Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Get Ready for the Huntersounds Fender Mustang Patch Set

Inspired by David Barrett’s review of the Fender Mustang I modeling amp, I downloaded Fender’s FUSE software for the Mustang v.2 amps today. Very impressive. Unlike Digitech’s Xedit, you can run FUSE without a device connected for purposes of editing and saving patches, and I did. The amp models include ALL the traditional Fender food groups: ’57 Champ, ’57 Bassman, ’57 Twin, ’57 Deluxe, ’65 Princeton Reverb, ’65 Twin Reverb, ’65 Deluxe Reverb. It’s even got a “60’s Thrift” amp model that models a Sears Silvertone, which should be plenty rough enough. In short, it’s a lot of very harp-friendly amp models, including the ones I get asked to emulate most often.

Mustang I v.2–it’s the only one still in production, but the bigger versions are easily found

The delays and reverbs come in multiple flavors, including ’63 and ’65 spring reverbs and mono and tape delays, and the distortions include emulations of a number of well known stomp boxes. There are standard time-based FX like phase shift/chorus/flange plus pitch-based and filter FX, which can be placed in any order before or after the amp and cabinet models (but only one mod effect, one delay, one distortion, and one reverb per patch, no matter the order). There’s a rotary speaker effect and a few vibratos and tremolos for wobble sounds. In other words, all the basics for patches that will work well with harmonica are in the box.

The mustang V.2s are mostly out of production now, but the 8″ 20 watt Mustang I v.2 is still in production, and the bigger Mustang v.2 amps can easily be found on eBay and So I’m sure I can sell some patch sets for these things, and given the variety of traditional Fender amps models in the box I suspect that those patches will appeal plenty to any harp player who wants a roomful of classic Fender amp sounds for short money. (Used Mustang I v.2s are selling for as little as $50 in good condition, and the Mustang II v.2, with 40 watts and a 12″ speaker, goes for as little as $110 used.)

FUSE screen capture with delay and 60’s Thrift amp model

Downside: the onscreen rotary controls can only be operated with a mouse–you can’t type values in–so it’s kinda fiddly to get precise values. But so what. I’m going to get myself a Mustang amp and start making some patches for harmonica players. Expect something within the next couple of months, quantity of patches and pricing to be determined (but at the least I’m going to put together bread-and-butter-amp-reverb-delay patches for all the Fender amp models).

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Prices for used (and some new) Digitech RPs are still dropping

I visited eBay and today to take a look at the prices for used Digitech RPs. The only harp-friendly RPs still in production include the RP500, 1000, and 360/360XP. But plenty of used RP150/155/250/255/350/355s are out there in good-to-great condition, sounding every bit as good as the day they left the factory, with years of performance-ready life in them in most cases. Those used devices are a great resource for cost-conscious players who want to augment their rigs or build a new one.
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Blog, Meet the Pros, Recommended Artists & Recordings

The Phil Wiggins/George Kirby/Andy Calder show in Jackson was a blast

I had the opportunity Wednesday night (10/25/2017) to hear Phil Wiggins, the great country blues harmonica player/ singer/composer, with George Kirby Jr. on guitar and Jackson local Andy Calder on standup bass at the Pink Garter in Jackson, WY. It was a great show, with Wiggins’ harmonica playing a standout.
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Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Digitech’s iStomp does a lot of cool stuff for short money (UPDATED)

For the last year or so, I’ve been using an effects pedal from Digitech, the iStomp, in front of my Digitech RP500 running my patch set. I just added another iStomp to my rig, and I reckon it’s time to talk about it.
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Blog, Blue Future

“Blue Future” is delayed, but don’t be blue

As regular visitors to this site know, I’ve been planning to follow up my record “The Lucky One” with a new set of songs called “Blue Future.” The recording sessions were scheduled for October, but I had some family medical issues on the very weekend I was scheduled to record in Philadelphia, so the sessions were cancelled. It looks like we’re going to record now in January-February 2018.

The setup in the studio for “The Lucky One” and (soon) for “Blue Future.”

I’m disappointed that I have to wait another few months to lay these songs down, but I’m also glad to have another couple of months to work on the material. (As the saying goes: a work of art is never finished, only released.) I’m also glad to have another month or so to put an IndieGoGo campaign together to fund the recording.

In the meantime, I’ve been getting some great feedback from Taxi, the independent A&R guys, on various songs from “The Lucky One.” (“50 Grand” has been forwarded by Taxi to several listings, and it might come to a TV show near you before long.) One of the things they told me was that a remix of my favorite song from the record, “Why Should I Make History,” has a lotta potential if the choruses get bigger. So I’ve asked Mike Brenner to lay some more guitar on those choruses, after which we’ll mix again and see what happens.

Stay tuned for more news about “Blue Future.”

Blog, Harmonica Player’s Resources, Recommended Gear

Brendan Power Harmonicas Lucky 13 is a Great Blues Harp UPDATED

Brendan Power is a virtuoso harmonica player and a tireless innovator in building new tools for harmonica players, including new instruments and add-ons that increase the usefulness of traditional harmonicas. One of his latest innovations is the Lucky 13, a harmonica that adds a full lower octave to the standard Richter diatonic layout. The layout of the low octave is the same as that of a standard diatonic, only an octave lower. The resulting harmonica has a 4-octave range with a powerful low end and all the flexibility (and traditional sonority) of a standard diatonic in the top 3 octaves.

Like A Hohner 365, Only It Works

If this layout sounds familiar, you must have encountered an SBS-tuned Hohner Model 365 at some point. The Lucky 13’s reeds are laid out exactly like that instrument (until you get to the 14th hole on the 365, which the Lucky 13 doesn’t have), and that’s a good thing–the SBS-tuned 365 had a great range and an easy-to-learn reed layout. The even better thing is that unlike the Hohner Model 365, the Lucky 13 is a well-made and set-up instrument that plays responsively from top to bottom of its range right out of the box. The reed plates are emphatically screwed to the comb in a dozen places, and the Lucky 13 feels nice and tight, with none of the hissiness of air escaping through contact gaps between reed plates and comb that’s endemic to the Hohner 365.

Lucky 13, Black Cover Plates

It has at least as much dynamic range as most diatonics, with a wailing sound when played hard that’s very gratifying. It overblows easily in the middle register where a standard harp would, another sign of airtight construction and solid setup. It’s compact and fits easily in the hand, with a feel similar to that of a standard 10-hole diatonic; I found that I could wrap my hands around it without a lot of either end of the harp hanging out. Traditional hand effects and articulations like wahs and vibratos work well with this instrument.

A Solid Choice for Diatonic Players

Its extended range and blues harp playing feel, coupled with a layout that’s enough like a standard diatonic to make the learning curve pretty easy for intermediate level and up harmonica players, make it a solid choice for blues harp players who want to bring some new sounds to their game. Players who like to overblow will find the Lucky 13 to be as responsive to overblowing as any other mid-priced diatonic harmonica, with a wider range than any 10-hole. The Lucky 13 also comes in all 12 major keys, making it a potential go-to instrument for diatonic players in general.

As you can see from the photo, the black-cover version of the Lucky 13 has the first three holes highlighted in gold on the top plate. The next 10 holes are numbered 1-10, as they would be on a standard diatonic, with the same reed layout for those holes as a standard 10-hole diatonic. (On the chrome-cover version, the first three holes are highlighted in gray.) That means that players who use tab or other hole-oriented notation systems instead of, or in addition to, standard notation to navigate the diatonic harp don’t have to make adjustments to their tabs to use them with the Lucky 13.

I’ve only had the Lucky 13 for a few days, so I can’t comment on its durability, except to note that fit and finish are good, and a few hours of full-on harp playing don’t seem to have damaged it.

It’s an Inspiring Instrument

I found the Lucky 13 to be an inspiring instrument to play. I recorded the clips below into my iPhone’s voice recorder. (In other words, don’t expect the highest sound quality available within the state of the recording art.) I played a Lucky 13 in D into a Fireball V mic into a Digitech RP500 running my patch set for Digitech RP.

Both clips include improvised leads over looped accompaniment. In the first clip there are two harmonica parts, one played with a patch that models a Gibson GA40 amp and cab, played in the Lucky 13’s second octave and up, the other with the same sound plus vibrato, played in the lowest octave. It’s pretty bluesy. In the second clip, I started with the same vibrato harp part and added somewhere around four more effected parts, with the lead harp played on a Digitech BlackBass amp model with an FX25 autowah effect. It’s still got plenty of blues in it, but the 21st century is in the room too.

Both clips make clear how nice it is to have the low end on that Lucky 13 for rhythm work. This harp is a looper’s delight.

Lucky 13 two harp loop

Lucky 13 big harps loop

Good value for Money

The Lucky 13 offers very competitive performance for the price. The instrument comes from Rockin’ Ron’s with a choice of black cover plates ($59 shipped, with prices per harp declining when you buy more than one) or chrome ($64 shipped). I went for the black cover plates; I like black, and I like having $5 in my pocket. $59 for a high-quality harmonica is thoroughly competitive with prices for the Suzuki Manji, Seydel Session Steel, and Hohner Marine Band Deluxe, and none of those instruments offers a 4-octave range.

In point of fact, one Lucky 13 replaces two standard harmonicas; my Lucky 13 D harp has the low end of a Low D and the high end of a standard D covered, with all the expressive moves available that go with either of those instruments. For that very reason, people who’ve been shelling out for low-tuned diatonics might want to switch to the Lucky 13 instead and get the equivalent of two harps for the price of one. Did I mention that the Lucky 13 can also be purchased in Powerdraw, Powerbender, and Paddy Richter tunings? (But unfortunately not Natural Minor, Dorian Minor, or Country tunings, alas.)

If you’re US based, it’s easier and less expensive to buy the Lucky 13 from Rockin’ Ron’s. Wherever you’re based, the Lucky 13 is a solid buy: an uncomplicated instrument that does something very useful, very well, at a very reasonable price. I intend to buy at least a few more of these, and I’m already thinking about how to use them on the recording sessions for my upcoming release “Blue Future.”

UPDATE: I took one of my two Lucky 13s in D and tuned up the draw 5 reed a half step–in other words, I gave it a Country tuning. It sounds great on this harp–whatever temperament they put on this thing, the chords sound beautiful. Now that I’ve heard one of these harps with a Country tuning, I’m more eager than ever to hear it with Dorian and Natural Minor tunings.

While I had the cover plates off, I noticed that the gaps between reeds and plate in the bottom octave were pretty high. I reduced those gaps, and I think the harp sounds even less breathy than before in the bottom octave. It seems to me that the factory tried to optimize the low end for high volume–hence the wide reed gaps–and the middle register and up for overblowing, hence closer gaps there. Anyway, Brendan generally recommends that players set the gaps on their reeds to suit their own style, and I think that’s good advice. If you don’t know how to set reed gaps on a harmonica, I’m sure you can find a video on Youtube (look for Rupert Oysler and/or Richard Sleigh) to teach you how.

I also noted that the reeds in this harp show few signs of file marks–in other words, the reeds didn’t require, and didn’t get, a lot of tuning with a file after assembly. That’s a good thing in particular because reeds that are heavily worked to get them in tune are weakened in the process, and need more-frequent replacement. It’s one more indicator of a quality instrument.

UPDATE: I took all my Lucky 13s–A, Bb, C, D, D Country, and Eb–and set the reed gaps to where I like them. I found that the lower-pitched harps in general were given much larger gaps at the factory for the reeds in holes 1-4. The C, Eb, and D harps were generally closer to where I would have set them, meaning smaller gaps in general. I don’t think I touched any reed gaps above hole 6 on any of the harps. The top two octaves on every one of these harps speaks loudly and overblows easily, and when it’s working that well I just leave it alone.

UPDATE: Now that I have half a dozen of these harps, I decided it was worth getting a case that holds them. So I bought a case designed to hold 12 Lucky 13s from Rockin Ron’s for about $40. A case that holds five Lucky 13s is about $26, but I’ve already got more Lucky 13s than that. I think it’s a good idea to protect harps in a case, especially when you know you’re going to use them. Every Lucky 13 comes with a zip-up case that’s nice, if a little bulky, but it’s not easy to carry more than one or two of those around at a time, and you don’t want to have to zip or unzip the case every time you pick up a different harp. So a case for multiple harps makes life and performance a lot easier.

The 12-harp case is lightweight and strong enough to protect the harps inside, which are laid out side by side horizontally, a simple and effective layout for performance. Both size cases have a useful handle. No strap, unfortunately, for either size, which is a drag especially for the 5-harp version. My Suzuki Manji small case holds eight harps and is about the same size and weight as the 5-harp Lucky 13 case. But the Manji case has a shoulder strap, so I can carry it around hands-free. (The Manji case came as a free accessory with a set of 8 Manjis from Rockin’ Ron’s. I didn’t expect to care much about the case, but it turned out to be a very useful thing for occasions when I don’t need a lot of different harps.)

Even without a strap, a Lucky 13 case is a useful accessory if you plan to own more than one or two Lucky 13s.

Audio/Video, Blog, Hunter's Effects, Hunter's Music, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recommended Gear, The Lucky One

How I recorded “Put The Lever Down” (2017 version)

Where “Put the Lever Down” came from

I wrote the lick and harmony on which “Put the Lever Down” is based while I was hanging out in my car at one of my daughter’s skating meets around 1981, playing with a Dorian Minor tuned diatonic harp; I don’t remember whether I recorded the licks on the spot, or if I memorized the piece. I was already in the habit of carrying a portable Radio Shack cassette recorder around with me at the time. However I did it, I had the song’s structure laid out when I went to the studio not long after to record my first single.

“Lever Down” was the one of the first two pieces I recorded with Erik Lindgren producing, in 1982. We recorded to 8 tracks of analog tape, the state of the art in small-studio setups at the time, and the whole thing took 5 hours from first take to final mix; everyone was just on fire that day. Andrew Maness played guitar through a pitch shifter–I think it was a Boss Octaver–and I played harmonica through a Shure 545 (I think, one of the old pistol grip models that unbeknownst to me at the time was one of Paul Butterfield’s favorites) into a Boss BF-2 Flanger and a Fender Champ amplifier, one of the old ones that had a single knob for volume, in that order.

The amp was Erik Lindgren’s; he found it in the garbage in Cambridge, MA one day when he was out on a stroll, took it home and plugged it in, and found that it was working. My guess is that some very angry girlfriend or wife dumped that thing in the garbage, because there is no damn way that anybody who’s ever plugged an instrument into a vintage Champ is going to wittingly dump it on the street.

It was one of my first recordings using an altered tuning, in this case a Dorian Minor tuning (D Dorian minor in 2nd position), played in third position (A Natural Minor in 3rd position) on what would be a standard G harp if we hadn’t retuned it. It was also my most-admired recording for a long time–among other things, it was the theme song for a show on harmonica music titled “The Tin Sandwich” broadcasting on NPR from Worcestor, MA, and it was received with wild enthusiam by reviewers in Boston.

That was then, this is now

I thought of this version of the recording from the start as an update with a wider palette of harmonica orchestration. This version also features the contributions of an excellent band, while the 1982 version only included two human players plus a drum machine. (For all that, it rocked hard, with a raw, furious, mindbending harmonica solo over an implacably relentless, steady groove in the bass via Andrew Maness’s pitch-shifted guitar.) Finally, the idea of a dual lead in the last half occurred to me when I was comparing takes in my home studio and discovered that different takes were mutually complementary–I tended to alternate my phrasing on every take, so when one part was highly active, the other was just hanging fire on one big, screaming note. So this piece includes two big harps chasing each other to the end instead of just one.

In the end, the mix presents a somewhat less orchestrated and more improvised sound than I originally had in mind, and that decision was about making room for the leads–both of which are red-hot by the time the second half is well underway–which might otherwise be smothered in a cloud of harmonicas.

Let’s talk about all those harmonicas. In the meantime, take a listen to the piece. You can hear it at cdbaby. If you use the player below, “Put the Lever Down” is the fifth song on the record, right after my cover of Morphine’s “Early to Bed.”

The Chord Changes Dictate the Harps

The structure of the tune begins with a fierce rhythm lick, articulated by an amped harmonica in alternating octaves via alternate side of the mouth tongue-blocking, followed by a long solo harmonica solo that never dips below the 5th above the root (A, or draw 4) in the second octave. It begins relatively quietly, and ends shrieking and jumping around in the top octave of the harmonica. The harmony shifts from A minor to B minor before settling on A minor under the solo as it digs in, and for this part of the piece I used a standard G harp, a Seydel 1847, playing in third position (A minor on a G harp) and 5th position (B minor on a G harp) as necessary. I also introduce an A Natural Minor harp here playing chords with big, wet, squawking autowah sounds on the 2nd beat of every measure.

When the harmony settles on A minor, I keep that part going and introduce another harmonica entirely, a Chromonica II. This wicked chordal instrument offers lots of cool variations on scale-tone and passing chords in the keys of C, G, A minor, and D minor, and you can hear it in the background here with chorded rock licks that jump back and forth from A minor to D minor.

After the first extended solo, we enter a bridge. The chords on the bridge are a repeating cadence of D minor, G, and A minor, with a crescendo on E7 at the end, and I play the first three chords on a single Dorian Minor-tuned harmonica in the key of D (equivalent to standard G richter), doubled by the Chordomonica II. The D Dorian Minor tuning is made from a G harp by reducing the pitch of the draw 3 and 7 reeds, the 3rds of the scale in 2nd position, by 1/2 step each. (Pitch reduction can be accomplished by filing the reeds, or by matching the right draw reed plate, e.g. a D minor, with the right blow reed plate, e.g. a G.) This yields a harp that offers a minor I chord in second position, a major IV chord, and a minor V–in this case, D minor, G, and A minor. In third position (A minor on a D Dorian harp) the mode is Natural Minor (flatted 3/6/7), which is perfectly usable for lots of cool stuff. The D Dorian harp I used was a Lee Oskar, and I probably put it together by combining reed plates from a D natural minor (draw) and standard G (blow) harps. I used a Seydel Session Steel A harp in 2nd position to play the E7 chords. On all the bridge harp parts, I recorded multiple layers with different FX; see below for a detailed discussion.

After the bridge, the piece includes an extended two-harp solo over alternating A minor and B minor chords. Here I used a standard Seydel 1847 G harp for both of the leads, using 3rd position for the A minor sections and 5th position for the B minor sections. I also used A Natural Minor and B natural minor harps to provide the same chord hits that I performed with the Chromonica II in the first half, and to play rapidly ascending and descending cascades of chord tones, like a big fireworks plume (albeit a plume that’s low in the mix).

There are plenty of harp tracks on every tune on this record, but there aren’t a lot of tunes where I used 6 different harmonicas, with different tunings, or layouts, or performance features like double slides. (That’s 1 G harp, 1 D Dorian (modified G) harp, 1 A Natural Minor, 1 B Natural Minor, 1 standard A, and 1 Chordomonica II.)

Lotta harps, golly, huh? How do we keep alla those harps from stepping on each other? Well, we use a lotta different sounds from our magic RP500 setup, like this…

The FX on “Put The Lever Down”

The first lead on “Put the Lever Down”–the one you hear in the first half of the piece–was recorded live in studio with the band. I used my workhorse ChampB (Champ amp plus Bassman cab) patch for that lead–I wasn’t sure about using something more effected-up, like with a flanger or chorus, for example, notwithstanding that I recorded the 1982 version with a flanger inline–and I decided pretty much on the spot to go with the traditional blues harp sound. I’m glad I did–I was able to use vibrato and other techniques to get a more intensely emotional sound than I think I could have achieved with a flanger.

The setup in the studio for the live sessions in philly. Notice the default chain of iStomp followed by Digitech RP500.

On the bridge, I recorded three big chorded parts, two with the same Lee Oskar D Dorian harp–one with the ChampB patch, one with the autowah patch–and a track using the Chordomonica II into a Digitech iStomp running the Swingshift pitch shifter with a sub-octave added to the tone, into a chorus patch on the RP500 for a big, wide lower-midrange sound. Together these tones produce a big, shifting, deep sound that’s intriguing because it keeps changing in multiple ways.

I recorded the second half live with the band in the studio with the same ChampB setup, but in the end I didn’t much like it. I felt at the time like I was blowing too hard for too long, and the solo seemed to hit a peak early and stay there, which is not tops. By the time I figured that out, in my home studio I had recorded the Chordomonica II parts and the Natural Minor harps, all using various clean reverbed/delayed/chorused sounds, among them a patch that pairs a Tweed Deluxe amp model–nice amp model with a full body that’s not openly distorted–with a TC Electronics chorus model.

All of those parts were intended to provide color and increased intensity as the piece progressed. Maybe they’re mixed a little low for that. The payoff for that decision is that the two lead harps have the freedom to take up a lot of space with lots of movement and color changes in the second half of the piece.

When I decided I didn’t like the second half lead from the studio, I recorded a new one with the ChampB patch. Then I recorded another one with a patch based on a high-gain heavy metal amplifier, which puts a lot of edge on the sound, and a mild chorus effect, which makes a sound that stands out just enough from the traditional ChampB Chicago amped harp sound. I listened to them one at a time, and then listened to them together, at which point I realized that they were mutually complementary. That’s what I sent to Chris Peet for mixing.

I think Chris might already have started mixing the record, maybe even mixing this song, when I sent him the updated solos. Hope not… but all’s well that ends well, though travails did not end there.

A Little More Drama Than Usual

We ended up doing five different mixes on “Put the Lever Down.” In the end I approved the 5th mix for mastering. I listened to the master again just before I sent it off for pressing, and I was aghast to realize that I had approved the wrong mix for mastering! The 4th mix was a lot more dynamic and exciting in the second half than the 5th.

I immediately emailed Ed Abbiati to advise that we needed a new master with the 4th take of “Put the Lever Down.” Ed listened and agree that the 4th take was better. He contacted Alex McCollough at True East Mastering, Alex redid the master for the song with the 4th take that very day, and all was well. Phew.

Performing “Put the Lever Down”

I think that “Put the Lever Down” can be performed effectively by one player–the lead part is the most important one once the rhythm lick that starts the piece has done its work, which is to say by the time the extended solo on A minor begins. If additional players are available, any of the chorded parts played on any suitable chord harmonica instrument would be great, and if two soloists are available, one can do the octave-jumping parts up front, and both can solo together at the end.

Don’t forget that there’s a lot of harmonica technique involved in playing the octave jumps that are the motor behind the rhythm in “Put the Lever Down.” In other words, it’s not just about the FX in this piece. Learn what you can about “corner-switching” techniques. The intensity of the octave jumps in this piece, and the fact that they’re happening on both blow and draw octaves, means that you need a harp that responds reliably at a given pressure level on every note. Lee Oskars are good for that, and I’ve been using Lee Oskars to play this piece for a very long time, especially the bridge.

The key is to make sure that there’s enough difference between the harmonica tones for a listener to tell them apart. To get exactly the same range of tones that I get on this piece, you’ll need a Digitech RP500 loaded with my patch set. But you could get similar kinds of contrasts with a decent amped setup and a pedal effect or two (autowah and chorus preferred, delay pretty high priority too).

The energy in this piece ultimately comes from the wildly driving lick that begins it and the groove that results. The band of Mike Brenner on lap steel, John Cunningham on bass, and Mark Schreiber on drums plays the hell out of it. The harps shout hysterically above the general funky din. What’s not to like? Play this one with your own band.

Blog, Harmonica Player’s Resources

Announcing the SPAH Award Nominations 2017!

Every year, the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) accepts nominations for a few awards that represent great contributions to the harmonica, the music it makes, and the people who support it. Those awards include:

The Bernie Bray Harmonica Player of the Year Award for excellence in playing the instrument;
The Pete Pedersen Lifetime Achievement Award, whose name is self-explanatory; and
The Stan Harper Award of Special Merit (formerly the SPAH Award of Special Merit), which can be awarded either to a person or an organization that’s benefited the harmonica community in a manner specially deserving of singular honor.

These are harmonicas, which instrument SPAH was formed to preserve and advance. Obviously.

Every one of these awards is named for a great musician and harmonica player. I never met Bernie Bray, the Canadian player whose jazz harmonica work is legendary. I was fortunate enough to meet Stan Harper when, at the age of 80, he played a recent SPAH convention, exhibiting his mastery of the chromatic harmonica. And I was very fortunate to meet Pete Pedersen in the early 1980s, when he told me that my book “Jazz Harp” was the best book for harmonica players that he’d seen, and to see him again in 1999 at the Buckeye Harmonica Festival, where he played an amazing set on chromatic harmonica, backed by a jazz piano trio, opening with one of the best rockin’ performances of Thelonius Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” I’ve heard, a performance that effortlessly mixed funk grooves and jazz lines, and which prompted my wife, who has seen them all, to say “That is one funky old man.” Ain’t that the truth.

This year’s award nominees, as per past years, include players whose names will be instantly recognizable to musicians and harmonica devotees worldwide. The nominees are:

Bernie Bray Harmonica Player of the Year Award

Carlos del Junco
William Galison
Bob McFarlane
Jason Ricci
Koei Tanaka
Kim Wilson

Carlos Del Junco is one of the best-known and highly regarded diatonica harmonica players in the word, with a career spanning decades. Will Galison is one of the top jazz chromatic harmonica players in New York City, and his work has been heard onstage with Sting and in numerous recordings for TV, film, and record releases. Diatonic blues and rock virtuoso Jason Ricci, whose ability to build an extended solo from the ground up to a screaming climax–check out his 18 minute version of “Whammer Jammer” sometime–is absolutely amazing, a player I’ve watched for years, and it’s great to see him nominated. Kim Wilson needs no introduction to harmonica devotees, Koei Tanaka is a leading exponent of the blues in Japan and elsewhere, and Bob McFarlane is one of the stalwarts of the New York/New Jersey scene. I won’t tell you who I’m rooting for.

Pete Pedersen Lifetime Achievement Award

Billy Branch
Michael Burton
Mike Caldwell
Joe Filisko
PT Gazell
John Long
Manfred Wewers
Stevie Wonder

All of these players have put in a lifetime of great work as players and promoters of the harmonica. Do I need to say much about Stevie Wonder here? Billy Branch is a longtime exponent of Chicago blues harp and a 3-time Grammy nominee. Michael Burton’s work goes back to the 1940s and Johnny Puleo’s band. Mike caldwell is a great country harmonica player whose work as sideman with Loretta Lynn and others has graced hundreds of recordings and thousands of performances; I had the pleasure of playing with Mike at a SPAH convention a few years ago. Joe Filisko is a great blues player, and was one of the most influential forces in harmonica design and construction in the last 30 years. PT Gazell is a fixture on the Nashville scene, and has pioneered the use of half-valving on diatonic harmonicas to extend the chromatic range of the instrument. John Long is a master of country blues guitar and harmonica. Manfred Wewers is a player, teacher, harmonica historian, and longtime organizer for seminars at SPAH and elsewhere.

Stan Harper Award of Special Merit

Harland Crain
Joe Filisko
Greg Heumann
Dottie Pispeckie
Howard Reich
Phil Sardo
Jerl Welch

The nominations in this category include a well-known player or two, but are mainly oriented to people working tirelessly behind the scenes to advance the instrument. Jerl Welch has been active in HOOT (Harmonica Organization Of Texas) for decades. Harland Crain’s harmonica collection–a big chunk of harmonica history there–is one of the world’s largest. Greg Heumann has devoted much of his life to designing and building equipment for harmonica players; I have two pieces of Greg’s gear in my stage and studio kit, and I don’t leave home without them. Howard Reich writes music reviews for the Chicago Tribune, and has written plenty of articles promoting harmonica players like Howard Levy and James Cotton over the years. Phil Sardo is a player and inventor who has devoted decades to designing and building exceptional instruments. Dottie Pispeckie has been an invaluable contributor to SPAH conventions for years.

Those are the awards and the nominees. Stay tuned for news about which of these worthy harmonica players and contributors won the 2017 awards! In the meantime, take a look at this impressive list of previous award winners.

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How I recorded the big harmonicas that light up “Make the Noise”

Sometimes it takes years to write a song. I wrote the first draft of some of the lyrics to “Make the Noise,” the leadoff song on my record “The Lucky One,” 15 or so years ago for a piece called “In the Time of Your Life” (as per Aram Saroyan: In the time of your life, live). When I began work on this record, I reviewed more or less all the lyrics I’d written, and I kept coming back to “In the Time of Your Life.” The lyrics were about life and–death. Kind of a bummer, that. On reflection, telling people to hurry up and live cause they’re all gonna die doesn’t seem likely to inspire a lot of cheer, unless grim determination qualifies as cheer. And it seems likely that people who feel good, as opposed to grimly determined, when they hear a song are likelier to want to hear said song again.

The setup in the studio when I recorded “Make the Noise”

So I decided to take those lyrics and make them all about living. “In the time of your life” began with these words:
Fact/We all die young/Compared to earth and sky and sun

In “Make the Noise” those lyrics become the chorus, and they’re a lot happier:
Compared to earth/and sky and sun/you and I are always young

Just as true as the previous version, and a lot more cheerful about the overall outlook going forward, don’t you think?
Check this song out on CDBaby before you read about the harmonica parts. Use the player below; it’s the first song on the record.

The History of the Harmonica in 4 minutes

Musically, “Make the Noise” is something of an autobiography. The groove at the beginning has echoes of the Doors, one of my earliest rock influences, with a harmonica horn section punching out riffs to move it along and a vibrating lead harp adding fervor and mystery. The solo goes to a Bo Diddley groove, an explicit reference to early rock, with a harmonica sound and attack that’s all about amped up blues (plus a little pitch-shifting modern twist); and the piece goes out on an extended jam with the harmonica horns and the bluesy solo harp making a chugging, pulsing bed for the vibrating lead. 1952, meet 2017. As Faulkner said, the past isn’t past.

Lots of harmonica color on this track, and as per usual for this record, some of these harp sounds have never appeared on any record before. (Anyone who’s purchased my patch set for Digitech RP500 can use these sounds in their own pieces once I release the full set of sounds I used on this record, of course, which I’ll get to as soon as I finish my write-ups on the songs.)

Digitech RP500: It’s on every harp track on “The Lucky One”

How I recorded “Make The Noise”

The rhythm section for “Make the Noise”—Mike Brenner on lap steel, Mark Schreiber on drums, and John Cunningham on bass
—was recorded live in the studio while I sang a dummy vocal and played the amped-up blues harp sound that you hear on the first solo and a chugging rhythm part at the end. I wanted to do that solo with the band playing behind me to get the vibe of real people playing music together, reacting to each others’ ideas in real time. (You know, jamming.) I used a very tough, even harsh sound on that first solo, and if I were to do it over I might back off the distortion a little—but I ultimately kept the solo because it was true to the moment, and true to the spirit of the song. “Make the Noise,” indeed. Noise is naïve, isn’t it?

That harp track was recorded with a Seydel Session Steel in A, played in 2nd position, with a handheld Audix Fireball V mic plugged into a Digitech RP500 running my patch set, with the RP’s stereo XLR audio outputs going straight to the recording console. (In other words, harmonica aside, I used exactly the same rig on this piece that I used on almost every other harp track on “The Lucky One.”) The modern twist is that I put a whammy effect, with a pitch shift of a major 2nd down, on the RP500 patch I used on the track, which allowed me to pitch-shift between E major and D major chords—y’know, the chords you need to play a Bo Diddley riff.

Most of the song is in E minor; the solo is in E major, and the chorus that follows it uses an E major chord in its C-D-E sequence, as opposed to the C-D-E minor sequence that’s heard in all the other choruses. To me it feels like the sun coming up when that Bo Diddley groove ends with C-D-E, and the harp line reflects that glorious feeling.
At the end, the A harp is playing over an E minor chord, and I was careful to play partial chords on the 1 and 2 inhale reeds, meaning the 5th and root of the chord, no third, in order to preserve the minor tonality while chugging away on the A harp, with a little bit of whammy thrown in to keep the harmony moving between E and D. Traditional blues and—not.

5th position carries the horns and lead

When I began laying down the harp overdubs for “Make The Noise,” I knew that I wanted a big, deep horn section. (Like I said elsewhere, the influence of Morphine is all over this record.) The first track I overdubbed was a harmonica pitch-shifted down two octaves to emulate a baritone saxophone playing a simple, punchy riff on the verses, and long notes on the roots of the chords on the chorus. Then I recorded a harmonica pitch-shifted down one octave to emulate a tenor sax playing the same line. I was instantly in love with the sound. 40 years ago I used to listen to King Curtis and envy the powerful blasts he could generate on the low notes of a tenor sax. Now I’ve got a pitch shifter, and I envy no more.

Both those tracks were recorded on a Suzuki Manji in the key of C, played in 5th position (i.e. root = E, tonality is minor). I used the same harp with an RP500 sound that included a vibropan effect for a deep, psychotic vibration that makes the harp jump straight out of the mix. That sound is used to play long tones that add texture and emotion in the intro and on every chorus, to play fills on the verses, to play E minor chords behind the blues harp solo, and to play a little bit of chug and a pair of high-flying solos, one after the other, on the E minor outro. Both solos were improvised in one continuous pass, and I felt inspired when I played that take. I don’t really use 5th position all that often—I’d usually rather just use a Natural Minor harp in 2nd position, which is the same mode—but I’m glad I did this time. Thinking through the lines in 5th position forced me to come up with some new ideas, and when I listen to the solo now I hear very, very different phrasing than is usual for me.

I seem to recall that every overdub I did on this song was a first take. It was a moment’s inspiration to select each of the sounds I used, and the parts came together instantly in my mind and in combination with each other. I didn’t write anything down—I just played the lines, listened, and moved on to the next. Sometimes it works like that. I don’t suppose it would have if I hadn’t had years of looping harmonica parts to teach me what sounds work together.

I played the tracks for my wife and she said “don’t add a thing.” True that. It’s a good thing to know when to stop. When the thing is sounding really, really good is about the right time to stop.

Plenty of colors means at least two harp players for live performance

The harmonica arrangement on “Make the Noise” has a lot of depth and color. There are four harmonica tracks, but two of them are playing the same lines an octave apart (i.e. the low horn lines), and a single player could do those using either a pair of Digitech RPs connected via an ABY pedal (to split the mic signal) or with a multi-voice pitch shifter like the Electro-Harmonix POG or HOG. Ideally you’d then have one more player doing the blues harp parts in 2nd position, and a third playing the vibrating parts in 5th position.

If you’ve only got two players, I’d put one on the low harmonica parts, and one on the 5th position parts, with the player on the low parts switching to the blues harp sound on the solo, where the low parts aren’t as important. Alternatively, the player using the vibrating sound could switch to the blues harp sound on the solo while the low harps carry on.

If you’ve only got one player, play the vibrating sound everywhere but the Bo Diddley groove, where you can rock out with the amped up blues sound. It won’t be my arrangement, but it’ll still be fun.

But hey! I set this arrangement up to show off a bunch of harp sounds. So get your friends together and work it out. It’s time for harp players to put more harmonicas on stage, innit? Make all those sounds work for you, man. 21st century harmonica has entered the building.

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