Thin or full sound

Harmonica aficionados expect different things from harp players(including themselves, if they play). I like to simplify these differences into the “thin” sound or the " full" sound. Since most harmonica players are “solo” performers, they tend to produce the full sound. Part of the reason for this is because their hands are free and they cup the harp with their hands. Whereas, the thin player usually has a guitar or other instrument to play at the same time. It seems, also, that the full sound player uses more chords than notes. People struggle with playing notes, but then learn songs and go into the full sound mode(because it is recommended by the experts). They can’t understand why their version of someone else’s song sounds less inspiring than the original. Why learn notes if you’re not going to play them?

In my opinion, notes are what give the song its character. The chords merely re-emphasize the “heart of the song.” The notes are expressive. They tend to be more representative of our musical souls.

Without a doubt, Bob Dylan is the most famous and successful of the “thin players.” He has been called “the worst harmonica player ever”, many times, by the so-called experts. I’m not pushing Dylan on anyone or trying to compare him to your favorite player. Those contests are of little value. But, what can we learn from Mr. Dylan? I’m speaking here, strictly, learning about playing the harp. His body of work in songwriting is unmatchable. He’s an excellent guitar player, for which he almost never gets any recognition. I might add, that he and he alone, did more to save our beloved harmonica from musical extinction. That deed alone should make him an enduring hero to those of us who claim to love the harp!

His harmonica is very expressive, in large part, because of his emphasis on notes. When he goes into the chords, his harp music sounds like everyone else’s and his uniqueness suffers. However, we all know that it takes both chords and notes and other things, too, to make good harmonica music. So, he has to use chords sometimes. I think his reliance on notes and not being bound by someone else’s rules, are two of the lessons that we learn from him.

For those of you who don’t remember Bob Dylan’s voice from the “early days”, let me say this, his voice matched his harmonica. Both were raw, real and memorable. I would never say, let alone agree, that he was the “worst harmonica player ever!” He saved our beloved harp. I will forever thank him for it!

I was never really a fan of Bob Dylan to begin with since I never really liked folk music. However, the only song I like from him is “All Along the Watchtower”. It was simple, but his harp had a clean and sweet sound compared to his more “infamous” songs. It was clear that Dylan had great potential as a harp player and especially having decent enough influences, but as soon as he became more popular, his playing got a lot worse in my opinion. Instead of a sweet and gentle tone, his harp tone became extremely sloppy and unorganized. With that success, there came the millions of imitators that pushed the “popular song, bad harmonica” stereotype into the ground with songs like “Piano Man”, “Heart of Gold”, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” getting popular on mainstream radio while songs like “Karma Chameleon”, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)”, and any of the J. Geils Band’s song with harp got pushed to the side: it was all thanks to the success of Bob Dylan. Even though he had some positive impacts on the instrument, the negatives definitely outweight his wasted potential.

Interesting analysis. You have many who agree with you, in the harmonica community, about Mr. Dylan. As to the “popular song, bad harmonica” term, there could be “popular song, no harmonica.” That’s where we were headed before Dylan came along. Dylan can’t be blamed for “cheap imitations” by others. That’s on them .

By the early Sixties, the harmonica was a forgotten instrument. It was heard around the campfires on westerns/cowboy movies. There were the Blues players, but, let’s face it, they weren’t household names. Sadly, their music wasn’t in popular demand, not like Rock, anyway.

What are your thoughts on the “notes and chords” subject. What do you think each adds to the music and which do you concentrate on as you play?

Thank you for your inputs on this subject!