Sunday, August 21, 2005

Playing Harp

I played country and blues harmonica at Dirty Jack’s Theater in the summers of 1976 and 1979. Not much has changed: I still play harp, but it is mostly blues music now. As I was reading through this blog I realized that I hadn’t written anything about the harp and what it is like to play.

The harmonica is just about the only instrument that is played by inhaling. All the cool notes on a harp are draw notes because you can bend – or slightly flatten – them to create a bluesy tone. But the sound of the bend is only half of it. The feeling of bending a note just right is awesome.

To get good tone on a harp you must draw air from your diaphragm, not suck it in with your mouth and throat like drinking through a straw. The killer tone comes from allowing the column of air extending from your lungs, throat, mouth and nasal cavity to vibrate and resonate as you inhale air across the reed. The feeling of hitting a good growling tone is indescribable. Your guts become part of the music.

My philosophy on playing harp is, “Less is more.” Most harp players play way too much, giving me a headache when I hear it. Let’s face it, harp is kind of limited in range and scope, and the metal reeds can be brassy and irritating. But harp is beautiful when tastefully played as a side instrument.

Sure, some guys could play harp as a lead instrument, but both of them were named Walter and lived in Chicago in the 50s. Most good harp players have about 5 good licks they can hit. After that, it’s repetition, baby. Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton could play long leads, but most harp players I hear today just substitute toots for tone. John Popper of Blues Traveler comes to mind…

I was first influenced on harp by country players like Don Brooks who masterfully backed up Waylon Jennings’ vocal melodies, particularly on his “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “This Time” albums. (Those recordings have been remastered for CD and are available at Amazon and elsewhere.) His phrases are lovely, simple, and restrained. He knew how to make the instrument sing a simple, beautiful song.

Playing in live performances is exhilarating. It was cool to hear my harp give the show “Paint Your Wagon” a bluesy, country tang at Dirty Jack’s Theater back in 1976. Nothing quite sounds as “country” as harp and pedal steel guitar. The same is true now when I play blues, adding a tone to the music that just can’t be found in any other instrument. And in all the other bands I was in, from rock to bluegrass to country to various blues flavors, the real pleasure was always watching the crowd get into our music and seeing them enjoy themselves.