Harmonica in Bluegrass

Jersey Jim writes: Hey Pete, I’ve been a campfire guitar strummer for years but never really tried to advance. (Same old stuff). What I been good at or even better than good is the harmonica. I been playing harp for 30 years and have adapted to sitting in with a lot of different styles of music Blues, folk and bluegrass mostly.

What I have experienced as a harp player is I get mixed emotions from different festivals at night time jams. Sometimes I am very much welcomed (especially if they recognize me ) and other times I can’t get a break to same my life, so I move on. I’ve even seen where musicians will pack it up and move on when I enter a circle, with caution that is. I’m thinking of taking up the banjo, just so I have more musicians I can play and work with. But I was curious to hear your view point on his delicate subject and do you have any suggestions on were/how I can improve. So I ask you, Pete: Is the harmonica a bluegrass instrument?

Thanks for your input, hope to meet you soon.

Dear J.J.,

You’ve asked a very interesting question here. The short answer is what you’ve already observed: “Yes or no, depending.”

Longer answer, depending on “what”?

Most people don’t like fast harmonica playing in bluegrass. It’s very hard to do, and sounds very hard to do, but I personally don’t usually like it, and all the “huffing and puffing” as I think of it, distracts from the pure sounds of the picked and bowed instruments. Flatt & Scruggs and Jim & Jesse both experimented with harmonica players, some of the best in fact, but many fans didn’t like it, and with those two high-profile experiments, most people consider the case closed.

However, on slower, wistful tunes, I think a harmonica can add a beautiful, evocative feel that is not at all foreign to the sounds and emotions of bluegrass.

I am a bit biased here, because my dad played harmonica. After rejecting him as a music partner as a teenager (par for the course, I guess), I later “rediscovered” him, and had many happy times making music with just banjo and harmonica. We even did a little bit of recording that I’d like to release someday.

In jam sessions, I’m always willing to give a harmonica player a turn, just to see what they can do. If they can handle the music well (even in huff/puff style) I’ll think of them as welcome, because in a jam, when it doubt it’s better to be inclusive — usually, at least.

So I’m just underscoring your experience and the conclusions you’ve already drawn:

  1. Some people will like it, some won’t.
  2. Choose where you’re welcome, and leave where you’re not.
  3. To be more generally welcome, bring and be able to play another, more wanted instrument.

Here’s a further suggestion:

  1. Choose your situations carefully. Don’t bring out the harmonica until a slower song comes along, then do your thing, with good tone and feeling, no histrionics. That will create a great first impression and good reaction. Then put it back away until the next opportunity where you know it will go over well. Don’t start “chancing” using it on more questionable songs (especially faster ones) unless you really think it will work. Like a lot of things, a small portion will go over a lot better than a large portion.

Happy harping!

— Pete

2 thoughts on “Harmonica in Bluegrass”

  1. A very thoughtful, and useful response. Years ago I had the pleasure of attending several vocal classes with Peter Rowan — he encouraged my harmonica playing, mentioning that Bill Monroe used a harp player on occasion in the early days. As I recall, it was on the slower gospel tunes that “mouth organ” was invited to help fill out the harmony.

    • Thanks Lawrence. Yes, harmonica should be encouraged, and also know where it can really add, which isn’t everyplace! Glad you find the article useful!



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