Friday, August 15, 2008


I've been playing guitar for about 20 years, and always prided myself on being just a guitar player. I focused my energy on being the best guitar player I could be. Sure, I could bang out some notes on a bass, it's basically just the lower for strings of a guitar. And yes, I've sat behind plenty of drum kits at the end of rehearsal... you know, that time when everybody switches instruments and all of a sudden the band sounds like a bunch of junior high kids again. I also had to take piano classes in college to learn some scales and to be able to somewhat competently comp through some jazz standards. But I never put any real effort in learning how to play those instruments because I didn't want to cheat on the guitar.

Well, last year some friends of mine started learning blues harmonica, and it wasn't long before I became fascinated by the raw sound of that little instrument. The thing looks like a toy, and most people associate it with the suck and blow style of Bob Dylan or a handful of other folk artists. But once you've heard Little Walter, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton... all of a sudden that little toy is a huge, expressive force of sound. So last winter I started to practice.

We learned from some YouTube videos posted by Adam Gussow. I'd recommend them to anybody that wants to learn blues harp. Start with his introduction, and work through the first 15 or so to build a solid foundation to learn the rest.

What's been best for me, as a guitar player, is learning to phrase differently. You don't have to breathe to play guitar (though it helps keep you alive, which is required to play guitar), so a lot of guitarists just play rapid fire, nonstop lines with no breaks. I think it's natural to just keep going, thinking about the chord changes and wanting to hit everything, but the best notes you can play are usually the ones you don't. And with blues harp, you run out of air, or actually, you run out of lungs, because it's mostly pulling air in, through the harmonica, and filling up your lungs. That's totally backwards, because I do tend to take a deep breathe to help space out my phrasing when playing guitar, and for harmonica you have to empty all your air before playing a phrase.

The lesson here is at a certain point, changing the way you think about and play music is essential. It will pull you out of a rut on your primary instrument. You might have some fun at the same time.

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