Before we start, I feel I should just let you know straight away that this bit doesn’t really contain much in the way of a tutorial. It’s more a brief story on how I first learnt how to play the harmonica.
When I was young I took up the piano, I really wanted to learn the saxophone or trumpet (something portable at least), but circumstances dictated otherwise. I learnt the piano for about nine years (getting to grade 5 along the way) but I never really got the hang of reading music, or most other aspects of playing for that matter.
I suppose my lack of ability came down to several factors:
- I hadn’t been taught some of the fundamentals of musical theory when I first started;
- I never learned to play any music I actually enjoyed listening too (except “The Entertainer” which, to this day, is the only song I can still remember how to play);
- I just wasn’t motivated.
Ultimately, I just learned the music parrot-fashion, not really improving my technique or talent. After my grade 5 exam I decided that it wasn’t worth continuing in any serious manner. The parental pressure element was gone by this point; I just accepted the fact that perhaps I wasn’t musically minded.
When I was 14 years old, I noticed an item in one of those bizarre home-sale catalogues. I’m sure you know the ones I’m talking about: they sell practically everything from video cleaners to new innovations surgical stocking technology. Anyway, the said thing of interest was a harmonica starter kit and it promised to have you playing like a pro within three weeks. It wasn’t cheap (£20), but for that you got a little C-harmonica, a teach-yourself book, a cassette, and free delivery. So I figured “why not?” and sent off for it. It arrived a week later and I sat down with my new toy.
After a few days I was beginning to get the hang of it. I still found the note bending difficult, but it was a relatively basic harmonica so it was bound to be tough. After two weeks I had finished the book. After that I had no idea what to do next: I couldn’t afford another teach-yourself book, and definitely couldn’t afford lessons. Furthermore, there was nobody around to teach me. In the end I just put the harmonica back in its box and left in on my shelf (occasionally taking it down to have a jam with the cassette when the house was empty).
In 1998 I somehow managed to get myself a place at university, which also included a small amount of student-survival cash. One day, when I was getting to know the local area, I happened across a huge music store, like nothing I had ever seen before. It was packed to the rafters with a plethora of books and instruments, including a beautiful display of harmonicas: satin coated, gold plated, stainless steel numbers. What can I say? It was stunning. The only thing that sank me was the prices: a half-decent harmonica would have set me back at least £18, and then I would need to justify it to myself by learning how to play much better than I already could.
There were stacks of shelves completely racked with books, and even a comparatively small (but substantial) stack of harmonica books. After skimming through them for just over half-an-hour I found a pair of booklets which were to become the most important buys of my musical life: they were by a chap called David Harp and they were: “Blues & Rock Harp Positions Made Easy” (ISBN: 0918321832) and “Bending The Blues” (ISBN: 0918321115). Together they explained the principles of harmonica positions and note bending, which are the two aspects I had never really understood before, and the best part was they were only £5 each.
David Harp is a genius when it comes to explaining complex musical theory: he described things in such a way that it all just fell into place in my head. I’m not saying that it will necessarily be the same for everyone who reads them, but it worked best for me and it could certainly work for others. After that I was playing in keys I never imagined: harping Country and Western, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Folk music, even Spanish ballads! I could now play like the guys on Blues CDs and even join in with the music if I wanted to.
As I began to learn more about general technique and performance, I discovered another auther David Barrett: he is also a genius and there is virtually nothing he doesn’t know about harmonica technique. His books provided a more theoretical approach to learning; something I was now able to do, now that I had cracked the basics. With his books I was able to learn how to implement my newly acquired musical knowledge into practical performance.
I owe so much to these two men for the way that they helped me learn how to play the harmonica. The rare factor that makes them stand out from the plethora of musical authors on the market today, is that they genuinely care about helping their students to learn how to play properly, rather than just squeezing a few simple songs between two cover sheets and expecting that to be enough.
I should also give a special mention to Mr. Lee Oskar, a professional harmonica player who just got so sick of the way that harmoncia manufacturers come up with several million different models (but never seem to produce a single model that provides an all-round, high quality sound and is comfortable to play) that he designed and manufactured his own. These are high quality harmonicas, that come in just one model (so there’s no confusion over which one to buy), which sound great and play like a dream. Not only that, but they are all modular, meaning that you can replace individual parts without having to buy a brand new harmonica every time something breaks. Such a simple idea really: take all the qualities needed for a terrific harmonica and put them all into one model. It makes you wonder why nobody did it before?
Perhaps my happiest day came when I discovered The Boat Race pub just outside the Cambridge city centre (sadly no longer active as a live music venue). They had a free Blues jam every Sunday (joy of joys!), and it was here that I first performed in public, which (let’s face it) is a heck of a step for anyone to take. I finally knew I was doing something right the day someone offered to buy me a beer if I would get up on stage and play.
So that’s the long and the short of how I came to learn how to play the harmonica. Not exactly meeting the Devil at the Crossroads, but then we can’t all be Robert Johnson.