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The harmonica's role in blues and rock music

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Michael D
Aug 29, 2010 7:51 AM GMT

In music class at school, I decided to study the role of the harmonica in different types of music, as I feel this will allow me to become a better player if I understand how to play in style.

I’m a little stuck on one section, and maybe you guys could help me out. (I'm doing a 10 minute speech for my final school exam)

What is the difference between the harmonica’s role in blues and rock music, and what characteristics differentiate between these styles?

Thanks for your help,


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Aug 30, 2010 5:24 PM GMT
Bulldog B Replied:

More than you probably wanted to know:

The harmonicas place in blues started way back in the the days of unamplified Delta Blues/Country Blues - 2 guys playing on a street corner, one with a harmonica and one with a guitar. The harmonica was used as both a rhythm instrument (by playing chords) and solo instrument. For an example of this style taken to it's ultimate, listen to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Later on the harp became more of a solo instrument, used to play fills and leads, but still played acoustically - for an example, listen to Jimmie Reed. The key thing about the acoustic style is that the harp is played thru the same microphone that the performer is singing thru, so most of the "tone" comes from the player, not the amp. Later on the Urban Blues/Chicago Blues/Little Walter style developed, in which the harmonica is heavily amplified and over-driven and the tone comes more from the electronics than the harp. "Over-driven" simply means that the sound is amplified to the point that the system can't deliver a clear signal, and the sound gets "clipped" - the waveform gets closer and closer to a square wave.

I'm not sure about Rock, but I suspect that the use of the harmonica in Rock came from two sources: Blues, and Country music. To get back to your actual question, in Blues the harmonica tends to be played in a more over-driven distorted style, with more bending. In Blues it is used mainly to do solos and fills; when it's used as a background rhythm it's either played as a sort of fill or in a "chugging" style. In rock the harmonica can be played in a "bent" style, the same as in Blues, but with a much more natural sounding level of amplification, or played in a first position. A lot depends on the player's style but in general rock harmonica is either played in a more melodic "light rock" style and used to deliver a simple alternate melody line (often just a 3 to 5 note phrase, repeated over and over - for examples of this style, listen to the forgotten 60's hit called "Laugh Laugh" by the Beau Brummels, or "Groovin'" by the Little Rascals); or, played in a style derived more from the blues style but with much less "Honk."

Sep 15, 2010 2:36 AM GMT
Jawbone K Replied:

that begs another question: what exactly is blues music? surely it originated in the delta and surely it evolved in chicago. it became an electrified genre with its trip to chicago and later to other cities.

now my own opinion is, a lot of harmonica in rock is identical to what we hear in electric-usually- blues music. the beat is different behind the guitar and harp, and there is a more frenetic quality to rock a lot of rock harp is straight through the p.a. and hence the sound is cleaner and maybe dryer. no less of an ear grabber for that. plenty of blues harp players, junior wells and rice milkler included, played through the p.a. most of the time.

in blues, esp rural blues, harp was one of very few instruments being played. guitar, mando, banjo, piano, drums, but all pretty basic. in rock, with all the advances in sound reinforcement, plus horn, organ, and other additions to technology, the possibilities were more numerous as how the final result of a session would sound.

maybe too, technique of playing was studied more deeply by the later generation who usnhered in rock and at the same time did their bit to turn white audiences on to real blues, like the stones bringing howlin wolf along onto stage in the 60's. who plays like wolf did? or walter? or sonny terry? answer, many have studied and tried, and had very good results, but even with spot on technique, the feel is most always different.

so in rock, there may have come to be more technical emphasis while blues has always been more about feel.

i may be wrong here, it's just my opinion, hope it may help a bit!

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