In this lesson, I’m going to teach you how to play Blues harmonica to back up singers and soloists, as well as take an awesome solo. For this lesson, I am playing a C harmonica in 2nd position, so we are playing in the key of G.
This lesson assumes that you already know how to isolate notes, and that you at least are starting to be able to bend notes. If you need help isolating notes, check out this lesson on Single Notes. And if you need help with bending, check out this lesson on Bending.
A Short History of the Blues
I believe that understanding the history of the Blues will actually help you to play the Blues better, so consider taking a few minutes to read about it below.
Historians generally agree that the Blues were born in the 1800s in the deep South of the United States, in an area called the Mississippi Delta, near New Orleans, and arose within the community of African slaves, and African-American ex-slaves, and sharecroppers.
Lyrically and emotionally, the genre was born out of the need to survive intense suffering and turn it into something positive. Musically, the genre was born from the collision of African chant melodies and rhythms, together with Western instruments and harmonies.
Call and Response
These chants, also known as “work songs” or “field hollers”, were first sung in the fields while doing hard labor, such as picking cotton. Often, one person would call out a phrase, and a group of people would shout out a response to it. This has become known as “call and response” and is a hallmark of the Blues. Here’s an example of call and response from a 1947 field recording of African-American prisoners in the Mississippi State Penitentiary cotton plantation:
There are many forms of Blues, the simplest being just a one-chord vamp, like the great John Lee Hooker song Boom Boom, seen here performed live in the classic Blues Brothers movie from 1980:
While it’s true that the simplest Blues can contain just one chord, more commonly Blues progressions would incorporate three chords and were varied in length. Gradually, in the 1920s and 1930s, the 12-bar Blues became a standard form. This standard enabled musicians to easily speak a common language, even if they had never played together before.
In light of this, I recommend that you take the time to really learn the 12-bar Blues. Knowing it inside and out will enable you to easily join in and jam with musicians you’ve never played with before, so you can play meaningful, expressive music together. Over the last 25 years, I have received and spread so much joy playing Blues with people all over the world, because I know the 12-bar Blues so well that it’s literally a part of who I am. Are you ready to learn it?
The 12-Bar Blues Chord Progression
The 12-bar Blues is a chord progression that I think every harmonica player should become very familiar with. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that millions of songs have been written using this chord progression.
Remembering this Blues form might be a lot easier if you observe that it’s made up of three phrases. Lyrically, the first two phrases are usually the same, and then the 3rd phrase is different. For example:
I got a sweet baby, Lord what she does to me
I got a sweet baby, Lord what she does to me
Every time I come home, she always makes me tea
The 1st phrase is repeated twice and then the 3rd phrase is different. Similarly, the chords behind the 2nd phrase are slightly different to the chords behind the 1st phrase, and then the chords behind the 3rd phrase are different.
Also, usually between each line of lyrics, there will be enough space for an instrumentalist to respond to what the singer has sung. This is one of the call and response aspects of the Blues we talked about earlier, stemming from its roots as field songs and work hollers.
Bars and Measures
Bars are a measurement of time that are made up of a decided number of Beats, which are also a measurement of time. Tempo describes how quickly or slowly the beats pass by. So, for example, at a tempo of 60 Beats Per Minute (often abbreviated BPM) there is one beat per second. So at this tempo, if we’re counting 4 beats per bar, a bar would last 4 seconds. A metronome is a tool that will give you a steady beat at a tempo of your choosing, and there are lots of good metronome apps.
Each of these three phrases will last for 4 bars. A “bar” of music (also called a “measure” of music) is an agreed-upon number of beats that will define the rhythmic feel of a song. Most commonly, the number is 4. So if we count, “1,2,3,4” that would be one bar.
So, each of the three phrases will typically consist of a sung phrase (the call) lasting about 2 bars, followed by a short improvised solo, lasting about 2 bars. Thus, each phrase is 4 bars including space for both the call and the response.
Instead of trying to remember the order of 12 bars of music, you can remember the order of these three 4-bar phrases. I think it will be a lot easier for you to remember the Blues progression this way!
If you don’t understand the numbers I’ve assigned to the chords in the Blues progression below, please see my blog, Harmonica Chords for Beginners.
While there are many variations of the 12-bar Blues, the most common and simplest chord progression is this:
I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I
1st Phrase: 4 bars of the I chord (that should be easy to remember!)
2nd Phrase: 2 bars of the IV chord, followed by 2 bars of the I chord (slight variation)
3rd Phrase: 1 bar of the V chord, 1 bar of the IV chord, and 2 bars of the I chord (different)
The 12-Bar Blues Harmonica Chord Tabs
A great Blues rhythm to play is on the 1st beat of each bar, and then just before the 3rd beat. This rhythm is sometimes called the “Charleston rhythm” and if you happen to read music, it looks like this:
If you checked out my Harmonica Chords for Beginners lesson, you’ve already learned how to play the I and IV chords in second position. There is no way to play the V chord, so we will just play the root note, which can be played either on the 1 draw, or the 4 draw – your choice! Listen to this example below, and play along following the tabs below.
Here are the harmonica tabs:
456 456 456 456 -234 -234 -234 -234
-4 -4 456 456 -234 -234 -234 -234
Finding Your Own Blues Mojo
Now, we don’t strictly have to stick to exactly these tabs. As you know, we can blow anywhere when we’re playing the IV chord, we can draw anywhere between holes 1 and 5 when we’re playing the I chord, and we can choose the 1 draw instead of the 4 draw when we’re playing the V chord.
So, now it’s time to experiment, explore, and find what sounds good to you! Make it your own. Have fun. Play it in a way that expresses how you feel!
Sometimes less is more. Here’s a nice understated way to play it:
12 12 12 12 -12 -12 -12 -12
-4 -4 12 12 -12 -12 -12 -12
Or we could even just play single notes:
1 1 1 1 -2 -2 -2 -2
-1 -1 1 1 -2 -2 -2 -2
If you’re a beginner, I wouldn’t hesitate to spend days or weeks just working on these chords. Once you’ve got them memorized and can play them easily, maybe skip down to the end of the lesson and check out the section “Bonus: 12-Bar Blues Most Common Chord Variations.”
How to do a Harmonica Solo Over the 12-Bar Blues?
I like to think about music as a language. Just as you have to learn vocabulary words when you want to learn a foreign language, so too you have to learn the musical vocabulary of any genre of music that you wish to play, in order to communicate effectively.
It’s funny to me how some people want so badly to “be original” that they are averse to playing something that other people have played. Can you imagine someone not wanting to use a word because other people use it?
It’s not just about the word, it’s the emotion of the voice, the tone of voice, the volume of the voice and, most importantly, the overall story being told that will all make you “sound like you”. Don’t believe the lie that learning vocabulary will make you “unoriginal”.
Improvising a Blues harmonica solo is like telling story. Great stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Great stories have a climax. Same with great Blues harmonica solos, you can use the vocabulary I teach you here to tell a great story when it’s your turn to solo.
I’m going to teach you three simple phrases that you can use to build an awesome solo, then give each a name: “The Question”, “The Answer” and “The Trill”.
Killer Harmonica Blues Vocabulary Tabs
Phrase 1: The Question
-2 -3’ -4 4 -4′ -4
I’ve titled this little phrase “The Question” because it rises in pitch, just like we tend to raise the pitch of the end of a sentence when we are asking a question.
This is played by playing the draw 2 and saying “oy”, then sliding to the right until you get to the draw 4, quickly switching to a loud blow on the 4, and then ending by playing the draw 4 and saying “oy” (or bending into it if you already can bend.)
I have written the tabs to bend the draw 3 down a half-step, but if you are playing the phrase quickly, one hardly notices the difference if it’s bent or released, so don’t worry about it too much.
Phrase 2: The Answer
-4 -4’ -3’ -2
Why did I title this one “The Answer?” You guessed it. It descends in pitch, like we do when we answer someone’s question. It conveys a sense of certainty, finality, or rest.
This one is pretty easy if you are getting pretty comfortable with bends. Just play the draw 4, bend it down, and then slide to the left until you land on the draw 2. If you’re not comfy with bending yet, just try saying “ee-aw” or “wa-oo” on the draw 4 and then slide down to the draw 2.
Phrase 3: The Trill
The world “Trill” means quickly going back and forth between two notes, in this case the draw 4 and draw 5 holes. You can accomplish this by moving the harmonica back and forth, by moving your head back and forth, or both. Whatever feels best to you!
You can play the trill as slowly or as quickly as you feel like. Sometimes it can be fun to try to play it in time with the song. Also, try saying “oy” while you trill, or bending it, if you already know how to bend.
Telling Your Own Story
Any of these phrases can be played in any order. Below, I’ll play them in a certain order to give you one idea, but the whole point is to explore and to do what feels and sounds best to you. Don’t forget to relax, and have fun with this!
Here are some ideas of ways you can change the vocabulary I’ve shown you, to tell your own story:
✓ Change the order of the phrases.
✓ Change how slow or fast you play the phrase.
✓ Repeat the first or last note of the phrase.
✓ Change how long you hold the first or last note of the phrase.
✓ Change the dynamics – how loudly or quietly you play the phrase.
✓ Use SPACE – remember that silence can be the most powerful tool of all. Try waiting a little longer than feels comfy, and watch what happens!
✓ Change the tone – how bright or muted the tone is.
What Are Some Harmonica Blues Tabs For Solos?
The point of this recording and Blues harmonica tabs below, is to show that you really can play an entire Blues harmonica solo with just these 3 phrases, and sometimes repeating the first or last note of the phrase. In this solo, I play 3 times through the 12-Bar Blues form (labeled 1st Chorus, 2nd Chorus, and 3rd Chorus in the tabs.)
Notice that varying the rhythms, the order of the phrases, the start and end times of the phrases, and using space are a few of the keys to making the solo effective. Of course, the most important key is to have fun and put your whole heart and soul into it when you play!
Next Level Blues Example
Here are the tabs for the solo I play, in case you want to try to play along, but please bear in mind that I’ve been playing harmonica for over 25 years, so, if you’re a beginner, trying to play along could feel frustrating. Again, the point here is really just to show that you can make up your own solo with this vocabulary.
Below the tabs I have written notes about what’s happening in each 4-bar phrase, throughout the entire solo. I’m including the tabs and notes mostly for intermediate or advanced players who want to learn it. If you’re a beginner, consider skipping these sections and going down to the bonus section: “BONUS 12-Bar Blues Most Common Chord Variations.”
-2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -4’ -3 -2 -2 -2
-2 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4’ -3 -2 -2 -2 -2
-2 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -5 -4 -4’ -3 -2 -2
-2 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -5
-4 -4’ -3 -2 -4 -4’ -3 -2 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -5 -4 -4’ -3 -2
-4 -4 -4’ -3 -2 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4
-4 -5 -4 -4′ -4 -4 -4 -4
-4 -4’ -3 -2 -4 -4’ -3 -2 -4 -5 -4 -4’ -3 -2
-2 -3 -4 4 -4 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -4’ -3 -2 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4 -5
Notes About The Harmonica Solo
1st Chorus > 1st 4-Bar Phrase
The solo starts before the first beat of the first 4-bar phrase of the form (right after the 3rd beat of the count-off.) The Question is played so that the last note lands right on beat 1 and is held long, with a little hand wah. Next, the beautiful sound of silence. The beginning of a solo is an especially good place to leave space so that you can build excitement through the solo. After the space, I kind of slide up into The Answer, starting quietly and getting louder, followed by… more space! Finally, I play the root note on the Charleston rhythm like we did earlier in the chords section.
1st Chorus > 2nd 4-Bar Phrase
The Question is played again, with the highest note ending on beat 1 of the 2nd 4-bar phrase, but this time I play the top note twice, bending into it both times. Remember, if you cannot bend, just say “oy.” Then, more space! (Are you detecting a pattern?) Two more times on the same note “oy…oy,” followed by The Answer. After more space, I play the root note on a variation of the Charleston rhythm.
1st Chorus > 3rd 4-Bar Phrase
The Question is played again going into the 3rd phrase, exactly like it was going into the 1st phrase, except I play the first note twice then… more space! Then I kind of slide up into The Trill hold it for awhile, and finish it off by playing The Answer, and repeating the last note.
2nd Chorus Notes
2nd Chorus > 1st 4-Bar Phrase
Going into the 1st phrase of the 2nd chorus, The Question is played, with the 1st note repeated, and this time goes straight into The Trill, which is held for almost the entire 4 bars. This time, the trill starts slower and gets faster through the 1st bar, is held through the 2nd bar, is bent on the 1st beat of the 3rd bar, “oy”, and is bent on every beat of the 4th bar “oy, oy, oy, oy”, the last one becoming the 1st note of The Answer.
2nd Chorus > 2nd 4-Bar Phrase
The Answer ends on the 1st beat of the 2nd phrase. After a pause, The Answer is played again, followed by more silence. Then The Question goes right into The Trill, which goes right into The Answer and is completed with a bend up into the -4, “oy”.
2nd Chorus > 3rd 4-Bar Phrase
The 3rd phrase starts with the -4 just mentioned, followed by space, followed by The Answer. Then I play The Question and repeat the top note eight times, bending it each time “oy, oy, oy, oy, oy, oy, oy, oy” which builds excitement into the 3rd chorus. That’s the power of repetition. That’s the power of repetition!!!
3rd Chorus Notes
3rd Chorus > 1st 4-Bar Phrase
The 1st phrase starts with bending into The Trill, but the rhythm of it is tricky because I’m playing in a triplet feel. So the first triplet is -4 -5 -4, and the second triplet is -5 -4 -5, like this:
Trip – a – let Trip – a – let Trip – a – let Trip – a – let
-4 -5 -4 -5 -4 -5 -4 -5 -4 -5 -4 -5
I’m playing this until I run out of breath in the 3rd bar and end on the -4 draw bent down. I then play the -4 draw four times, bending it up each time “oy, oy, oy, oy.”
3rd Chorus > 2nd 4-Bar Phrase
The 2nd phrase starts with The Answer. After some more beautiful silence, I play The Answer again, followed by more silence. And then I kind of slide and bend up into The Trill, and then bend up into The Answer, followed by more space.
3rd Chorus > 3rd 4-Bar Phrase
The Question leads us into the 3rd phrase then Space. The Question is repeated, Space then The Answer, Space. Back to The Question, and ending on The Trill. And there you have it, a complete solo played with those 3 phrases and some repeated notes! Again, my point here is not necessarily for you to learn how to play my solo note for note, but just to show you that you can make up your own solo without having to know tons of stuff. I made these notes so that you can figure out what’s going on if you felt inspired by any of it. I always recommend that you try to figure out anything that inspires you. This is some of the fun and magic of the musical journey. So, stay inspired!
Bonus: 12-Bar Blues Most Common Chord Variations
To round out this crash course in the Blues, I want to revisit the chord changes you’ve learned and show you the most common variations. The reason that I’m starting and ending the Beginner Blues Harmonica lesson with the chord progression is because really getting the chord progression internalized, and being aware of where you are within the progression while you’re soloing, is one of the keys to being able to play really powerful Blues solos.
There are tons of variations to the 12-Bar Blues, but the most common variations occur in the first phrase and the last phrase. The first phrase variation is called “A Quick 4” and the last phrase variation is called “The Turnaround”.
The Quick IV
It’s very common for a band leader, prior to counting off a tune on stage, to tell the musicians, “OK, this one’s got a Quick 4!” Now you’ll know exactly what they mean if they say that! The Quick IV is a very simple variation in the first 4-bar phrase, in which you simply play a IV chord in bar 2, instead of a I chord.
So instead of playing:
I I I I
We would now play this variation:
I IV I I
The end of the Blues form is called The Turnaround, because we “turn around” and go back to the top (i.e. the beginning) of the form. There are a lot of great turnaround licks that I will be teaching you in coming lessons, and they usually occupy the last 2 bars of the form. So it’s good to know when someone talks about The Turnaround, they’re usually referring to the last 2 bars of the form.
The most common variation to the 12-bar Blues progression that I’ve taught here is that we replace the I chord in bar 12 with a V chord. This creates a little more tension that will nicely draw us back to the resolution of the I chord in bar 1, as the form repeats itself.
So instead of playing:
V IV I I
We will play the alteration:
V IV I V
In fact, this substitution is so common, I’d say it happens more often than not. Furthermore, because we can’t actually play the V chord on the harmonica, and can only play a single note instead, it turns out that the note we play for the V chord is also a note in the I chord. You can never go wrong playing the V in the last bar of the tune on harmonica, it will always sound right!
If you’ve made it this far in the lesson, WOW! Congratulations! That’s a whole lot of information to take in about Blues harmonica. But it’s solid information. Take it in bites. Keep coming back. Spending a lot of time playing with these fundamental ideas can bring you and others countless hours of joy. So, keep on playing the Blues harmonica.
When you are ready for more, I highly recommend checking out this amazing Blues harmonica course called: Breakthrough Blues!