Son of Dave

Steve Baker - Blues Harmonica Playalongs - Volume 1

There are already so many methods for learning the harmonica; why, some will wonder, do we need another one? And that's their first mistake. This isn't a "how to play" book; it's a "how to improve" book. So, Steve doesn't try to explain the principle behind bending or getting a single note. If you don't already know how to bend down to each half-step on the third hole, then take a hike.

With that in mind, this is nearer the method used in "Techniques de l'harmonica" and "10 Themes de Blues" by Jean-Jacques Milteau: a series of tunes combining a theme and an improvisation. You learn the melody by heart and then try and improvise on the playbacks on the second part of the CD. But where Milteau gives us a somewhat spare, empty tablature and a few tips in a total of 3 lines, Baker creates a real book with two solid pages per piece, detailing how to interpret each phrase and note of the song. To find your way around, the theme is given in tab AND in standard musical notation, with the chord changes indicated above each measure.-You may already feel you've gotten your money's worth.

So, where do you start? You listen to the CD: eleven pieces in various styles (or various rhythms since we're talking blues here: see title). Initially you think you're listening to a complete CD by Steve Baker. Why? Because each piece is more than three minutes long, and the improvs are left to the other instruments accompanying the harmonica (piano, guitar, bass, drums and organ). As a result, you're likely to spend the next two days listening to the CD, as if that were the purpose, as opposed to attacking the sheet music.

The music is varied: funk, blues, jazz, rock and even rumba rhythms are used two and three times. He uses Hohner harmonicas in the keys of A, C, D and F, which he plays in 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions. The method book is broken down into two parts: a study of the song and a study of the scale. All the songs, incidentally, are played acoustically on the harmonica, i.e., without electronic effects. Learning to reproduce the crunch of Little Walter is for another day. Today, we're sticking with the natural sound of the harmonica, which Mr. Bake-you can be assured-knows how to use.

The song studies are involved. Baker explains how to articulate each phrase, how he blows here and draws there and even goes so far as to recommend other phrasings for those who can't quite master those of the song. The themes themselves only employ given and bent notes, but don't be surprised if you hear a large number of overblows in Mr. Baker's improvisations. Each piece is then examined in detail (or, at least, the theme is; the various improvisational schemes are condensed into just a few explanations) and we are offered one or two exercises to help familiarize ourselves with a certain type of phrasing or articulation. Incidentally, there are many techniques employed (bending, tongue blocking, overblowing, harmonizing) and Steve has a field day with them. So, don't hesitate to copy the master. I know that's easier said than done, but when you here Steve Baker playing whole phrases while harmonizing (playing several notes at the same time), occasionally more than an octave apart (meaning he occasionally blows over five holes while blocking the middle three), you really want to borrow from the same bank.

The second part will use them a lot. Mr. Baker, without knowing it, accomplished a truly great feat: he helped me-finally !-to understand the scales (Mixolydian, Dorian, etc.). In this book, the harmonica serves as the very basis for theory and the scales are intelligently presented in relation to positions so that everything is made crystal clear. You come out of this genuinely enriched. There are diagrams, of course. And they'll help you to learn all about scales, chord formation and the bases for improvisation. Then there's an expanded chapter on chords and their corresponding notes on the harmonica. It's a great tool for finding new harmonies.

On the whole, this method is aimed at those who want to depart from their usual playing style (which may be "too Chicago", for example) and who, having a certain skill level, would like to have a clear, precise work plan. Not only are the themes in the book rich, but they create all sorts of possibilities for phrasing and tone. If you're a beginner or novice, don't buy this package. Everyone else is welcome and will find, whatever his or her level, material to work on. Even the blusiest amongst us may not be used to improvising on a funk or rumba groove:)

Thank you Mr. Baker for this workbook. To judge from "Vol. 1", the next will no doubt be aimed at an even higher level. (Oh boy, I still won't have mastered the overblows.)

Here are the songs:

1) Session Shuffle: a standard blues in 2nd position on an A harp
2) Poor Boy Boogie: a very fast boogie-woogie in 2nd position on an F harp
3) Rainy Day Blues: a slow blues in 2nd position on a C harp
4) Funky Mardi Gras: a funk rhythm with melody in 2nd position on a D harp
5) Straight Harp Shuffle: a standard blues in 1st position on an A harp. Enough to bring you back to 1st position, which, in the end, has nothing to do with folk music.
6) Off The Top: a little jazz with a lot of swing, in 2nd position on a C harp
7) Doublecrossed & Blue: a slow, minor-key blues, in 3rd position on an A harp
8) Worried Mind: a slow blues in 2nd position on an F harp
9) Stomping: a little straight ahead rock beat, in 2nd position on an A harp
10) Ready to Go: a bouncing blues in 3rd position on a C harp
11) Gimme a Break: a rumba rhythm with melody in 2nd position on a D harp

- Sylvain Guehl

To get it