Seven Tiers to Harmonica Mastery

Seven Tiers to Harmonica Mastery

These tiers are designed to give you a sense of where you are in your development as a blues harmonica player. Obviously, any rating system like this is imperfect. It’s subjective and strives to demonstrate the standard progression for an average player. Of course, no player is average nor does anyone really progress in a “standard” way. Perhaps you are able to do some things in one tier and other things in the next tier or even two tiers above. Don’t let this rating system feel like a box or a hindrance in your development.

Instead, use these tiers to consider how your skills are coming together and where you might want to focus your efforts to allow you to build your skills in a balanced, harmonious, and enjoyable fashion.

Tier 1: Wolf Status

This is where it all begins. You’re a beginner who has likely been playing less than a month.  You’ve done nothing but some self discovering of sounds on the harmonica.  Perhaps, you have tried to play some simple songs like Oh Susanna or Twinkle Twinkle. You’re working on mastering a single melody, as well as the C scale.  You’re also working on a simple rhythm/chug to get your diaphragm in shape and to improve your rhythm and timing. At this point you lack confidence and passion but you’re enjoying the learning process.Your breathing is inconsistent–from the chest mostly–and generally produces a thin tone. You might also experience dizziness during or after you play.  You are unable to play single notes consistently and you can’t bend with any control yet, though you might occasionally get a dying cow sound while trying. You’re trying get single notes down, as well as basic rhythm. You’re working on easier melodies and on mastering the C scale.


Tier 2: Horton Status

You have good control over single notes and clean tone on each hole. You’re bending some notes but not all of them. Hole 2 and 3 bends are still elusive and difficult for you to control as are blow bends but you’re working on them. Your breath control is uneven. You often are not aware of whether you’re breathing from your diaphragm or chest area. Your timing is improving but you sometimes get lost in your tempo and speed up or slow down. You’ve mastered at least 2 melodies in straight harp/1st position, as well as a simple rhythm pattern, and the C scale. You are now working on the blues pentatonic scale (2nd position). Your confidence and passion are still lacking in your playing but you’re feeling better about your abilities.


Tier 3: Terry Status

You are able to play at least one melody or more in 2nd position/cross harp (requiring some bent notes).  Your bends are improving but you’re not able to constantly hit all of them on command.  Sometimes, when you go for a particular draw bend on hole 3, you accidentally hit the wrong one.  Otherwise, your control over the draw bends on holes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 is quite good. You are using at least 2 advanced techniques outside of bending when you improvise: (octaves, flutters, vibratos, hand wah). Your breathing is improving, and you’re noticing that you have more air at your disposal when you play.  You’re a bit more confident with your abilities and showing signs of passion.  You can play the blues pentatonic scale (2nd position) comfortably in both directions. You are working on the dorian mode/minor scale (3rd position). You’re working on playing this in both directions.  You’ve begun to work on 1st position blues, perhaps with call and response riffs.  In this tier, you should begin experimenting with improvising blues in 1st position. You are still working on, but can play, at least 3 bass lines or walking grooves on the harmonica that can be recognized by other knowledgeable musicians (e.g. walking swing line, slow blues groove, rumba, boogaloo).  They aren’t perfect yet but you’re working on them. Lastly, you’re actively listening to music with harmonica and working on your ear training by trying to recreate sounds, riffs and melodies. You record yourself so you can continue to study and improve your performance.


Tier 4: Clarke Status

You are using bent notes effectively in melodies and riffs.  Your tone, timing, and passion are solid and consistent. Breath control is coming along but you’re still not able to sustain long notes evenly on bends without the pitch wavering.  Every once in awhile, you hit some unintentional notes but not too often.  Timing and rhythm is mostly consistent but you occasionally speed up or slow down while playing. You are able to hit all draw and blow bends individually with the exception of maybe the half step blow bend on the 10 hole in keys C and above.  You’re beginning to be able to improvise with some confidence, even though you feel like there’s room for plenty of improvement.  Ideas aren’t coming to you yet as naturally as you’d like. You’ve worked out several riffs on the harmonica and can use them effectively when you solo.  You can confidently play at least 5 grooves/bass lines on the harp by yourself with confidence. Your ear training is evolving and you can identify and play 75% of what you hear other players doing. You have mastered 2nd position and 3rd position scales and use them in your playing. You are also now using 1st position more and more when you improvise (both low and high end of harp).


Tier 5: Cotton Status

You have solid control over your draw and blow bends and are able to hit all individual bends as well as sustain bends for 5 seconds without them wavering. You’re playing comfortably in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd position.  You’re using the majority of the harmonica in your playing including all bends and several more advanced techniques including: hand wah, vibratos, tongue flutters, octaves, etc. You’re developing strong breath control, which is noticeable in your full rich tone and even control over sustained bends.  You always play with passion.  You’re hoping to create more fluidity in your playing as it sometimes still feels a bit choppy or less fluid than you’d like.  When you play in front of folks, you really get their attention! You’re adding more grooves/bass lines to your playing and your ear training is paying off. You can identify and recreate about 90% of what you hear other players doing.


Tier 6: Sonny Boy Status

You have advanced control over all aspects of bending–both draw and blow notes. You use them within riffs and melodies flawlessly hitting the intended bends every time. Your breath control is also advanced and allows you to sustain long even tones on draw, blow, and bent notes for at least 10 seconds. You play passionately and your timing is immaculate.  You’re thinking in more advanced levels of expression in your phrasing and riffs. Your mind set is shifting when you improvise to a place where you can hear ideas and play them in the moment without working them out ahead of time. Your attention to detail with regard to dynamics and nuances is very noticeable to listeners. You can recognize and recreate 95% or more of what you hear other players doing.


Tier 7: Walter Status

You have extremely advanced breath control, tone, timing, phrasing, passion and technique on the harmonica. Your presence is undeniable on stage. You put your all into every note. You can play ideas that come to your mind in any given moment. You also have your own style that is recognizable by others. You are completely at ease performing, and you project a strong energy from stage that can be felt in your music. You learn advanced musical concepts rapidly and continue to grow and evolve as a musician. Congratulations!  


Mastery and Beyond

Even when you reach a level of mastery, learning still takes place, just in a different way.  Often there is crossover within advanced concepts and/or techniques that allow players to continue to create new musical ideas by focusing on the uniqueness of every musical moment. Most of the blues masters of guitar, harmonica or whatever instrument, are able to stay so focused and in the moment that new expressions on their instruments are a common occurrence each time they play. These players have their own unique and recognizable style, yet they continue to change and evolve as well. Some modern harmonica greats to check out that fall under this category would be: William Clarke and Gary Primich.  Buy all of their CDs, if you can, and listen to their progression, musically speaking, from their early years to the later years in their career.  They both started out with impeccable mastery and their music evolved deeply over the years.  Kim Wilson is also a great example of this. If you want to stay motivated over the years and continue to improve, you must constantly seek out new inspiration. Enjoy the journey because in music there is no destination, just an endless progression of exploration.