David Barrett the world's most published author of blues harmonica talks about... (what else) the Harmonica

"It’s hard for me to quantify what drew me to Blues music, but I followed my goosebumps…it excited me!"

David Barrett: Mr. Harmonica

David Barrett is the world's most published author of blues harmonica lesson material (over 60 book/CD sets and videos published through Mel Bay Publications). Having played saxophone and trumpet for many years, David already had a solid musical background before playing the harmonica at age fourteen. By age sixteen he was already performing in blues jam sessions and harmonica shows in the California Bay Area.

By age eighteen he was studying music theory in college and started teaching harmonica at local music institutes. David is the founder and owner of the Harmonica Masterclass Company (HMC). HMC specializes in educational workshops held around the world for blues harmonica. David is the program director and master instructor of these classes. David is also the founder of School of the Blues in San Jose, California, the first school in the world for the specific study of blues music. He is also active in working with local hospitals teaching his Harmonica for Fun & Health classes to people with COPD (commonly Emphysema), asthma and heart disease. David's latest project is www.BluesHarmonica.com, an online lesson website where students from around the world study with David. David is a Grammy Nominated harmonica player for his work on John Lee Hooker Jr's recent release. Through the years David has worked or played with James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Mark Hummel, Lee Oskar, James Harman, Gary Smith, Billy Boy Arnold, Rick Estrin, Jerry Portnoy, Howard Levy, John Mayall, Paul Oscher, Phil Wiggins, Sam Myers, Snooky Pryor, Joe Filisko, Lazy Lester. David is the world's most published author of the blues harmonica lesson material, revolutionizing the way the harmonica is now taught. He is always honing his skills and striving for excellence in everything that he does.


Interview by Michael Limnios


David, when was your first desire to become involved in Blues music and who were your first idols?
I had been playing the harmonica for a number of months and then heard blues for the first time in the movie Crossroads. It was a rental movie, so I could rewind the tape as many times it took to try and figure out what the players were doing. I found it more handy to use my tape recorder and place it in front of the T.V. speakers and record it so that I could sit down and work on the parts in another room. I soon found out that I needed more keys of harmonica and went to my local music store to get some. This started my search for more blues harmonica music.
Thinking that blues music was old, I went to the Lost Mine Antique Store across the street from my junior high school and started purchasing records that had harmonica players on the cover. The rest of the story is pretty much the same as every other professional player... I sat down with the records for hours each day, for many years, and did my best to learn them all.
I wouldn’t say that I idolized any one player more than any other. Between the records I had and recording late-night Blues music radio shows on tape, I studied everything that crossed my path. The recordings that had the greatest impact on my playing were by Gary Smith, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Rice Miller and George Harmonica Smith.
I took lessons with Gary Smith when I was 16 (I started when I was 14), so he was the most important influence of all. He showed me tongue blocking, how to control my bends, how to use a mic and amp, and introduced me to songs and players that I wasn’t aware of at that point. I took nine lessons with Gary if memory serves me right. I wish I had stayed with him longer, but being an idiot kid I felt I had learned everything he had to offer.  


What were the first songs you learned?
To be honest I don’t remember. I learned everything that came across my path!



Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I’ll start with the worst! I put a band together for my high school gong show (I was a senior). We worked out a great harmonica instrumental where I started the song off with a wailing harmonica introduction. After playing the opening 4 draw and went to slide down the harmonica, my lips stuck! My mouth and lips were completely dry. I wasn’t very experienced at that age and didn’t think to have water with me and I did my best to play a couple more licks and couldn’t. I looked to the guitarist to solo for a bit and I tried lick my lips and such, but it wasn’t happenin’. I said to my guitarist, “I’ll be right back!” He looked at me like I was crazy as I ran off the stage to find water. I went into the band room and out the door to get some water at the fountain. By the time I found my way back on stage I was out of breath and couldn’t play and stopped the band. We were gonged. We limped off stage and to make things worse the judges forgot we were gonged and gave us third place. As I was accepting the award people were yelling from the audience “they were gonged,” and I said on mic, “we could have done better.” My one chance to play to the entire school and show them I COULD BLOW and I blew it ;-). Needless to say I wanted to crawl in a hole and die after that.
My best moments were playing on stage at the Harmonica Masterclass Workshop weekends, when I would hold the Legends of the Blues concerts. Since 1994 I had the opportunity to work with the players that influenced me so much as a budding Blues harmonica player.



What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and teacher?
As a musician it was easy… I REALY like the harmonica and LOVE playing blues harmonica. I WANTED to learn everything. The most important asset we have as studying musicians is an insatiable appetite for learning everything that crosses our paths. I was never told to practice and never remembered telling myself to practice.
As an instructor… for me personally it’s about breaking techniques down to their components and developing them properly from the beginning with students… in a progressive and fun way. In the early days of my teaching no books existed for the instruction of Blues harmonica… so every technique I taught I had to discover in my own playing or that of others by listening carefully to their music and transcribing it (no other process can replace the level of focus that transcribing offers), and in later cases asking the artists themselves (Harmonica Masterclass Workshops or interviews for www.bluesharmonica.com for example). In this process of codifying all of the techniques and teaching these techniques to students, my lesson books came about.
I have a process of instruction that’s really simple, but very powerful… learn the technique… apply that technique into study songs… apply the licks found within these study songs into the context of improvising (using the Chorus Forms concept). Though technique development is important, it’s not necessarily the subject I enjoy the most teaching. I love showing students what to do with their new found technique and licks with concepts such as Focus Notes, Chorus Forms, Soloing Themes, etc.
I also feel it’s important to continually push the envelope of what I cover and how I cover it. I’m always researching instruction methods to improve my teaching skills and continually improving my lesson material. One of the great benefits of BluesHarmonica.com is that I can go back and change anything, at any time, to better the material.  



How do you describe your music philosophy?
Blues music is an oral tradition… listen… copy… try to use. It’s also a tradition that’s been around for over sixty years; at least in the form that I mostly play… post-war Chicago Blues. My PERSONAL philosophy is to play within the genre of post-war Chicago Blues, and innovate within. Take the style I love so much, and do my own thing with it. I like to write instrumentals and enjoy using elements such as heads, hooks, breaks, bridges, etc., to add interest, but still stay within our standard forms… so it can be played live easily in impromptu settings. My focus IS as a teacher, though it is important for me to play out every now and again as well as record. I’d love to perform and record more, but students would suffer due to the fact I’m practicing and not writing new lesson material for them.
What I listen for in other players is good tone, solid technique, interesting licks, engaging solos and well developed ideas… whether improvised or worked out ahead of time.


What are some of the most memorable gigs, jams, recording and workshops you've had?
The Legends of the Blues Harmonica Concerts held in conjunction with the Harmonica Masterclass Workshops, Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowouts and Steve Baker’s Harmonica Masters Workshops were all killer. Through these events I’ve had the opportunity to play with: Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Lee Oskar, Rod Piazza, James Harman, James Cotton, Gary Smith, Andy Just, Mark Ford, Billy Boy Arnold, Jason Ricci, Rick Estrin, Paul deLay, Jerry Portnoy, Gary Primich, Howard Levy, Magic Dick, Tom Ball, Sonny Jr., John Mayall, Annie Raines, Paul Oscher, Phil Wiggins, Brendan Power, Sam Myers, Snooky Pryor, Steve Baker, Rob Paparozzi, Dennis Gruenling, Carlos del Junco, Mitch Kashmar, Sugar Ray Norcia, Joe Filisko, Lazy Lester, Kim Wilson, Kenny Neal, Curtis Salgado, Peter “Madcat” Ruth, Jr. Watson, Rusty Zinn, Nick Moss, Steve Freund, Johnny Cat, and John Garcia



Are there any memories from those entire great musicians, which you’d like to share with us?
No stories in particular stands out, but I can say they were/are all very kind and sharing people.  


Which of historical Blues personalities would you like to meet?
All of them! To be honest, I’ve studied all of their music in so much detail that there’s not much knowledge that can be gained by speaking to them… but it would be damn cool to meet our past masters and blow some harp. So, no talkin’, let’s play!


Why do you play HARP and what characterizes your sound and your progress?
I like the instrument! I use tongue blocking most of the time. I commonly pucker hole 1 and my blow bends, though I can tongue block hole 1 and do sometimes, and I can tongue block blow bends—I’m just not that good at it yet—but I’m working on it! I play classic Chicago Blues with a West Coast twist (in the style of Gary Smith, William Clark and Rod Piazza for example). I love writing and playing instrumentals. I personally am proud of my ability to play octaves on the high-end of the harmonica as well as being a strong 3rd Position player. I like the amplified sound the most. My playing has grown steadily over the years, but again, since my time is focused on teaching and developing lesson material, it’s much slower than if I were to dedicate my time to practice.



Why do you think David Barrett continues to generate such a devoted following?
To a certain degree it’s necessity… I’m the only one writing lesson material for Blues harmonica. I was certain that I would see other instructors, or students that studied my work, come along down the road and contribute, especially in the intermediate and advanced realm. There’s plenty of beginning harmonica material out there, but there’s still a vacuum for quality Blues instruction for all skill levels.
Some of this has to do with YouTube. YouTube has created an AMAZING place to hear and see players from all eras and locations in the world perform, and in some cases teach. It’s been difficult for authors to get works published, so I’ll assume that they’re out there, but are either not willing to put the time in to write material or don’t see an outlet for their work. The one exception now would be Howard Levy’s online lesson site. I have not subscribed to see what he has done, but I’m sure it’s world-class for those interested in music other than traditional Blues.
Thinking about this… I guess it would really be that there’s a lack of cohesive and complete material. Most instructors offer snippets of information, but have not taken the thousands of hours it takes to develop comprehensive material. Sometimes it’s because they’re not very advanced players themselves. Part of it also gets down to experience… teaching private and group classes on a regular basis. Nothing can take the place of teaching a lot—day in and day out for a long period of time. I have 45 full-time students… I have for over twenty years. These students are my focus group… what works stays and what doesn’t goes. I’m writing my Music Theory for Harmonica Players right now and they’re my guinea pigs  (shhh… don’t tell them! ;-), I won’t finalize the material and record it for BluesHarmonica.com until it’s VERY solid.
I also believe that those who’ve stuck with me through the years know that I’m truly excited about what I teach and am eager to help them and advance our world of knowledge.  


                                                                                              Photo by Noelle Heany

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
I think all musical styles and approaches are valid and stay with is, whether they become popular in the mainstream or not is a product of other social elements. Blues has staying power because it digs deep into human emotion, whether it’s jumpin’ and swingin’ or deep down and really blue, it’s powerful in a deeply human way.  


Give one wish for the BLUES
Keep being yourself


Is there any similarity between Blues, Rock, Folk and Country harmonica?
Sure! Using Blues as the reference… Rock distils everything that’s powerful (two-hole textures, flutters, fake octaves, shakes, etc.) and dark (bluesy notes) from Blues. It primarily uses notes from the Blues scale and values speed over subtly of texture. Folk uses more of the major scale and values melody over improvisation. The textures tend to be more chordal and less “effect”-based and is approachable by more players. Country music on the harmonica uses more of the major or major pentatonic scale. In all of these styles, good bending control and tongue blocking skills are important.


From who have you learned the most secrets about Blues music?
For the harmonica… early on it was Gary Smith and later on Joe Filisko. Joe’s someone I can always go to for an educated, well though-out opinion. Blues music as a whole, playing with John Garcia was an important element in my upbringing. Most of the knowledge of the blues I picked up on my own, but no doubt every musician I spoke to contributed to my overall knowledge of the music.  


Of all the people you’ve met, who do you admire the most?
Joe Filisko  


What made you fall in love with Blues music and what has Blues offered you?
When hearing the movie Crossroads for the first time, the sound of Blues really grabbed me. It was very soulful. It’s hard for me to quantify what drew me to Blues music, but I followed my goosebumps… it excited me! Blues music, in the end, offered me a career.


What was the first gig you ever went to?
My first show was watching Gary Smith at the JJ’s Blues Festival. It was a killer show and that is when I begged and pleaded to have Gary teach me. My first performance was at JJ’s Blues in San Jose when I was 16. My first recording was when I was 18.


Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?
Sure, though most of my student body is 45-65 in age range.



What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Love the music and its people. Practice like hell and surround yourself with good teachers, mentors and musicians. Work hard and ask the same from your peers. Help promote your local scene as much as you promote yourself. Give back to the music community. Don’t do it for money—there isn’t any.


How easy is it to learn harp from books?
Harmonica instructors are VERY rare, so books/cds/dvds are the only choice for many students. In the end, all information is good, it’s up the student’s motivation and the time they set asside for quality practice time. With BluesHarmonica.com I’m able to offer videos, printed music, MP3’s and interviews with players.  Students can even watch me teach this material to another student at School of the Blues. If anyone has a chance to become a great Blues harmonica player, it’s from this site.


Where did you get the idea to open “School of the Blues?”
I wanted to have a place to bring together the Bay Area’s most experienced Blues musicians and teachers. This also gave us the opportunity to provide more of a student body for students to play together. Students take private lessons with their instructors. When they’re ready they participate in our jam sessions and then ultimately in our student concerts. When they get good enough, they’re placed in one of the two house bands that back the other students at the jam sessions and student concerts. This gives students something to work towards and also the opportunity to play in a band provides the impetus to take their playing and performance skills to the next level. Many of our house band members (we build new bands every six months) become regular players in our local Blues music scene. 

What’s the difference between someone who’s teaching themselves and someone who has prior music experience or is formally studying music (at a local college for example) at the same time?
If you have prior music experience it’s most definitely helpful when learning the harmonica. If someone is serious about the harmonica and what they want to do with it, going to a local community college to study music is a great idea. A person with formal music training will have more success in their studies as well as more playing opportunities down the road. With this said, it does get down to time. If you have an hour our less to dedicate to practice each day, then skip it. If you have more, then dig in!


David Barret's Harmonica master class 


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