music theory, transcribed examples from the playing of great musicians (not just harmonica players - as well as material from the likes of Toots Thielemans, Mike Turk and Stevie Wonder, Hunter presents some solos from Miles Davis, King Curtis, Charlie Christian, Louis Armstrong and others) and some exercises to build fluency on both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. Audio examples are included on an accompanying CD. This book was a huge influence on me more than twenty years ago and although it would be nice to see a revised and updated edition, everything in it is still relevant today. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
For anyone interested in hearing just what can be done with the harmonica, I can't recommend Richard Hunter's solo CDs highly enough. His first CD "The Act Of Being Free In One Act" features compositions for solo harmonica that range from blues and jazz to folk-tinged modern classical pieces. All of the music is played in real time on a single harmonica (Hunter plays both chromatic and diatonic, although the chromatic is not strongly featured on this album) with no overdubs or studio trickery - at times this is hard to believe, as many pieces feature multiple lines played simultaneously. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Hunter's second CD, "The Second Act of Free Being" also features mostly solo pieces, but there is also some sparse accompaniment here and there, as well as a vocal on one track. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
No matter how many harmonica recordings you have heard, there is bound to be something in Hunter's work that will be strikingly new to you. His use of counterpoint techniques, alternate tunings and sheer imagination make him one of the most unique harmonica players ever. If you have any interest at all in exploring beyond the usual harmonica traditions, you need to hear this musician.
Play The Harmonica Well, Douglas Tate
The late Douglas Tate was well known as both a performer of classical music on the harmonica and as the co-designer of the Renaissance chromatic. This is not a "how to play the harmonica" book, but it contains a wealth of advice for the player of the chromatic harmonica and much of the material could equally be applied to the diatonic. Included are thoughts on the what the harmonica does well and what it does less well, playing posture, projection and tone control, correct use of the button, musical interpretation and much more. Don't be put off by the hideous cover design (which, I should point out, was not chosen by the author), this book contains information unavailable from any other source. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
New Directions for Harmonica, Howard Levy
Howard Levy was not the first harmonica player to discover overblows, but he is the player most associated with the use of overblows and overdraws to make the diatonic harmonica a fully chromatic instrument. In this unique video he talks about his approach to the harmonica and gives a lot of practical advice, which he illustrates through performances with piano accompaniment. The astonishing thing is that this video was recorded a decade ago, before Levy had Joe Filisko to custom-build instruments for him. This just shows what can be done with regular off-the-shelf harmonicas, a few simple adjustments and some musical creativity. A fascinating insight into one of the most innovative harp players of the last few decades Click here for more details from Amazon.com
You should also check out his DVD "Out of the Box" and if as if that's not enough, you can now take online lessons with the man himself. For more details, visit his website at: www.levyland.com
The Ins and Outs of Rhythm Harp, Peter Madcat Ruth
Whilst struggling to emulate the intricate single-note lines of Paul Butterfield, John Popper, or whoever else inspired them to take up the harp, many players forget about one of the most unique features of the harmonica - unlike most other wind instruments, the harmonica can play chords as well as single notes and can play with them with a percussive quality that makes it a superb accompanying instrument. Madcat is famous for his stunning rhythm harp work and on this video he shares some of his techniques. As well as being useful to players of all levels, from beginners to experts, it's also very entertaining to watch when there is nothing on the TV! Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from its Natural Origins to its Modern Expression, W.A. Mathieu
The lengthy title of this book, as well as its sheer size (weighing in at just under four pounds), might lead you to think that this is some wordy theoretical treatise. It certainly does contain a lot of harmonic theory, but the key word in the title is "experience". Rather than simply explaining how harmony works, the book presents a series of exercises (drawing from both Eastern and Western musical traditions) to help you experience harmony, starting with the most fundamental consonances of Just Intonation and then going on to demonstrate how these pure intervals are expressed through the use of 12 Tone Equal Temperament, the most common musical system in use in the modern Western world. You don't need to have any great musical or vocal abilities to be able to learn from the exercises, although even if you are a veteran musician you will gain much from this book. If you've read books on harmonic theory before and simply failed to "get it", this book is for you. Even if you are an expert on harmony, it will give you a fresh perspective on things. If you'd like to work on your ear training, to improve your intonation skills, or simply get more out of the music you hear, this book can help you do all of that and more. Don't expect to take it all in over the course of a single weekend - there's a ton of information to assimilate here and you will need to put in some work to reap the benefits. However, take it step by step and it will enrich both you and your music. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
I would also recommend Mathieu's other books as being real eye openers (perhaps "ear openers" would be more accurate) for any musician, in particular "The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music". In fact, you don't even have to be a musician to benefit from this one, all you need is a pair of ears! Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Ancient Traditions, Future Possibilities - Rhythmic Training through the Traditions of Africa, Bali and India, Matthew Montfort
Not just for percussionists, this book provides good practical ways to develop rhythmic abilities. The first chapter has possibly the best coverage of African-style polyrhythms that I have ever seen; the second deals with the interlocking rhythmic parts of Balinese gamelan music; the third explores the rich rhythmic traditions of Indian classical music; the fourth chapter gives suggestions for combining all of these different approaches. The book comes with a floppy disk (remember them??) containing midi examples of all the exercises. Rhythmic training is often overlooked by many musicians - don't fall into that trap! Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Composing Music - A New Approach, William Russo, with Jeffrey Ainis and David Stevenson
How do you learn to compose music? Well, many people seem to think that you either have to take a five year course in composition at Juilliard, or you just need to be born as a reincarnation of Mozart. If neither of these options is practical for you, then you should consider getting hold of this book and working through the exercises in it. If you are a blues harp fan, then you will probably be most familiar with the late William Russo from such works as "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" and "Street Music", both of which were produced in collaboration with harp player Corky Siegel. This book was originally written as a workbook for Russo's students in his classes at Columbia College, Chicago and as the title suggests, he presents a new approach to teaching music composition. Rather than having to spend many hours studying music theory before starting to study composition, this book merely requires some basic music reading skills and the ability to play a C major scale on your chosen instrument. Within the first few chapters the student is introduced to such "advanced" concepts as non-diatonic chord progressions, isomelody and isorhythm, the 12-tone row, counterpoint and organum. As with many of the books recommended on this page, this one is easy enough for the beginner to follow, but equally rewarding for the advanced musician. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, Nicolas Slonimsky
Slonimsky's Thesaurus is probably best known as the book which John Coltrane used for his daily practice sessions. Merely owning a copy is not going to make you a great musician any more than having a copy of Roget's Thesaurus would make you a great poet or writer, but it contains a wealth of useful material for the composer or the improvisor looking for new ideas. If nothing else, the hundreds of harmonic and melodic permutations and combinations would make for great sight reading exercises and as each example is given starting on the note C, it would also give you a lot of transposition practice if you were to play each one in all keys. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, Yusef A. Lateef
Somewhat more accessible than Slonimsky's book, although much less well known, is this gem from jazz sax/flute/oboe/etc legend Yusef Lateef. Packed with all sorts of useful musical ideas, this is another book that was quite influential to my musical development. I almost wore out the copy at my local music library back in the 80s and it's nice to see it available from Amazon, after being very hard to find for a long time. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Tools for Musicianship: Learning and Developing Musical Skills, Matt Glaser
I bought this package some years ago as a set of cassettes with an accompanying booklet and it's nice to see it repackaged in CD format. The title is self-explanatory - Glaser presents exercises to develop essential skills such as ear training (both intervals and rhythms), melodic and improvisational development, etc., for players of all ability levels, regardless of their instrument or preferred style of music. Many of the exercises can be practised whilst driving in your car (far safer than playing harmonica as you drive!) and the information is delivered along with a good helping of humour. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green, with W. Timothy Gallwey
A harmonica player I know once described this as the most important book they had ever read. I wouldn't go quite that far, as many of the concepts presented were already quite familiar to me from other studying I had done. However, if the idea of teaching yourself how to be more creative or how to be more inspired seems intriguing to you (and perhaps a little far fetched), then you should definitely read this book. Rather than presenting a set of typical musical exercises, this book concentrates on how to remove the obstacles that get in the way of expressing oneself musically - nervousness, self-consciousness, concentration problems, etc. The results of working with the strategies given here could also spill over into other areas of your life. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Making Music For The Joy Of It - Enhancing Creativity, Skills and Musical Confidence, Stephanie Judy
Although this book is aimed at the adult beginner, there is a lot of material here that will be extremely useful to intermediate and advanced players. Many people take up the harmonica because they love music, but perhaps had bad experiences with formal music lessons. This book is a great antidote to all of that, concentrating on the sheer enjoyment of developing musical skills, rather than the misery of piano lessons or choir practice that many people had to endure earlier in life. It is full of practical advice about good practising habits, how to get the most out of studying with a teacher, how to prepare for a performance, overcoming stage fright and much more, with amusing and insightful quotes from other musicians, both world famous professionals and "ordinary" amateurs. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Talent Is Overrated - What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin.
The title pretty much says it all. If you, like most of us, were born lacking the natural musical talents of someone like Mozart, all is not lost. Greatness can still be achieved, although some of us will have to work a lot harder than others. Drawing from examples in all areas of art, sports and business, Colvin gives solid advice on what to work on and how to work on it. Useful for all areas of your life, but particularly applicable to musical endeavours. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Primacy Of The Ear, Ran Blake and Jason Rogers.
Not so much a book about how to play, as it is a book about how to listen and how to think musically. Not only a world class jazz pianist, Blake is also highly regarded teacher, having spent more than three decades as head of the Contemporary Improvisation Department at New England Conservatory of Music. Particularly valuable to harmonica players is his advice on how to learn from your musical heroes without turning into a soundalike. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
I Hate the Man Who Runs This Bar!, Eugene Chadbourne.
If you are trying to earn a living as a musician, then I'm not sure this book will help you succeed in doing that, but it will certainly help you to stay sane as you try! Full of practical (and often hilarious) advice for dealing with the highs and lows of the music business, I strongly recommend this to anyone trying to balance artistic creativity and financial reality. Even if you don't intend to become a working musician, Chadbourne's stories are always entertaining and may even convince you that you have made the right choice! Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Jamey Aebersold is one of the leading names in jazz education and his series of Play-A-Long CD/Books sets is probably his most well known work. Subtitled "A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation", there are more than a hundred volumes in the series and each one comes with a CD (or in some cases, two CDs) featuring a top jazz rhythm section playing the tunes and/or exercises in the accompanying book. Some volumes concentrate on well known jazz classics, others present technique building workouts for all instruments.
Volume 1 is, as you might expect, a good starting point. It introduces many key concepts in improvisation and would be useful to anyone wanting to develop their improvisational skills, even if jazz is not their preferred genre of music. The backing tracks include simple chord progressions, dorian mode workouts, a "standard" style tune and blues in F and Bb. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Volume 2 - Nothin' but Blues is just as the title says, blues backing tracks in a wide range of jazz and rock styles. It would be a great way to help a blues harp player start to get to grips with playing jazz, or simply to develop a little jazz flavour to add to their blues playing. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Volume 42- Blues in All Keys presents more of the same. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Volume 57 - Minor Blues in All Keys - just in case you felt your minor key playing was being neglected! Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Volume 54 - Maiden Voyage. If you feel you've given your blues playing a good workout, then it's time to tackle some different progressions. This volume presents a set of moderately paced jazz classics with chord changes that are not too difficult for the intermediate jazz student, with tunes from Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and others. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Volume 76 - How to Learn Tunes: a Jazz Musician's Survival Guide. This is one of the most useful volumes of the entire series, authored by leading jazz teacher David Baker. It presents a straightforward system for learning melodies and chord sequences and comes with a bunch of exercises to put things into practice. An essential tool for the musician who is thinking about playing in their local jazz sessions. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
I've selected just a few of the most useful volumes here, but the harp player who really wants to get into jazz owes it to him/herself to check out the other volumes. Click here to see some of the rest of the series at Amazon.com
Transcribing recordings has always been a great way to learn about music and computers have done a lot to make this chore easier than ever before. Transcribe! is easily the best program for helping figure out what's going on a recording and is what I have used for all the transcription on this site. It doesn't do the work for you, of course, but it provides a wide variety of tools for the job. Capable of handling many different types of audio file, or recording from scratch, it allows you to change the speed of a recording all the way down to 1/20th of the original without changing the pitch; it allows you to change the pitch of the recording to put it into any key you wish (handy if you are trying to figure out a solo played on a Db harp and you only have C and D harps available); built-in EQ allows you to adjust the recording for maximum clarity of the instrument you are trying to transcribe; segments of a tune can be looped over and over until you have it all figured out and these settings can be saved for later sessions if you don't get it all first time through; a spectrum display makes it easier to figure out the individual notes of a chord, although the program itself will make educated guesses about single notes and chords. Really, it has too many features to list here.
As well as its usefulness for transcription, Transcribe! also makes a great play-along tool. It can remove vocals from a stereo recording (assuming the lead vocals are panned centre, as is usually the case), transpose the track to whatever key you want and if you need an extra challenge, it can even play the tune up to twice as fast as the original!
Although Transcribe! is not free, it is extremely reasonably priced for such a powerful program and is available for PC, Mac and Linux, plus it comes with a 30 day free trial. Get more information.
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