How to Become a Blues Harp Player

So what kind of animal is the blues harp player? In the first chapter of the Apprenticeship Series, guest blogger Elwood takes us through part 1 of his blues ethnography, Figuring Out The Harp Player.

For some, the journey to becoming a master takes them from the depths of frustration to the giddy heights of triumph via a thousand smoky jam sessions and hundreds of hours in the woodshed. Many of us, however, find the journey to becoming a master shorter and much easier: it goes all the way to the local music store and back – more often than not via the ugly hat shop.

There’s an old joke – or historical anecdote? – about a father who sends his son to harmonica lessons. The son comes home after the first lesson and his old man asks what he learned. The boy says, “I learned the two-hole draw, dad.” Mighty impressed is his old dad. The next week the boy comes back from his lesson and his dad asks the same thing. “Three-hole draw and a three-hole bend,” he says, and his dear old dad’s heart floods with joy. A week later, father and son bump into each other in the kitchen; he asks his boy how the lesson went. “Oh, I didn’t go this week,” says the boy. “Why not?” says the dad. “Well,” says the boy, “I got a gig.”

True story.

Now, you may think I’m accusing people of approaching the instrument with cocksure glibness. Fortunately, even if you never practise or take lessons, there is a quick and easy way of becoming a master player: buying more expensive equipment! Yes, friends, a growing number aspiring blues musicians with more money than patience are taking this route: frustrated accountants and regional sales managers who spend their weekends amassing the finest custom harps, bullet mics and retro amps that money can buy.

Good for them, I say. Never mind that it will still sound like an asthmatic duck being throttled to death. The point is that they tried, they really did.

Elwood is the guest blogger for The Harp Surgery’s Apprenticeship Series. In his spare time he’s a grad student in London. Find him on Twitter, if you like.

3 thoughts on “How to Become a Blues Harp Player

  • November 3, 2009 at 4:28 pm
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    Elwood, good to meet you at the NHL Bristol thingy, I said I would send you a response from a Regional Sales Manager, with more sense than money. I have learnt never to assume anything about anyone, or you could miss something important, I was going to buy Wilf a cup of coffee, but he was gone and back workshopping again, neverminds give your dad my best (see assumptions never good 😉 Anyway point taken about expensive equipment, I keep a set of Hering cheapies in my car (yes you will see me on a garage forecourt, head shakin and blues a wailin’ like ise waitin fer ole Nick himself to show me the way). But more importantly, there is a trend with manufacturers to start releasing more and more expensive gob irons, and that is not good for anyone. All the major companies except Lee Oskar, have done this….hmmmm band wagon coming through. My LOs are still playing great and fully rebuildable. I have some Suzuki ProMasters and HarpMasters that are both cheap and very playable, so why bring out the Manji and Pure Harp ranges that are way too expensive for most players. Hering have also taken this ‘Premium’ route with fancy toot! I want a harp that is playable from the box, kind to my lips, sweet on the ear and not going to cost me more than a bottle of Jack. Hohner have come in on the act with the CrossOver, yeah you think you want a Marine Band do you, well modern air tight, sealed comb….’loadsamoney’! I am grateful for manufacturers sorting out leaky un sealed wooden combs, but as yet no one has invented ‘the future harp’. Harrison Harmonicas, reckon they have but at $180 each, thats a lot of wonga for a harp, if thats the future of harmonica, I am not sure I want it. Perhaps to end on an optimistic note, to see and talk to the boys at Seydell was an eye opener, seeing things from the manufacturers point and why it is important to know what is happening inside your harmonica and how to set it up for your embouchure and playing style, which WILL effect how the harp plays ‘out of the box’. Interesting comment also about the polite letter they have to send out to say that the harp plays ok, but the player doesn’t. Good on you Seydell and Lee Oskar.

  • November 5, 2009 at 8:50 pm
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    Carl, thanks for your thoughts. (Personally I’ve had a lousy experience or two with LO, but let’s not start that debate.)

    Players are welcome to spend as much as they like on equipment – although I recommend limiting yourself to 20 % of your income. The main thing is equipment upgrades must never be used as a substitute for a serious and dedicated practice regime. I’ve been surprised at how many people make that mistake.

  • July 9, 2010 at 10:53 pm
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    you almost make it seem like we have a choice….we is what we is…. thats all we can be… and if you really think you got it all figured out then you need to ask god what his plains are…. fact is ….I’m a blues harp player because its the only thing in my life i could ever hold on too……couldn’t hold a job so i couldn’t hold a wife the only thing i ever held on to was this ol harp… the only thing I ever done right…so thank you lord for makin me so dam useless that all I can do is kiss the girls an play my harp….

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