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Harmonica Aficionados Want To Get Younger Generations Humming

Michael Bentley
Flickr - Creative Commons
The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica is hoping to get younger musicians interested in the instrument.

What does it sound like when 400 harmonica players get together?

"Well… a hell of a lot of noise," joked Roger Bale, president of the Mile High Harmonica Club.

Back in the '30s, '40s and '50s, the harmonica was a very popular instrument. While now it's something that occasionally makes its way into a performance, then it was a core part of bands.

It's a much maligned instrument that's facing an image problem, something Bale and others want to change.

"We're sort of classed with the accordion and the saw as a 'novelty' musical instrument," he said. "But really it's a very versatile instrument."

It's used in rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass and classical music. Yes, classical harmonica is a thing. Really.

"It's not well-known, but there are people out there who just play classical music – on the harmonica – beautifully," Bale said.

The instrument's simplistic appearance could be a double-edged sword in that regard.

"You can learn to play a few enjoyable tunes without having to knock yourself out, but a lot of people think, 'well, that's the simple as playing tissue paper on a comb,' and it's really not," Bale said. "Some people can pick it up fairly easily. But to get to be a virtuoso player – I don't know how long that takes because I'm not there, and I've been playing for about 60 years."


Bale, 77, discovered the harmonica as a boy, when he found his father's harmonica buried in a drawer.

"He had a tin ear; he couldn't play for anything," he said. "But I was just fascinated with it. I went out and bought one and learned to play it by ear."

Most people know the song “Istanbul” from the They Might Be Giants version, but in 1953 it was performed by The Four Lads. It was that song that inspired Bale to even loftier harmonica pursuits.

"I wanted desperately to play ('Istanbul') and I could not do it," he said. "My ear just wasn't good enough to pick it up. And as a result of that I taught myself to read music."

Bale hopes his story is one that more young people can emulate, but the shift between the harmonica he learned on, and the kind popular amongst musicians today is making it tougher.

"When you hear harmonicas now, bands like Blues Traveler are playing what's called a diatonic harmonica," Bale said. "And it's 10 holes and it's tuned in one key. Now, us old guys, learned to play on a chromatic harmonica. It tends to be bigger, has more holes, and has a key on the side so that if you're playing a harmonica tuned in C, and you push that key in, it changes it to C sharp. It's like having the white keys on a piano, and when you push that key in you get all the black keys. You have all the notes."

Both diatonic and chromatic harmonica players are coming together for the 52nd annual convention of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica in Denver.

Most of the attendees are on the older side, but younger performers are being encouraged to attend thanks to free and reduced-cost admission, as well as instruments and instruction. There's also a variety of seminars to encourage younger musicians - as well as one that asks the question: “What’s Wrong with the Harmonica?”

Bale said he doesn’t have the answer but he hopes the event will spur more young people to pick up the harmonica.

“We used to have an ensemble group called The West Wind Harmonica Band but we lost too many members so the band broke up a couple years ago,” he said. “We still have a trio – so, we’re trying to keep it alive.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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