Apr 292014
 

I get as psyched up as any hot-blooded rock ‘n roll fan at the anticipation of a smokin’ harmonica solo in the middle of a blues workout. The harmonica break in any number of early Stones and Yarbirds songs is both exciting and dramatic. I’m appreciative of Stevie Wonder‘s melodic use of the chromatic harmonica on songs like “Isn’t She Lovely.” I dig when Bob Dylan and Neil Young fill the gaps in any one of the dozens of their songs that feature their naive approach to the blues harp. I’ll even sit through a yearly spin of J. Geils Band‘s “Whammer Jammer,” the show-stopping instrumental by full-time harp player and Townman Hrrundivbakshi’s spiritual guide Magic Dick.

I own harmonicas and dream of one day finding a use for one in one of my own songs. I like harmonicas. Honest, I do. However, while watching one of my favorite local bands last weekend, there came a point in their second set when they called up a friend to play harmonica on a song. That led to him playing harmonica on another song and another one and a few more after that. By the third song featuring a persistent harmonica part I started to realize why most bands only break out the big harmonica solo one time per gig. There quickly comes a point when the instrument’s on autopilot. The instrument becomes a condiment. Think of a point in meal when you add mustard or horseradish—or both—to a course, as I did just last night, over a main course of kielbasa and sauerkraut. The condiments perfectly fit that dish, but had I also added the mustard and horseradish to my green beans, my pierogi, and my chocolate babka, it would have been overkill. Not to mention, one would never make mustard or horseradish the core ingredient of any dish, as it might be argued J. Geils Band managed to do when they handed over the keys to a song to Magic Dick. “Whammer Jammer” is an outstanding achievement in terms of culinary standards.

Any harmonica only produces one tone; there are no treble, middle, and bass pickups, no tone knobs. Harmonicas rarely carry the rhythm, or should I say rarely carry the rhythm that a guitarist is not already doing. It’s cool hearing the harmonica chug along with the rhythm guitar in a song like “Not Fade Away” or “Mystery Train,” but it’s not necessary. It becomes too many dishes with mustard, if a band is not careful. If I’m hearing them right, blues harps seem to be constructed solely around the pentatonic scale. Anyone with a lung can “inspire” the harmonica to sound like it’s playing the blues scale in whatever key it’s set for. Granted, some do it better than others, but even the least trained harmonica players can find a pleasing, naive melody to add spice to a song. Think of Bob Dylan’s quick splattering of “mustard” between the verses of on any number of songs.

The danger in employment of a harmonica on almost any rock song means the band is turning over the keys to a musician to play nothing but blues licks in that harmonica’s one wheezy tone. It can sound great and feel exciting for a song, maybe even two, but after a while it starts to sound like me, a guitarist limited to the pentatonic scale, given a long leash to do nothing but solo and play stock fills. If you haven’t already been bored by any of my planned 14-second solos, trust me: a nonstop flurry of my dimestore pentatonic licks would get tiring in a hurry. That’s how I felt as this excellent band I’m friends with gave a little too much time to their harp-playing friend. He might have been exceptionally good at blowing that thing, but there came a point when he needed to HOLD THE MUSTARD!

What do you think?

The harmonica: instrument or condiment?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
Share

  25 Responses to “The Harmonica: Instrument or Condiment?”

  1. misterioso

    Yeah, condiment. Whammer Jammer being, of course, that rare thing: a delicious ketchup sandwich.

  2. diskojoe

    You eat kielbasa & pierogi??? Who makes them for you???
    This inquiring Polish-American wants to know!

    As for the harmonica, put me down on the condiment side

    • My Mom’s family (of Italian descent) grew up in a predominantly Polish section of Philadelphia, so we grew up enjoying that stuff. Before coming to our house yesterday she stopped at an old Polish deli and picked up a load of Polish goodies to cook. Meanwhile, my wife’s Mom is of Polish descent, so she’s also a fan of that stuff. Our youngest son is going through a Polish Pride phase. I’ve been meaning to show him videos of the great professional wrestler Ivan Putski. Polish Power!

      • diskojoe

        We forgot to mention golabki, which, to me, tastes great w/ketchup & toasted pumpernickel slices on the side. Also, one of my favorite dishes of all time is a plate of my mother’s potato pierogi w/melted butter sauce & a cold glass of milk.

        Also, you do know that Ray Manzarek of the Doors was a Polish guy from Chicago?

  3. ladymisskirroyale

    Clearly condiment. I admire your food metaphor, Mod. More of that great thinking and rock journalism I appreciate about you.

    But…which condiment would it be? Ketchup? Mustard (clearly not dijon)? Mayo? I leaning towards mustard, myself.

    BTW, if there are 3 of us voicing our belief in harmonica = condiment, who are those other 15 people on the poll?

  4. hrrundivbakshi

    Heard a great harmonica song yesterday which sort of blows through (ha) your “condiment OR instrument” paradigm: “Low Rider” by WAR. The harp is played pretty much throughout, and is crucial to the song.

  5. 2000 Man

    I think with J Geils it’s an instrument, partly because it seems like Magic Dick actually knows when to put it down and bang on a tambourine. I remember when Blues Traveler had that hit song, and people talked about how great that guy was for a week or two, but I thought he always sounded exactly the same. The Stones use it well, and I think Mick is actually underrated as a harmonica player. I don’t know how I’m gonna vote in that poll. I know my dad said when he was a kid they used to have ketchup sandwiches in the depression, so I guess a condiment can be a meal!

  6. cliff sovinsanity

    Instrument damn it.

    I can’t imagine On The Road Again or the works of Canned Heat without it.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QexOuH8GS-Y

  7. 2000 Man

    I’m getting a very interesting ad for Harmonica lessons up there. The woman looks quite wistful while doing whatever it is she’s doing with that harmonica. Her lipstick looks pretty good, so I don’t think she’s actually playing it.

  8. “The Harmonica: Instrument or Condiment?”

    With standard the standard “Richter” tuning-pattern then the harmonica would remain as just the condiment for playing repetitive blues riffs which are in many situations little more than rhythm and noise but with the “Richter+” [formerly “Paddy Richter”] tuning-pattern then the harmonica becomes a complete musical instrument for popular or classical melody.

    The “Richter+” tuning-pattern with just two simple bends of one draw-bend (at hole-2) and one blow-bend (at hole-10) provides the musician with three complete diatonic octaves.

    /Neil ( http://thebuskingproject.com/busker/2025/ )

  9. “The Harmonica: Instrument or Condiment?”

    With the standard “Richter” tuning-pattern then the harmonica would remain as just the condiment for playing repetitive blues riffs which are in many situations little more than rhythm and noise but with the “Richter+” [formerly “Paddy Richter”] tuning-pattern then the harmonica becomes a complete musical instrument for popular or classical melody.

    The “Richter+” tuning-pattern with just two simple bends of one draw-bend (at hole-2) and one blow-bend (at hole-10) provides the musician with three complete diatonic octaves.

    /Neil ( http://thebuskingproject.com/busker/2025/ )

  10. I’m in a 2-person band where I play harmonica across folk, pop, and blues songs. My bandmate does guitar and vocals. Throughout the songs I provide rhythm, melody, countermelody, comping, fills, etc. I refuse to be in the band as merely an accompanist and it comes out in my playing.

    I’m a low-end intermediate player, but even still I consider myself more akin to the bun for a hamburger than the ketchup, or even onions. Without me the songs would be greasy and messy to consume, and would be conspicuously incomplete at first sight.

 
twitter facebook youtube