Margie Goldsmith – Masters of the Harmonica
30 Master Harmonica Players Share Their Craft
Mountain Arbor Press
337 pages – paperback or digital
Anyone who picks up a harmonica can play it, right? All you have to do is suck or blow to produce cords. But if you truly want to play the instrument, it’s far more difficult because – even if you’re taking lessons from one of the best players in the world — all of the action is hidden from view.
The diatonic harmonica is a seemingly simple device with two rows of reeds, 10 holes each for blow and draw. But unlike any other musical device ever created, the instrument literally becomes part of the body when played. It’s a living, breathing entity initiated by the action of the artist’s lungs part of the lungs and – in advanced technique – shaped externally by the positioning of the hands and internally by the shape of the mouth and position of the tongue.
The process is ethereal, and — other than the occasional savant who can pick up the techniques from the jump – almost everyone needs outside help to develop their skills.
That’s where this book will come in handy.
Penned by New York-based journalist and harmonica enthusiast Margie Goldsmith — whose works appear regularly in an extensive range of publications, including the New York Times, Forbes, Robb Report, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of tourism magazines, it’s not an instructional book, per se, but it takes the reader deep into the minds of 30 of the top players, innovators and educators in the world today.
A member of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica (SPAH), Goldsmith also serves as a contributor to its quarterly magazine, Harmonica Happenings. Many of the interviews she conducted for that publication lead to this book.
More than half of the talents featured here are blues devotees, including Sugar Blue, Billy Branch, Magic Dick, Rick Estrin, Dennis Gruenling, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Oscher, Little Annie Raines and Kim Wilson. Other subjects include overblow master Howard Levy and innovator Jason Ricci, country legend Charlie McCoy, internationally acclaimed masters David Barrett, Joe Filisko, Jon Gindick, Richard Sleigh and Winslow Yerxa and others too numerous to mention – each of whom reveal their backgrounds in question-and-answer format and discuss their own techniques and approach to the instrument. More often than not, they provide easy-to-comprehend tips for less skilled players along the way.
Kernels of wisdom exist in each chapter, and here are a few culled from the blues players:
Both Blue and Branch stress that, no matter how many gigs you have or how good you become, it’s essential to practice. In addition to keeping your chops sharp, it gives you the opportunity to experiment and stretch your skills. While it’s important to practice along with the masters and commit their stylings to memory, it’s also imperative to remember that the blues is an oral tradition passed from generation to generation and the soul of the music has evolved because of subtle changes incorporated along the way.
Former J. Geils harp player Magic Dick recommends that beginners stick to one playing style – lip-pursing or tongue-blocking – and mastering it before delving into other techniques, noting that your choice affects the tone you produce, which is the most important aspect in your play.
For Estrin, meanwhile, it’s far more important for a beginner “to get the blues in your head” first before anything else. Self-taught from records, he insists: “Listen to the stuff you want to play; the more you listen, the more you hear.” Once accomplished, it enables you to alter your technique to produce the intonations you desire.
Considered by Hohner “the world’s foremost authority on the diatonic harmonica,” Filisko believes that tongue-blocking provides the fastest track to a big sound, noting that lip-pursing limits the player to clean, single notes. He stresses the importance of finding a relaxed position for both hands and body to enhance breathing.
The reining SPAH and Blues Music Association harp player of the year, Gruenling stresses the need to practice scales. By doing so, you’ll have a better understanding of music in general. And don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes.
But Masters of the Harmonica is far more than a primer for would-be players. Goldsmith provides in-depth character studies of her subjects along the way, weaving their life stories into the fabric consistently along the way. Available as either a soft-cover hard copy or digital download, a bargain at its listed price and highly recommended for musicians and fans alike.