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Column: Trusty harmonica plays its last song


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I had to buy a new harmonica last week. The old one died. I was playing it on a song by Tom Petty, and something didn’t sound right.

Now, if you have ever heard me play harmonica, a strange sound in itself would not be evidence that something was wrong with the instrument. However, the tone that came out was not a note that was clear sounding but obviously wrong.

No, it was more like the wheezing sound of a donkey with a sore throat. I am aware of my limited harmonica skills and am willing to own up to my musical mistakes, but this was not one of them.

Both the harmonica that died and the one I bought are G harmonicas. That means the notes on them are the notes you would find in the musical key of G. I have five harmonicas, each in a different key. They make harmonicas in all 12 musical keys, but I own only the ones that fit with the songs I know. They also make chromatic harmonicas that will play any note on any scale, but I have never been able to do much with those things.

It is always a relief when I discover a song I want to learn is in the key of a harmonica I already have. That means I don’t have to buy a new one.

I’m not sure just exactly how many years I had that G harmonica. Back in the 1980s I left a bag of equipment sitting in a parking lot after a late-night gig and had to replace everything in it including harmonicas. The replacement harmonica I bought back then is likely the one that just croaked. I don’t know about real harmonica players, but I only replace mine when I lose one or it stops working.

Because it had been some time since I had bought a new harmonica, I experienced a bit of sticker shock when I went to the music store to find the replacement for my broken one. I worked in a music store back in 1973-74 and remember selling them for under $10, so I was momentarily taken aback when I saw they were asking $45 for a G harmonica in the model I had in mind. Of course, minimum wage back in those days was around $2 an hour, so I guess it’s all relative.

I bought a harmonica made by the German company Hohner, which is the world’s No. 1 seller of harmonicas.

The model I bought was a “Blues Harp.” Just as guitar players sometimes refer to an instrument as their “ax,” real harmonica players, especially harmonica players who play blues music, often call their harmonicas “harps.” It makes me wonder if musicians who play actual harps have a special name for their instruments.

Even though I don’t consider myself a “real” harmonica player, I have been at it for a long time. The Beatles first piqued my interest in harmonicas back in the 1960s, but I really decided to make an effort to learn to play when I discovered Bob Dylan.

I found that with constant practice (Ah, the free time I had back in those days) I could replicate some sounds that were sort of close to what he was doing. I acquired one of those wire harmonica holder devices to wear around my neck, and soon I was working my harp songs into the playlist of my garage band. Here it is all these years later, and I am still at it.

It was a good thing that I was forced to buy a new G harp. Maybe it is just me, but it seems to have a stronger, somehow fresher sound than did the old one. I am still hitting plenty of wrong notes, but at least they have a nicer sound.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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