So far in this series I have concentrated on single-note melodic lines, but one of the blues harp's distinctive traits is its ability to combine single-note lines and riffs with chords. Often a player will start off by playing chugging chord patterns and progresses to more and more complex single-note work as his or her ability improves, but there is just as much scope for virtuosity in chordal work as in melodic soloing. This style comes into its own when accompanying a guitarist or another harp player, or when playing solo. Not surprisingly, this harp style is well represented on early blues recordings. Chugging chord patterns are the backbone of traditional harp showpieces such as the fox chase and train impersonations, countless harmonica "stomps" and "breakdowns", versions of "Lost John" and other blues narratives. The harp has basically two chords - a blow chord and a draw chord. On a harp in the key of C played in first position, this would give you the tonic or I chord (C) and the dominant or V chord (G), quite useful in the folk music the harmonica was designed to play. An unintended benefit of this tuning is that in cross or second position playing, these chords become the tonic (G) and subdominant or IV chord (C), very useful in blues playing. Another unplanned advantage of this tuning is that the hole 2 draw and 3 blow are the same note, the root note when playing in second position - this can be exploited in many riffs.
The best way to learn this style is by a lot of listening and a lot of playing, but I have included a few examples to get you started (I have notated them all for a C harp, second position, but they will probably sound better on a lower pitched harp, eg A or G). Example 1 is a simple train type riff. Experiment with this pattern. Play it at different speeds, vary the rhythms, pay attention to how you shape the tone with your hands. You may enjoy playing these riffs with your hands cupped around a beer glass or tin can to swell the sound. See how long you can keep the riff going, but be careful you don't hyperventilate! These patterns can get addictive!.
Example 2 is similar in style to riffs used by DeFord Bailey and others. I find that this pattern works best with a tongue blocking style. Block the lower holes off as you play the blow notes, then lift your tongue for the draw chord. Again, feel free to vary the pattern as you practise, but try to keep a good groove going.
Example 3 is similar to what Sonny Terry plays on such tunes as "Whoopin' The Blues" and "Lost John" and shows how having the root as both a blow and a draw note can can help give a sort of 'leverage' to playing the riff.
Don't be afraid of any grunts or gasps that escape from you as you play these patterns - this 'body music' can be incorporated into your playing and help the rhythmic feel. Examples 2 and 3 in particular may benefit from vocal interjections. Every now and then, instead of a blowing hole three, let out a Sonny Terry style 'whoop'. In a fox chase style number, instead of a blow note, you could shout "Sic 'em!", or another phrase that suits the piece you're playing. These touches sound very impressive and are quite easy with a little practice. Listen to Sonny Terry and Peg Leg Sam and the next time your guitar player breaks a string on stage, don't just stand there, treat your audience to a fox chase!
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