If a factory-fresh gleaming BMW convertible was offered to you for a mere £467 and 59p, cash in hand, you would not dream of buying it. If an old warty hag with dirty fingernails sold you an apple in exchange for a song and then cackled as you took your first bite, you would spit your mouthful back into her face. And if a man in dark glasses, who may or may not be the same man you half-remember encountering through the smoke of a tacky beachside bar, reappears at the airport and attempts to wedge a giant teddy bear under your arm as a parting gift, you would beat him off. Why? Because you would immediately assume that each was, respectively: stolen, poisoned, and stuffed full of cocaine.
If there is one thing that growing up in Britain teaches you, it is that everything has its price, and that price is almost inevitably a rip-off. Therefore, on the rare occasions when we are offered something that seems a shade or two better than a good deal, we Brits become suspicious and guarded and wish that rather than the temptation of cheapness we were being presented with the annoyance yet simultaneous reassurance of excessive expense. At least, that is normally our reaction to too-good-to-be-true deals, and thus far it has protected many a hapless cheapskate from pitiful suicide-by-apple bids after being arrested with a stash of crack in a stolen car.
Yet last week, this defence mechanism failed me. While killing time in a shop, I found a harmonica priced at £2.99. Although I know harmonicas are not generally in the same price range as golden harps or grand pianos, in hindsight I should have questioned whether there was anything odd about the fact that I could purchase a musical instrument for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Yet I did not. Instead, I thought “£2.99 – bargain!”, and buoyed by my success with the ukulele earlier this year (for success read: the ability to slowly strum one simple melody after a week), I resolved immediately to master the little beauty. After all, I considered as I handed over three pound coins, how hard can it be? All you have to do is blow into the right holes, and music shall blow out. It’s probably no more sophisticated than a toddlers’ toy, I thought, so simple that most adults show off by playing it while also playing another instrument at the same time.
It was only when I got home and searched for harmonica tutorials on the internet that I realised how misplaced my confidence was. For it turns out that the harmonica most beginners start on, the simplest, commonest harmonica, is the 10-hole diatonic model. What I had been cruelly tricked into buying was a 20-hole tremolo harmonica. Which is a devil of an obscure instrument, for which I failed to find a single tutorial or song tab on the web.
Initially I struggled to even make a sound. No matter how hard I blew, not a peep did reward my ears. Eventually I found a video for 10-hole harmonicas demonstrating the correct way to wrap my lips around the Little Devil, which finally enabled me to blow wavering chords of unidentifiable notes. Drawing was another matter. Apparently if you blow and draw, blow and draw over any holes continuously at rapid speed, even the rawest of beginners can soon sound like an authentic ‘bluesy’ accompanist. I however sounded less like a soulful songster from the Deep South, and more like an asthmatic mouse desperately trying to blow up a human airbed. The problem is, I lose all my puff. No matter that I blow between each draw, within four to five seconds of kicking off a bluesy rhythm, my lungs are squeezed of all their air and I come up wheezing like first-time hookah smoker.
So, I can only confidently maintain sound if I blow but do not draw. Which is only a slight bump on the road to my becoming a harmonica maestro compared with the challenges of not knowing what notes each hole of the Little Devil represents, and not having a single song tab to guide me. Yet I was not to be defeated: a song I had aspired to construct and a song I would construct. My solution? I decided to pretend that my 20-hole tremolo was, despite its best efforts to infuriate and suffocate me, a simple harmless 10-hole diatonic.
First, I desecrated my musical instrument by painting it with red nail varnish: one dab of varnish between every two cells to mark out ten ‘holes’. Second, I found song tabs for ten-hole harmonicas and filtered through them for one with a disproportionate number of blows over draws. Third, I ignored the bottom row of the Little Devil’s holes and only blew through the top, which meant I lost the fulsome harmonisation that is apparently the purpose of the infernal instrument, but at least meant I could distinguish what note I was playing.
The result? I can sort of just about very slowly play half of Waltzing Matilda. That is, I can normally get at least half way through before frustration tempts me to chuck the Little Devil across the room. Which is far from my only achievement of the week. I also accidentally picked out the first half of the first line of Blowing in the Wind and stumbled across the first note to Amazing Grace, which note I obstinately keep blowing again and again in the hope that if I do, the following notes will eventually make themselves known to me. Which is not as stupid a hope as it may first sound, for the fact is, I can play all the notes on my harmonica. All I need learn now is how to play them in the right order.