Note: this material is a slightly edited version of a note I posted to the Harp-L list on Saturday, November 4, 1995. John Popper is a fine musician and songwriter…

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Note: this material is a slightly edited version of a note I posted to the Harp-L list on Saturday, November 4, 1995.

John Popper is a fine musician and songwriter whose recent success is much deserved. His music is far better than most of what inhabits the Billboard charts at any given point in time. He sings with great sound and feeling, writes terrific lyrics and strong melodies, and plays harmonica in a style which is thoroughly original and technically demanding. The last point is probably the most important to harmonica players and fans, and I will elaborate on it briefly.

Popper’s harmonica work is strikingly original, which is the source both of its strength and of the knee-jerk rejection that it has inspired in many harmonica players. Emotionally and technically Popper is coming from somewhere besides blues harp. Emotionally, his playing is about ecstasy; his cascades of notes are a volcanic eruption of sheer joy. You can hear the same love of life in his singing, although the means of expression are very different. Technically, his playing derives far more from saxophonists (e.g. Coltrane and his teacher Arnie Lawrence) and guitarists (Hendrix, perhaps Van Halen?) than from any harmonica-based source. I fail to see why his sources are inferior to any found in the blues canon, or why anyone should demand that John sound more like a typical blues player, no matter what his band is named. (I suspect that the name of the band derives from something Arnie Lawrence told John, as reported by Winslow Yerxa in his HIP interview: “The blues is the sound a baby makes when it cries for the first time, ’cause after that he knows it’ll get picked up and it’s all show business.” Perhaps “Blues Traveler” refers to the journey back to that first cry from the heart?)

I revere Little Walter as deeply as anyone on the planet could, but I will never agree that any harmonica player who does not drink from Little Walter’s (or Big Walter’s, or Sonny Boy’s, etc.) well is somehow disloyal to the cause, as if 1) there was a cause and 2) the cause was to sound as much as possible like someone else.

As to John’s reputed disdain for many of the harmonica players he has met and heard, I believe that it is 1) overstated — has anyone ever heard John diss another player by name? — and 2) too often deserved by those who receive it. The overall level of musicianship among harmonica players is in fact very low. How many harmonica players could adequately fulfill the role played by the rhythm guitarist in a typical three-chord rock band (to pick something well within the capabilities of any second-rate musician)? How many harmonica players can’t play in 7/8 or 5/8 time (as John does), or even name the chords they’re playing over? How many of the players reading the last two lines thought to themselves “Well, why would I ever want to do that?”, as if accepting incredibly constricted limits on one’s musicianship was somehow praiseworthy?

I meet far too many harmonica players who stick to playing the blues because they think it’s technically easy. Those players haven’t listened to Little Walter, Sonny Terry, Kim Wilson, or Ray Charles (to pick a few) carefully, never mind Popper. I suspect that the idea of the blues as a safe refuge for third-rate musicians is far more dear to the hearts of casually committed players than it is to Popper. In any case, any player who is threatened by John’s very mild comments on the general level of musicianship displayed by harmonica players is well advised to improve his or her musicianship to the point where he or she no longer feels threatened, and quit blaming John for his largely accurate comments on the state of the harmonica playing art.

In the final analysis, what any of us thinks of John’s work is almost besides the point. He has created a new style and approach to playing the harmonica which cannot be ignored by harmonica players, any more than classical pianists can ignore Beethoven. His playing is arguably the most influential contribution to the basic vocabulary of rock harmonica since Little Walter. (I say “influential” here purposely to avoid denigrating the many fine players whose work has not yet found a mass audience.) He is connecting with a mass audience emotionally and intellectually, not surprising given the high quality of feeling and ideas in his music. Players who refuse to give John his due should know that in the not very distant future (like now, maybe?) a minimally competent professional must certainly be able to produce a passable imitation of John’s style for 16 bars or so on demand, that being the kind of thing any record producer might request from a
supposed professional. If any reader thinks that’s an impossible or unfair demand, that’s his or her problem, not Popper’s.

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  1. Richard,

    Your comments on Popper are right on the money IMHO. He changed the perception and use of the harp in modern music on the same level as Jimi Hendrix and Edward Van Halen effected the use and sound of the electric guitar. Completely revolutionized, thoroughly updated and without question, created a new style of playing for generations to follow. There will always be “purists” who will look down thier noses at changes to tradition. Those would be the same who were shocked and appalled when Little Walter first closed his hands around a microphone hooked to a tube amp and played a diatonic through it. Where would any student of harmonica be without that epiphany? Popper has taken it to the next level and will be recognized as such.

  2. Oh for God’s sake. Hendrix and Van Halen? Idiots. How may harmonica players you hear in pop music, ANY music, after Blues Traveler FINALLY sold out and had a hit? Yeah, thought so. Fuggin morons. He can play the harp. Yep. He’s a arrogant, elitist, asshole. Yep. Yes, I’ve heard him diss other players. By name? I don’t know. Who cares. He believes he is a deity in the harmonica community. Could be right. Congratulations John. You are among the best completely ignored musical instrument maestros in music history. Good job bud.


  3. That sounded like, more of a slam of every harp player who does not play like John Popper, then an appreciation of the man. I Googled up this article for some tips on how to play his unique style and read through the slams of all other harp styles hoping to get some useful analysis of his style. I consider myself an accomplished musician capable of playing any style any where with anyone and getting a great audience response and respect from other accomplished musicians. Although I might not be able to call out every chord in every song I play I can at least hear it and arpeggio it out or play something that goes with it. In 40 years of playing clubs I got called on to play along to a Blues Traveler song twice and it went very well, thank you. Plenty of other things to learn and do but I thought I would revisit John Popper. Instead I am turned off. Maybe I will break down some Jason Ricci r go visit Miles again.

  4. At the time I wrote that piece, Popper was getting slammed from all sides by other harp players, so it seemed appropriate to point out that he had something new to say.

    I’m sorry the piece didn’t meet your expectations, but I’m not sure why you thought an article titled “An appreciation of…” would contain a detailed analysis of his style. In any case, if you buy the “Blues Traveler Four” songbook (Warner Press, I think), you’ll find transcriptions of all the harp solos on the record by Winslow Yerxa included. That should be detailed enough for anyone. Enjoy.

  5. Sounds to me like Kevin has more of a problem with Popper’s persona than an unappreciation of his playing. My comparisons to Jimi and Eddie were geared more towards advancing the popularity of the instrument itself. There have actually been plenty of harp in pop and rock music before and after the aforementioned guitar players. Huey Lewis comes to mind. He sold a few records. Lee Oscar did as well. Steven Tyler actually plays a pretty decent harp. You can’t turn on the TV with hearing harp in commercials as well. Is the harp ever going to be as popular as guitar? Open any catalog from Musicians Friend and compare the number of pages dedicated to guitar as opposed the harmonicas to find your answer. At least those 2 pages of harmonicas are there now. Before Popper, there weren’t any.

  6. I found this while researching Rick Estrin because I was curious what other harp players thought of Popper. I think people forget Sonny Boy, Little Walter, etc., didn’t sound like they did until they discovered their own style. Popper simply discovered his (I’m gonna guess, in part, by hearing Sugar Blue) I 100 percent agree more harp players could bone up on music theory (for example, I just found out Little Walter played more third position than I realized) although I wouldn’t let that stop anyone from playing (I think Paul McCartney STILL can’t sight-read!) I think harp players need to stop seeing music as a competition — some rudimentary rock guitarists, for example, like Johnny Ramone or Chuck Berry, virtually invented genres — and let’s face it, not that many people listen to Yngvie Malmsteen. Practice what you want to play, and then challenge yourself by trying new things. For example, I really don’t want to play all that high-end stuff, but I agree that it’s become almost de riguer for harp players to know a little of it (I usually do a few fast runs on the high register at shows to satisfy the crowd) It never hurts to learn new stuff and I certainly wouldn’t turn down a guitar lesson with Malmsteen or a harp lesson with Popper.

  7. I’m going to address Kevin’s comments about John.
    1) Hendrix? Yep. John heard Jimi Hendrix and it was then that he decided he wanted to do that for a living. So that’s the perfect comparison because the man HIMSELF says that he rips off more directly from Hendrix than any Harp player.
    2) “completely ignored musical instrument” and sarcastic “congratulations John” : This foolish comment doesn’t make a bit of sense or different whatsoever. He doesn’t shout from the highest mountain how important he is to the Harmonica World…maybe his fans do…and fools like You attribute it to HIM. Unintelligent and ridiculous comments.

    3) Sell out? LOL. Yeah so they got some songs on the radio….THAT is called selling out??
    Who gives a shit if YOU think the music or the instrument is ignored. You don’t listen to it and so you don’t realize that the music has been consistently good throughout the bands over 25 years in existence from album ONE to 2012’s most recent Album.

    4) You’ve heard him diss other players: I’d say you really haven’t. He always points out that he’d tell a person picking up the harp to “just play your own way” like Hendrix did with the guitar. THAT is it. The only person I’ve heard of him dissing….are those Tools the Black Crowes and Chris Robinson….rumored only by Chris Robinson himself…..who is in fact a DB so who cares.

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