Friday, May 27, 2011

7 Legitimate Reasons Not to Start Playing Harmonica!

I started playing harmonica in the middle of November 1998. I made a mental note. I was 19 ½ at the time. People start playing music for different reasons. I had two. The first was that for some reason (possibly tying to the ancient way of the samurai?), my still developing frontal lobe determined that a real man must play an instrument. A tiny instrument. The other reason that I started was because I wanted to be in Jimmy Buffett’s band. At least I had the sense to realize that was unlikely and started writing songs and playing guitar (at the time Buffett was still playing with the badass Greg “Fingers” Taylor at first chair harmonica). Now, a full 12 years later I have learned a few things. About the downside of playing harmonica. So if you are tempted to pick one up and start, please read on. What you find may just convince you not to.

7) Harmonicas are expensive.
Looking at a harmonica it is tempting to think that because it is small that it is cheap. This is far from true. Of course there are cheap, piece of crap harmonicas which you can buy. They tend to work just about as well as a cheap; piece of crap condom might work. Want to try it? A standard 10 hole diatonic (normal) harmonica costs anywhere between $25-$40. This would not be a big deal unless you factor in the different keys you will need. Then your number might jump to 15. So you are suddenly looking at between $375-600. And you need to replace broken ones. And if you play blues you will need a mic and tube amp (unless you are the Bruce Willis type of “bluesman”). Now you are approaching $1,000. And you still sound like crap. So you will need lessons. Wait, they make harmonica lessons? Yes, and a great harmonica teacher is hard to find. And when you do find a guy like Grant Dermody, lessons cost $1 a minute. And the shortest lesson is 30 minutes. And a good teacher will easily convince you that you are so bad you need an hour lesson. Of course these will pay off when Buffett hires you (“Fingers Taylor left The Coral Reefer Band about 8 years ago).
6) Annoying Bob Dylan comparisons.
Let’s try and forget the fact that Woody Guthrie ever existed (if you have never heard of him slap yourself as hard as you can, and ask the next person you meet to punch your face). Even if we could do that, it still doesn’t make Bob Dylan less of a thief or more of a pioneer of playing harmonica and guitar at the same time. To the best of my knowledge the first person to do that was Jesse Fuller, who is most famous for writing “San Francisco Bay Blues.”  Sadly most people don’t know that. So if you happen to want to try to play harmonica and guitar at the same time, rest assured, you will be compared to Bob Dylan. If you do happen to play harmonica and guitar at the same time, and your harmonica playing does in fact sound like Bob Dylan’s playing, please, quit playing immediately. The quality of Bob Dylan’s harmonica playing is somewhere between that of children’s toys coated in lead paint, and that of a cheap, piece of crap harmonica. The last thing any harmonica player would want is to sound like him. Like a wounded bobcat.
Pictured: A wounded bobcat
5) People want to touch your instruments.
I can’t speak for any other instruments, but since harmonicas are small and seem look like toys, everyone thinks they can play. Bob Dylan didn’t help with his cheap, piece of crap playing. Because of this there is going to be a time when your friend, the drunk guy at church, or a prostitute might want to play your harmonicas. This is not only gross, but how good would you feel if a prostitute blew your low F sharp note and broke it? Not very good considering the fact that you would probably have to order a replacement by mail. Also you do not want the mouth of a prostitute anywhere near the instrument where your mouth will be because that is how germs are shared. Plus it’s a prostitute. I personally have had to punch my old roommate for playing my harmonicas (he thought it was HILARIOUS to play them when I told him not to). Even though he was actually not a prostitute (surprising) it was still gross. It was also a great excuse for punching him. I would do the same to anyone else who dares to try it. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!!!!!
4) You will be forced to perform at random times.
Pictured: The monkey represents you as a harmonica player

I have no idea if other musicians are randomly asked to “play something” when they are at dinner with a friend’s parents. If not, *spoiler* It’s really annoying! In my case I am an ensemble harmonica player. I am not a power house blues player. Essentially I thrive playing long drawn out notes during slow soulful songs. This translates really poorly to impromptu solo performances that are requested at random. It seems in my opinion sort of like asking your mathematician friend to “quick do some math” oblivious to the fact that even if he wanted to, your dumb ass would not understand it. Also, after forcing me to play a “short ditty” clapping afterwards just makes it worse. Like telling a stripper to “take care of yourself.”
3) You will be compared to John Popper
Aside from Bob Dylan and Neil Young (who unlike Dylan actually plays music on harmonicas) the only other harmonica player most people know is John Popper. It is far from uncommon to be asked if you can “play like Blues Traveler?” while the questioner makes a fake hand harmonica and mimes playing it. Short answer, HELL NO! John Popper is a WORLD CLASS MUSICIAN. If he were a cyclist he would kick the crap out of Lance Armstrong, if he were an astronaut he would kick the crap out of Neil Armstrong, and if he were a rubber kids toy/potential Taylor Lautner film vehicle, he would kick the crap out of Stretch Armstrong! John Popper is the Eddy Van Halen of harmonicas, it is laughable to even try to play like him. The up side of attempting to play like Popper is that you will not sound like Bob Dylan; this is a very good thing.
2) Ease of entry
Did someone ask if I had a harmonica? Hell yes I have a harmonica!

My uncle Alan Dick (who I have mentioned in two previous BS reports) is a professional violinist, of the “let’s play some more complex gypsy swing jazz, as long as it has 14 chords in the progression and a groovy rhythm” type. He taught me about a little thing called “The Guitar Army.” This is the unruly horde of terrible to brilliant guitar players in the world. There will always be more idiots in the guitar army, but it takes only one idiot with a harmonica to ruin a perfectly good jam. The sound is cutting, and while you can drown out the sound of a crappy classical guitar, a cheap, crappy harmonica can be played plenty loud. Sadly that is not the worst that can happen.
Despite common sense and proper human decency there are still people who think that Bob Dylan is a great harmonica player. These people would be completely incorrect. Sadly, they continue to propagate and every year some snot nosed “new folk” musician will buy a harmonica and inflict noise on the audience, without attempting anything resembling practice. The fact is that it is pretty easy to make musical sounds on a harmonica, but to play it well takes hours of practice, rigid discipline, and if you are smart $1 a minute lessons. And you still won’t sound like John Popper. It is funny that a person who plays guitar well, knows how to operate the internet, is forward thinking to stuff a sock in his underwear (the FRONT side) before playing a show, would play an instrument he had barely practiced and knows almost nothing about. Yet it happens every day. I can pick out a Dylan influenced player within two notes. I shoot them on the third.
1)      Difficulty.
It's so EASY!

In case you were wondering, playing any instrument well is tough. Guitars will make your fingers bleed and a butt trumpet will make, wait a minute…Like I was saying, harmonica is hard as hell. It hurts your mouth, there are all kinds of weird techniques, plus it doesn’t go with every kind of music. During the times in my life I call the “Takin’ Harmonica Seriously” time periods; I was practicing 2 hours a day. This was alone. I would also practice with various bands a couple times a week. And the two hours did not always include guitar playing. Guess what? I am still not that great! Of course being way better at harmonica than Dylan feels pretty good. Like being way better at running faster than a 5 year old.

In closing, I hope I only crushed a few dreams with this piece. Seriously, you too can be better at harmonica than Bob Dylan. You have a pulse.
Note: In the days following this posting, I had the lingering suspicion that I was forgetting something. Upon some serious naval gazing it came to me! I was! There were at least two more very legitimate reasons not to start with harmonica playing! First of all, the harmonica is commonly misidentified by too-hip for their own good morons (AKA, buffoons). The lists of their offenses is long, but by far the worst is when they call a harmonica a "Jews harp." Let me just say that I don't even say the word Jew. Ever. Not even as part of another word like: juice or June. When reffering to Jew's I simply call them "those people." I figure that their is zero chance of being labeled an anti-Semite if I never say it. So to call myself a "Jew's harp player" would be obscene! Not only is the name possibly racist, an actual Jew's harp is in fact a jaw harp, which is one of those metal things that go "boing boing boing" and are often played by hillbilly Scooby Doo villians! So, no thank you, I do not want you to racistly misidentify the instrument I spend hours practicing in order to be less crappy than Bob Dylan. Thank you.

Second, the harmonica is one of the only instruments (it belongs to the free-reed family) which requires an inhalation of breath in order to create more than half the available notes. Essentially, you cannot play harmonica without inhaling. Also known as sucking. Of course, because not all harmonica players are incredibly stupid/perverted (that covers only 98%) the rest have decided that it should be called "drawing." This is smart, because it is in fact a better term, a more controlled inhalation of breath as opposed to a violent "sucking." There is also the part about not instigating consistently awful comments about "sucking." Do I really need to expound on the wide variety of unoriginal/obnoxious ways the term "sucking" can be misconstrued? Oh, you have all watched Two and a Half Men? OK, good to know. The Buzzman.


  1. Once again, interesting, thought provoking & humourous. NOW PLAY!!!!

  2. I draw at sucking.
    Missing you and making music. we should jam/busk soon. Mayor

  3. As a harp player I found this to be hilarious and true. I once had a drunk guy at a gig try to play my Special 20 Ab harp when I wasn't looking. He learned to fly off of the stage that night. #3 being asked if I can play like Popper happens all of the time but he's the reason I started playing in the first place, so it doesn't bother me too much I just tell folks no one plays like John but it's sure fun to try. ;O)

  4. Wow, I can't believe I found this so late in my harp playing career, I would have never started had I known the awful truth about what being a harp player is really about, but then by the time I did learn the awful truth.. it was too late and I was hooked on all the hot poon and cheers that came my way (you do have to be somewhat good to get poon and cheers as a harp player right? RIGHT?)

    The only problem is that I sometimes (quite accidentally I assure you) upstage the "frontman" of bands that I play in, and they get this rather butt hurt attitude that I have absolutely no right to the adoration of HIS women, and then I magically find myself being shut out of jams slowly over time.

    Has that ever happened to you?

    1. Hahaha, it´s better to be shut out of jams slowly than by means of dirty pitched hard blow into a sax within inches of the left ear - or any ear, for that matter :-) But hey, I have forgiven that person, after all... He plays an instrument that is more aaaah real. Right?