How I Learned to Play Blues and Rock Harp
One summer during college, I decided to visit my room-mate and closest friend.
Paul lived in Wisconsin. Finding that he was for some reason not there when I arrived, I did the logical thing, and decided to hitchhike to Alaska.
Fortunately, I had brought a harmonica (an old Marine Band), since I'd tried unsuccessfully* to learn to play a few times before.
What was fortunate about that?
Well, since I got so few rides, I spent a lot of time on the side of the road.
And eventually learned that I could make sounds through the harmonica without using the "tongue-blocking" method of getting single notes that had stymied me.
In fact, single notes weren't important at all, for the level at which I was playing (trying to pick out the first few notes of "Taps.”)
While spending two entire days waiting for a ride (in Kamloops, Canada), I somehow obtained a book of Peter, Paul, and Mary songs written for harmonica — notated (thankfully) in the "Up and Down Arrow System.” And within a few weeks was able to pick my way through "When the Ship Comes In" and "Blowing In the Wind."
Returning to college, and rooming again with Paul, I played. A lot. Those two songs, incessantly.
After a few weeks, Paul confronted me, and said:
"If you keep playing those two songs, I will kill you while you sleep. However, if you want to keep playing, I'll take you down to the used record store and get you some blues and rock harmonica albums."
True to his word, the next day we went downtown. For $2.50 each, he bought me the first J. Geils album, and one of the Sonny Boy Williamson #1 Bluebird Label albums. One of the greatest gifts I'd ever gotten, looking back on it.
I listened to them incessantly, of course. But soon found that I could not play along with most of the songs — all but two cuts sounded awful when I did (I was in the wrong key, I know now.)
So I played just those two songs, incessantly.
And, eventually, learned to play along with them, in a way that was perhaps not very musical or bluesy, but did not make people run away shrieking, hands over their ears.
I also noticed that both songs had a repetitive nature, and that every 48 beats or so they somehow repeated themselves.
I had discovered, for myself, the Twelve Bar Blues Structure. And "Cross Harp" or "Second Position."
Of course, I can now teach my students to play better in an hour, than I could play (even with "practicing" for many hours a day) in a year.
All this said, I owe my peevish room-mate — still a dear friend — a great deal.
Thank you, Paul.
*I'd never gotten past the old-fashioned instruction sheet, written in standard music notation (might as well have been Martian, to me) and with the demand that one, apparently, cover four holes with the mouth and then block the rightmost three holes with the tongue.