Thursday, December 3, 2020


 Rumor has it that I've been playing blues harmonica for near fifty five years , give our take a half-decade, and that in the time it takes to destroy several generations of Hohner Marine Bands with slippery attempts to master the diatonic scale and achieve something near what my first harmonica hero, Paul Butterfield, was doing, I've learned a few things. All the slobbering carnage I've inflicted on those innocent brass reeds eventually got me to the point to where I could do what I wanted to do like the late Mr.Butterfield, bend a note on the enigmatic "tin sandwich"  and come closer to the moaning, soulful blues heaven an aspiring white boy might dream of. 

Butterfield was channeling all the masters he'd listened to as a younger man, the black geniuses of Little Walter, both of the Sonny Boys, James Cotton, and had, through instinct, natural aptitude and a desire to achieve the emotional power and mojo his admitted masters revealed in their playing ( although it is interesting to wonder if youngman Butterfield knew at the time what "mojo" was) imitated his sources as best he could and in doing so, imperfectly mimicking what he'd heard, developed his own style,his own way of bring a characteristic inflection to his improvisations that were unmistakable. Butterfield achieved his mojo and gave the world a harmonica sound that is his alone, instantly identifiable. So in my time I mimicked Butterfield, trying to hammer those licks into a semblance of blues expression, along with other blues masters and , to be honest, a good number of blues guitarists in the guise of Hendrix, BB, Albert and Freddy King respectively and Johnny Winter, with more than a touch of Mike Bloomfield. From that one note that I managed that day in the 60s to this day in the early twenty first century, I have a sound of my own, my own way of torturing the diatonic scale to express the deep seated joys and anguish that challenges mere words and language itself to bring to the open. It's the glory of bending those notes!

Bent notes on the blues harmonica are like fingerprints ; after a certain point, instruction is pointless to anyone actually committed to getting good and unique on the instrument. With all the available instruction these days via the retching sewer pipe known as the internet, I rather appreciate the fact that I've learned without a single formal lesson. Harmonica players are sounding much too much like one another, competent in technique and execution, but lacking in personality or style otherwise.Teachers I know in real life, even a couple of good harmonica instructors, do not work in the fact that they teach in their daily conversations. As for technical instruction regarding the diatonic harmonica, over reliance on it turns too many players into others who sound precisely like the man/woman before him and the next harmonica after him. The cult of technique crowds out style, personality, originality. It turns established styles into a fossilized canon, a museum of dead things once great, now irrelevant to personal expressiveness. Instruction has its place, of course, but the student leaves the class room soon enough to invent something of their own to bring into the listening world; lectures and authority on the matter of a player's growth can no longer be tolerated.

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