10 Tips for Beginners

Basic Principles for Beginning Blues Harmonica Players

by Adam Gussow

1) The Woodshed.
You're not just learning an instrument : you're exploring your soul. You need what Virginia Woolf called "a room of one's own," i.e., a place where you can practice obsessively and/or cut loose without worrying too much about the wife or husband, the roomate, the dogs, the kids, or the neighbors overhearing and critiquing you. This can be your bedroom or bathroom, a stereo room, the basement, an office, or it can be outdoors, in an abandoned park tunnel or along a windswept boardwalk--anywhere in which you feel as though you're away. A beer or a couple of cigarettes may do wonders to diminish your self-consciousness.

2) Obsessive Practice vs. The Beauty of Silence.
Nobody ever became a good blues harp player without hours of long, hard, obsessive practice. You should become obsessive. But you should also remember that you're creating music, not simply spewing notes. Music blossoms into being out of silence. Pause a moment before each practice session and listen to that silence. Play a note and listen to it decay for a split-second before dissolving into silence. Learn to hear silence. You'll find yourself pausing in the middle of improvised solos, letting space--rather than spew--shape your phrases.

3) Wide Listening.
The best way of learning to speak a foreign language is total immersion. Spend heavily on CDs (and/or records, if you're into vinyl). Listen to all the greats : the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, Big and Little Walter, Junior Wells, Sonny Terry, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Kim Wilson, Paul Delay. Make up cassette tapes of your favorite blues harp cuts; copy them for friends, play them in your car during drive time. Then go out and hear live harp players in local NYC blues clubs : Chicago Blues, Terra Blues, the Wreck Room, the Tripple Inn, the Savoy Lounge. Don't be shy : ask them questions about their harps, mikes, amps. Harp players love to talk shop.

4) Counting Time.
Until you can keep a steady, metronomic beat with your foot as you play--independent of whatever harp lines you happen to be blowing--and can find a common groove with your fellow musicians, you're not a musician, no matter how many fancy riffs you can toss off. Keeping good time is absolutely crucial. Play every song and riff with the clearest, steadiest beat you can. Tap your foot along with live and recorded music, even when you're not playing. If you lose the beat--race ahead or fall behind--don't sweat it. Simply pause, re-focus, then slide back into sync. Keeping good time is like meditational breathing practice : forcing the pace and tightening up are your enemies, lightness and flexibility are your friends. Be patient; allow your "musical body" to find its own way. Slowly but surely it will.

5) Harmonica as Instrument, Harmonica as Fetish.
A musical instrument is a means to an end : the externalizing and sharing of whatever music is active in your soul. It is also, potentially, a fetish : a delightful end in itself, a shiny toy you fall in love with and endow with all sorts of magical properties. Allow your harmonica to be both. Fall in love with it, reach for it obsessively, caress it, get wildly upset when its reeds blow out. But also remember that it is only an instrument, a replaceable tool, a way of getting at music rather than an end in itself. Sometimes your musical soul will simply go silent, and no amount of sucking and blowing on your cherished harp-fetish will produce the familiar old magic. Allow this to happen. Put the thing down and walk away. It is, after all, only an instrument, a tool for releasing imprisoned song. When the music returns and demands to be released, you'll know. Then play.

6) Depth versus Surface.
Playing blues harmonica properly demands a great deal of strength. Bent notes in particular must be wrenched out of your harp's bowels. This is not to say that lightness of touch isn't important, that subtlety isn't required. But there are deep blues harp sounds and shallow blues harp sounds, and listeners can feel the difference. Deep blues demands spiritual committment that expresses itself as audible conviction. Big Walter had this. Don't be afraid to cultivate a little violence in your playing; to summon up and purge aggression, to attack your instrument. We play the smallest instrument in the orchestra; we need to try harder. Don't be shy.

7) The White-Black Thing.
If you're "white," as America defines you, what right do you have to play an instrument and a style of music so clearly tied to three generations of black male innovators kept down by the White Man? If you're black, why study your grandfather's old-timey music rather than hip-hop or r&b? If you're Asian-American, or foreign-born, where the heck do you fit in? Relax. The Second Millenium is upon us. We are all postmodern animals, a multicultural gumbo in simmering transition, co-conspirators helping usher in the Brave New Future. You are (or should be) playing blues harmonica because you are in love with the sound. This is precisely what has driven all musicians, of all stripes, to pick up and master their instruments down through the ages. Listen promiscuously; identify and model your playing on the best stuff out there. Honor your masters--most of whom, in this idiom on this instrument, will no doubt be black--by verbally acknowledging your debt to them whenever possible. But don't be afraid to go past them, to make creative leaps and push the music forward. Find your own voice. All of today's elder masters were once restless young innovators who took no prisoners. Don't be afraid to kick Big Walter's ass, metaphorically speaking, once you've learned what his music has to teach you.

8) Trust and Risk.
Classrooms can be anxiety-inducing places. Humiliations beckon at every turn; performance anxieties suddenly blossom and freeze us up. Music--which is to say, communicative audible energy-flow--disappears. Blues harmonica is a difficult instrument to master, and your first steps are the creakiest. Being put on the spot and asked to demonstrate creaky new steps in public is cruel and unusual punishment--if you make it that. The other alternative is compassion : for yourself, for your panicked fellow novices. Relax! It takes guts simply to walk through the door of a beginning musical instrument class. Real learning only takes place when you're willing to fall flat on your face a thousand times for the sake of the discipline. Learn to laugh at the ridiculous wheezing sounds all beginning blues harp players--including you--inevitably make in pursuit of music. Music will be yours sooner than you think.

9) Your Music.
Never let your teacher get in the way of your music. Your music is whatever flame burns in you and demands that you learn how to play the blues harmonica. Teachers can help you develop, explore, deepen, polish, and express your music, but they can also drastically hamper that process. Evil teachers do exist. An evil teacher is one who, for whatever reason, threatens to extinguish your inner musical flame. Recognize the danger signs--your own vague dissatisfaction and restlessness, above all--and be wary. Mastering an instrument takes dedication, but dedication isn't servitude, or slavery. I'm here to help you, which sometimes means pushing you, but I don't own you. My purpose, as I conceive of it, is to help you own a crucial part of yourself. A certain amount of rote knowledge, tablature-reading, and learning of scales is required, of course, but only in the service of releasing the music inside you. Blues harmonica is the most personal and portable of instruments; in a very real way, it's an image of your own raucous, exuberant soul. Never let any teacher--including me--come between you and your soul.

10) The Sound.
Our goal. Listen deeply, play hard.