Harmonica Drama

Neil Young on the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien

This blog entry was motivated from reactions that I observed from a facebook status that I recently posted.  On the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, I was enjoying a somber performance from musical guest, Neil Young.  The stage set framed his performance perfectly.  On a dark stage, on a round carpet, was Neil Young, playing his heart out on the guitar.  This may sound odd, but I’m not someone that pays attention to lyrics.  However, I loved the way that he sang.  His rustic tone laced his sorrowful chords.  Neil then tilted his head towards the harmonica held in the rack around his neck.  I said to myself, “no, you old bastard, don’t ruin this.”  To my surprise, the line that he played on the harmonica was concise and tasteful.  It was at that point where I had an epiphany… not all harmonica players sound like complete douche bags.

A lot of my friends know that I generally dislike harmonica & conga players and the reason is simple.  OVERALL, they require considerably less skill than most musical instruments.  As a musician, I’m offended when an exclusive player of either of these instruments attempt a conversation with me as musical equals.  This probably comes off as arrogant so I’ll explain.

First, let’s take care of the conga since I plan to write mostly about harmonicas in this piece and one sentence about congas is already a waste of my time.  Congas are essential to SOME musical pieces and I can appreciate their value as an AUXILIARY instrument.  Meaning percussionists or horn players play this in addition to their main “axe.”  With different hand techniques, one can produce a multitude of sounds.  However, let’s take a typical conga player that you find in a bar or church band.  Keep in mind, I’m talking about an exclusive player of the conga.  He/she/shim cannot read music, has no knowledge of scales, keys or anything pertaining to the circle of fifths.  How does someone that went to school and practiced basic music theory supposed to feel when a conga player that just spent the last 45 minutes beating his/her/shim’s hands on some animal skin solely based on what “felt right.”  Imagine if that conga player attempted to take equal credit for a musical performance that you were both in.  It’s a joke right?

Exclusive harmonica and conga players buy their way into the music world with no merit, whatsoever.

Whether you call it the blues harp or mouth organ or whatever cool name you try, it’s a harmonica.  The instrument structure itself is pretty cool.  The harmonica is a free reed aerophone, which means sound is produced by blowing or drawing air past a vibrating reed.  Many of these reed chambers are located on the harmonica.  Some are side by side and others are stacked on top of each other, which create harmonies.

Sounds technical so far right?  So why discount its credibility?

Because these reed chambers are creating a harmony, the instrument is designed to be played within one key.  This is a feature of the common diatonic harmonica.  What all this technical jargon is saying is that a harmonica player can say to himself:

“Well, I’m gonna jam with this band now and whatever note I play on this thing, it’ll sound fine because it’s in the same key.”

Would someone playing the piano or saxophone say the same thing?  Not likely.  Technically, a diatonic harmonica can be played outside of the instrument’s key by manually bending the airflow over reeds that are Richter-tuned.  Sounds like a lot of work to play a wrong note right?  If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is.

You might be wondering “well, what if the band plays a key that is outside of the harmonica that you have?”  Well, that’s when you go and buy an embarrassing vest like Mr. John Popper and buy a harmonica for every damn key.  If you have knowledge of music theory, you could arrange them on your vest in chromatic order.  Otherwise, buy a label maker.  Don’t get me wrong, John Popper is a great singer but he should probably use that harmonica vest to hold his favorite BBQ sauces.

John Popper

I do give a little more credit to chromatic harmonica players, where the key can be shifted during play.  However due to the fact that still essentially one button determines your key, as opposed to the 88 on a piano, I still can’t acknowledge an exclusive harmonica player the same credit as an average musician.

There are musicians that do the harmonica justice by playing it tastefully as an accompanying instrument.  There are even harmonica players that can read music and carry a melody in a song.  My distaste for the instrument comes from the squealing majority of assholes that tag along with blues bands, plugging in a bullet mic and shitting all over a song that would only need about 4-8 bars.

I dunno if guys in prison still play harmonicas.  If so, I’m cool with it… not much else to do and normal sized instruments could probably double as weapons.

In closing, I just wanna thank Neil Young for showing America what a tasteful harmonica sounds like when it appropriately accompanies a musical piece.  I apologize to those of you that may have been offended by my status post but keep in mind that’s all humor based and my status updates stream from my twitter account so I only have 140 characters to get a message across.  Hopefully the 900+ words in this blog served me better.



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