This lesson is Part 2, so please make sure you’ve checked out my last lesson 6 Easy Blues Harmonica Riffs.
A common frustration I hear from students goes something like this: “I’ve learned the blues scale, and quite a few blues riffs too. But I still don’t feel like I actually know how to make up my own BLUES SOLO.“
If this describes you, I’m excited for what you’re about to discover.
There are 3 simple steps you can take to learn how to bridge this gap, and to start shredding your own killer blues solos:
Step 1: Build up your blues muscle by improvising the heck out of the easy riffs you’ve just learned
Step 2: Learn some basics about solo’s
Step 3: Put it all together: Riffs + Basics = Solo
In this lesson I’m gonna carefully guide you through each of these steps. But of course, in the final analysis, what do we really love about music? What moves us?
It’s ALL. ABOUT. EMOTION.
So I’m gonna give you the tools you need to build a solo, but you’re gonna be responsible for digging deep and putting every ounce of your emotion into every note that you play.
Or as my good ole buddy Ludwig van Beethoven put it:
“To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable.“
STEP 1: Improvise the Heck out of Riffs to Build Your Blues Muscle
The #1 mistake that beginners make when it comes to learning riffs is thinking that the goal is to know riffs. WRONG. Riffs are not an end unto themselves. It’s true, you should learn and memorize the riffs you love – that’s the first step. But then comes the important part:
PLAY AROUND with them
All you really have to do is goof off. Huh? All I have to do is goof off? That’s right!
You just take something, and you play around with it. (Don’t worry, I’m gonna give you a bunch of ideas to inspire you on ways you can play around with a given riff.)
But please don’t miss the important principle here…this is the missing link between knowing riffs, and knowing how to make up your own solo:
THE SKILL YOU NEED to develop is the ability TO IMPROVISE.
Let’s define the word Improvise:
- Create and perform (music, drama or verse) spontaneously or without preparation.
- Produce or make (something) from whatever is available.
Read #2 again. In our case, “whatever is available” = RIFFS.
Playing around with riffs works out your “improvisation muscle.” 💪 So just like the more often you go to the gym and do various workouts, the more muscle you will build, so the more often you play around with riffs in various ways, the more you will build your blues muscle.
As a reminder, here are the 6 blues harmonica riffs that we learned in the last lesson:
Riff #1. -4 4 -4 -3 -2
Riff #1.1 -4-4 4 -4 -3 -2
Riff #1.2 -4 4 -4 -3 -2 -2
Riff #2. 4 4 -3 4 -3
Riff #3. -1 2 -2 -1 -4
Riff #3.1 -1 2 -2
Riff #4. -5 5 -4 -3 -2
Riff #5. -2 -2 2 3 2 -2 -1 -1
Riff #6. 6 5 -4 4 -3 -4 5 6
Here are practical tips to get your creative juices flowing on some of the infinite ways that you can vary, or play around with a riff.
Remember part of the point here: we’re gonna be generating a lot of melodic material, so pay special attention to material that you just LOVE. Make a note of it to come back to later. That’s a big key to all of this. Follow your bliss. I showed in my Blues For Beginners lesson how I can play a long blues solo with only 3 of my personal favorite riffs.
Let’s take Riff #1 as an example:
-4 4 -4 3 -2 -4 4 -4 -3 -2 -4 4 -4 -3 -2 -4 4 -4 -3 -2
It’s amazing the power of repetition. It’s amazing the power of repetition. 😉
One cool thing about repeating a riff without stopping is it will usually change where in the bar the riff starts, which can give it a totally different feel. This is called phrasing a riff, and we’ll explore it more later.
Also, nothing drives home a point like repeating it. I mean NOTHING drives home the point like REPEATING it. (ok I’ll stop now.) Point is repetition can help build climax.
Of course we don’t have to repeat it verbatim. Let’s vary it each time, using the two variations I showed you, and we get this:
-4 4 -4 3 -2 -4 -4 4 -4 -3 -2 -4 4 -4 -3 -2 -2
There are some folks who can work out this idea in their heads. Personally, my brain doesn’t usually seem capable of doing that.
But it is pretty easy to do by looking at the tabs
-4 4 -4 -3 -2
and writing them out backwards:
-2 -3 -4 4 -4
For fun, I tried reversing the variations too, and they sound good to me in this order:
-2 -3 -4 4 -4 -2 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -2 -3 -4 4 -4 -4
#3Add Dynamics (Louder or Quieter)
Dynamics is a HUGE SECRET to unlock emotional impact in your playing. Chicago harmonica legend Corky Siegel has an entire course devoted to this subject.
Most of us tend to play with too much air pressure (too loud.) So if you take nothing away from this, practice playing each riff as quietly as you can.
In addition to playing each riff quietly or loudly. You can just play certain notes quiet or loud.
Or gradually get louder (crescendo) or gradually get quieter (diminuendo.) Check out alternating Riff#1 and 1.1
#4Make it longer – add or repeat notes
We’ve already looked at making a riff longer by repeating notes (Riff #1.1 and 1.2) But you can also make riffs longer by adding other notes. This is where knowing a scale like the “Almost Blues Scale” will really help you.
Here’s an example of making the riff longer using notes from the riff
-4 4 -4 -3 -2 -3 -4
And here’s an example using notes from the “Almost Blues Scale”
-4 4 -4 -3 -2 2 -1
And here’s an example using even more notes from the scale:
-4 4 -4 -3 -2 2 -1 2 –2 -3 -2
#5Make it shorter – don’t play one or more notes
I demonstrated this in the last lesson with riff #3 where we took the first 3 notes of
-1 2 -2 -1 -4
and just played
-1 2 -2
and repeated it like this:
But to illustrate that we can do this with any riff, let’s take riff #5
-2 -2 2 3 2 -2 -1 -1
and just play
-2 -2 2 3 2
and repeat it:
#6Play with the phrasing (change the rhythm of it)
Phrasing is an important concept in music, and while it can refer to changes in tone or dynamics, it usually refers to changes in the rhythm of a sequence of notes.
Licks are like Lego blocks – ‘phrasing’ is like trying to build something different with the Lego each time you play.
Let’s take riff #4 for example: -5 5 -4 -3 -2. We played that with every note on the beat except anticipating the last note, like this:
But we could also also play the first 2 notes really fast and then play on the upbeats like this
Or we could play the first 2 notes really long and then rush the ending
In addition to modifying the rhythm of notes within the riff, another way to play with the phrasing is to change where in each of the 3 four-bar phrases you play it.
#7Play with the phrasing (where in the form it occurs)
So we’ve examined phrasing on a micro level: the rhythm and duration of the notes within the riff. Let’s now look at phrasing on a macro level.
Riffs don’t exist in a vacuum. I mean, maybe when you’re at home learning them for the first time they exist in a vacuum, but eventually you’re going to play them in a song.
On a macro level, that means where we start and stop a given riff within the form. Which of the 3 4-Bar phrases in the 12-bar blues? Which bar within that phrase? Which beat within that bar? These all fall within the principle of phrasing.
Let’s take Riff #2 for example.
Here it is played at the beginning of the 2nd 4-bar phrase:
Here it is at the beginning of the FIRST 4-bar phrase, and repeated:
Hear how in that context it creates more tension? Maybe we could resolve it like this:
STEP 2: Understand & Get Some Solo Basics Down
The biggest mistake I see beginners make when they get on a stage in front of people is this:
➡️ They are feeling the nerves, and so they blow – draw – blow – draw really fast, in and out, with no direction.
Feeling nervous is an unavoidable part of performing. BUT, nerves can be good because they are real emotions that we can channel into our solo. However, in order to do this effectively, we have to have a few guiding principles:
Just in case you enter “the freak-out zone” commit this to memory: when playing 2nd position blues: draw more than you blow. If you draw like a crazy person it’ll probably still come off great, but if you draw-blow-draw-blow it’ll probably come off like you’re another crazy harmonica weirdo. 😉
If you aren’t familiar with the draw-more-than-blow concept, don’t just take my word for it. Let me prove it to you with this video.
Use S P A C E
When you’re nervous everything feels like it’s going at the speed of light. Leaving one second of space feels like 1 hour.
So now, when the nerves aren’t going berserk, flip the script, and convince yourself that SILENCE is the most powerful statement you can make, MORE POWERFUL THAN ANY OTHER NOTE YOU PLAY. If you do, your solo will immediately take a quantum leap in its impact. Remember: the beauty is in the silence in between the notes. To quote the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie after someone played a very fast solo with lots of notes and very little space:
You should try putting some holes in your solo, who knows, some music might fall out! 😎
Tell a story
Think of playing a Blues harmonica solo like telling a story. Every story has a
👉 a beginning.
👉 a middle,
👉 and an end.
So should your solo. This is why I keep harping on memorizing the 12-Bar Blues form. Your solo may be 1,2, or 10 times through the form, but your solo will end at the end of the form, so either the singer can sing again, or the next soloist gets her turn.
Nothing says BEGINNER HACK more than someone ending a solo in the middle of the form! So I’m gonna say it one more time: MEMORIZE THE 12-BAR FORM. And keep your ears open to hearing it while you’re taking your solo.
If you start playing lots of notes, you have nowhere to build to. So just like a story has to be set and develop before it reaches its climax, so it is with a solo. The key here is to leave space, especially at the beginning of your solo.
Play a couple notes, and then STOP, and just take a deep breath and listen to the other musicians before you continue.
[ins 12-Bar Blues Form image]
STEP 3: Putting it All Together: RIFFS + BASICS = SOLO
In order to get a feel for how these riffs might be used in a solo, I thought it would be cool to play a solo together incorporating all these riffs. We will play 2 Choruses, meaning 2 times through the 12-Bar form.
Because, in my opinion, virtually no harmonica solo should be without a trill on -45, we will add that into the solo as well, but otherwise the entire solo will consist only of the riffs we have learned in the last lesson.
Riff 4: -5 5 -4 -3 -2 Riff 5: -2 2 3 2 -2 -1 -1
Riff 4: -5 5 -4 -3 -2 Riff 6: 6 5 -4 4 -3 -4 5 6
All of these riffs exist within the context of the Almost Blues Scale, so if you haven’t learned it yet, now would be a cool time to check out Level 2 of my Easy Blues Scale lesson, because knowing these riffs, you’ll see how they all fit within the “Almost Blues Scale” and that context will help you memorize and embellish these riffs, as well as make up your own.
If you’re looking for a fast track to learning the harmonica, consider my course Beginner to Boss.
Keep on rocking the harmonica, and making the world a better place! 🌎❤️🎵