The Worst Instrument
This is not going to be some sort of feel-good piece where I bait you into thinking I’m going to lay out a controversial opinion and then it switches into an ecumenical, feel-good article about how everyone’s musical tastes are different, how there’s no such thing as a “bad” instrument, and that it is all about the musicianship of the performer.
No, the worst instrument is the harmonica.
Simply put, this instrument should be played by no one and every moment of sound I’ve experienced from this noise vessel has been unpleasant.
It started out with a few arguments at parties. People would laugh, telling me I’m funny. How could anyone hold such an extremist view towards something like the harmonica? I doubt anyone has even thought about it before which makes it a novel opinion for people who don’t really pay attention to the sound which invades their ears. The sound of this small, seemingly innocent, free reed instrument drives me to a dark madness I hesitate to mention. The only sound worse than the harmonica is the sound of a harmonica player’s voice bloviating about the “craft” of playing harmonica. This “craft” is invented nonsense.
I started testing out my opinion on a more experienced audience: musicians. This did not go well. There is something about categorically labeling an instrument as “terrible” that really gets underneath harmonica players’ skins. Such snowflakes.
Yet, I remain steadfast and defiant in the face of this complacent, harmonica-apologist culture. Most music with a harmonica instantly sounds better if you simply take out the harmonica or substitute it with a different instrument–ANY INSTRUMENT. It doesn’t even need to be a real instrument. I’d rather hear looped sound of our sun exploding than listen to even the best harmonicist. Additionally, I think it’s a disgrace that the word “harmony,” one of the most beautiful elements of music, could ever get involved in the naming of this musical abomination. If you are a harmonicist, I implore you to stop. NOW. Abandon your weapon of discord and go and musically sin no more.
That is, unless your name happens to be John Popper, and you play for a little band called Blues Traveler.
If you are not familiar with Blues Traveler, they were (and are) a rock band SUPER popular in the 90’s featuring the melodious and birdsong-like harmonica lead from it’s front man, John Popper. A large, beautiful, enigmatically talented musician who has somehow managed to master the worst instrument that western culture has ever produced, John Popper playing a harmonica is akin to hearing a miracle take place in a pop song. When one hears John Popper play a harmonica, the whole body feels elevated or light, as if John Popper somehow discovered a way to dull the effect of gravity with his harmonica.
So I reached out to John Popper and Blues Traveller in a well-worded and thought out tweet claiming that his instrument is terrible and shouldn’t be played by anyone other than him.
Surprisingly enough John, or someone in the Blues Traveler crew who is a BIG fan of harmonica, tweeted back with a thoughtful and kind response.
I strongly recommend: Howard Levy,Jason Ricci,Lee Oskar,Charlie Musslewhite,Little Walter,& on chromatic harps(the kind w/the button),Stevie Wonder& Toots Thielmans...There are many great players,but alot of bad ones creating a low expectation...the harmonica will-— Blues Traveler (@blues_traveler) December 8, 2017
-allow some things to come easy (especially the diatonic “non button” kind)...but it can become annoying when the musicality isn’t absolutely persued...It’s doesn’t need to be about technical proficiancy as much as musicality...just look at Niel Young...He rocks! :)— Blues Traveler (@blues_traveler) December 8, 2017
That last part has stuck with me for the last couple of days:
...it can become annoying when the musicality isn’t absolutely persued...It’s doesn’t need to be about technical proficiancy as much as musicality...just look at Niel Young...He rocks!
This has made me stop my hatred for harmonica (briefly) and think about my own playing and writing. Have I been pursuing the musicality in the performance of my instrument? Or am I too focused on the technicality or some other aspect apart from just playing the music in a musical way for the song? Here’s a performer who has mastered and elevated an instrument otherwise relegated to hobos and miscreants giving a simple recommendation for us amateurs: Pursue Musicality.
Big thanks to @blues_traveler for weighing in and schooling me on harmonica. Below is a spotify playlist of the recommended harmonicists. Check them out and throw a little love towards the monster John Popper and the very rocking Blues Traveler on Twitter @blues_traveler.