Learn How (Not) To Play Harmonica

Hey Negrita’s harmonica player teaches our Apprentice a lesson about tasteful playing

Some time back I got my hands on this acoustic single, “Burn The Whole Place Down” by the British country blues band Hey Negrita, which features my friend Will “Captain Bliss” Greener on harmonica. I’ve mentioned Captain Bliss once or twice here, as his approach to harmonica has taught me a great deal – without really showing me too many riffs and licks, if you catch my meaning.

Perhaps you already see why I thought it was worth consideration. First of all, it’s just a damned catchy song. But I believe there also are (at least) two lessons to be learned in their approach to this performance, and in Will’s contribution to it.

Lesson 1: Simplicity is beautiful

Will told me they recorded this album in a few hours, much in the manner you see in the video: six guys sitting in a room together, looking longingly into one another’s eyes, trading musical gestures. There’s a reason why six guys can record an album in an afternoon. (Instead of, say, a decade – I’m looking at you, Axl Rose.) Aside from learning the songs beforehand (something many bandmates forget to do), they kept the process simple and hassle free. No faffing about in laying down track after track in bits and pieces: everyone records together, and the musical relationships that exist within the band become the single most important technical tool available to them.

Granted, this is pretty common in recording studios, but it’s very helpful to keep in mind when planning gigs and performances: the Negrita philosophy (at least, the Will “Captain Bliss” Greener philosophy) is to keep things as simple as possible and not get enslaved to technology. If you have a PA mic, a good soundman and musicians you can trust, amps and mics and tubes and all that stuff is sometimes less important than you’d think.

Lesson 2: You only need to play as much as you need to play

I couldn’t believe it when I first visited Captain Bliss’s Myspace page. There was no harmonica on it! “But that doesn’t make any sense,” I thought: “H-h-he’s a harmonica player, for God’s sake!”

Well, yes. But as you’ll see from this song, he only adds as much harmonica as the song really needs. He could have easily chugged along through the whole track, adding little fills and frills between the vocals. I mean, Lord knows I certainly would’ve. Instead, he just keeps his harp by his side for almost the entire song, playing three short solos that account for about 12 bars of the song, as far as I can tell. As he himself pointed out to me, “the busy-ness of Matt’s guitar tends to remain constant; much of the time, the “fill” space tends to belong to him.”

Instead of just taking up all the available space in the song, he gives it air to breathe and the solos he does take are all the more attention-grabbing for it. (Also notice that he switches between a low harp and a high harp to keep things intereresting.) Knowing when not to play: that’s something I have yet to learn, unfortunately.

So what does a harmonica player do when he’s not playing harmonica? Well apparently he just acts like a musician: joining in on the chorus, dancing like a bit of a ninny, and just enjoying the damned song. I’ve seen more than a few harp players who, when they’re waiting for their solo, look more like they’re waiting for a bus that’s five minutes late.

Without further ado, please enjoy Hey Negrita’s “Burn the Whole Place Down”. You can buy it for a pittance at Amazon.


4 thoughts on “Learn How (Not) To Play Harmonica

  • October 12, 2011 at 6:18 am

    I’ve been playing harp for around 25 years and in the beginning, I was asked to play more by the other musos. I didn’t because I was limited at the time to what I could add.
    But now, with all the experience I have, I know precisely what is being said about knowing when to shut up. There are even some numbers where I choose to not play at all as it just seems inappropriate.
    As you say, sometimes less is more.
    By the way, I’m loving learning more about 1st position. I play 2nd, 3rd and 5th and have only just touched on 1st.

  • April 12, 2012 at 1:07 am

    Was just playing that embedded video because I was curious about what “country blues” might be and I’m still not sure. I’m from the States and when I hear “country” I think of a particular kind of music. Same with blues. I don’t know of a style here called “country blues” and the music in the above clip sounds a bit like what I associate with Celtic music. There was also a hint of what’s known here as Appalachian music.
    Don’t get me wrong, it was lovely and I’d probably sooner listen to it than most American Country music, but I’m left wondering about the origins of this style of music.

  • May 29, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Chris. This is a BIG topic! Country blues can sometimes mean unplugged, down-home harping, using standard blues licks, scales and positioning. Sonny Terry would be an obvious example. Owing to its Geographical origin, it is also called Piedmont Blues. It’s a close cousin of blue grass, hillbilly, and country music, drawing as much from the narrative of poor white America as poor black America. All these forms are firmly rooted in the traditional music of white immigrants from the Celtic countries of Europe, from France, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia and also Eastern Europe. Consequently many of the licks, turns and phrases will have echoes of their progenators. Also unplugged and sometimes called country blues, Delta blues is much more an extension of the Afro-American narrative, though blues from the north of Mississipi is different again in its rhythms and style. Either way, none of these is City Blues, Chicago Blues or West Coast Blues, all of which tend to imply a healthy does of wattage.

    Pure country harmonica is easily recognisable. Charlie McCoy is a prime exponent; you only have to watch one episode of Dukes Of Hazard to get a flavour! But then Charlie also plays Cajun flavoured harp and blues flavoured harp. In which case, as a country musician, the resulting fusion is most definitely Country Blues. And let’s face it, so much of modern Country music and Honky Tonk is based on a recognisable blues platform anyway, musically speaking.

    I’m actually surprised that you’ve missed the style know as Country Blues. On one level it’s a catch-all term for non-electric blues; but it can be categorised and redefined further. Appalachian music based on a musical blues format would almost certainly be Country Blues. The blues of artists like Sugar Blue, is most definitely Urban as opposed to Country.

  • May 30, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Hi Chris/Wilf,

    I speak under correction but sometimes ‘country’ is defined by the musical scale. A country blues is often characterised by the ‘major scale’ notes; the 2nd and major 3rd (if you’re playing cross-harp, that’s the 3-hole draw with a whole step bend and 3-hole draw unbent), and the major 7th (only accessible by 5-hole overblow on a standard-tune diatonic harmonica).


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