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On a magic journey as a harmonica player

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the harmonica. The first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of Prospector.

I suppose that nearly everyone in the Western World and much of the Far East has at one time or another possessed one, and perhaps even today, lying forgotten in the littered bottom of a toy box or dresser drawer of your home, is one of these little treasures of instrumental technology – the harmonica.

My journey as a harmonica player began when I was 18. New to blues and jazz music, I was deep into an educational listening session at a friend’s place. He was a musician, my age, had been an avid listener to these musical genres from the age of 12 and had amassed a vast collection of albums. As I had a lot of catching up to do, we were buried in a blues exploration. He put a record on the turntable, the tune began, and I heard this stunning instrumental. Amazed, I asked, “What was that instrument?”



“Harp.”

“Harp?”




“Harmonica.”

“No way. Harmonica doesn’t sound like that.” “Well, I guess you’ve never heard Chicago blues, Little Walter or amplified harmonica before.”

So it started like that. That huge sound, with an incredible, edgy bite to the tone and the artist known as Little Walter playing the blues like a horn player might play it. From that moment on, I was hooked.

Call it what you will – mouth organ, blues harp, Mississippi saxophone, tin sandwich – I considered getting that kind of music from a 10-hole piece of wood stuck between two pieces of metal and containing 20 little brass reeds, all of which cost at that time about $5.25, nothing short of magic. I simply had to find out how to play the harmonica, but it would take me another 25 years to accomplish that.

Harmonica becomes vehicle for expression

Years passed, and although I dabbled mostly as a percussionist in music making, I felt frustrated. But, as Bonnie Raitt says, “I loved the music too much to not play it.” So began my commitment to really learning to play blues on the harmonica, and in short order I updated my harmonica collection, both instruments and albums; obtained learning materials and found a teacher. The mild itch had become a raging fire.

Learning to play, I’ve found, has less to do with ability then it does with love, intention, persistence, listening to the music you wish to play and wanting that vehicle for expression. And it should be fun. Maybe challenging, but that should be fun, too. Enjoy the journey, in other words.

What instrument you play and how you play depends on your musical influences. Listening is a huge part of learning music. For instance, I had a powerful rapport with blues and jazz that I didn’t have with rock or classical, and it remains so, even though I find all music informative.

Evolution of

harmonica playing

The harmonica is so versatile. Famous harp players come in all brands playing all genres of music – jazz, classical, rock, country, soul, Irish, folk, and, of course, blues.

A blues harp player is often the front man or bandleader and singer. So, like James Cotton or Mark Hummel, he’ll sing, play a lead line, and maybe some fills in between his vocals. A singer-songwriter might accompany his vocals with guitar and a racked harp like Bob Dylan and Neil Young do. A jazz player (Toots Theilemans and Mike Turk) or a classical soloist (Larry Adler and Robert Bonfiglio) will usually play a chromatic harmonica and be backed by a jazz band or classical ensemble.

Players known for versatility (Norton Buffalo and Clint Hoover) don’t limit themselves to one type of music. Harmonica innovators such as Little Walter and Howard Levy synthesized a new sound or style.

For 150 years, the diatonic harmonica has been the instrument that almost anyone could afford and carry around with them.

There has probably been more experimentation by players with harmonicas than many other instruments, and the harmonica has been made to play in ways it was never originally designed to do.

For instance, the harmonica’s design allows for a limited number of notes, a diatonic (eight-note) scale in a repeated pattern over three octaves. Each harmonica represents one of the 12 major scales of Western music. So a diatonic harmonica will be in the key of C or G or D and so on. To play in all 12 major scales, you theoretically need 12 harps. The set-up allows the player to play a couple of chords on the low end and melodies in the mid-range and high end.

Largely by accident and through experimentation, players discovered how to find a lot more notes through specialized embouchure (the way the players holds his mouth and uses his breath).

These other notes were not part of the original design but a lucky accident allowed by the design. In harmonica parlance, this technique is known as note bending and gives the blues harmonica its special sound. It is the mastery of bending that can give a harmonica player a unique voice.

To me, playing well means understanding musical structure, playing lead when called upon and playing backup or rhythm parts to support the whole. Incidentally, unless you are fronting the band, you will be playing rhythm much more than soloing or playing leads.

Playing well is more than having good chops, it’s knowing your way around certain musical forms and communicating with other members of the band. How cool is that riff the bass player is laying down, that brushstroke on the cymbal the drummer is doing to complement the bass line, the understated chord progression the organ is adding? Then, there is the little punch the horn is throwing in on the upbeat. I often ask myself, “Is there anything I can add to this or should I just lay out because it doesn’t need anything else right now?” Even in a rehearsed piece, there will likely be improvised solos or sections; that’s part of the fun.

Speaking of fun, I currently play in the group Inya Eeya, an ensemble using electric cello, clarinet, flute, sax, keyboard, harmonicas and percussion. We play a variety of original material using blues, folk, classical and jazz influences. Sometimes a listener may want to dance, sometimes meditate, but there is always a soundscape of rhythm and tone. One listener characterized Inya Eeya as a small wagonload of rhythmic, melancholic, wandering geniis who love to play “Tropicana” and dance to blues while looking for places to land.

To land a band booking or for local harmonica instruction, call me at (530) 477-8963, or e-mail artframeshop@gmail.com.


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