|You want to be a Harmonicist?
Transcribed from a conversation with Willy B., Jazz and Blues Harmonica Busker
I've been breakin' harps since I stole Pop's harmonica around the age of six
and pried open that little nail thing on there. Just like my Pops did with
his Pop's and probably way back to whenever they invented the things.
These days they have screws on there and it makes it a little harder but I
imagine that when I find someone weird enough to have them with me, our little
bioclones will break a few harps too.
I was on a gig once and this friend of a friend asked me how to play a Harmonica.
I hadn't though about how to play a harmonica in a long time and it occurred to
me that there was a lot more to it than just playin' it. There's a whole
culture of harmonica:
Why a harmonica?
Why not? If you don't look at that that shiny little metal thing that fits
perfectly in your hand and get the feeling that you NEED one, then I don't know
what to tell you. It's like a Zippo lighter. When you see one, you
know you need to have one. And then, when you blow on it, that little
thing packs a punch! It creates a variety of unique, signature sounds and
it fits right there in your pocket. You can play it in the car (but not
while you're drivin' unless you might want to get you one of those hands free
sets heh heh) and you can play it in the line at the DMV. If you're good
enough you can even "sit in" with some "cats" and blow all night long; but,
we'll get to that in a minute...
The best way to learn harmonica is to keep it in your mouth. Contrary to
popular belief you can actually breathe in and out through a harmonica so you
ain't in no danger of suffocatin'. You can't play the little bastard by
looking at it, although, they sure are pretty to look at and feel.
Especially that Hohner Trumpet call with the five little horns stickin up in the
air like some sorta cartoon pipe organ. Jan Kingdom gave me one of those
things on my Birthday and I love that little bastard. Anyway, you gotta
keep blowin on that thing. Start with really basic stuff like "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and then
"Row, Row, Row your boat" and then "The Marine's Hymn" and maybe some Christmas songs.
At first you gonna play about seventy notes at the same time until you learn to
get your mouth a little smaller and play just one or two notes. One of the
most important things to figure out is to get a single note
while putting the harp as far into your mouth as possible. I know this sounds
really ridiculous and maybe even painful; but, you'll get it. Or you won't
get any good at developing the tone. Anyone can play a riff, you got to
get your tone right, but not yet, first you got to play it.
The songs you try to learn should be ones that you are really familiar and
simple. Just to let you know, many songs and jazz tunes with
bridges that switch key are going to be impossible for you to do at first
because harmonicas are set in a particular key. We'll get to music theory
next week but for now just blow on that thing and blow it proudly. Don't "overblow"
it though. If it jangles a little bit while you're playing it, you're
overblowing. That can be a cool effect but for now, just give it a
comfortable exhale and inhale (Harps play different notes in different
directions in case you didn't already figure that out) I know it's
embarrassing for some 320 pound guy to be walkin' down the alley, tweeting Mary Had A Little Lamb
but just think of the figure you'll cut from the window. Maybe you should
learn the "Alfred Hitchcock Theme" if you really want to establish a presence.
You have to play simple tunes for a while until you instinctively know where to play a note just like you know
how to whistle a note. Take that little piece of paper that came with the
harmonica, the one with a couple of songs on it and once you read it one time, throw that
bastard in the trash
as soon as possible. You've got to learn to learn with your ears. Listen
to things around you. Listen to other harp players but understand that
it's going to take a minute or two. Learn to mimic other sounds.
I'll tell you a story about that:
Back when I was in the Corps, I had this roommate and he had an alarm clock
that played a perfect 7 Draw on my C harp. Back when I was a little kid, I
used to stay out all night drinkin' and tryin' to get phone numbers off of
strippers and stuff at the Anchor in Millington Tennessee. When that
didn't work, I'd roll in at something like 3 and usually I'd been walking for a
couple miles, playin' my harp to the rhythm of my stride. I'd jump in the
rack and pull out my harp and play that alarm clock sound until my roommate
swatted his clock and then I'd stop for a minute; you know, let him get back to
breathin' all regular and then I'd do it again. I would keep doing that
until I fell asleep. Years later I ran into that cat and he was sayin,
"You remember that messed up alarm clock I had?" heh heh don't you go
tellin him what I told you 'cause he was one big Marine bastard...
Once you get a little more acquainted to the blows and draws, I'll
teach you some mouth voodoo like how to bend a note but for now we'll just talk
about some other stuff:. Some famous riffs you can learn in the meantime are in
the songs "Piano Man" and "Heart
of Gold" and "Love Me Do" and "What I like About You". Don't even mess with John
Popper (Blues Traveler) He'll mess you up good and then you gonna have to
start playin' the clarinet or somethin'
Which harp should I get?
Buy a good quality Harp, my favorite is the Hohner
Special 20 (pronounce ho'-ner like "loaner" which by the way nobody does with
harmonicas. You can't blow another cat's harp, it just ain't dignified and
if you have to balls to ask man to play his harp, I suggest you dip it in a
glass of vodka both before and after you play it). Marine Band, Blues Harps and
basically any Hohner is cool but some got a wood comb that can get all warped up
and stuff if you go around dippin it in your beverage or standin' out in the
rain buskin for tips. Hohner Blues harp is good but personally they are too
fat for my mouth. The Lee Oscar is a nice harp; but they fat too and I like 'em
skinny. You can dig 'em fat, it's cool man, but I dig 'em skinny. There are other
harps of good quality like Suzuki et al. but I just happen to like the Special 20 and it tends to
be cheaper which I'll never understand 'cause it's a better harp
than most. I've tried them all don't much dig that Hohner Pro
Harp because it's painted black and it sticks to my lips when I get going on a crazy
riff. Some cats dig that though. You got to figure out what YOU like. When
was growin' up, babies were dying
from chewing on leaded paint chips they found in the windowsill, so it just gives me
a bad vibe. Hohners are made in Germany so you don't have to worry about
lead paint. Don't be gettin' those Chinese ones though! They ain't
got no regulations over there!
What Key? What the hell is a "key" anyway?
( note from the interviewer: Skip this part:)
Well, you should start with a C probably. Keys is kinda complicated if you
ain't never had a music lesson but really it's simple. There are 12 progressive
notes in the Western Scale; think "DO RE MI FA SO LA TI DO" this is is what they
call the "Major Scale" in the music schools. There are notes in between
the DO and the RE and between RE and MI etc... This isn't exactly correct
but you can think of it this way: A chromatic Harp has a little clicker on
the side to capture these "half" notes and a Diatonic doesn't have those notes
unless you bend it with some mouth voodoo. Sometimes these middle notes
work and sometimes they don't. This is music theory and we don't want to
get too far into that. Suffice to say, whatever note you start the "DO" on
is the "Key" of the song. If you are singing the DoReMi song and Do is C
than the song is in the key of C. That's simple isn't it? Whatever
the "DO" is. But sometimes there's a Minor Scale and there's a flat built
in there but worry about that later. All songs are in one key or another
and the most common kind of harmonica is "Set" in the notes according to that
"Scale." This is called a "Diatonic Harmonica" and now I'm done with that
whole subject of European Voodoo. Eventually you will get a harp in every key (That's 12) and if you
get really sassy you'll pick up a chromatic with a little clicker thing on the
side which is completely different than that one you're holding there. If
you have one of those at home, put it away for a second and then go get you a
Special 20 from the store. Don't worry about that one with the clicker
yet, we'll go over that one later. It's not important, really, stop
looking at me like that Kid, you botherin' me.
Read this part:
Get a C harp and then later get an F then an then an A. After you stop
playing with guitar players and you get to jammin' with Jazz guys, get a Bb and
Ab maybe an Eb By then you know what you're doing and you won't need my
I just realized you might not understand some of this stuff I'm talkin' about
in regards to my vocabulary, well, if you want to be hip and "sit in" you got to
know some things. (note from interviewer: For more vocabulary check out
this blog right here:
Yeah, well, vocabulary in the blues world is just like anything else, half the
stuff is made up on the spot and you might not really know what someone is
talkin' about. This is pretty common though cause most of the time those
cat's don't even know what they talkin' about themselves so don't pay it no mind;
however when I'm talkin' about harps there's some typical names you will hear out
Ten-Holed Tin-can Tongue Twister
Heh heh I just made that one up can
You can come up with your own, it's hip and it'll make you sound like you been
around a while.
You might have to start incorporating the vernacular into your regular speech
"Yo man, I'm gonna set and blow my harp a stretch." Or...
"Hey Butter-bars, get outta my way while I masticulate on this tin sandwich."
"Hey Skipper! C'mere and dig this riff I just cut on my Special 20! It's got the
eyes of a diamond and it rolls south like a delta bayou! Can you dig it?"
(Note from interviewer: The use of advanced vocabulary seems to be acceptable but only if you
mispronounce them or use them incorrectly in a genuine attempt to make them
sound more lyrical. IE "Masticulate" as opposed to "Masticate" This is essential
to fitting in with other blues players. Straight up, orotund speech will
get you nowhere unless it has a rhythm to it.)
At times you might like some accompaniment, "Hey Gunny, where's your Les
Paul? I need to Jam with
some backup. You got a 12 bar in F, I only brought my
If you've got a big pair, you might say, "Hey Sergeant, teach me some Cross Harp!"
Be careful when dealing with real musicians though, you may want to keep
quiet and listen for a while before you go blowin' up the jam with questions and
sloppy riffs. If you come at
them too strong without some chops to back it up, they'll probably
duct-tape you to a fence post and taunt you, "Hey college boy, can you teach me how to play Mary Had A
Little Lamb on that thing?" that's OK, it happens, ain't nothin' you
can do about it.
Everybody's got a natural proclivity to do one thing or the other; but, I'll
tell you this, one sure way to gain a musician's respect is by listening.
I guess that goes for everybody, not just musicians but you know what I'm sayin.
After you've listened to some good players a time or two you may get a feel for that distorted sound
and you may be tempted to invest in a genuine (pronounced gin-you-whine)
Harmonica Microphone. I recommend the Shure "Green Bullet" but everybody has
a different thing. I play straight through my regular Mic without any
kinds of effects or distortin but I spend a lotta years playin' around with
different amps and mics and stuff. The Mad Cat Shaker is cool but that one
takes a bit of tweakin to figure out. There are Astatics, Black Cats, Madcats, Silver bullets, Hohner (Which
is the same as the Astatic) and a host of condenser microphones which you will
eventually have to buy and try. As a first amplifier I recommend a Pignose but
you can go wild and pick up an old tube amp.
The Pignose is a hell of a lot easier to carry around, it's about the size of a
football; it looks kind of like a square football and you can run it on six AA
batteries if necessary. This is great for busking (aka: playin' in the
street for dolla bills)
There are a few techniques you'll have to learn such as cross harp and
tonguing; and, although they sound a little questionable they're really quite
simple and for the most part, non-sexual endeavors.
It will take you a couple of months until you instinctively know where the
notes are. A great place and time to learn this is while deployed somewhere
REALLY BORING. In the Corps you got a lot of time to sit and play as long as you
ain't botherin' the Gunny. I learned most of my melancholy riffs walking
home from strip clubs and sitting on 24 hour firewatch duties, empty desert
CALAs waiting for planes to land and off the coast of Iraq and
Bosnia on the Theodore Roosevelt. The intense
swings from fearful excitement to intense boredom are a great time to learn the
Fear of death and imminent danger are great teachers of blues and soul.
Dead friends, broken hearts, lack of financials and imminent death are great
subjects to think about when you're trying to bend a note. Blues ain't
just about sadness though. Lotsa Blues is about gettin' happy and gettin'
laid and gettin' drunk and generally whoopin' it up so don't get all strung out
and hang yourself before you even figure out that you can get four different
notes out of a hole 4 draw.
Once you've developed an ego pertaining to your harp playing, then, you should listen to
Blackfoot's "Train Train" and some John Popper. They are really flashy and fast
and are a great way to establish a reference for your own mortality. They are pretty damn incredible
players, not to mention contemporary, which is always a
plus in case you'd like to meet them. "Alive" is probably the next best thing to
"contemporary." Dead, makes it really difficult for them to mentor you but
sometimes you can pull this off if you happen to run into a particularly gifted
Louisiana shaman with a "yen" for blues musicians. This practice falls under the
category of Voodoo.
Speaking of Voodoo, which probably deserves its own
chapter in anything concerning blues, you should note that there are a few terms
for it as well and should you be listening to a blues performance and hear the
word "Mojo," be aware that they are talking of the same thing. See also: "Wanga"
Dolls, Jinx, Hex, "Santa Ria" or "Santeria"
I wear a suit. It serves a lot of purposes. It's easier to get
around authority if you look professional. People are used to seeing
certain things and wearing a suit gives you some authority and legitimacy both
on stage and off. Besides the fact that it's cool to look clean and tight,
you can easily get mistaken for a security guard and they might even feed you.
You should get your kit together and get a hat too. Security guys don't
wear hats so you gotta know when to take it off. Blues guys wear hats.
I wear a Stetson Saxon but you can get some cheap hats to start out at any hat
shop. If you're a blues kinda guy you probably already wear a hat.
Stick with it, it's probably the right thing for you. Sunglasses are cool
if you're trying to hide your bloodshot eyes or the fact that you can't keep
your eyes of the owner's wife. Remember that owners open clubs because
they can't play music and they will be naturally jealous of your talent so you
better not keep staring at his hot wife. He ain't smart enough to figure
out that he has a hot wife and you're eatin' crackers for dinner so get some
sunglasses if you haven't learned to use your peripherals yet. It will
save you some trouble; besides this allows you to demonstrate the dramatic
effect of showing your eyes at certain key moments like Jake Blues does in the
movie when Carrie Fisher is about to shoot him and Elwood with an M16A1.
When wearing a suit and sunglasses you have to try your best not to look like
Jake and Elwood because you will lose cool points for being "Cliché" Blues
guys aren't allowed to be cliché. Polish your shoes for crissake!
You look like a slob out there. For five bucks some lady will hem your
pants and your sleeves! Tweed is for college professors and convention
tourists from Boise. For ten bucks you can go to Marshalls and get a clean
shirt! You can get a briefcase in the Salvation Army for $1.95 Get
your "Kit" together!
After you've mastered that and you think you are a bad ass again, then we
have you listen to the Harmonicats and Jean Toots Thielemans. Maybe I'll even introduce you to one who's
about 90 years old who rips on a Chromatic
harmonica which we haven’t even discussed yet.
I was readin' this book once and I discovered that
Socrates was a Blues musician: If you can wrap your head around the fact that
you are a really good player and yet you still stink, then you may
be experiencing humility. It's tricky though cause if you ain't really
good at playing but you think you are and yet you think you also stink, you
ain't humble you're just oblivious and tryin' to be modest and then you probably
walkin' all over the cats you play with and you should probably spend more time
at your day job for the benefit of all peoples concerned. Anyway, if you
think you might be ready to meet the Buddha of the harmonica world, then, pick
Little Walter. You got to be really good at listening before you get what he's doing; however, I
gotta warn you that this can, in some rare
cases, bring on severe metanoia. You'll find yourself getting out of the Marine Corps,
putting on an old black suit & Hat and walking across the country for a year,
just sitting in for scraps and wondering if you'll ever be able to lead into a 2
note, bent, wiggle wail like L'il Walter on "My Babe."
Voodoo Revisited: (note from the interviewer)
Should you choose to dedicate your existence to blues or Jazz music, you may
consider going to Louisiana and getting yourself some "Mojo" which can be
applied to the hand, mouth, tongue, fingers, eyes, nose, ears, genitalia or
maybe a combination of these to give you special mystical powers in the field of
your choosing. For economically disadvantaged Jazz and Blues Musicians (i.e.all
of them) , this usually involves
making a rather restrictive and exclusive contract with one of the major
representatives of the spiritual underworld and isn’t recommended for the
average whitey. Your local musician's union will most likely not be able to
get you out of this contract no matter how unfair it may seem. The
American Federation of Musicians has had some luck in this endeavor; however,
Lucifer still hasn’t joined the AFM or AFTRA at the time of this printing and
isn’t expected to in this millennia. For further information, please send
all inquiries to the crossroads. For those of you with a more proactive bent,
you can go down to the crossroads in person and wait until a representative from
the spiritual underworld arrives to offer you assistance with your Mojo
transaction. The exact location of the crossroads is unknown; however,
popular local opinion asserts that if you look long and hard enough, you'll find
Before you drop everything and go get some mojo, you gonna to have to get yourself
a real blues name. Somebody's should actually give it to you but you may be able to negotiate a particularly excellent Blues Name in
your "Mojo Transaction." I think it's much better to have one before you get to
the crossroads. Kinda like havin' a down payment before you go to the
dealer. If you can't think of nothin' good try this: use the name of your first
pet and your mother's maiden name, mine works out to be "Midnight Patrone" and I still use it from time to time but my real blues name is
"Willy B". You'll
get handed a nickname sooner or later, especially with a name like Lieutenant Mike
McCoy, and then they'll be calling you Mac Light or Big Mac or Mickey Mac or Coy
Mickey or something like that. You've got to be careful though, because the
wrong moniker can ruin a Blues career quicker than a winning lottery ticket.
That's why nobody ever heard of Candy Ass Charles and the Minuettes. On the
other hand, the right name can launch a blues career faster than a anti
gay-marriage stance at the Miss USA pageant. Maybe I'll run into you in a few
years in some truck stop and we'll be shuffling between semis looking for the
late-night red light with a slice of apple pie ala mode and
in between bites you'll glare at me and say, "You bastard. It's all your fault.
If it weren't for you, I'd have stuck with the clarinet."
then again, maybe you won't need the Mojo Transaction and you'll be living
large in the lap of luxury...
Either way, each song you learn is like taking a baby step, and it all starts
with Mary Had A Little Lamb...
Here's where you can find some good prices for your harps. It's fine to go
buy a harp or two in the retail stores but it gets pretty damn expensive if you
start buying a whole set of harps so check this place out. It's been a while
since I actually had to pay for a harmonica but when I used to, this is where I
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