Getting Good on Harmonica (or “Nothing Good Comes Easy”)

About a decade ago, after years of dabbling, I got serious about playing harmonica. I started watching YouTube videos, I bought a couple of Barrett’s books and I spent many, many hours huffing and puffing in a damp, dirty room in South Leeds.

And for sure I learned some things. Quite a lot actually. I was gigging with The High Hollers as well as doing solo shows and feeling pretty good about myself. 

I knew though, in my gut, that I was faking it. I didn’t sound like the records I was trying to emulate but I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I’d switched from puckering to tongue blocking but nothing seemed to be gelling. People at gigs would ask me if I could teach them to play and I had to decline because I couldn’t take their money in good faith. I didn’t really know what I was doing. 

This is a situation many find themselves in. These days we’re drowning in harmonica instruction. Much of it is excellent, but much more is incomplete, misleading or just plain wrong. Lack of access to information isn’t a problem, navigating and processing it is. You don’t need a teacher as much as a Sherpa. 

My solution to this was to bite the bullet and go back to school. I swallowed my pride and started working through Barrett’s LOA program from the start. It was an extremely humbling experience.

I was arrogant enough to believe I could really play harmonica. I could not.

I lost myself for a while practicing as much as I could. Thinking about harmonica all the time when I couldn’t play, and listening to as much harmonica music as possible.

In time I left the damp, dirty room in Morley (good riddance) and was learning and practising in my girlfriend’s flat (She’s my wife now, seriously, this woman has put up with a lot, she’s an angel). We’ve moved around together a bit since then before winding up where we’re are now in Stanningley.

I always made sure I had a woodshed though. You need a safe place. A place to have the freedom to fail, to explore, to experience the elation of achievement and the frustration of failure. The torment of being so close. It was a box room usually but a living room, or kitchen if Lucy was out. And like a good journeyman, I walked the road.

Skip forward 10 years and I can confidently say that I can play blues harmonica. And that when I play something I usually know what I’m doing and why. I’ve also spent a few years teaching others.

(Side note: What I didn’t anticipate was how much teaching others reveals about yourself. And you’d better have your shit together because nothing exposes the gaps in your own skills or knowledge more starkly. Teaching is a great way of learning, it turns out.)

The trick to really progressing is focus. You need a plan, a map and a guide if possible, as well as a serious, bull-headed stubbornness to succeed.

And it takes time measured in years. There’s no short-cut to success. If you think you’ve found one you’re just cheating yourself. I firmly believe that. All good things are worth working for.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy yourself. Far from it. If it’s not tickling your pleasure receptors it’s probably a better idea to find something else that does.

Think about this. You will never be a worse harmonica player than you are today. Tomorrow, in some small way, you will be better and more experienced. That’s amazing. You’re only ever a beginner once, so you may as well enjoy the process. 

Wrapping up this stream-of-consciousness rambling. The points I’m trying to make are these:

If you want to play, you need to shut out distractions. And that means ignoring that cool video you saw on super-double-over-and-under-bend-blowing, squashing the desire to get sidetracked by gear, and getting to work on some fundamentals.

If you’re not sure which direction to sail ask your navigator. Either get a teacher you gell with, (best) or follow a program with proven results (Barrett’s LOA).

And lastly, do your legwork. Experts are not born, they are painstakingly sculpted from the hard sheer, hard rock of experience. There is no substitute. Play every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it. Make your harmonica a part of you.

The rewards will creep up on you without you even realising.