The diatonic harmonica is an instrument with the potential to make divine music, and yet I believe it is trapped in a world of blues, rock, and country because that is what has come before us so that’s what we listen to. Ask ten people what comes to mind when they think of the harmonica and you are certain to get a predictable answer every time. Sure, chromatic harmonica players have been playing classical tunes for decades, but it’s not the same instrument, despite the similarity in name. The diatonic harmonica affords the player a unique opportunity to play in realms of advanced music theory without requiring knowledge of what is being played. Since there are only ten holes and twenty reeds to choose from, it’s as though music theory is built into the instrument.
Think about it… on any other instrument (I’d be interested to hear from you if you know otherwise), you must find your own scales amidst a multitude of possible options. A piano, a trumpet, a glockenspiel or a chromatic harmonica – you have to understand a degree of music theory to be able to play a major scale or a minor scale. A harmonica, however, has the scales more-or-less built into the instrument! I could give my 5 year old niece a harmonica and she could essentially play a major scale. Or an arpeggio. Or an interval. It’s a thing of beauty! You don’t have to know what you’re playing… you simply put your lips to the instrument and blow (and draw) and you can’t help but to eventually stumble into music.
So, it’s not that I don’t love the blues, but why relegate such a beautiful instrument to simply playing one type of music? In every harp forum you read through, you will find people constantly referencing the granddaddies of harmonica playing… Little Walter, Sonny Terry, Paul Butterfield and the like. Everyone wants to know tabs to play someone else’s song or technique to play someone else’s style. You find questions about who to listen to and, inevitably, answers that point them to these or any number of other blues harmonica greats. I spend plenty of time listening to these guys, sure. but I spend as much or more time listening to other genres of music and I believe my style has largely become defined by it. Listening to Sonny Terry may give me a good idea of how to chug, but listening to Richard Wagner gives me a good idea of the power of phrasing, motifs, melodies, silence, dynamics, etc.. In listening to classical music, I find that I am inspired by different time signatures, such as in the Ravel piece I discovered today. The piece is Maurice Ravel’s “String quartet: second movement; assez vif. Très rythmé”. Have a listen!
How beautiful is that? And do you know what I did after I listened to it? I went outside and started playing a single note on my harmonica in three/three time: one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. Then I changed one note of the sequence: one-TWO-three, one-TWO-three, one-TWO-three, one-TWO-three, one-TWO-three. And pretty soon, I was playing a 3/3 jam in C major and its inspiration was from an orchestra, not a harmonica player.
So as you are looking for inspiration for your playing, throw some classical music in there and see where it leads you. Record a jam and send me a link! I want to hear your new sound!