Just the blues and an open road

Teacher: Kevin Whittall

From: Shropshire

Lesson: Blues Harmonica

Winding through the fiendishly narrow lanes of the Shropshire Hills in our trusty Teach Us Ford Fiesta, we couldn’t help but be taken aback by the beauty of the landscape. Though there were few houses to be seen, the ones that were there made us think about how different our lives could be if we lived in the real depths of the countryside. Fresh air, clear night skies and nothing to disturb us but the odd bleating of sheep.

The is the life our latest teacher has chosen, and it’s not hard to see why. A self-proclaimed anarchist, Kev Whittall has never been one to follow the crowds. Since selling his house ten years ago, Kev has travelled the world, taking on the 500 mile Camino de Santiago hike through Spain and France and touring New Zealand for eight years in his campervan. Living his life by the motto ‘Just the blues and an open road’, wherever Kev has been, his harmonica has gone with him.

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Sadly, a diagnosis of terminal cancer prompted Kev’s return to the UK, but it hasn’t changed his attitude towards life. He still lives in a campervan, which is currently parked in one of the most picturesque campsites in the UK, and he still plays his harmonica, or ‘harp’, every day. A sign in his windscreen advertises ‘Free Harmonica Lessons’ and he takes pleasure in teaching newbies the basics. Never ones to turn down a lesson with somebody as passionate as Kev, we paid him a visit. In addition to the hundreds of questions we had about how to actually play, we were just as keen to find out how learning and teaching others a musical skill has changed his life.

What have you been teaching us today?

I’ve been trying to teach you harmonica, and I’d say it worked to a certain degree. It’s not something you can learn in five minutes, but some of you were starting to bend the notes and that’s a good start.

When did you start learning to play the harmonica?

When I started travelling. I went to New Zealand eight years ago and took a few harmonicas with me. I was hitching around the north and south islands, learning how to key my ear into the instrument, bending notes and playing faster as I went along. By the end of my trip I’d even started teaching others.

How did you learn?

I’m self taught, and I tend to play by ear a lot. I played bass in a rock band originally and it was pretty easy to make the transition.

What is it about learning an instrument that appeals to you?

Just to master it to a certain degree. Not to be a professional necessarily, but just to get it to a standard that I’m happy with when I’m playing.

Is harmonica something that anyone can learn?

Yes, I think so. Most single note instruments are easy enough to learn, like the harmonica or the tin whistle. Something like a guitar is much more difficult because you have to piece out different sounds around chords, but I always say if you can hum it, you can play it on the harmonica.

What do you like about it?

I can express myself with it, and it fits neatly in my pocket. If I’m waiting in traffic, I can just pull it out and play on it for five minutes.

Have you played many gigs?

Not so much as a harmonica player, but when I was younger I played bass with my band in lots of pubs, perhaps playing three or four gigs a week. We had a white van, which we’d put loads of seats in the back of so 10 of our mates could come on tour with us. We’d turn up at Tesco somewhere on the road and all pour out, getting the strangest looks from people who didn’t think we could possibly all fit in a van like that. It was probably illegal, but we could get away with it the 80s. We didn’t worry about what was legal or not, we just did what we wanted to do. It didn’t even matter that we’d only be paid about £80 for the gig, split between the five of us.

What’s your fondest memory of playing harmonica?

I used to play in Lyttelton, which was at the epicentre of the second earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. I played in a semi-converted pub made out of shipping containers. I did a few gigs and open mic sessions there with a friend of mine called Barry, and we enjoyed them alot.

How would you describe your style?

It’s a mixture of the folk style with a little bit of an Irish influence and also a bit of jazzy blues. I take inspiration from Austin Texas based Jimi Lee – the best rack-mounted harp and guitar player I’ve ever seen live. His ability to play guitar, harmonica and sing to that standard really shocked me, and I thought I’d have to give it a go myself.

How has playing the harmonica changed your life?

It has made me a bit more of what I like to call a ‘free liver’, but I’ve actually always been a bit like that. I do work, and I have had various jobs over the course of the past 30 years, but if something isn’t making me happy I look for something else. Living in my campervan and playing my harmonica makes me happy.

When did you get your campervan?

I had one when I was about 30 which I lived in on various sites when working as a carpenter. I did that for two years after a divorce until I had enough money to get back onto the housing market on my own. I owned that home for about 10 years while renting one of the rooms to lodgers, then sold it to buy a motorhome and put a bit in the bank. I like it because it gives me a little house on the move and allows me to see some really nice areas.

Do you enjoy sharing your knowledge?

I give harmonica lessons for free because I enjoy helping people learn something new. I just think people would feel better about themselves when they commit to learning something. I’ve always had people around me say ‘I wish I could play the guitar’ or ‘I wish I could play harmonica’, but they don’t try. They tell themselves they can’t, but they can if they actually try. It’s great when I can show them that their goals are easier to achieve with the right amount of commitment.

Do you think it’s important for older generations to pass their knowledge down?

The older generation can help younger people see different ways of living because these days it’s too easy to get influenced by what they see on TV or on the internet. They don’t access a lot of what I call the important things, the real life skills that make you feel good about yourself.

Have you enjoyed teaching us?

Yes I have, very much. You just have to keep practising! You’d be surprised at how soon you could get up on stage. You could throw a five year old kid out on stage with no experience and they’d be able to play something that sounded at least in tune, so you guys would be fine.

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What we learned

  • It’s relatively easy to pick out a tune on a harmonica, especially if it’s in the key of C
  • People who know how to play generally call it the ‘harp’
  • ‘Bending’ creates new notes and adds huge variety to what’s achievable on the harp
  • Learning alongside two other newbies while all crammed into a campervan is pretty tough, and quite noisy
  • We have so much to learn from people like Kev who’ve devoted their lives to learning and followed their own path