I declare it’s a pity, and God knows it’s a crying shame

Credit to a recent contribution on Harp-L for bringing this small, but important detail to our attention. It’s a recording of the wonderful Sonny Boy Williamson II, starting Nine Below Zero with his harp the wrong way round and on camera. As you might expect from such a pro, he casually shrugs the moment off without ceremony and gets straight on with the job. And hats off to the man. That same thing could represent an insurmountable embarrassment to lesser mortals.

It’s nine below zero, and the fool done put me down

But hey, we’ve all done it! Don’t believe anyone who says they haven’t. When I did it – twice in the same gig – one harp was also completely the wrong key when I turned it round. I will never forget the look of disdain from my bass player and the raised eyebrow from my guitarist. No doubt the drummer was wincing behind my back too. But the simple fact is you can’t make the same mistake on a guitar or drum kit – you’d notice very quickly if your axe was upside down or you’d forgotten to pick up your sticks.

Not quite as simple for the poor harp player. Especially when he has a couple of dozen harps to choose from (all of which look the same), he’s on a quick turn around between two numbers, there’s been a key change and he’s in desperate need of a physiological break. Cut the harpoon man some slack for heaven’s sake!

I give her all my money, all of my lovin’ and everything

So how can we introduce some damage limitation here? We all have our own systems, but here are a few pointers. Number one – when it happens (not if), don’t let it get to you. As you can see from Sonny Boy, you ain’t the first and you sure as hell won’t be the last. And trust me when I say that once you have done it, you’re natural propensity to repeat will be very much diminished. That’s science speak for once bitten. Meanwhile:

  1. Assuming you’re a right hander, check the numbers are topside before you blow
  2. Reapply the sticker from the harp case to the top cover plate
  3. Dab some office white-out correction fluid to the top plate for visual reference
  4. Organise your harps neatly in a case and re-stow them after each song

If it happens, it happens. We’ve all done it. There’s nothing you can do to rewind and erase the moment, so don’t try to cover it up like a Bobby Charlton comb-over. And don’t go getting all embarrassed either. Smile, turn the harp round and carry on. Tell the crowd you learned it from the great blues masters! At least you picked up the correct key. Didn’t you?

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