Harmonica Links: The Best And The Worst

Talk about the blind leading the blind! Elwood the Apprentice has a rant about amateur hour out there on the Internet

It’s not in the Harp Surgery’s nature to be negative. The reason for that is the Good Doctor: he’s a relentlessly positive guy who’s always looking for the best in people. It’s kind of rubbing off on me. We try to dole out the best advice possible to users, but when it comes to reviewing the goods and services in the rest of the harmonica world, we often go by the “Elwood’s Mom” Policy: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. If someone isn’t worth our time, we’re more likely to hold our tongue and look the other way than strip ’em naked and throw them into the flood lights, if you catch my meaning.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the best teachers who are using the web to broadcast their lessons. To whit: the recent emergence of a web-savvy harp enthusiast whose product invites you to “Learn Harmonica in 30 Days”. (See this MBH Forum discussion.)

It’s a great concept that’s been slickly produced, and he clearly knows how to tailor it for web… but he sounds like he’s only about a week ahead of his lessons, if you know what I’m saying. As an enthusiastic apprentice myself, I’m sympathetic. But when I watch Mr 30 Days’ videos, it’s never quite clear whether he’s sharing his own journey as a beginner player, or trying to push his lessons onto beginners who are still just a bit too wet behind the ears to know any better.

However, this isn’t a post to complain about our friend in the leather jacket. It’s about the general malaise of bad info out there. I subscribe to a Google Alert for harmonica related stuff, so I get sent a lot of links to questions posed on Yahoo! Answers by harmonica beginners. I never fail to be driven to an apoplectic rage by the wealth of ignorance in Yahoo! Answers, and most of the time answers seem to do more harm than good. When someone posts to ask what diatonic harmonica to get for her boyfriend, inevitably the first answer is something outlandish like, “Get a chromatic instead because diatonics break easily and are only meant for practice.”

You pretzel.

So how do you evaluate a harmonica teacher?
Unfortunately, beginners can’t always tell the difference between good harp and bad harp. That’s why so many of us were inspired to take up harmonica by Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey (yeah, I said it). There are tonnes of good teachers out there and you probably know where to find most of them. But in case you’d like to be doubly safe, these are guidelines to test a source’s credibility.

1) Start with the author
What tools do we have to evaluate an author’s credibility? Who is the author and what’s their background? Well, my posts fall under Harp Surgery’s “Apprenticeship Blog”, so that should tell you something about me. The Good Doctor’s biography says that he’s been playing for several decades and was at one point voted UK’s national harmonica champion, so it’d be fair if you valued his words more than mine. David Barrett, Joe Filisko, Adam Gussow and Jon Gindick all carry this kind of credibility proofing. Of course, there are some players who have had a harmonica for 30 years and are still finding their way through playing Jingle Bells, so that’s not the only criteria. Does the teacher have a long history of playing in bands and if so at what level? Did they ever produce an album or win a Grammy? Has the teacher produced a book? (Many, many great teachers have not produced a book, of course.)

2) Look for outside validation
Has any reputable third-party validated the source? For example, David Barrett’s series of harmonica books are endorsed by a wide range of teachers who stand to gain nothing from the endorsement. The Good Doctor (one of the many Barrett endorsees) is a regional representative for the National Harmonica League, so he has that institutional endorsement. When I stumbled on the Harp Surgery as a first-time visitor, I saw the site had earned praise from Jason Ricci and I immediately felt like it was the real deal. But who knows, maybe Jason Ricci is too liberal with his praise? Chris Michalek is one harp fundi who I know is not famous for shovelling praise where it doesn’t belong, so whenever he endorses a harp customiser (for example, Richard Sleigh and Joe Spiers) I don’t take it lightly.

But that isn’t fool proof. One of the best teachers I’ve met is a skinny, weather-worn guy who shows up at London Harmonicas. He plays unamplified, pre-war harmonica on an almost spiritual level, has an outstanding knack for translating his approach into beginner-speak, and it almost unheard of outside the London blues scene. So as a final step…

3) Perform the harmonica competency litmus test
These are two quick tests to see if a bloke is talking out his blowhole:

1) Someone who prefers the 3 blow to the 2 draw. That’s like preferring Clark Kent to Superman!

2) Someone who plays the opening riff to ‘Juke’ without splitting the octave. Correctly played, the last note of the riff is a 3-6 split and sometimes a 6-9 split.

Other than that, just go with your gut. If someone’s working for you, they’re working for you. So how did you choose your teacher?

Elwood is running the Apprenticeship Blog. Follow him on Twitter, if you like. And if you think he’s too harsh on amateur enthusiasts, see his very fond tribute to London Harmonicas. And if you’d like to see the perfect interaction between apprenticeship and experience, visit the MBH Forum.

7 thoughts on “Harmonica Links: The Best And The Worst

  • March 17, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Dumb luck! I posted on a local forum for people who wanted to put bands together and a chain of “i know this bloke who knows another bloke” ended with Steve Lockwood.

  • March 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Famous Cambridge guy? That’s a spot of luck…

  • March 22, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    I was getting nowhere fast on my own and finally took a workshop with David Barrett (they were different in his early years) and made some progress. That progress pushed me to get one on one lessons from him and after several years with him now I am starting to get it. I was driving 2 hours one way for a lesson and it was well worth it. I found him on an internet search and his books, workshops and top level players that backed him made it a no brainer.
    Thanks for putting in the time on all this stuff. This is a great site.

  • March 24, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Mr Barrett sets the standard for us all, doesn’t he? His books are top-class too.

    By the way, why do the Harp Surgery’s two resident bikers keep commenting on the same posts? Coincidence or something more sinister?

  • March 30, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    We’re a secret blues harp biker gang….

  • October 11, 2013 at 5:30 am

    I support your sentiments and make the comment that a great harmonica player does not always make a great teacher. I gave up on one who is undoubtably a great player but his teaching style and general lack of preparedness was enough to make me leave. I thought it was just me but I have since met others who felt the same. Clearly I won’t mention his name but encourage others beginners and intermediates – me now – to move on if you’re not getting satisfaction -maybe just try Youtube or David Barrett’s publications. Also the way that Adam Gussow – a great teacher- set out to make harp accessible to all via the web in my opinion makes him an international treasure and I have great respect for that man.

  • October 25, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    And of course being a great teacher is fine except when you listen to the great players and wonder why you opted for the classroom…. Oh the other side of the fence is so beguiling

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