The Zen of Harmonica

In mid-December of 2022, I started playing the harmonica. Prior to this, I hadn’t done anything musical for close to a decade. I’d played piano, trombone, and tuba in middle school and high school, but as soon as I moved out of my mom’s house, I decided music wasn’t something I had time for.

The harmonica isn’t an instrument many people take seriously. For most of us, it’s that instrument our fathers and grandfathers brought out on camping trips to everyone’s embarrassment. Despite its size, the harmonica produces a big sound that’s hard to ignore. When the harmonica is played, it demands your attention, regardless of how good its player is. And as with most instruments, most people who pick up the humble blues harp aren’t that good at it.

I thought the harmonica would be easy to pick up. Well, due to its size, it actually was easy to pick up and carry around, but actually learning to play it well was another matter entirely. Unlike string instruments which require you to learn proper fingering or woodwind and brass instruments that require a special embouchure, you don’t need to learn any special techniques to produce notes on a harmonica: you simply inhale and exhale. But doing that in a way that sounds pleasant is one of the hardest things I’ve ever undertaken.

Playing individual notes on a French harp can be a real pain at first. Directing air through a hole the size of a lentil sounds simple enough, but doing so in such a way that you aren’t directing air into other lentil-sized holes requires practice. And certain reeds require you to be hyper-aware of how you breathe and shape your mouth.

My brother, who plays guitar and saxophone, despises the harmonica. Like me, he thought it would be something fun and easy to learn. But unlike his beloved sax, the harmonica was not a cooperative aeolian partner. “The sax is beautiful,” he texted me a few weeks ago. “She smells like wintergreen and cork grease, tastes pleasantly of cane, and she plays like a dream. The harmonica, meanwhile, looks, smells, and tastes like a robot’s dick.”

I’m not a great harmonicist yet. I don’t even think I can call myself decent. But I’m learning and practicing, and I like to think I’ve been making progress. Last week, my wife and I were at a Kentucky Derby party. I brought along my Hohner Crossover and improvised a slow blues jam for the guests. Much to my surprise, they were impressed by how well I played. It was at that moment that I decided to become a Harmonica Man.

No one can hate the Harmonica Man. The Guitar Guy is a ubiquitous specimen in North America, and his cousin the Piano Prick is as common as he is pretentious. But the Harmonica Man puts on no airs. His instrument doesn’t demand any special respect or reverence, nor does it double as a piece of furniture. His instrument is a democratic one which anyone can afford and which can fit in anyone’s hand. The Harmonica Man makes no effort to appear sweet or quirky like the Guitar Guy, nor does he attempt to seem cultured or intelligent like the Piano Prick. The Harmonica Man is nothing more and nothing less than a man with a harmonica who plays his harmonica because he has a harmonica. It matters not what genre he plays, for the timbre of the harmonica is one which sparks joy in everyone’s heart. Truly, if I were not a Harmonica Man, I would choose to be a Harmonica Man.

But in all seriousness, man, learning to bend notes is a major pain. I’m getting (kind of) good at it now, but I don’t think any other instrument requires you to unlock notes like this. Keyboard and guitar just require you to position your fingers in a certain way to play a new note, but the harmonica forces you to learn arcane Himalayan breathing techniques and tongue contortions just to pitch an A down to a G, all so you can play the harmonica riff from Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard.”