Hello! Today's harmonica lesson is an introduction to blues improvisation. We'll look at a simple way to choose the right notes when playing a blues solo. This lesson is aimed at beginners to intermediates, and you need a diatonic harmonica in the key of C.
One of the key aspects of soloing is note selection: in order to improvise, you need to know which notes to pick for your solos. There are no "right" and "wrong" notes in music - that's the beauty of the creative arts - but most people would agree that some notes will sound good and others bad so it certainly helps to practise playing restricted sets of notes.
There are lots of different categories of notes that we could choose to select for our solos. In this lesson we're going to learn how to use chord tones to build great-sounding solos. Chord tones are the notes played by the guitar (bass/piano etc) to form each chord. These notes are going to be safe for you to play in a solo because they will mirror what the rest of the band (or jam track) is playing.
12 Bar Blues Structure
Before learning about the chord tones, it's important to know the 12 bar blues structure. Here's a reminder in case you need it:
The important thing here is to notice where the I, IV and V chords appear. We'll be looking at the relevant notes for each of those three chords.
So let's try finding the chord tones on the harmonica. Here are harp tabs for the chord tones for the I, IV and V chords (assuming standard seventh chords which are the common currency of blues music):
I chord: -2 -3 -4 -5
IV chord: 1 2 -2 -3/
V chord: -1 -2/ -3// 4
Practice playing each of these sets of notes so that you're comfortable with where they sit on the harmonica. These are going to be the notes you use to build your first solos.
Playing To Jam Tracks
Now, locate a good 12 bar blues jam track in the key of G (don't worry, we're still using our C harp!) and listen through the track, making sure you can hear where the I, IV and V chords are. Use the chart above for reference.
Need a good jam track? Check out my pro jam tracks in the Store!
The next step is to play through the chord tones in ascending order; this is called playing arpeggios. This helps to centre your playing and really embed the notes into your mind, so that they will be available to you when you want to solo. You need to play one note per beat (so in each bar you will play through one four-note arpeggio). Take your time with this, it's boring but important, and you might find that you run out of breath at first. Practice makes perfect!
Mixing It Up
The final step is the fun bit: mixing it up! Change the rhythm and length of the notes, but try to keep to only the chord tones for each of the I, IV and V chords. Repeat a phrase and then vary it, listen to what you've played and if it sounds good, do it again. Congratulations, you're improvising!
I hope you've enjoyed this lesson. There are loads of great approaches to improvising. If you'd like to learn more, why not take my premium course Blues Harmonica Improvisation?
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