Blog, Recommended Gear

One more time: what’s the best choice for your first (harp) amp?

Every year around Christmas we re-publish our piece on choosing your first harp amp (and the rest of your amped setup). It’s that time again, folks. Click here to get the straight story on how to set yourself up to play harp, loud.

One wickedly cool setup: a Digitech RP, a keyboard amp, and my patch set for Digitech RP

Digitech RP360XP:  great sounds in a small box for a very reasonable price

Digitech RP360XP



Peavey KB/A 100 keyboard amp: notice the outline of the 15" woofer

Peavey KB/A 100 keyboard amp

Blog

#28 Ever? We’ll Take It

I found out today that I’m listed as #28 on “The Top 100 Harmonica Players To Ever Walk The Planet” at harmonica.com. Seriously. See for yourself.

I’m glad to be in the company of the kind of people that populate this list, and it made my day to see myself on it. If you want to browse the whole list a little more easily than you can via the link above, try this one.

If you’re interested in the music that impressed the folks who vote at harmonica.com, check out my CDs at CDBaby.

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Why is Harmonica Not a Foundational Instrument? Because You Can’t Sing While You Play It

There are a few instruments–or roles, perhaps–that you hear in just about every band that’s playing anything related to roots or any popular style. Something is making a bass line. Something is percussively pounding out a rhythm. Something is playing chords or adding color above the bass and percussion–maybe more than one thing. Above all, someone is singing. And it’s that, not the limitations of the harmonica, that make it a non-foundational instrument–that is, not an instrument that must be present in any band.

If you play any kind of bass, drums, keyboards, or guitar, you’ve got a foundational instrument. Something’s got to play the role your instrument plays in the band. With modern electronics (like, of course, a Digitech RP device and my patch set), you can actually play any of those roles with a harmonica or two (or seventy-five, if you want to play a lot of different stuff–you need some pretty specific instruments to fill certain roles on certain songs). What you can’t do with a harmonica is sing at the same time.

The mouth can sing AND play, just not both at once

The mouth can sing AND play, just not both at once

I suppose “foundational” also implies something lower-pitched than most harmonicas–something that has some bass in the tone. That used to be a problem for harmonica, but it’s not anymore, with pitch-shifting electronics like a Digitech RP with my patch set, and low-pitched harmonicas like the Hohner Thunderbird and various Seydels and Suzukis available. Pitching the harmonica down also helps keep it out of the way of the vocal. And in modern popular music–including most genres that are popular enough to support more than a few artists, not just “pop” music–the human voice dominates. If you play bass, guitar, keys, or drums, you can sing while you play, because it’s your hands and feet that do the playing, not your mouth and your lungs.

But if the harp player sings, you’ll only hear the harp between vocals, which means it can’t fill a role in the foundation. I suppose that the looper is the device that solves the problem, but it introduces other problems. With a looper, a harmonica player can create a foundation and sing over it. That solves the problem of putting the harp in the foundation. However, it makes it harder to play with others; a lot of musicians find it difficult to stay in sync with a loop. If you have a full band playing to a loop, everybody needs a click feed to stay in sync, so the setup gets more complex. And a looper isn’t native to traditional styles, just about by definition.

That's my JamMan Stereo looper--the blue box at center-right.

That’s my JamMan Stereo looper–the blue box at center-right.

Another option is to find a band that wants the harp in the foundation, and never mind the singing. In that case the harp is really defining the sound of the band. That’s the story of Magic Dick with the J. Geils band. He didn’t have to sing with the band; the rest of them had that covered. His first great contribution was to put the harp right into the rhythm section. And the sound of the band was different from any other as a result.

It’s possible now, with non-standard tunings and various FX, to go well beyond what was possible with a traditional amped rig in 1971. In other words, the harp can now take on an even wider range of roles in the band, moving deeper into the various roles in the rhythm section (and farther in front on the lead). Assuming that said harp is not in the hands of a person whose primary role is singing.

Anyway, harp players have a big choice to make. They can sing more and put the instrument down more frequently, or they can play more and be more integral to the sound of the band. Not a simple choice; great opportunities on both sides. Time to be awesome, I guess, one way or the other. Or both. I’m reminded that Little Walter had plenty of instrumentals in his repertoire. So perhaps the key is in fact to embrace the limitation. We can do everything–just not all at once.

Audio/Video, Blog, Hunter's Music, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

“Widow’s Walk” Live October 29 2014

This performance was delivered live to an audience of Chief Information Officers, most of them Brazilian, at Gartner’s Brazil Symposium on October 29, 2014. I played into a Shure 58 mic, which was amplified via a small PA system (I don’t think the woofers were bigger than 8 inches, if that) with zero FX. It was recorded via the builtin microphones on my Zoom H4, and no post-processing was applied to the recording.

“Widow’s Walk” is one of my most complex and moving (in every sense of the word) compositions for diatonic harmonica, and this live performance of the piece shows the various lines and textures off well. It begins in first position on a G Natural Minor harmonica, i.e. in the key of C minor. Before it’s over, it’s toured G minor and Eb major as well. The textures include counter-melodies played out of both sides of the mouth at once, octaves, 10ths, and 12ths, 5ths and 4ths, single notes, and block chords. The Natural Minor tuning makes almost any combination of notes sound good, so you can get a wide range of voicings and big sounds all over the instrument. The independent lines span intervals up to a minor 13th, with movement at both ends.
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Audio/Video, Blog, Hunter's Music, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

“Comin Home Baby” Live with Wim Dijkgraaf, 29 October 2014

I’ve known Dutch-born harmonica virtuoso and composer Wim Dijkgraaf since the late 1990s. Wim now lives in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and I joined up with him there at Gartner’s Symposium ITXPO conference to perform this duet on Ben Tucker’s “Comin Home Baby” in front of an audience of Chief Information Officers, mostly from Brazil.
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Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Why We Make Big Cool Sounds for Harp Players: History is On Our Side

There was a recent discussion on Harp-L of FX, which I found revealing of all sorts of things. It’s chronicled here, and be warned: gotta lotta words. (The boldface emphases I put on certain lines in that discussion were added by me, and were not present in the initial conversation. However, I thought it a good idea to break up all that text once in a while, and highlighting some of the big messages seems like a good way to do it.)
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Blog, Discography, CDs, Projects, Info, Notes, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

In the Studio: Keepers of the Streak

I did a session earlier this week with Brian Keane, a composer/producer I’ve worked with on a number of occasions, for a TV movie titled “Keepers of the Streak”, which is about four photographers in their 70s/80s who’ve photographed every Superbowl from the start. (The premise is basically an excuse to run a Superbowl greatest-hits highlight reel for 90 minutes.) The basic style of the music is modern country, which means country twang with a lot of rock influence, and the harmonica work for this session accordingly had a lot of amped-up blues-rock stuff in it.
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Blog, Discography, CDs, Projects, Info, Notes, Hunter's Music

Harp Keys and Tunings for My Recorded Solo Repertoire

I’ve had a few requests recently for the harmonica keys and tunings that I used to record the pieces on my CDs “The Act of Being Free in One Act” and “The Second Act of Free Being.” So here, for your pondering pleasure, is a download PDF that lays it all out.
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