Learning The Jazz Playing.(Chromatic Harmonica)

Figuring that you already can play the instrument a bit, and read music, another bit, and have decided to follow the path to The Life of Late-Night Sin and Possible Degradation that The Back of Your Mind has always been trying to push into what's left of the Front of Your Mind, there's a chance that it's time to learn to play Jazz on your chromatic harmonica...here are some tools and some fairly obvious ideas.

But first:

For the record, meandering around the instrument, playing the built-in features
of the instrument doesn't make it jazz.  

Jumping around on stage, squeezing your eyes together
and turning red, certainly helps, but still that, alone, doesn't make it jazz.  


  1. Transcribe! is a great program that you can use in multiple fairly obvious ways to transcribe music that you hear for further study.
  2. iRealB Pro is a great backup track application... kind of like Band In A Box.
  3. A home recording program.... I use Apple's Logic, and Garage Band comes to mind as being ubiquitous, at least it did after I looked up the spelling.
  4. Jamie Aebersold and Hal  Leonard playalong tracks.
  5. A metronome (Digital is best, unless your workspace is very, very, level.)
  6. A notation program is helpful. I use FInale. And am not really good at it.
    UPDATE: MuseScore is free, public domain, and works quite well as a Finale Replacement.
  7. Extra Time. (if you find that app online, please let me know.)
  8. Then start or, better, continue, listening to jazz, but not only Harmonica Players.
  9. Study Piano with a Jazz Piano Person.
  10. Buy and Read Kenny Werner's book on Effortless Mastery. Do the meditations.
  11. OH, I just remembered. Find some transcriptions of Charlie Parker TUNES (as opposed to solos, which are for later, should it come.) Learn them in all keys. Your fingers and brain will thank you later. And it will increase your brain's useful lifetiime, (That's Science).

    Play them very slowly, Charlie Parker tunes are, by definition, a collection of Charlie Parker licks. IF a pattern does not fit well on the inherently strange and seemingly twisted, chromatic harmonica layout, DO NOT have your instrument retuned in a way to make it easier. LEARN TO PLAY THEM.

    Then graduate to some transcribed Parker solos. Again, learn in all keys, unless your doctor has doubts as to how much Time you have left. (Craig's List is a good place to find a new doctor, I've heard.) There is no need to play them along with  Charlie Parker's fast tempo. Some people, like David Fairweather, do, and some don't. It's optional. David also writes words to some of those solos, which is kind of cool. I'm waiting for him to figure out how to sing the words and play the parts at the same time. I'd pay good money to watch that.

    LEARN to play all this stuff on the same layout that Toots Thielemans uses. He's no slouch. At some later point, you might consider a revised layout for certain tunes, mostly so your favorite double stops will be possible, but other than that, don't.

    When I started, it was very helpful to listen to all styles of harmonica playing, not just jazz. I listened to Toots, Hendrik Meurkins, Tommy Morgan, Tommy Reilly, and Fats Domino, and realized that they were all playing on the same layout I had in front of me...

    So my mantra became:

    IF (insert name) can play this figure on the traditional chromatic layout, THEN it CAN be played.
    IF it CAN be played, then there's no reason that I can't learn to play it, given time.

    And YES, I realize that Fats Domino didn't play Chromatic Harmonica, I just put that in to see if you were paying attention, or to remind you that it's probably time to order pizza but you're watching your weight so buy a small one.
    The active ingredient in Hendrik's Secret Sauce is Practice.
    One of the first things I did after The Basics, was to transcribe some tunes, not solos, but tunes, that Hendrik Meurkins has on one of his albums. Something to do with The Amazon, I forget. (The Peach and Lingua De Mosquito were a couple). They seemed really wonderfully daunting, etude-like, and almost impossible, but I  realized that he was doing it and probably without Smoke and Mirrors or Secret Magic Sauce, so I KNEW it was possible.

    I learned them up to speed, giving my Beginner's Technique a huge boost in the process.Two or three tunes took a month. I was still a beginner, but I got it. I had discovered The Secret Ingredient.

    Turns out that there WAS a Secret Magic Sauce involved......The active ingredient in Hendrik's Secret Sauce is Practice.


  12. More about Licks.
    Everybody has Licks. Fun passages that sound good and take you from one pitch center to  the next.

    Here's a great way to add to your USEFUL bag of licks.
    1. Buy a blank book of staff paper, single line. And a pencil with an eraser.
    2. EVERY TIME you think of a respectable lick, WRITE IT DOWN. Otherwise, you WILL forget it.
    3. Ok, so you have a new lick for, say, a Cm7b5. Learn to play it in every key, but try to NOT write the phrases out in every key. I think using ears is more helpful and productive, and at times, writing it down becomes a crutch.
    4. Don't just do it around the circle of fifths, do it in varying order, covering all 12 keys, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER. You want to be able to  play The Lick no matter what came before.
    5. Open up iReal Pro and pick one of the pre-set tunes that you see some m7b5 chords.
    6. Play the chords and licks on the piano. I find that it's easier to SEE how things work using a keyboard, where you can  more easily see that Cm7, EbMaj7 and Gm7 have lots in common.
    7. Put it on SLOW speed, and ONLY PLAY your lick where you see a m7b5. Forget about the bars in between for now.
    8. Change the key in iReal Pro, and do the same for all the keys, in, perhaps, random order, until every time you see a m7b5, your lick comes out.
    9. Then write some changes that can go around your now favorite chord m7b5. For instance,Cm7b5 for one bar >>F7b9 for one bar and then Bb Maj7 for two bars.....this pattern is used a lot.
    10. Do this in iReal Pro, in all the keys.
    11. That seems to work nicely, but one important thing to remember is to ALWAYS WRITE YOUR LICKS DOWN... you will not remember them tomorrow, no matter what you believe, some great licks will be lost, and your cleaning lady will just sweep them up, take them home, and give them to her kid who just started to play sax.
    12. With enough practice, you may find that all this stuff happens without thought.
    13. This can be done in lots of different and logical ways, find one and do it.
    14. Take a look at my page in the ARTICLES menu called "How to practice better" and incorporate that into your schedule to  save you some time.
    15. Enjoy. A side-effect of all this is thatif you play loudly enough , you'll finally meet your neighbors.

  13. So sooner or later, you'll find that you can stop thinking and let the music come out. That's happened to me a few times and it's a really extraordinary feeling, just letting it happen. Very cool. The more I learn, the more often I play without conscious thought, kind of the way I entered my first marriage, but with a better outcome.

It's probably obvious by now, that this site is not going to take you step-by-step thru the process of learning much of anything least of all, Jazz. However those tools above are things that I've found that makes the process easier.

The very best way to learn Jazz on the Chromatic Harmonica is to learn the instrument with a good chromatic player, with whom you can sit and play, and then study The Jazz with a Jazz Piano player. Probably you shouldn't study Jazz with a Chromatic Harmonica player. Sorry. Sad, and True. (And yes, there are some exceptions (3). Or (4). Give or Take. And No, I haven't heard every player out there.

Sorry to not be more helpful.

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