Ready to learn 3 stupidly simple blues harmonica riffs guaranteed to impress your friends?

Work Song

Our first blues harmonica riff is inspired by Work Song from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s seminal 1966 release East West.

Paul Butterfield plays Work Song on a Bb harmonica, but of course we’re gonna learn it today on our trusty C Harmonica.

Here are the harmonica tabs in C for our beginner version of the Work Song riff:

-12 -12 -23 34 -34 -34 34 -34 -45

-12 -12 -23 34 -12 -12 12 -12

On all the draw notes, I’m using the articulation “kuh”, which gives it a bit more percussive attack, helps it cut through, and gives it more attitude.

One more detail, on the first line of this harmonica riff, I think it’s fun to kinda quietly slide down after that -45. I’m not drawing really hard on the slide. Rather, I’m relaxing my airflow and sliding down which kinda gives a cool vibe to it.

Last thing to be aware of, this riff starts on beat 2, so I’m gonna count “1,2,3,4” and then:

THE BAND hits on BEAT 1, and then THE HARMONICA starts on BEAT 2.

Here’s the backing track to play this killer blues harmonica riff inspired by Work Song:


Our next beginner blues harmonica riff is inspired by Big Walter Horton.

If you know the 12-Bars blues form, then the only challenging thing about this riff is the rhythm. (But it’s also what makes this riff so dang cool)

If you don’t know the 12-Bar Blues form you can check out my Blues for Beginners lesson.

This rhythm is actually very similar to the Charleston rhythm I taught in that lesson. 

The Charleston rhythm plays on beat 1 and the & of 2. In this Big Walter Horton blues harmonica riff, we’ve just shifted both hits an eighth note later, so now we are playing on the & of 1, and 3. 

The harmonica tabs for this beginner blues riff are simple:

-12 -12 (4X)

123 123 (2X)

-12 -12

-1 -1

123 123

-12 -12 (2X)

And here is the jam track for you to play this simple blues harmonica riff to:

One Way Out

Our 3rd beginner Blues harmonica riff is inspired by a riff I first learned listening to One Way Out by Sonny Boy Williamson, off his record The Real Folk Blues.

One Way Out was further popularized in the 1970’s by the Allman Brothers Band on their Live at the Fillmore East album. And, if you’re a John Mayall fan, this turns out to be very similar to the riff in his song Room to Move, which appears on his live album performed at the Fillmore East in 1969: The Turning Point.

To learn this blues harmonica riff, we’ll break it up into 3 little pieces. The first one starts right on beat 1, we are going to draw twice on holes 12, then blow on 12 and then draw on just hole 1.

-12 -12 12 -1

And I’m saying “tuh” on the first 3 notes, and then just breathing in with no articulation on the -1.

The second little piece starts with playing -12 three times, all played on upbeats, followed by the 12 and -1. Same idea on the articulations. Four “tuh’s” and a breath in on the -1.

-12 -12 -12 12 -1 

And if your lungs are overfilling with air, when we’re playing it this slowly, you can take the harmonica away from your lips and breathe out after the first and/or second draw, as needed.

Once we get it up to speed, you won’t need to do that any more. But it’s not bad at this tempo because it actually helps rhythmically to exhale on the rests, on the downbeats, and really feel how we’re playing those upbeats on the harmonica.

Then the 3rd little idea is the same as the first, except we are just adding one final “tuh” on a -12 at the end.

-12 -12 12 -1 -12

So putting it all together it sounds like this:

-12 -12 12 -1  -12 -12 -12  12 -1  -12 -12 12 -1 -12

Our first 4-bar phrase, we’ll repeat that riff 👆🏼twice.

Our second 4-bar phrase, we’ll start with blows. Here are the harmonica tabs:

34 34 -23 23   34 34 23 -23 23   34 34 -23 23 34

On all the -23’s you can try “dwah” or “oy” to get a bending sound, and that’ll make this harmonica riff sound even bluesier. After that we’ll be back to the first riff one more time to complete our 2nd 4-bar phrase.

The beginning of our 3rd 4-bar phrase is the climax, and we’re gonna do what’s called a “shake” or a “warble” or a “trill” between the -4 and -5. 

You can shake the harmonica, shake your head, or shake both.

And if a little bit of some of the adjacent notes get in, that’s fine.

Remember: the Blues is more about passion and expression, than technique. 

We’re gonna hold that trill inhaling for 1 bar, which is 4 counts. Then we’re gonna stay right there and do the same thing while blowing.

And then we’ll be back to playing our original riff one final time.

All right we’re ready to put this whole song together! Here are the harmonica tabs in C for our One Way Out / Room to Move inspired blues harmonica riff for beginners:

-12 -12 12 -1  -12 -12 -12 12 -1  -12 -12 12 -1 -12 (repeat)

34 34 -23 23   34 34 23 -23 23   34 34 -23 23 34  

-12 -12 12 -1  -12 -12 -12 12 -1  -12 -12 12 -1 -12

-45 trill, 45 trill, -12 -12 12 -1  -12 -12 -12 12 -1  -12 -12 12 -1 -12

And here are the jam tracks (slow and fast) for this simple blues harmonica riff. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this free beginner blues harmonica lesson, “3 Stupidly Simple Blues Harmonica Riffs (Guaranteed to Impress Your Friends)”. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

Never stop playing the harmonica! It makes the world a better place. 😎


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