Courtesy photo Performers such as John Scully have appeared at previous Harp Fests.

What’s the story behind calling a harmonica a harp?

They called it a mouth harp. Just like a harp has strings that are plucked, a harmonica has reeds that are activated with breath, so there is a similarity. Old colloquial name.

Who are some of the masters and trailblazers of the harmonica in the United States? In the world? How well is the harmonica received on a global scale?

So many trailblazers. But some big names might be Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, Howlin’ Wolf, DeFord Bailey, Sonny-Boy Williamson, Jerry Portnoy, Stevie Wonder, The Harmonica Rascals, Toots.

Harmonica is HUGE in Asia. Started in Europe, and is the most played instrument of all. Diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, what are they and how will we know the difference when we hear them?

Diatonic is tuned to play in one key (that is a simple explanation). Chromatic is set up more like a piano to play in any key, with a button on the side that raises the pitch a half step. You may not be able to tell the difference as a novice, but Chromatic does have identifiable sound to the ear that knows. Sorry. Hard to explain.

Harmonica is traditionally associated with Blues. What other genres of music can we hear the harmonica featured (symphonic, country, hip hop)?

All styles of music are possible with harmonica. It is just another musical instrument, in the right mouth/hands.

Speaking of associations, we generally associate old western movies with cowboys and harmonicas around a campfire. What films come to mind when considering harmonicas featured in soundtracks or movie scenes?

There is one with Charles Bronson where he pretends to play. I think it is more of a cartoon thing.

What drew you to the instrument and the sound?

There was a lot of harmonica in the early days of FM radio. John Mayall, Canned Heat, J Geils Band, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young.

How simple—or complicated— is the harmonica? What nuances are there to playing that a casual observer may not be aware of?

It is a simple instrument, but when played expertly, there is a lot to it. You are basically controlling an airstream and imparting “turbulence” to change the pitch of tiny metal reeds.

What separates a good harmonica player from a great one?

Musicianship. Nuance, originality, of course, good and great are relative terms, You might as well ask what separates a so so player from a sucky one. It is perception by the listener. Of course, there are some players- Stevie Wonder comes to mind- that are recognized by all.

The Spring Harp festival has been happening for more than 20 years. How has it evolved from festival #1 to this weekend’s production? What would it take to expand it to a two-day affair? What does your ideal harp festival look like?

First year, we rented the park and brought a sound system, told all our friends to come and jam, and it was so much fun that we continued it. Every year, it got a little more sophisticated and expensive.
La Mesa seems to find new things to charge us for each year, and raise the rates- make new rules etc.
To expand to two days, we would have to move, but anything is possible with money and ideas.

One of the stated goals of the festival is to create an appreciation and awareness of the harmonica, earmarking proceeds for youth music programs and the harmonica’s inclusion. What would a harmonica section in a high school band look and sound like?

It would be pretty quiet unless you had a bunch of harmonicas playing together or amplifiers to make it louder.
Some people create different “tunings” that make it easier to play different scales and “modes.” Names like “natural Minor” Circular tuning” Paddy Richter,” Country tuning” pop up. Then there are nuances to the traditional “Richter tuning,” equal temperament, compromised temperament” are a couple.
Of course, reeds can and do fail- first sounding flat, and even snapping off completely. Reed plates are available for about 60% of the cost of a new harmonica. It is even possible to replace individual reeds but it takes some practice and skill to line it up and get it to sound clearly and in tune.
At the festival, we are once again having a wonderful harmonica collection owned and displayed by John Whiteman.
We will have harmonicas, harmonica necklaces, T shirts, ball caps, CDs from a few previous years, food some food vendors as well as other booths.
Then there is the World Famous Unknown Players Jam where anyone can get on stage and try to impress the crowd with their harmonica skills. We have a band play the blues and the players take turns playing their best. The audience decides by applause who is the winner.
So much fun.