How to keep up your solo

Blues Harp Soloing…

Especially those of you who are performing live in blues clubs, little bars, street festivals or bbq- parties can tell something about how to keep the audience’s attention on a high level during a solo, or at least they should. There are a bunch of things that are really important to consider.

First of all what is your role in the all over performance?

Are you a Blues Harp Player in a band: together with 2 guitar guys, a singer, a drummer and a base player, so your role might be more like a side effect player, waiting for your 12 bars to freak out.

Are you playing in a duo with a guitar player: you always need to know where you are in 12 bars, where your partner is and you need to communicate if somebody is off, right during a song to get back on track. Here mostly the Harmonica is an equal part to the guitar. It can take chord action or solo parts.

Are you playing as a One Man Band: Harmonica is all you´ve got. Perhaps you play rhythmical percussions with your feet or you are blowing along a play-a-long-track.

In any case the biggest difference is, if you are singing as well, or you are just focusing on the harmonica itself. This could be a first crucial thing, which means, if your ego wants you to play a big role in the all over performance and the context you are in does not allow this, you should look for something else…

Let´s say you are the harmonica guy in a blues band, always waiting for your time to shine. What do you do to separate your solos from one song to the other? Are you really variating positions when you´re playing live. Are you playing different blues styles like minor blues? Are you playing different scales for different music? And I mean do you really do that live on stage and not just knowing something about some of these topics in theory? Do you do all of that, or are you just blowing all out whenever you get the chance. (This question is more for you to think about than to talk about). Especially when a whole series of bluesy shuffle songs are set up in a row, you can hardly play different tonal stuff and you want to sound bluesy. So what are you doing??

After I spend several years in any of these arrangements here are my 6 rules to keep the audience’s attention up high with your harmonica.

  1. Try to have separated motives in every song. If you don´t have it in your mind before the songs starts listen careful to what the others do and build up a suitable harmonica motive. Lean on the guitar or play along the base line. Especially as a One Man Band you need to have different motives more than anything else. Otherwise every song would sound the same.
  2. Get yourself a lick- repertoire of more than two times 12 bars of soloing. Separate them into I-, IV- and V-chord licks. Know when to play and how to change in between. Transfer the licks into different parts of the harp. First try to start with 2 hole draw starting licks and transfer them to 6 hole blow starting licks.
  3. Give your solo different types of dramaturgy. This means in one solo start low and build it up to your best and wildest licks. In another start with a wild thing, let it fall apart and keep it up at the end. There are more variations regarding the dramaturgy in blues harmonica playing than you might think. Even call and response could be a part of it.
  4. Play pause on purpose. Leave space in between your solo. For sure sometimes “more is more” but to separate your harmonica style sometimes “less is more”. For many of us playing a pause is harder than playing as much as they have, as loud and as hard as they could… But the effect of a pause is almost equal!
  5. Make yourself familiar with the harp typical sounds. Trills, chords, single notes, glissandos, staccato, legato, bends, vibrato, fast runs and triplet riffs are just a few examples of what you can do to separate and variate your playing.
  6. Don´t put everything in one song. Even this 6 rules shouldn´t be placed in one song. It is enough just to keep two or three things in mind and focus on those for the song.

Please never forget, especially if you´re playing live, it is not about you showing your latest tricks and licks, it´s about an all over performance, it´s about a song with a message for your audience and in most of the situations you are just part of it. So make sure whatever you do is underlining the feeling and the message of the song.

See you down the road!


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