Last issue, I showed you around two aspects of blues in D – the chord progression and some cool single-note licks that use the chromatic slide. This time, I’m going to delve into the classic big chord approach used by all the greats, from Little Walter and George Smith to Rod Piazza, William Clarke, Kim Wilson, Mitch Kashmar, and Dennis Gruenling.
What is the Big Chord?
I call it the big chord approach because it takes advantage of the huge, magnificent draw chord that runs the full length of the chromatic harmonica. It’s a minor chord with an added 6th note of the scale that gives it a haunting, mysterious sound. D, F, and A form the D minor chord, while B adds the 6th [specifically the major 6th, an interesting juxtaposition of minor and major in the chord].
On a diatonic harmonica in C, you get this chord only in Holes 4 through 10, as the bottom three holes give you a G major chord:
When you go down to the low register of the diatonic, you have to bend Draw 2 and 3 down to get notes of the D minor chord. This is a great sound, but the need to bend for essential chord notes means you don’t the ability to float or glide across one consistent chord, and you miss the opportunity to give bottom to that D minor chord.
On chromatic, you have the sound of D minor all the way to the bottom of the harp:
On the big 16-hole chromatics, you get an extra octave of low end, giving it that classic deep, growling sound that the masters exploit so well.
How Do You Approach the Big Chord?
The big chord approach exploits the draw chord in several ways. You can use the chord to:
- Play huge-sounding note combinations (commonly up to five notes at once)
- Create percussive punctuation with pull-offs and slaps
- Create textured “strums” with hammers, rakes, and shimmers
- Harmonize your melody lines, like a two-horn “section,” using split intervals
- Play in true octaves with split intervals
Everything except the first item on the list requires your tongue to be on the harp, so I’m assuming that you will be playing with a tongue block embouchure. If you want to take a refresher course on the basics of tongue blocking on the chromatic, check out the earlier article in this series Tongue Blocking – Why? in the April, 2005 issue of HarmonicaSessions.
Chordal Melody and the Pull-off
You can play a melody in chords if the note in the right corner of your mouth is the melody note. The notes in the rest of your mouth add fullness and color. Chordal melody playing is something guitar players often do, and the big D minor chord makes chordal melody easy when you play blues in D on chromatic.
To get started, play a single draw note with a tongue block, and then lift your tongue off the harp to reveal a chord as shown in Figure A:
When you lift your tongue very quickly so that you only hear the single note briefly at the beginning of the chord, you’re doing something called a pull-off. To hear what a pull-off sounds like when Draw 5 is the melody note, click here: 22-0A
Why do pull-offs? Two reasons – one for the player (you) and another for your listeners.
As a player, when you play a big chord consisting of several notes, you may have trouble hearing whether the note in the right corner of your mouth is the melody note you want. A pull-off lets you sound and hear the note and verify that you’re playing what you intended. For listeners, briefly sounding the melody note lets them hear the melody more clearly. Otherwise they might hear a cloud of chordal mush and not notice that it’s supporting a melodic line.
Let’s take the three simple licks in Example 22-1 and play each lick, first as pure melody, then with a pull-off on each note, then as pure chords.
To hear each lick first as single notes, then as a series of chords, and then with pull offs:
Click here for Lick 22-1a: 22-01A
Click here for Lick 22-1b: 22-01B
Click here for Lick 22-1c: 22-01C
Notice how I play these chords with a percussive attack and quick decay. The big D minor chord works great for this way of playing.
Slapping into a Single Note
The opposite of a pull-off is a slap. You’re aiming for a single note instead of a chord, and the brief chord you hear at the beginning of the note gives a percussive start to the note, and gives the note more body by playing chord notes that reinforce that melody note. The basic move for a slap is shown in Figure B
Click here to listen to Draw 5 played with a slap: 22-0Ba
Try playing the licks in Example 22-1 with slaps. Click here to listen: 22-01D
Hammering a Note
Now that you’ve tried slaps and pull-offs, you’re prepared to create an exciting pulsation in a note with a hammer. You do a hammer by rapidly alternating between a single note (with your tongue on the harp) and a chord (with your tongue lifted off the harp). It’s like you’re repeatedly hammering your tongue down on the harp, even though you don’t need any force to do it.
Figure A illustrates the basic action of the hammer. You just repeat the action of alternating between chord and single note.
One important thing about the hammer is different from slaps and pull-offs: The single note and the chord get equal time.
You don’t need a super-fast tongue to play a good hammer. Every time you use your tongue to touch the harp, you create two audible actions: the sound of the chord and the sound of the single note. As a result, the listener hears changes in the sound that are moving twice as fast as your tongue. The speed at which you can say “Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta” will work fine for a hammer.
Click here to hear a hammer played at various speeds: 22-0Bb First I’ll say “Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta” so that you can hear the speed of my tongue movement. Then I’ll do a hammer at the same rate of tongue movement so you can hear the effect.
Hammers work to fullest effect on longer notes, which allow time for several repetitions of the hammer action.
Example 22-2 shows some simple lines with long notes that offer good hammering opportunities. The notes that are good hammer candidates are marked with a string of asterisks trailing the tab under the notes.
Click here to listen. Note that I also use slaps and pull-offs on some of the single notes that connect the hammered notes. 22-02
Raking a Chord
With four holes in your mouth, you can rake your tongue across the holes to alternate two groups of notes. This creates a bubbling rhythmic texture that is not as percussive as the hammer. You can see the basic action in Figure C:
You can do a rake with three holes in your mouth, but the effect is stronger with four holes, partly because you have more width for moving your tongue, and partly because the draw chord sounds fuller and more complex with four notes.
Click here to hear a rake, first with the action slowed down, then at normal speed: 22-0C.mp322-0C
Try playing the lines in Example 22-2, but with rakes on the long notes instead of hammers. Click here to listen: 22-02b
Next time we’ll continue our study of the “Blues in D with the Big Chord Approach.”
Editor’s Notes (David Barrett)
Much of the terminology in the harmonica world is not standardized. To help clarify some of the names of these techniques for students of my method material I’ll share with you my naming.
I call this a Pull and differs from Winslow’s description in that the harmonica player starts with his/her tongue covering all of the holes, then lifting the tongue off… this is an articulated version of Winslow technique.
Hammering A Note
Same technique, but I call it a Flutter.
Raking A Chord
Same technique, but I call it a Side- Flutter.