How to Play Blues Riffs on Harmonica – Unlock the Secrets to Mastering the Blues!

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If you’re looking to learn how to play blues riffs on harmonica, you’re in luck! As a harmonica player, I know how frustrating it can be to try and learn the basics of blues harmonica. But, with a little bit of practice and some helpful tips, you can unlock the secrets of the blues and learn to play blues riffs on harmonica in just a few steps. In this article, I’ll be sharing my insights on how to play blues riffs on harmonica, so you can start mastering the blues in no time.

Parts of a Harmonica

Parts Of A Harmonica

Part Description
Comb The comb is the main body of the harmonica. It is usually made of wood or plastic.
Cover plates The cover plates are the two metal covers that hold the comb together.
Reeds Reeds are the metal plates that vibrate when air is blown into the harmonica. Each reed produces a different note.
Mouthpiece The mouthpiece is the part of the harmonica where you blow air into and make music.
Buttons Buttons are the metal buttons on the side of the harmonica that are used to change the key of the harmonica.

The harmonica is a small, portable instrument made up of several different parts. The comb is the main body of the harmonica, usually made of wood or plastic. Cover plates are the two metal covers that hold the comb together. Reeds are the metal plates that vibrate when air is blown into the harmonica, producing different notes. The mouthpiece is the part of the harmonica where you blow air into and make music. Buttons are the metal buttons on the side of the harmonica that are used to change the key of the harmonica. All these parts work together to produce the sound of the harmonica.

Basic Techniques

Basic Techniques

Technique Description
Bending Bending is a technique used to achieve a blue note.
It involves changing pitch by pressing down on the reed while blowing or drawing.
Tongue Blocking Tongue blocking is a technique used to play multiple notes simultaneously.
It involves using the tongue to block the air from entering or escaping from certain holes.
Drawing Drawing is a technique used to play single notes.
It involves taking a deep breath and slowly releasing the air while covering the desired hole.
Shakes & Trills Shakes and trills are techniques used to add vibrato to notes.
It involves quickly moving the tongue back and forth to create a wavering sound.
Cross Harp Technique The cross harp technique is a method of playing in a different key than the one the harmonica is tuned to.
It involves using the draw notes on the harmonica to play in the key of the draw note.

Discover Top 3 Harmonica Bestsellers

Bestseller No. 1
East top Diatonic Blues Harmonica Key of C, Blues Harp Mouth Organ 10 Holes 20 Tones 008K with Blue Case, Standard Harmonica For Adults, Professionals, Beginners and Students
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  • Rich sound, responsive, airtightness - Precision-made plastic comb with phosphor bronze reeds; 1.2mm thickness reed plate is easier to get the higher pitch, rich sound and timbre. The reed plate with electroplating antirust, the hole, reed gap is better after electroplating. At the same time, you will feel comfortable when playing, easy to use the skill, such as over-blowing and bending, giving the performer a new experience.
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Bestseller No. 2
JDR Harmonica Set of 7 (Key of C D E F G A Bb) 10 Holes 20 Tones Blues Harp Diatonic Mouth Organ armonica with EVA Protective Case for Adults Kids Beginner Professional Intermediate Student Gift Black
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  • Key of C
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Single Notes

Single Notes

Note Hole Draw
C 4 7
D 5 8
E 6 9
F 7 10
G 8 11
A 9 12
B 10 1

Playing single notes is the foundation of playing blues riffs on harmonica. When playing any note on the harmonica, it will be either a blow or a draw. To get the correct note, you will need to use the correct hole. The table above shows the notes and the corresponding hole for a blow and draw. For example, if you want to play a C note, you need to use hole 4 for a blow and hole 7 for a draw.



  • Slides are one of the most important techniques for playing blues harp riffs. They involve moving a single hole from one note to another, creating a sliding effect.
  • When playing a slide, start by drawing air on the hole and then push the hole up or down to the destination note. The slide should be smooth and controlled.
  • You can also create slides by drawing air on two adjacent holes and then pushing them both up or down. This will produce a more complex, but also more interesting, slide sound.
  • Slides are often used to add a sense of tension and release to a riff or solo. For example, you may start a riff on a low note and then slide up to a higher note to create a feeling of anticipation.
  • You can also use slides to add texture and complexity to a riff by sliding up or down a few notes before returning to the original note.



Drawing notes on the harmonica is a key technique for playing blues riffs. To draw a note, the player inhales, or sucks in air, on a hole in the harmonica, while covering all the other holes with the lips and tongue. The amount of air used can be adjusted to produce a range of tones, from low to high.

Draw notes Hole Number
Lowest note 1
High note 10

When drawing on the harmonica, the player needs to experiment with different amounts of air to find the desired tone. Beginning players may find it helpful to practice with a metronome to ensure that each note is held for the same amount of time. Once the desired tone is achieved, the player can add vibrato by quickly vibrating the lips and tongue.


Bends are one of the most essential techniques to play blues riffs on the harmonica. They are created by half-covering one of the holes and blowing or drawing air into the instrument, thus altering the pitch of the note. Bends can be used to add expression, dynamics and colour to the sound. To create a bend, one must first determine the scale degree of the note they want to bend. The scale degree is the note’s position in the scale or key. Once the scale degree of the note is determined, the harmonica player can determine which hole to half-cover in order to create a bend. To play a bend, the harmonica player needs to cover the lower-numbered hole partially while blowing or drawing air into the instrument. For example, to achieve a bend on a ‘C’ note, the player needs to cover the hole numbered 7 partially and draw air into the instrument. When playing a bend, the player must ensure the air pressure is steady and consistent. To practice bends, the player can start with the lower notes on the instrument and gradually increase the pitch by bending each note. Once the player is able to play bends, they can move on to more advanced techniques.

How to Play Blues Riffs

How To Play Blues Riffs

Harmonica is a great instrument for playing blues riffs. Blues is a style of music that originated in the American South and is often characterized by its use of the blues scale, as well as other elements like syncopation and improvisation. To play blues riffs on the harmonica, you need to be familiar with the blues scale and be able to play with a blues feel.

The blues scale is a minor pentatonic scale with an added flattened fifth (or “blue note”). To play the blues scale on a harmonica, start by playing the root note on hole 4, then use the following draw and blow notes: draw 3, blow 4, draw 5, blow 4, draw 5, blow 4, draw 6, blow 4, draw 7, blow 4, draw 7, blow 4.

Once you’re familiar with the blues scale, you can start to create your own blues riffs. Start by improvising over a 12-bar blues progression, as this is the most common format used in blues music. You can also use multiple notes at once, or “chords”, to create more complex, interesting riffs. When you’ve got a riff that you like, practice it until it becomes second nature.

Once you’re comfortable with playing blues riffs on the harmonica, you can start experimenting with different rhythms and tempos, as well as adding slides, bends, and other techniques to create a unique sound. You can also use a variety of different harmonicas in different keys to create a more diverse sound. With practice and experimentation, you can develop your own style of playing blues riffs on the harmonica.

The 12 Bar Blues

The 12 Bar Blues

  1. Start by playing a simple I-IV-V chord progression in the key of C.
  2. Now add a few extra notes to create a “riff” around the chords.
  3. Repeat the riff three times.
  4. Riff on each chord for four bars (or measures).
  5. Play the I chord for four bars.
  6. Play the IV chord for two bars.
  7. Play the I chord for two bars.
  8. Play the V chord for one bar.
  9. Then go back to the I chord for four bars.
  10. Repeat the cycle for twelve bars.
  11. End on the I chord.

Variations on the 12 Bar Blues

Variations On The 12 Bar Blues

  • Adding more bars: The 12 bar blues is usually played in 12 bars but can also be extended to 16 or 8 bars.
  • Changing the chord progression: Different chord progressions can be used in place of the 12 bar blues, such as the I-IV-V progression.
  • Using different rhythms: The 12 bar blues is usually played in 4/4 time, but can also be played in other rhythms such as 3/4 or 6/8.
  • Adding a turnaround: This is a short phrase played at the end of the 12 bar blues that leads into the next verse.
  • Adding a tag: This is a short phrase played at the end of the 12 bar blues that concludes the song.
  • Varying the harmonic structure: Different notes can be added or subtracted from the 12 bar blues progression to create different harmonic structures.
  • Using different keys: The 12 bar blues can be played in different keys to create different sounds.

Improvising on the Harmonica

Improvising On The Harmonica

  • Learn the basics of the harmonica, such as single notes, bends, and vibrato.
  • Familiarize yourself with blues scales and chord progressions.
  • Listen to the blues and analyze the music. Notice what the main riffs are and how they are used.
  • Practice playing a simple riff and vary the notes you play each time. This will help you to get used to improvising.
  • Develop your own style by experimenting with different techniques and sounds.
  • Practice playing along to blues songs and jamming with other musicians.
  • Learn to recognize and create motifs, licks and hooks.
  • Try to bring together different elements from the blues by blending them into one cohesive piece.
  • Develop a personal improvisation approach which is unique to you.

Incorporating Other Instruments

Incorporating Other Instruments

Instrument Function
Guitar Provide rhythm and support
Bass Provide low end and rhythmic backbone
Drums Provide beat, drive and texture
Piano Interplay with harmonica lines and provide lead and chordal accompaniment
Saxophone Provide counterpoint to harmonica lines and soloing

In addition to the harmonica, other instruments can be used to create a complete blues song. Guitars, basses, drums and pianos provide rhythm and texture, while saxophones provide counterpoint to harmonica lines and soloing. When playing blues riffs on harmonica, these instruments can be used to provide rhythm and support, a low end and rhythmic backbone, a beat, drive and texture and provide interplay with harmonica lines and provide lead and chordal accompaniment.

Playing Along with Recordings

Playing Along With Recordings

  • Listen to a blues recording and identify the harmonica player’s part.
  • Learn the basic chords and notes of the song.
  • Listen to the harmonica part and try to replicate it.
  • Practice playing the harmonica part with a metronome to get better timing.
  • Try to play along with the recording once you have perfected the part.
  • Record yourself playing along with the recording to hear how well you are playing.

Tips and Tricks

  • Listen to classic blues recordings and learn from them.
  • Practice scales and exercises to familiarize yourself with the notes.
  • Start with single note melodies, then move on to two-note melodies.
  • Mix and match the notes you play to create unique melodic patterns.
  • Try different techniques such as bending and overblowing to add expression to your playing.
  • Experiment with different keys and tunings to find the one that works best for you.
  • Find a jam session or open mic night and try out your riffs with other musicians.

Frequently Asked Questions

What riffs are best for learning to play blues on harmonica?

The most important riffs to learn when playing blues on harmonica are the 12-bar blues, the call and response, and the 4-note riff. The 12-bar blues is essentially a 12-bar chord progression that uses the I, IV and V chords. The call and response is a riff in which a single note is blown and then answered by another single note. The 4-note riff is a sequence of four notes usually played in a triplet rhythm. Once these basic riffs are mastered, more complex riffs can be explored.

How can I practice the blues riffs on harmonica?

Practicing blues riffs on harmonica can be done by starting with scales, familiarizing yourself with the individual notes, and then proceeding to playing simple melodies. It is important to practice with a metronome to ensure your timing is correct. Listen to recordings of blues songs to get an idea of the sound you are trying to emulate, and to get a better understanding of the structure of blues music. Practicing slowly and carefully at first, and gradually increasing the speed, is the best way to master blues riffs on the harmonica.

What techniques should I use to help me play blues riffs on harmonica?

Learning blues riffs on harmonica involves mastering three specific techniques: bends, vibratos, and tongue blocking. Bends involve drawing and blowing air through the reed to slightly change the pitch, while vibratos involve short, rapid changes in the pitch. Tongue blocking involves covering some of the holes with your tongue while playing. With practice, these techniques can be combined to create a variety of blues riffs.

How can I develop my own blues style on harmonica?

Practice and experimentation are the keys to developing your own blues style on harmonica. Start by mastering basic blues riffs and then focus on more advanced techniques and rhythms. Listen to and learn from blues harmonica players that you admire. Listen to their recordings and attempt to imitate their licks and sounds. Experiment with different techniques such as slaps, bends and vibratos to create your own unique sound. Practice playing with a metronome to ensure that your timing and rhythm are precise. Finally, record your playing and listen back to it to identify areas where you can improve.

Are there any tips or tricks for mastering blues riffs on harmonica?

Practice, practice, practice! Repetition and muscle memory are key when it comes to mastering blues riffs on harmonica. Start by playing a riff slowly and gradually increase the speed as you become more comfortable with it. Also, break down the riff into smaller sections, focusing on one portion at a time. Additionally, it can help to break the riff up into patterns that are easier to remember. Finally, listening to recordings of blues songs featuring harmonica solos can help you get a better feel for the style and sound.


Playing blues riffs on the harmonica is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. It takes practice, but once you have the basics down, you will be able to unlock the secrets of the blues and learn to play some of the most iconic riffs. With patience and dedication, you can become a master of blues harmonica.


About the author

Hey, my name is John Peters, and I’m a co-founder and Jack’s co-editors. My country sole was born when I was not more than 4 years old and my dad brought several country records home. These were the records by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Asleep at The Wheel, and Neil Young. I fell in love with the genre forever back then. Before entering the university, I managed to gather a collection of over 1200 vinyl records with both classic and modern country releases.

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