Paul Gillings has been a fixture on the United Kingdom harmonica scene for decades and, thanks to the Internet, is increasingly known as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with a tireless work ethic. Gillings had the good fortune of having a Scoutmaster (Norman Ives) who ran a mail order harmonica business. Ives eventually started a free harmonica school in England for underprivileged children. Gillings was one of the star pupils and toured the world and appeared on CNN. In 1993, Gillings won the World Harmonica Championships in the youth blues/rock and youth diatonic jazz/melodic sections and became a Lee Oskar preferred player. In the ensuing decades, Gillings has continued to expand his musical knowledge and release music. His Soundcloud songs received more than 70,000 plays during the last three months of 2018. He’s also in demand as a harmonica teacher who works with beginners all the way to advanced players. Gillings talked to us about his journey and how you can build and sustain passion for an instrument that can often lead to frustration.
How did you start playing harmonica?
I was in a scouting group. I was 11 and a senior rank so I got to sit in the front of the van while the rest of the scouts were in the back. A Chromonica 270 was on the dashboard before a trip. I can picture this like it was yesterday. The driver was (harmonica player and teacher) Norman Ives. I asked him if I could have a go and played it all the way to camp. When we got to camp he was finally fed up with the noise and said he was going to teach me to play properly. He taught me hole by hole and note by note how to play the tune This Old Man. I ended up keeping the harmonica and played that chromatic for about two years. I just didn’t put it down. I pestered him day and night for lessons and every time he played I wanted to know how he got so much sound out of this tiny box. My parents were always music fans but were recently divorced. We were poor as hell and I tried to convince them to buy me a guitar. They couldn’t afford a guitar or a violin. This harmonica was free and I could play it.
What else did you love about it?
I don’t even know. Initially it was accessible and it was mine and I could carry it everywhere. Norman had gone to the World Harmonica Championships and there were no UK youth participating. They came back with a will to teach every kid they could find. There was a camaraderie to it – 30 or 40 of us playing together. It was accessible and everything about it appealed to me.
For some people, learning harmonica is piecemeal. You might find a mentor but you might also play to records. You had a whole regimented infrastructure to learn.
We were utterly submerged in it. It was actually a great escape for me because my life was utter shit at the time although I didn’t realize that until years later.
Gillings at the World Harmonica Championships in 1993:
Did you like competing? You were extremely successful.
I loved the group playing – five of us playing orchestral harmonica. The solo spots were insanely nerve racking. The critique was very hard to take. I hated (harmonica player) Douglas Tate for years until I met him as an adult and realized he was a wonderful guy. He was pretty spot on about my playing and we became very good friends. But those competitions were very hard work. Playing under scrutiny can lead you to unravel and lead you to question if you even want to make music. But just playing the harmonica was enough for me. I could play for four or five hours a day.
Paul Gillings blues harmonica instrumental “Fatherhood”
Why did you keep going when some of the people you had this formative experience with didn’t continue with the instrument?
I don’t know. Perhaps I couldn’t get a girlfriend and they could? (laughs). Honestly, I do have a real love for the instrument and wasn’t going to let it out of my hands. I always loved music and wasn’t going to stop. Perhaps for those guys it was a phase. You always hear from people that “used” to play in bands and say they just did in college. I couldn’t stop.
Let’s say you are at an early stage of your journey with the instrument and it’s frustrating. Maybe you can’t bend in tune or tongue block. What do you tell someone in that position about building passion and not getting frustrated?
Remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. For me, it’s always been about getting lost for a few minutes in my instrument. It must have sounded horrendous when I was practicing some things but it’s about immersing yourself. It’s hard because life is tough and people live in close quarters. Even now I am fortunate enough to have a house that gives me a place to play the same riff over and over.
You can’t see yourself pressing the right keys or touching the right strings. I always talk to people about the “beginner’s twitch”, where they take the harmonica out of the mouth and look at the hole numbers.
I did that – waiting for the pause in the song so you could take it out of your mouth and look at the location of the holes.
(Laughs). Ultimately, the thing is to let passion take over. You won’t get anywhere if you hold back. When you hold back your feelings for someone, you won’t fall in love. When you hold back your passion for the instrument you won’t progress.
Gillings playing a version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”
One thing that occurs to me: people with a lot of experience or people who’ve gigged a lot know what it means to get lost in a good way. Isn’t it harder to get to that moment when you are working on the nuts and bolts of your playing?
Yes. It’s hard work. I see many adults picking up the harmonica and some are musicians and struggle with it. I try to encourage people and tell them that it’s ok to make mistakes and it’s ok to let go and realize that it’s not always going to be fabulous. It won’t always be mind-blowing or incredible.
I remember attending a harmonica workshop and a guitar player attendee struggled with the amount of technique required to get the right notes with bends. You can’t just play the note.
I say, trust your ears and get people to listen to good playing. Start there.
The flipside of the beginner is someone with a lot of experience or even a professional. Passion for something new is easy but passion for something you’ve done a long time can be hard. You might have been playing the same songs, the same licks and gigging every week. What is your advice to people in that situation?
To be honest, I’ve been there. I know we’ve had conversations about this in the past. You have to allow yourself to take breaks and not feel pressure. I know now that I’m never giving it up, but that if I need a break that’s o.k. I have a friend who is a painter and they told me they just try to power through it especially because they are making a living with it. I’ve definitely done that a few years ago. I’ve also wanted to throw my harmonicas and then looked at them hours later and said, “I love you! I’m sorry.”
Something that’s worked for me is giving yourself permission to play simply and tastefully. I might tell myself, “How can I add to this song?” rather than something imposing like, “I need to play brilliantly.”
Absolutely. You want to allow yourself to just play two notes if that’s all you feel you have for the day. I play the harmonica with a band that does indy rock on acoustic instruments. We play things like Verve and all I will do is play the string parts. It’s literally two notes. I did that at the first rehearsal and they were like, “That’s amazing and that’s what we want.” I held the right note with the right tone. Moments like that lessen the feeling that I need to be Mr. Harmonica Player.
Thinking about things like what can I do to serve the song as opposed to I need to show everyone I can play.
That’s especially true if you are in a place where you feel down about your playing or have a string of gigs booked and are going through the motions. There was a point with a band I was in where my gigantic solos weren’t working – I just did not have it in me. So I just played chords and octaves and it sounded great. I concentrated on tone and breathing. It helps take the pressure off and allows you to remember why you are playing. The harmonica by itself playing chords can break through with no filter.
What are the two most important lessons you could pass along about the harmonica?
God, there is so much ‘I’m an expert’ stuff in forums that I don’t like to give definitive advice. I think the main things would be to trust your ears and don’t be so hard on yourself.