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7 insights from the world's greatest harmonica players

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

I've been lucky enough to meet many of my harp heroes: Charlie McCoy, Lee Oskar, Rick Estrin and Dennis Gruenling to name just a few. Along the way, I've gained a lot from the generous and humble interviews they've given. Here are my favourite insights from over the years.

Check out all my interviews via my harmonica interviews YouTube playlist.

#1: "Everyone is musical" (Corky Siegel)

Corky Siegel is not necessarily the most famous harp player on the planet, but he's certainly one of the most experienced and still one of the busiest. He's known for mixing blues with chamber music and creating amazing results. In a wide-ranging and revealing talk, he explained his belief that music is something we are all capable of and that it just needs to be coaxed out. Sadly lots of us are told at a young age that we "are not musical" - whatever than means. Luckily, it's never too late to give it a go. Music is great for your physical, emotional and spiritual health, and Corky's work performing and teaching is testament to that.

To hear more from him, check out my interview with Corky Siegel.

#2: "It's not all about you" (Charlie McCoy)

Charlie McCoy is a country legend, simple as that. The go-to harmonica player in Nashville for over 60 years, he's recorded on thousands of hit records and played with greats including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and Leonard Cohen. But when I spoke to him he made the great point that when you're working as a session guy you're only ever there to do a specific job - you're a hired hand, no matter what you've done before. You might have noticed McCoy's haunting bass harmonica on The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel. "Paul Simon dictated every note", he told me. It wasn't up to Charlie to say what was best for a client, even though he knows harmonica better than anyone. This is a great message to all of us: if he's humble enough to accept it, then surely we can be too.

Check out my full interview with Charlie McCoy.

#3: "Rip off everyone you hear" (John Popper)

John Popper of Blues Traveler has had more commercial success than most harmonica players. Through it all, he has kept the fire burning in his seach for new and creative ways of playing the instrument. He explains that one great way to gain inspiration is to listen to other isntruments, especially ones you don't play yourself. This is commonplace in the wider world of music but harmonica players can be very conservative in their tastes. Instead, be like John and try to open your ears to every instrument in the band. Get into a new genre: maybe not even with the goal to play it yourself, but just to become more open to great sounds.

#4: "Always ask questions of yourself" (Howard Levy)

Howard Levy is known as the genius of the harmonica, the overblow king who took a tiny diatonic instrument and turned it into a vehicle for classical and bebop. He has always pushed boundaries, and when I got to chat to him I wanted to know how he does it. He told me that he puts it down to a natural curiosity. If you're always asking questions - "would this work?"... "what if I tried that?"... "is this even possible?" - then you'll come up with some surprising results. He's still as curious as ever; you can hear it in the way he talks and you can see the excitement in his eyes. During our interview ran over to the piano to show me some examples and improvise some harp-keyboard duets on the spot. An inspiration to all of us.

Check out my full interview with Howard Levy.

#5: "The song is king" (Roly Platt)

Roly Platt is a recording tour-de-force. He's appeared on a huge number of recordings in his native Canada, the USA and around the world. His biggest tip for aspiring players? "The song is king". Simple as that. It's such an important message, meaning that you must always consider the context of everything you play. Remember that people want to be entertained, they're not interested if you're the most technical wizard on the instrument, they may not even be able to tell if you're any good or not, they just want to have a good time. Serve the song and you'll be well on your way to giving them just that.

Check out my full interview with Roly Platt.

#6: "Music is a gift" (Buddy Greene)

Harmonica videos don't get much bigger than Buddy Greene's performance at Carnegie Hall. He's had some pretty huge gigs in his career but he remain as humble as ever. For him, music is "a gift from God". I interviewed him during the COVID-19 lockdown and he said he was keeping himself busy, playing at home for fun, waiting patiently for a time when he could go out and share his music again. Listen to him speak and it's clear he sees himself as one of the lucky ones, making a longterm living out of the humble harmonica. If that isn't a gift, what is?

#7: "It'll all work out in the end" (Rick Estrin)

These days, Rick Estrin is an accepted giant of amplified blues harp. However, in his younger years he missed an invitation that would have changed his life forever. He could've been the next full-time harp player in Muddy Waters' band if he hadn't jumped on a plane back West and missed Muddy's call. He told me that naturally at first he was upset but admits that he probably wouldn't be alive today with the amount of drugs and booze Estrin was on at the time, and the heavy touring involved in Muddy's schedule. Thankful for his life, and a second chance, he moved on to do his own thing and is now one of the blues world's most respected songwriters and bandleaders as well as a legend of the blues harp. Whatever happens, it'll all work out for the best.

All my interviews with harmonica players are available via my harmonica interviews YouTube playlist (including all the above plus Lee Oskar, David Barrett, Carlos del Junco, Dennis Gruenling, Adam Gussow, Joe Filisko and many more).

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