Harmony

It always interest me when harmonica enthusiasts talk about a player’s “technique.” Let’s face it, the general music listener doesn’t care about technique. All he/she cares about is what they hear. Either they like it or they don’t.

Most people play the harmonica as a solo instrument. They don’t accompany it with a guitar, piano or whatever. When they play the harp, solo style, they almost always cup their hands around it because that is the accepted way, as taught by harmonica “experts.” We almost never see their mouths, which also means we can’t see their “technique.” With the hands as a blocking force, we don’t see how they move up and down the scale. We don’t see how they inflate their cheeks at certain times. We miss them either “pursing their lips” or “tongue blocking.” No we can’t see “tongue blocking” but we can imagine that it’s being done if we don’t detect “lip pursing.” There’s a lot we can learn by watching the harp player putting his “technique” on display for us all to see.

Even when the harmonica is played as a solo instrument, it can be left open to view. It will have to be held in a different way, obviously, in violation of prescribed methods. However we hold it, it has to feel natural to us. That’s the only way we can truly create our own “technique.”

When the harp is played with the guitar or piano, then “technique” is on full exhibition. That’s how I prefer to watch harmonica players, great and small. There are many great harp players, past and present. Sadly, far too many sound just like each other. What goes into their playing, sounds like what comes out of it. Some stands out, but most doesn’t. It’s “cookie cutter music”, if it’s music at all.

Music has to be “unique” in order to be long lasting. Whether we play just for family and friends or in front of large crowds, we, as players, have to create our own ''mechanics." This, I believe, is the first step in a long journey to create actual music. We, as players, shouldn’t be trying to impress our listeners with our “technique.” We should be trying to produce “music” and we can’t do that unless we have our own individual style that’s true to us. Whenever someone hears our song and it touches them, they are honoring our special “technique.” Without it, we would have no song, no music. If each of us just wrote one song in our lives, a song which our family and friends would still play and sing fifty years after we were gone, how neat would that be? It would be a testament to our love for this little instrument called the harmonica. It would be true “harmony”, indeed!

I definitely agree with what you’re saying. I feel like we all focus too much on gear and technique that our playing might become soulless if we all imitated just one player who was considered to be the greatest of them all. I’m sorta guilty myself since my playing style is virtually a bad imitation of a harmonica player who became my biggest influence on the instrument. However, how the riffs are played can really show off how capable the player is. Many of the players I like have an emotionally driven sound in their tone which make it sound like the harp is crying, angry, or in emotional pain. Emotion is just as important as technique, but it feels like it’s slowly being forgotten.

You put that very well and very accurate! “Emotion is just as important as technique”, and maybe more. All music is about emotion. That’s how the player connects with his/her audience. It’s hard for any of us to not imitate our favorite harmonica player. I think we all do it. But, as we progress and develop our own technique and, more importantly, become confident in our mechanics (technique), we drift away from our mentors and find our own musical soul.

I appreciate your reply! You made some very true and thoughtful observations about our beloved harmonica and how it’s played. Take care!

I meant to ask you. Which harmonica player do you imitate? Have you been playing long? Don’t worry about not being as good as he/she is. They’re better at being themselves than we are. Have a good day!

I’ve been playing for over a year at this point (it will be two years by the end of December). Even though I never grew up with blues, Terry McMillan was the closest I ever got to blues harp before I started listening to blues. There was this soulful, yet aggressive sound he had that I’ve never heard any harp player, let alone in country music, capture the energy and expressiveness of his playing except for maybe Todd Parrott and Adam McMillan, his son. Terry was the first good harmonica player I ever listened to and his playing influenced me from the phrasing of my fills to the heavy use of the blues/mixolydian scales to even his signature growl. I honestly don’t think there was any other harp player that influenced me so much other than him.

I’ve heard of Terry McMillan but don’t know much about him. You were into country music before you got turned on to the “Blues?” December will be here soon, so you’re approaching your second anniversary. Do you read music? I wish I could, at least, some. Musical theory is very complex. Parts of it aren’t too hard, but, most of it is.

You’re a serious player. Time is on your side. Do you play other instruments? Using McMillan as your guide sounds like a good plan. At some point, you’ll begin to branch off into your singular style which no one else can duplicate. The harmonica is a small, seemingly simple instrument, but it’s complex enough to accommodate many types of music and, more importantly, an infinite number of unique performances by those who play it.

Have a good day! I enjoy your conversations! Thank you for your time!

I did listen to country and rock for a very long time, in fact I still do. The blues didn’t come in until I was in high school. I used to sing in choirs and I’m trying to get back into singing. I really don’t play any other instruments but I’m listening to so many of them all the time, especially with electric guitar and jazz instruments like the saxophone and trombone. I’ve been trying to mix these sounds into my harp playing as well as keeping my country roots in tact.