The joy of playing the blues: an interview with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite

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Harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite was born in Mississippi, went to high school in Memphis and started his blues career in Chicago. He’s played with Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson – to name a few.

If it has to do with the blues, Musselwhite has been there and done it with the people who started it.

And he is still going strong. He still loves to play and finds inspiration everywhere he goes.


Gene: What got you interested in playing harmonica?

Charlie: They were always around. Harmonicas are kind of a common toy for kids. I liked the sound. It sounds so real. It sounds like a voice. Playing the blues on harmonica is like singing without words.

Gene: What is the hardest part of playing harmonica?

Charlie: There are things about the harmonica that are very different than other instruments. It’s the only instrument that you can’t see what you are doing. You also can’t see what anybody else is doing on it either. It’s also the only instrument that you breathe in and out of. Since you can’t see what you are doing, you have to have a mental image of what you are playing. You can’t watch your fingers.

Gene: Did you have a teacher?

Charlie: Since you can’t really see anything it’s hard to have a teacher. You can talk about it with somebody. And you can listen, be influenced, and soak it up by osmosis. In that sense I had many teachers, especially in Memphis. I knew Will Shade in Memphis. He was a harmonica player. I learned some stuff from him.

Gene: I’ve tried to play harmonica. I can play single notes and I understand how the instrument’s structured, but I can’t bend notes. Any tips?

Charlie: One way to think about it is this: When you are talking, you use your tongue to form vowels. With the harmonica, if you think of pronouncing “OY,” like in bOY, if you are drawing on a note [sucking in] and you act like you are pronouncing OY with your tongue at the same time, you will notice that the sound changes. That is the beginning of bending. Just keep concentrating on that and you will learn how to bend [notes].

Gene: Do you play a $20 Marine Band [harmonica] now?

Charlie: What I like is the Seydel. That is the oldest harmonica company that there is. It’s older than Hohner. Out of the box, it’s the best harmonica that you can buy. It’s handmade in Germany. All of the Hohners are mass-produced in China now. [Hohner harmonicas used to be handmade in Germany as well.] These are still made the old-fashioned way.

Gene: What advantages do harmonica players have over other musicians?

Charlie: You can carry it in your pocket!

Gene: Do you have any favorite harmonica solos?

Charlie: I like the solo that Big Walter played on “Walking by Myself” by Jimmy Rogers. I like the solo that Will Shade played on “Kansas City Blues.”

Gene: Are you still learning new tricks on the harmonica?

Charlie: It’s endless. I’m still learning. The more I learn the more I see there is to learn. The smarter I get, the dumber I feel (laughs).

Gene: What inspires you?

Charlie: Life (laughs). Blues is about life. There is a lot of inspiration all around if you are tuned into it. Let it speak to you.

Gene: How do you let it speak to you?

Charlie: By staying alive. Keep your mind open and stay active.

Gene: You’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years, from Gus Cannon to Tom Waits, are there moments in your career that stand out as favorites for you?

Charlie: There are so many: Sitting in with Muddy Waters or playing Radio City Music Hall with Tom Waits and playing the Harp Battle with Mark Hummel and Kim Wilson, that’s a lot of fun!

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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