Hal Walker Harmonica Player of the Month (Exclusive Interview)

By Jaine Rodack

Written by Jaine Rodack on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Hal Walker, Harmonica Players


Hal Walker, taking his music to the streets

Memories are complicated affairs. “I don’t know where family stories and my memory overlap,” confides Reuven Gnagnatti in the 2016 documentary Shalom Italia. And he’s not alone. For as our memories fade, they intermingle with family tales, old photographs, and things we have heard or read, to the point where we’re not quite sure whether we remember something or not.

Just ask Hal Walker, who, when asked when he picked up his first harmonica, instinctively replies that it was in third grade.

And then again, maybe not, as he immediately qualifies his answer by saying that that “fact” is more of a family folk legend than an actual memory.

He says his first real memory goes back to a Christmas gathering at his Aunt Robina’s house a few years later. “She was my grandmother’s sister,” he says, “and we were always asked to share talent at the family Christmas party. And that’s the first time I can remember playing Amazing Grace on the harmonica.”

Hal’s music has taken several turns since then, but every now and again you’ll find a little something that takes him back to his religious roots, like this happy little tune from his latest album.

Unitarian-Universalist from Hal Walker’s Life Wonderful

Hal’s first harmonica was an Echo harp and, while he picked it up every now and again, it wasn’t until he entered Northwestern University that the harmonica became an important part of his life. “I would ride my bike or take the train into Chicago and make sure I had my harmonica with me,” he recalls. “And I would walk down the street improvising.”

When asked what he majored in at college he quips, “I studied ultimate frisbee.” The statement is followed by a pause, after which he says. “Well, not really. I was a history major, a terrible history major, barely worth mentioning because music was my passion.”

It all came together in his freshman year when someone in his college dorm introduced him to Neil Young’s Live Rust album and a tune that would change his life’s focus. “I fell in love with Sugar Mountain,” he says, “and that’s when I decided that that was what I wanted to do.”

Walker had studied the piano for more than a decade and was anxious to learn how to play the guitar. But, after hearing Sugar Mountain, his desire to learn more about the harmonica kicked in. Did that change of heart result in a change of major? Says Walker, “I didn’t know that becoming a professional musician was an option at the time. I just knew that I wanted to play music.”

But Hal allows that his interest in the harp wasn’t completely about the instrument, freely admitting that, like so many young men, his main motivation in learning to play was to attract women. “I played the guitar and harmonica to prove that I was somebody,” he says, “that I was worthy.”

Walker’s quest to learn more about the harmonica took a major turn in 1985, when he bought a copy of Jon Gindick’s Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless. “I started learning those blues riffs,” he recalls, “and that was the beginning of my harmonica career.”

In 2012, Hal would sit down with Gindick – his first harmonica teacher – for his first harmonica.com lesson/interview and a bit of a jam

Before long, Walker was performing on stage at various open mics: “And pretty quickly I was pretty good and could play the solo harp and really impress people.” The key to his success? Hal believes it had everything to do with the fact that there was something different about the way he played the harmonica. “I played it as a solo instrument.”

What kind of music was he playing? Another quip: “It was music to walk down the street with.” And another pause. “I was improvising. I was making it up. There were several styles. They might have had a country, folk or bluesy feel.”

But, as Walker is not one to put all of his musical eggs in one basket let alone two or three, that’s about as far as he’ll go. “I’ve never really been too interested in labels or categories,” he says, “because most of my music is original.”

And, we would add, often, deeply personal, like the song Hal wrote in memory of his Dad, who passed away in June of 2017.

But if Hal’s music didn’t fit into any one particular genre, a gift he received in his junior year at Northwestern helped hone his style. “I had a crush on this woman and spent the entire year giving her very passionate harmonica lessons. She never returned my interest, but she gave me a minor-key harmonica at the end of the year. And that became one of my styles ─ to play the harmonica in a minor or gypsy.”

“I also got a taste of how to teach the harmonica that year,” he says, and found that he liked teaching ─ a lot.

After graduating college in 1988, Hal moved back to Ohio, where he has spent the last 30-plus years working as a professional musician.

Much of his work has involved teaching youngsters through programs like the Ohio Arts Council’s Arts Learning program, and, over time, he’s developed a very specific system of teaching using hand motions.

Hand motions?

Hand motions. Says Hal, “Before they ever pick up a harmonica, they learn the push and pull of their arm motions and the push and the pull in their breath. So, from the minute I walk into the classroom, they’re moving their bodies and having a fun time pushing and pulling air.”

Over the years, Hal has refined the process to the point where he says he can walk in and, within a few lessons, have the whole school creating music on the harmonica.

Contrary to what you might think, Walker says that, while children have the patience to learn these basic techniques, adults often want to skip the fundamentals and go from zero to hero in a hurry. They want to learn riffs. Which is why Walker designed a program that marries the “want” and the “need”, as seen in the following video.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Hal Walker is a born teacher, and students find that his enthusiasm is contagious. While most of his adult lessons take place online, at conventions or as part of a symposium, like his inter-active TEDxAkron talk “Harmonica for the People”, he’s taken a couple of memorable turns teaching the fundamentals at JP’s Hawaii-based Harmonica Retreats.

He’s also put together a large number of teaching videos that can be found right here on our website as well as on YouTube.com.

Many of Hal’s videos find him interviewing and jamming with some of the world’s most admired harp players, such as the one seen earlier with Jon Gindick, and this one with Joe Filisko.

But, no matter how you get to know the multi-talented Mr. Walker, it won’t take you long realize that whether he’s teaching, having a chat, or performing, his sense of humor and discovery shines through.

This is especially evident when it comes to exploring the possibilities of playing just about anything, including one unlikely ‘instrument’ that generally hangs out in a catch-all drawer in the kitchen until Thanksgiving.

But Hal Walker’s musical explorations extend far beyond the kitchen cabinet, as he tracks down and picks up any number of different instruments, including the generally-unknown melodious khaen. It is, he says, his favorite instrument, and “the grandmother of the harmonica”.

Back in 2007, Hal traveled with ethnomusicologist Terry Miller to the remote villages of northeast Thailand to find the makers of the instrument. Miller, a professor at Kent State, had been studying the music of the region for more than 30 years.

As you might suspect, the khaen is one of those instruments that isn’t churned out in large quantities at big-city factories. Rather, they are made by “individual guys sitting in towns with no running water and electricity making instruments out of bamboo”.

Walker brought several of the instruments home with him and set about learning how to play them. As he had mentioned that the khaen was the grandmother of the harmonica, we were curious as to what they had in common. The answer? Says Mr. Walker: “Within each bamboo reed are embedded tiny brass harmonica reeds. There are sixteen pipes and each pipe has one reed.”

But does the khaen sound like the harmonica ─ or vice versa ─ seeing as how the khaen’s beginnings predate the harmonica’s?

Walker has obviously been asked this question before. “It’s got a miraculous, mysterious sound,” he says, “a sound like most people have never heard.”

Could he be a bit more specific? “It sounds like an accordion,” he replies, with a qualifying, “and sometimes like a trumpet. But it’s more usually identified (described as sounding like) as an accordion but played by the breath. But it’s definitely related to the harmonica. It’s a mouth organ; it even looks like an organ.”

What will the ever-inquisitive Mr. Walker look into next? While there’s no telling, one thing is certain: Hal Walker is a teacher who enjoys learning; whether it be about an obscure instrument made halfway around the world, or the 10-hole diatonic that he carries in his pocket. He’d always been a diatonic guy who didn’t own a chromatic, and never really thought about owning one. And then, in 2010, while at the Buckeye Harmonica Festival in Akron, Ohio, Hal heard a harmonica quartet for the first time. Intrigued, he introduced himself to the group and enjoyed a happy conversation with two of its members, chromatic wizards Al and Judy Smith. The couple invited Walker to stop by their home.

It was on that first visit that Al lent Hal a chromatic and sent him home with a couple of charts to work on. “And, right away, I started reading the music he gave me,” recalls Walker. It was, as Bogart would say, the start of a beautiful friendship, as one visit became two, and then three, until it was a weekly thing.

“I had the great honor of playing lead with Al and Judy,” Hal recalls. “And we found a great bass harmonica player. But, unfortunately, I had some health challenges that took me away from that, but I fondly remember those years playing with them and hope to get back to playing with them on a regular basis.”

Not long after our interview, Hal called to say that our conversation had led to his calling and visiting the couple, picking up where they had left off, and having a grand time. “We played harmonica together. I got out my chromatic and we got out the old songs that we used to play as a group.” Good times. Good friends. Good music. And the promise to get together once a week and do it all again. And again. And again.

It was at one of the friends’ first get-togethers that Hal gave a friend some pointers on how to get the most out of harmonica hole number three. He recreated that lesson in a later post.

But, if you only know Hal as a teacher, harmonica player, guitar picker, or interviewer, you need to take some time out to listen to his words, melodies and the rhythms that bind them.

Hal says the above video was a family affair, with his then 13-year-old daughter, Hallie, making the above stop-action video. Talent obviously runs in the family.

Between teaching, writing and performing, Hal has managed to produce two CDs: 2010’s Home in Ohio, and 2017’s Life Wonderful, both of which are available through CD Baby.

Hal introduces his new CD: Life Wonderful

This latest album was written and recorded as an expression of gratitude after surviving a near death experience. And, like most of the songs Hal writes, the album is filled with original tunes that “celebrate community, diversity and the creative process”.

The more you listen to Hal’s music, the more surprises you find tucked inside the various arrangements, from Jew’s harp to concertina, there. From Thailand’s melodious khaen to the clickity clack of an African banakula, nothing is off limits, which is why it’s hard to define Hal’s music. And that’s just the way he likes it.

While this singer, songwriter and performer has done many things in his career, he will tell you flat out that it is his work as a teacher that he believes is his greatest accomplishment. “It’s been one of my signature contributions,” he says, and you can hear the pride in his voice. When asked if he expects his young charges to go on to carry a harp in their pockets, as he took to doing back in his college days, he says, “My hope is that in a very short time I will lay a foundation for a lifetime of playing. Many of these kids have a very memorable experience, but who knows what they do with it.”

Does he hear from his former students? You know, the little ones, who were first introduced to the harmonica the day Hal Walker walked into their classroom, passed out enough diatonics to put one in every child’s pocket in the classroom some years before.

“Interestingly enough,” he says, “I just got an email from someone who was just graduating high school. She wrote that one of her fondest memories was playing the harp in kindergarten. It was a great email.”

Kindergarten? Perhaps you’re never too young to pick up the harmonica and put it in your pocket. Is there a perfect age, a time when a child is ready and primed to learn? Hal says that by the time a child reaches the end of second grade or the beginning of third, he or she is ready to follow his lead, beginning with those signature hand motions. But he says that he enjoys the challenges and rewards that come from teaching students of all ages, believing that, if the mind is willing, it’s always the right time.

You could say that in Go Your Own Way to Shine Hal Walker has set his philosophy to music. As for the title, writes Hal, “I sent a group of 4th graders out into the halls in search of an idea…” Two kids came back with the title for this song. They’d seen it on a poster on a wall in this school for the visual and performing arts in Akron, Ohio.
For more harmonica lessons plus information on Hal Walker and his music, check out the following websites:
Music That Fits in Your Pocket
BreakThrough Blues
Hal’s Official Website

Comments (30)

  • Don Odom

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    Hal is awesome! Hey JP, I’m having trouble playing several draw notes one after the other on my harmonica. I can play blow notes just fine. Any suggestions?

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Drop THE BACK of your tongue. You’re probably dropping the front of your tongue and unknowingly lifting the back of your tongue.

      So you’re creating a mouth position that is in the “no man’s land” between the bent note and the unbent note.

      you might want to get in front of a mirror and stick a spoon in your mouth to make sure you’re now lifting the back of your tongue. One of the tricks is to lower your entire voice box.

      If you watch my bending video you will understand a bit more about what you’re doing. Go to https://www.harmonica.com/blog/1087-harmonica-bending.html

      I hope this helps Don!

      jp

      Reply

  • Diego

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    I am completely amazed! Imagine use those instruments to prayse God!

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Right On Diego!

      Reply

  • Rhiannon

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    I like when Hal Walker played the juice harp, and I like that video so much because he is such a good musician! I really liked seeing all the kids listening to him play his music, too. Thanks for sending out these videos, JP.

    Reply

    • Molly McGuire

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      Just great! He’s so far out! Going to start working on Jew’s Harp. I forgot how totally awesome it sounds. Thank you so much for posting this stuff. Makes my day!!

      Reply

  • Hal

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    Hi JP… Thanks for selecting me as the “harmonica player of the month.” That is quite an honor. I have great respect for the work that you do in getting people to find the musician within themselves. I’ll never forget driving across the country and playing the “Tooey toodles” the whole way with you.

    Thanks again, my friend…. Keep up the good work. See you in Hawaii! Hal

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Right On Hal!! Driving across the country with you while playing “double harp” jams was so fun. I remember we were in our early 20s, fresh out of college and you were reading, “The Joy of No Sex” on the road trip. That was “so Hal” to me. You were doing things with music and your mind in your early 20s that no one else I knew at that time was experimenting with.

      Then I remember when we set up camp on the mountain in Idaho, every morning you would go off and climb a tree (there may have even been a hunters platform in that tree???) and you would pray and meditate… Do you remember this?

      jp

      Reply

  • Jimmy Dobric

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    Darn straight Hal is awesome! He turned me onto minor key harmonicas 20 years ago, when I didn’t even know they existed. He can play one of those and bring a tear to your eye. Congratulations to a great musician and a great guy.

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      20 years ago huh Jimmy! Amazing! Hal’s been at it a long time!

      jp

      Reply

  • François

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    Thank you for sending me so interesting piece of music on the Harmonica

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      You’re welcomed Francois!

      jp

      Reply

  • Jim Day

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    JP, my friend you have out done yourself again! I can just see both of you attempting to out do each other, now you have a lifetime friendship! So cool!

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Great to hear from you Jim!

      How’s life!

      Yeah you’re right. Hal is an amazing friend.

      jp

      Reply

      • Jim Day

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        Life is great when you live in the music! I am so happy that you are getting such a fan following! Thank you for taking the time to respond to the blogs! Isn’t it great that we can communicate to any where in the world! I enjoy your “player of the month” and look forward to your e-mails each month! They inspire me to get better!

        Thanks again, Jim

        Reply

        • JP Allen

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          Thanks Jim.

          jp

          Reply

  • Bob Nelson

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    Are you sure you didn’t teach him?

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      LOL!

      I think I’ve inspired Hal from time to time.

      jp

      Reply

  • Maggie Timms

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    Keep ’em coming, JP. I never know what’s next with you. Great job by Hal, totally engaging. Love his work with the kids. Maggie

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Ok Maggie. I’ll keep ’em comin’!

      Yeah. Hal seem to have a magic touch with kids.

      jp

      Reply

  • Joakim Nyberg

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    Thank you JP for the great video! And also thanks to Hal for sharing his music with us all in form of videos. The Jaw Harp sounds so eerie somehow that I just might buy one and try it out.

    It is very nice to get these videos straight to my e-mail from you JP. They inspire me to pick up my harmonica again and forget to try to learn one single song, instead just to jam and have fun. I’m determined to try and get the Package of Peas rhytm working for me, it’s just so cool.

    Thanks once more for your inspiration. I’m seriously considering buying your DVD, it would be a great investement from the money I’ve earned from working during the summer.

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Hey Joakim!

      I’m so glad you’re finding my blog posts inspiring.

      I never thought I’d have so much fun reading these blogs.

      At first I thought to myself… “Oh no! Another thing in my life to keep me from going outside and playing on the beach” but….

      This is actually really fun for me…

      It’s nice to remember that I’m just an everyday person trying to help people….though the computer… it’s so fun for me to read all the amazing posts from people all over the world….

      Joakim, I love hearing that you’re stoked to learn the “package of peas” jam. That’s the stuff that Hal turned me on to that change my life forever as a harmonica player.

      Stay in touch and fill me in on your progress.

      Tucka Toodle!

      jp

      Reply

  • Jim Day

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    JP,

    Yes that would be awesome!!

    Jim

    Reply

  • Sarah

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    Wow!! Hal is one talented man but then so are you. Thanks for sharing the videos; you are such an inspiration to all.

    Reply

  • Jess

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    I live in Thailand myself – although I’m not from here.
    So when I saw Hal playing the thai version of a harmonica I almost laughed at how exotic people think it is! I suppose I’ve just grown accustomed to it. It’s brilliant to play – people use it here for Buddhist temple ceremonies mainly.
    I lived in Southern Africa previously as well, they had an add on mouth piece to an instrument called the mbira, and it made a distinctly harmonica like sound.
    You might want to let Hal know about that one too!

    Reply

  • Terry

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    HI JP,
    So glad that I found your site. It’s brought a lot of great ideas, music and expressive musical inspiration to us all. Keep up the great work. The blog is great and Hal Walker was terrific on all the instruments. It’s fun to see how easy you two make it look, and how you inspire us to do the same.

    One day I hope to come to Kauai and say hello. I’d love to watch you play and jam. And viewing the island wouldn’t be bad either. I know it’s beautiful there. So beautiful music in a beautiful setting makes it all work.

    Keep up the great work. We love what you’re doing for music.

    Reply

  • Jemmy

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    Wow, I now understand why he calls himself the musical explorer. There is no word that truly describe his musical talents.

    Oh, if Mr. Hal have ever traveled to Malaysia especially to Sabah. There is a wind instrument similar to a khaen (It is a direct relative actually, sorry, I forgot what it’s called).

    However, it plays like a Khaen and sound similar but the design is slightly different (there aren’t any pipes on the bottom of the instrument).

    Reply

  • Frank(i)

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    HI, Mr. HAWAI,
    I’m always amaized by You, so did Mr. Hal. God bless you both !
    May Peace and Good Will always be Yours !
    Frank

    Reply

  • mark riley

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    Hello again JP while watching the Hal Walker video It came to me that learning to play a jaw harp (jews harp) may help a lot of people who are struggling bending notes !! I am sure that it helped me to get the correct shape for my mouth and tongue, (plus its an easy and fun instrument to learn) also the right harp is important , I bought a Hohner special 20, (on your advice) and that helped my bending dramaticaly , I recently bought a “howling harp blues harmonica” by Stagg in A, to try and play some Sonny Terry stomping, this harp is horrible its much too airy on all notes, and a complete waste of money, better to buy quality I know but I thought as its made by Stagg it would be faily decent ( just goes to show how wrong you can be eh?)
    It would be interesting to know if learning the jaw harp has helped anyone else with their bending
    Thanks for all your tips and advice JP keep it up
    Kind regards Mark in Manchester UK

    Reply

  • Patsy Frizzell

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    Hi JP,
    Thank you so-o-o-o much for the Hal Walker video. What an educational experience for me, just watching and listening.
    You and Hal are so special. I’m a happy harpin person thanks to you. Without you I might have lost my drive, where now I’m looking forward to fun harpin forever.
    I can’t wait till I’m ready to find out about Peas Rhythm. I guess I better calm down, and finish all my learning disks first.
    It’s just that I get so excited about the harmonica education you are providing for me.

    bye for now,
    Patsy

    Reply

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