Click on the links below for some samples of my harmonica playing alongside, in 1-4, the singer/songwriter Findlay Napier. 1) was recorded in 2016 in Findlay's front room, the others in 2000, in a little studio in Hamilton. Tracks 5 is a setting of my poem 'Shore Crab' by Neil Thomson, with me on harmonica; track 6, Neil's setting of William Soutar's great poem in Scots, 'The Tryst,' again with my accompaniment. Track 7 features a talking blues in Lithuanian by Gintaras Graujaskas on base guitar, Astvaldur Traustason on piano and me on harmonica: 'Statau baricada / I'm building a barricade'.
I first came across the harmonica when I picked one up on a girlfriend's couch around 1991. It was a Hohner with a red plastic comb. "Is it a toy?" I asked her.
"No, it's a real instrument. You can busk with that," she said.
The next day I went out and bought one, a Hohner Pro-harp in the key of D. I was fascinated by its portability, and by the different models in the music shop's cabinet. And, like most beginners, I daresay, I thought my new purchase, which cost around Â£14, would last for 40 years. At least.
Along with it I bought a slim instruction book, where I learnt about the great players of the instrument, and about something called "blues" music (I was very naive) which, as chance would have it, the diatonic harmonica, to give it its technical name, was ideal for playing. But to do that I first had to learn how to bend a note, a complex undertaking for which the instrument hadn't been designed, apparently.
Getting the Bends
In fact, the original manufacturers, Hohner, didn't know the instrument could do this until, around 1900, someone exported a box of harps to America where, owing to the cheapness of the instrument, African-American musicians took it up. One unknown genius discovered that the first six holes could be draw-bent, that is, lowered by up to a tone, and the harmonica, the Mississippi Saxophone as it became known, was launched for the blues.
Today the harmonica is, apparently, the world's best-selling musical instrument. Here is one reason: six weeks after I bought my first, one of the notes began sounding out of tune. I took it back to the shop in indignation.
"Are you trying to play blues on it?" the shop assistant asked.
"Did you not know that the average life of the diatonic harmonica if regularly used to play blues is between six to eight weeks?"
Well, I didn't know, but I bought another one. Harmonicas are supposed to be 'broken in', by gentle blowing, at first. I've known a harp which hadn't been to 'blow out' in a couple of weeks. At around Â£18 a time, that gets expensive.
The obsessive's instrument
While ideal for blues, the little diatonic is an infuriating instrument when used for playing other music, because it has notes missing at the bottom end. Some players get round this by re-tuning their own instruments, raising the three blow note, which, with typical harmonica idiosyncrasy, is also the two draw, up a tone. This opens up a big range of new musical possibilities, especially if you want to play Irish or Scottish traditional music. There are also special tunings made by Lee Oskar and custom tunings by individual harmonica specialists.
I recently began re-tuning my own harmonicas to what the harmonica virtuoso Brendan Power called the 'Paddy Richter' tuning, very suited for playing Scottish and Irish traditional tunes. (I got tired of turning up at sessions and having guitarists play a token twelve-bar blues to humour the harmonica player.)
Contemporary harp players
As well as Brendan Power, there are many fantastic players out there, such as the astonishing Rory McLeod, a one-man band but also a jaw-droppingly good harp player.
Among Scottish blues players, Fraser Spiers and Rev Doc come to mind, as well as Aberdeen's versatile Spider Mackenzie, and a young player with a beautiful tone, Richard Rinn, and no doubt lots of others I haven't heard of.
The web has taken a lot of mystery out of the harp, but it remains one of the most perversely annoying and fascinating instruments around. But then, I would say that.
Click on the thumbnail images below to see the photos at full size.