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Is the Harmonica Player Really a Musician? - Part 1

  06/14/10 00:27, by , Categories: BFMN Exclusive, Monday Morning Musical Musings, Paul Bourgeois , Tags: bar fight, blues, harmonica, jazz, keys, music theory, musician, rhythm, schecter diamond series, the blue monsters
Paul Bourgeois

Dan Grigor said he loved these articles because they were “a wonderful look into the mind of the working musician.” I don’t know about that, but it warms my wretched heart.

I’m a singer and a harmonica player. I’m not going to look at whether a singer alone is a musician. (Not now, anyway. Ozzy is both).
This series may have some basic theory. The real musicians can just skip that part.

Click for more of this musician’s Monday morning musical musings.

Maybe a harmonica is something you do in conjunction with something else, something that you just pick up when you learn to play a real instrument, like Dylan plays the harmonica. Right?

Honer Golden Melody

Maybe it has to do with who plays it and how they play it that makes it an instrument. Right?

If you make money at it – meaning: Do other people want to listen to you? Can you stand to play with others, or for others? Do you have the initiative to go out and find gigs? Does that make you a musician? That’s a lot of stuff right there, Boyo. Believe me.

If you are technically really good, does that make you a musician? I have met people who could – or would – never play with others, but they could play out the difference in style between Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins or Robben Ford, just by ear. Never mind words like harmonics or that Robben Ford holds his guitar pick with the wrong fingers. They were farmers!

All The Keys

Or is it the knowledge of music theory? I started out playing the piano. Did you know: One key has seven notes in it. If you play those seven notes that’s one octave. And not every note is the same size. Don’t listen to the Von Trapp family. That final “do” is the beginning of the next octave. And I’ve probably got it all wrong because you got majors, minors, relative keys and a whole bunch of other crap that some people, if they can hear it works, they just do it and don’t worry about how or why.

Because I don’t need to adjust my fingering or tune my instrument when I change keys. For me, it’s easy. I’m hardwired with a whole box of harmonicas… seven. Of course, within that seven notes, you’ve got flats and sharps, majors, minors, modes and the relative keys. Harmonica players have to know all this before they can forget it and start to play.

Schecter Diamond Series Guitar

You just have to tell me the key and then I – after referring to the various charts I have stuck all over my cases – can pick up the right harmonica. And it doesn’t matter what note I hit, because if I’m in the right key…it’s always the next note I hit that makes my first note sound good…how and when. It is timing and listening to the changes. Actually, the lead players have it really easy, because the rhythm section – the drummer and the bassist – just kind of drag us into a nice, comfortable slot. We can spend our time just having fun, jumping around, trying to get out, but not quite managing it. Can you understand what I am saying? Oh, God, I hope not, because if you could, that would mean anyone could be a musician.

I spent my time in the jazz club in University. It was called the Graduate Club, so people studying for an undergraduate degree like a BA couldn’t attend. That’s what I liked to tell myself, because I was a bit of a snob.

Male Posturing -  The Third Man

The main floor with the band was above the bar – a balcony-like affair. The empty beer bottles kind of accumulated on the table. Well, I spent my time with my eyes fixed on the drummer, his eyes fixed on me, beating out thirds on the table and other weird rhythm combinations around the basic 4/4 beat. The bottles would dance! You can see where this is going, of course.

I got myself thrown out of that club. It was an accident and nobody was hurt and everybody was having fun.

Suddenly there was this maniac screaming in my face. It was the bartender. I was so mad at him for disrespecting me.

“Don’t think I didn’t see what you did!” he was shouting.

“You can’t throw me out. This wouldn’t have happened if you had cleaned the tables like you were supposed to.”

“Don’t be blaming this on me.”

There was the appropriate amount of male posturingmusical gorillas, we – and, of course, I managed to get myself banned. I was back the next week with a friend, my advanced degree, and my snobbish attitude to regain my respect and weekly musical inebriation privileges.

The Two Monsters

I won. I gotta win at the small stuff in life. It’s the big stuff in life I really gotta wrestle with.

That’s why I play the blues.

But I am thinking of the drummer watching me and laughing as I am beating out thirds and beating on the offbeat, and that made me feel really good.

And twenty-five years later, I’m the musician trying to give that good feeling to the people who come to listen to me. Hell, I don’t know who is a musician or why, or what I am. I’ll play with anyone, and I usually do.

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