The Humble Harmonica

Photo by Dmitry Vechorko on Unsplash

There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It might sound strange to some people, but why isn’t the harmonica a more popular instrument? It’s often seen as a kid’s toy or lame or dorky. People dream of becoming a guitar hero, a pyrotechnic drummer, or a groovy bassist. They fantasize about being a hot DJ, singer, or rapper. Others go serious into the world of virtuosity. No one even thinks of the old mouth-harp.

The reason I find this puzzling is that the harmonica has everything going for it. People have talked a lot about how the Spanish guitar took over in black music from the African banjo largely because it’s cheaper and easier to make. I’m pretty sure the harmonica is the only instrument where you can get a professional quality model for under $50. A big reason why keyboard instruments are so popular is because they are pretty ubiquitous. Every school, church, community center, some offices, and many homes have one. Harmonicas might be even more readily available. I mentioned children’s toys earlier. Most homes with kids are going to have a dusty old harmonica laying around somewhere. So, availability and accessibility are not where things go wrong.

For some reason, it seems that the harmonica lacks the coolness factor of other instruments. I just can’t figure out why. There’s no shortage of giant superstar musicians who play the harmonica. Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young come immediately to mind. And then there’s Stevie Wonder. They simply don’t make musicians any cooler than Stevie Wonder. It doesn’t matter if you like pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, funk, electronic, or what, Stevie Wonder is one of your favorites. And it’s not like the harp is something Stevie just dabbles with. His first hit was basically a harmonica instrumental. It’s the featured solo instrument in tons of his songs. Did people somehow not notice his harmonica playing while they were giving him all those Grammys and Gold and Platinum Records?

On top of all this, the harmonica is pretty easy to play. It was designed that way. It’s always in tune with itself and most unaltered recordings. It takes a lot of time and effort to get to Stevie Wonder levels on the instrument, but most of us can get to a Bob Dylan level in weeks rather than years. So many people try to take up an instrument only to quit in frustration when it takes too long to sound decent. Harmonica solves that problem. Another thing to keep in mind is harmonica is an incredibly versatile instrument. It’s featured in everything from Classical and Jazz to Pop and Folk. Whatever genre you like, harmonica will fit.

Let’s change some perceptions. Go through your closet or junk drawer or your kid’s toy chest, dust off that old harmonica and give it a blow. It’s a lot of fun. You won’t be sorry.

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