Why Blues Harmonica?
Playing blues harmonica is one of the high points of my life. I am not very good
and I don’t get to play much, but I really love what I do, even when I stink at
it. There is something very special about the harmonica that makes it the perfect
instrument for me.
- The harmonica is the instrument whose sound is closest to
the sound of the human voice. Because the harp is only ten tiny brass reeds
with very little sound of their own, the characteristic cry of the blues harp
comes from the resonant characteristics of the human respiratory system. You
sound good for the same reason that an opera singer (or any good singer) sounds
good. Singers learn to control the tone of their singing voice by shaping their
mouth and larynx to accommodate the mood of the song.
- The harmonica is the only instrument that breath through.
You not only blow on the harp, but you draw air back through it. This offers
an advantage over instruments that can only by blown.
- The harmonica can play chords. Most reed and brass instruments
can only play a single note at a time. The harp can play full chords and intervals.
- The harmonica can play 'bent' notes. The harp not only plays
sharps and flats by bending, but all the notes in between. The harmonica can
howl and wail and waver in a way that other instruments cannot.
- Harmonica playing is by feel. You can’t see what notes you
are playing like you can on other instruments. The harp is in your mouth. You
cannot tell if you are on the wrong note until you play it. You cannot play
the right bent note until you can hear that it is bent correctly. You feel your
way around the harp with your ears. In this way harp playing is more akin to
singing than any other instruments. This is one of the reasons that harp playing
is so expressive.
- The harmonica is very easy to play. You need to practice,
of course, but anyone can learn to play some basic blues riffs and sound decent
with a couple of months of really trying. Remember, though, that the harp is
one of the hardest instruments to stand out at. There are many OK harp players
but only a few good harp players.
- You don’t need to know how to read music. The harp is a non-intellectual
experience. I once attended a class where the teacher wanted us to play the
"'D" hole. He might as well as said the red hole. I can’t see what
hole I’m playing. I am not usually sure of the number of the hole that I’m
playing. I play by the sound of the hole. If the teacher had said play the
hole that sounds like this and then played the note, I would have got it right
away. This is not to say that a little musical background doesn’t help.
- Harmonica is a "color" instrument. Although harmonicas can
play rhythm and backup for a blues song, the only reason that you include
the harp is for color. The harp adds character and interest to a song by providing
fills and transitions between bars. The blues call and response is particularly
appropriate for harp. Even without solos the blues harp provides character
and depth to any blues song.
- Harp players are "bad boys". The harp is not like the guitar that
requires years of training and practice. Harp players are not even musicians
in the sense that a piano player is a musician. We get up and do our little
act and make the band look good, but even though we sound good, we are doing
what we do by sheer force of personality rather than great skill. We have
more in common with Mick Jagger than Itzhak Perlman. (Although Itzhak does
- And last but not least. Playing the harp is cheap. $10-15 a harp, buy a
new one every couple of months, throw them out when they sound bad. Carry
you whole gig set in a shoebox. No heavy stuff to cart around. Play wherever
you like. The harp is my kind of instrument!