How Did You Pick Your Instrument? by Alex Walsh

How Did You Pick Your Instrument?
by Alex Walsh

Every musician has a story on how they picked their instrument. Some people get their’s handed to them in elementary school and never change. Some have to fight for it.

For me, I received a harmonica as a present. I was thirteen and living in Ocean Springs, MS. Like many families, we probably had one in the house growing up but this was different. I don’t remember asking for it. I remember I was trying to play the recorder on my own which was probably driving my parents crazy. So they gave me a harmonica. I used to jump around the house with my harmonica pretending to be a southern preacher and an old blues guy at the same time. “The South will riiiiiiise a-gain! Words taken from today’s gospel…” was my refrain.

I learned by trying to mimic the intro to the band Blackfoot’s song, Train, Train, from their album Blackfoot Strikes. I don’t know why I had that album. I probably heard it on the radio and bought it through a record club. It has a 30-second harmonica intro that mimics a train slowly starting and picking up speed. Dolly Parton recorded it on her bluegrass album The Grass Is Blue and won a Grammy in 2001.

During my research for this, I saw that the Blackfoot album was recorded in Ann Arbor, MI. Strangely, my family moved there a few years later. I was still interested in harmonica and by that time was also playing guitar and had discovered the blues. A big inspiration was seeing Peter MadCat Ruth playing in Ann Arbor. He was great. He had a pedal board and could make the harmonica sound like a guitar. He blew me away with his whacky Jimi Hendrix-like grande finale.

I kept going with the harmonica and still play it. I have tried to hunker down and study it over the years, which I do for a time. But it’s just more fun to play. I can always pick it up and play something.

Peter Madcat Ruth

In the 2000s I started giving harmonica lessons for money. Being self-taught, it took a while to figure out how to explain what was going on. Most of it is happening in your mouth so it’s kind of difficult. I found the best way was to use a beginning blues harmonica book which provides structure. Also, they come with play-along CDs.

Many people think the harmonica is easy because they had one growing up. I tell people it is and it isn’t. After all these years, I’m still working on that Train, Train intro, and I’m fine with that.

How did you pick your instrument?





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  1. I grew up in Berkeley, and at that time (back in the Pleistocene era) we got music instruction in school starting in the 4th grade. I was already taking private piano lessons, and I decided that I wanted to play the flute. But my 2 best friends, who both played violin, told me “oh, no, the flute is much too hard, you’ll never be able to get a sound out of it,” so I picked the clarinet. I played it for a few months until my mom made me quit because I wasn’t practicing either it or the piano enough – she always said that wasn’t how it happened, but she isn’t here to defend herself any more so I’m sticking to my story. Anyhow, come next year, 5th grade, I decided I wanted to be like those 2 best friends, so I signed up to play the violin. But 4th graders got priority for choosing new instruments, and by the time they got to my last name initial in the 5th grade there weren’t any violins left, so they gave me a viola. The rest, as they say, is history…

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