Harmonicas are Underrated
I blame Bob Dylan for more than I probably should. It’s not entirely his fault that a generation of singers grew up thinking that having a crappy vocal tone was okay (although if we’re being honest he played a pretty large role on that front). But the one thing I will never forgive him for is his travesty of harmonica playing which forever tainted the way most people think about the instrument. In case you need a refresher of what I’m talking about, here you go:
His playing is the equivalent of walking up to a piano and smashing as many keys as you can at once. Sure there will be a good sound or two in there, but for the most part it’s a complete fucking mess.
Eight years later Neil Young would continue this trend of garbage playing in this gem:
Is it better? Sure. But that’s like saying getting kicked in the shin is better than having a finger jammed into your eye. Either way it’s still a pretty sucky experience.
And as long as we’re on the topic of shitty harmonica playing, we can’t forget about Billy Joel’s contribution in Piano Man.
What do all of these performances have in common? Just look at the necks.
Here’s a tip for all of you aspiring musicians out there — if you want to play an instrument well, don’t try to play two at the same time.
Harmonicas are beautifully simple instruments, but they deserve an artist’s full attention. Relegating them to be a filler sound to a guitar or piano is completely unacceptable. Their harsh tone is fantastic for cutting through a mix, and when in the hands of an expert are capable of creating a similar expressive range of sounds as a human voice.
The cool part about harmonicas, or blues harps as most players call them, is they’re pretty easy to learn and almost impossible to master. It only takes about 10 hours of playing for most people to sound somewhat decent, but getting a full, rich tone out of the instrument can take a lifetime. Which is why there are so many crappy harp players. Lately though, even that trend is dying. I couldn’t tell you the last song I heard in the mainstream with a harmonica in it (actually I can but I’m pretending Pitbull doesn’t exist). So I say enough is enough, it’s time for the harmonica to make a comeback. But not as a shrill, screeching wail emanating from some douchebag’s neck brace. No if the harmonica is going to return, it needs to come back in the right way.
For the record there are actually two different types of harmonicas. I’m going to be talking about diatonic harmonicas. These are more common, and are the kind most people think about when they hear “harmonica” (it’s also the kind that I happen to play — this article is biased, there’s a real shocker). The other type is chromatic, but these are both more difficult to learn (for the most part) and have a different sound to them. If you want some examples of that type of harmonica you can find them in Stevie Wonder songs like “Isn’t She Lovely”.
So for those of you who are interested in joining me on this harmonica resurgence, here are some examples of how to actually play a blues harp.
Starting out with the classics, James Cotton owns this song. Not to take anything away from Muddy Waters, but the tone Cotton is getting out of his instrument is unreal, and is surprisingly difficult to replicate (believe me, I’ve tried and failed miserably at it). Not only is his solo outstanding, but he’s helping to hold down the rhythm for the rest of the song, something that I wish more harp players would do.
You should be listening to more Little Walter. He’s the only person specifically inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a harmonica player. I don’t care if you like blues or not, he’s earned a little of your time.
The harp solo starts at 1:33. With this song The Romantics proved that a good harmonica solo doesn’t need to even have clean single notes. If you went out and bought a $10 harp today, you could play this solo by the end of the week — which is why I will never cut Bob Dylan any slack for his abuse of the instrument.
Delbert McClinton was a big influence on my harmonica playing. Hell, the man taught John Lennon how to play the blues harp (although Lennon’s playing can be a little iffy at times, overall it’s not bad). I had to opportunity to see Delbert play live a few years ago, and I really wish I hadn’t as the man has lost a lot of his edge. But at his prime, damn could he play.
Yeah, John Popper is kind of a tool who tends to be more concerned with playing as many high notes as possible just to prove how good of a player he is, but I can’t deny he’s unbelievably talented. It’s just a matter of finding the songs where she shows some restraint, otherwise I just get the feeling that I’m listening to him musically masturbate. He’s definitely having a good time, but I feel kind of awkward being in the same room as it.
As far as I’m concerned Jason Ricci is the pinnacle of modern harmonica. I don’t think I can explain how difficult what he’s doing here actually is, but unlike John Popper the difficulty is all in service of putting on a truly phenomenal performance. Plus if you decide you want to learn to play harmonica his youtube channel has a tone of free lessons that are surprisingly helpful coming from someone with so much raw talent. I have no idea how many times I’ve watched this video (I watched it three times while writing this article alone), but every viewing brings with it the same sense of crushing disappointment knowing that I’ll never be this good, as well as the inspiration to try pushing the sound I can get out of my own harps a little bit further. Because god damn does he make the instrument sound good.
I encourage any of you who are interested in learning an instrument to go out and get a harmonica. Not only does a decent one only cost less than $30, but it’s almost impossible to hit a wrong note while you’re playing it because of the way the instrument is designed. All I ask in return is that if you plan on sticking with it, take the time to learn how to play it properly, and never buy a neck brace.