Blog, Recommended Artists & Recordings

RIP Prince

I saw Prince perform a half dozen years or so ago at a club in Las Vegas. It was an incredible performance, easily the best I’ve ever seen in a nightclub, but I don’t think it was an unusually great show for Prince. He sounded like Jimi Hendrix fronting James Brown’s band, and the band was every bit as brilliant as he was–in fact, he left the stage for a half hour just to let them run amok. What a show. “So many hits, so little time,” he remarked at one point. “The old school, that’s the whole school,” he said at another.

Years ago, Tony Glover wrote of Little Walter: “Genius is a f—ed-over word these days, but Walter was one for sure. What’s more, he knows how to get you off.” Those words apply in full to Prince.

RIP Prince, and thanks for all the great music.

Audio/Video, Blog, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

A shoutout for Jon Gindick

I got an email today from Jon Gindick, harmonica player, singer, songwriter, author of numerous books on playing the harmonica, and the man behind Harmonica Jam Camp. The message was all about the latest harmonica Jam Camp in Missisippi, which apparently was a damn good time for all.

I was reminded of how much fun I had as an instructor at one of Jon’s Jam Camps years ago in Danvers, Massachusetts, near Boston. The fun included teaching one on one and in groups, listening to and learning from the other instructors (which on that occasion included Richard Sleigh and Dennis Gruenling), and jamming with Annie Raines (who disclosed to the campers and instructors that she began her own harmonica journey with Jon’s book “Harmonica Americana”). It was very gratifying to be part of an event where all involved visibly improved their musical skills and had a lot of fun doing it. (My only moment of distress at the event came when I learned that Legal Seafoods in Danvers did not offer Guinness, on tap or otherwise. I can barely express my shock at learning that Guinness was not being sold in a restaurant a few miles from downtown Boston, whose population includes more people of Irish heritage than you can find in Dublin. So far as I know Jon had nothing to do with the restaurant’s decision not to offer the best beer in the world.)

Anyway, it’s great to see that Jon’s Jam Camps are still going strong, and that he’s added singing to the list of musical skills that campers pick up at Camp. More music, more fun for all. Roll on Jon!

In case you’re interested, here’s the video of my jam with Annie from that Jam Camp in Danvers.

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

The new record is taking form

A couple months ago I announced on this blog that I’m getting ready to make a record. The shape and sound of that record is coming into focus.

For a start, it’s going to be stripped-down. I’ve realized that the stuff I’ve most enjoyed playing in the last few years–such as the gig I played with Lowands at the Windmill last month, and the work I did a few years ago with Brian Maw–is stuff where I’m one of a very few players on stage. I need sonic room to play out my conception of what harmonica does in a band. I can’t express that conception when I’m struggling to find space for the instrument behind (and I do mean behind) a wall of guitars and keys.

So this record will feature guitar, harmonica, and drums for the most part–the same lineup that backed Little Walter on his great recordings. That doesn’t mean it’s going to sound like Walter. The sound I have in my head is something like Morphine meets The White Stripes: big sounds from minimal instrumentation, low, dark, with big grooves burning underneath. I’ll use the looper with my RPs to create layers of harmonica, of which there will be a-plenty. There’ll be various flavors of blues involved, as there is in almost everything I do, but the overall sensibility is rock.

I’m writing lyrics daily now, and writing music to fit those lyrics. That’s the opposite of the way I’ve always worked; I’ve always started with a groove, gone to a song structure from there, and then to the lyrics. But starting with the lyrics seems to be working for me now, and I’m going to stick with it. I saw a documentary on Carole King, and it turns out that that’s how she worked–her collaborators delivered lyrics to her, and she’d write the music. (In the case of “Too Late Baby,” apparently it took her about an hour from the moment she first saw the lyric sheet. Genius ain’t slow.)

So the songwriting is underway, the lyric sheets are piling up, and the music is coming into focus. Pretty soon the planning for the sessions will begin. My producer and I have discussed the players, and we’re clear on who we want and where we plan to record. I’m figuring to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the next couple of months, and to to do the recording sometime in the second half of this year.

Pretty exciting, huh? I’m looking forward to making a great record. Here’s a taste of what’s coming. “50 Grand” is a blues with a rhumba beat, and it features two harmonica parts: one with an amped sound that’s a dead ringer for some of my favorite Charlie Musselwhite tones, the other with a tenor sax sound, both sounds courtesy of the Digitech RP500. The harp parts were recorded with my favorite harp recording setup: Audix Fireball V mic into Digitech RP500 into the computer via USB. The drum track is generated by EZDrummer 2; nothin’ fancy, but it’s a demo. I played the bass and keyboard parts. I don’t expect to use keys on the album much, but I don’t play guitar, so the demo’s got keys. I can stand it if you can.

It’s just a demo, but I like the greasy (pronounced “gree-zee”) groove on it, and the lyrics have a lot of black comedy in them. I also like the part of the second solo chorus that’s harmonized in 6ths, a plenty cool sound that I don’t think I’ve heard from anyone else. It’s the kind of thing you can do with a Fireball mic, and can’t do with a bullet, because a bullet would just make an ugly smear from those chords.

Enjoy.

“50 Grand” by Richard Hunter. Copyright 2016 by R Hunter/Turtle Hill Productions, all rights reserved

Blog, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

Slammin’ and Jammin’ in London (with audio)

I was in London earlier this week, and I had two opportunities to perform: once with Lowlands at the Windmill in Brixton, and once at the Tuesday night jam session run by Dov Jones at the Spice of Life in Soho. Both performances had their own unique opportunities and obstacles, and both were ultimately very satisfying experiences.

Playing The Windmill with Lowlands: Fun, not without tribulations

Lowlands Mar 6 2016, L to R: Robert Diana, Ed Abbiati, Richard Hunter

Lowlands March 6 2016, L to R: Robert Diana, Ed Abbiati, Richard Hunter (photo by Ed Gabrys)

The gig at the Windmill on March 6 was a full-set performance. Ed Abbiati (the leader) on acoustic guitar and vocals and Robert Diana on slide acoustic guitar and vocals were in excellent form for this show, and I had a fine night too. I had the opportunity for a sound check, and I was able to set up my Digitech RP360XP with Fireball mic, running a 1/4″ cable from the RP to a direct box that went to the board. This is of course my preferred setup for a gig, and on this night it performed brilliantly.

The last time I played the Windmill, the sound tech ran a single XLR cable from the left XLR output on my RP355; as I learned later, there’s no such thing as a mono XLR out on the RP355, so exactly half the signal went to the board that night, which was far from good. The much better solution with any RP is the one I used at the Windmill this time around.

So my rig was set up to my specifications, and it sounded great on a wide range of sounds, including rotary speaker tones, a slide guitar setup that uses the Whammy effect to shift chords up and down, a tenor sax sound, and a very clean tone with a little room reverb. So what’s the obstacle, you say? Well. Since my last trip to the Windmill, they’ve replaced their analog PA console with a digital console, and on the night of this performance, the soundman cheerfully advised us that he did not know how to use the board. He didn’t know where a mono audio output could be found, so we had problems setting up my Zoom H4 to record the show. (Ed Abbiati, the band’s leader, brought a backup device, and we managed to get a recording off that.) Even worse, the sound tech somehow managed to stick an inappropriately deep, long reverb on the vocal mic, and that produced a cloudy haze in the low-midrange frequencies that lasted throughout the set.

Not tops.

That aside, I really did like my and the band’s sounds that night, and I’ve included the live recording of Ed’s song “38th and Lawton”, one of the first pieces I ever recorded with him, so you can hear some of what I heard on the gig. For this song I set the RP360XP to the DIRROOM patch that’s included in my latest (v18) patch set for the Digitech RP360XP, and I played a Hohner Special 20 in low E tuning in first position; this is in fact the very same harp that I used to record the original version with Ed for the first Lowlands Album, seven or eight years ago. The tones I got with the Fireball and the RP on this piece range from traditional harp sounds to accordian, organ, and horn sounds. Feelings of peace and joy suffuse the piece, and certainly the harp part.

It’s a damn nice song, and I only wish the sound tech had known a little more about that console. Dig.

Lowlands “38th and Lawton” performed live at the Windmill, Brixton, UK, Mar 6 2016


Spice of Life:Experienced Jammers

So that was Sunday night. I was too wiped out Monday night to go out, so I missed the Monday night jam at Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Instead, I went out Tuesday night to the Spice of Life to check out the blues jam there, which I’d never attended before. It turned out to be a good night to go, because the leader of the jam, Dov Jones, told me that the club is dropping its 7-nights music format soon in order to concentrate on the higher-margin business of corporate parties. Glad I made it to the show before it all comes to an end.

This is what the audience sees at the Spice of Life, minus all the people…
Spice of life audience view

I went to the club early to get some dinner and listen to Jones’s band rehearse, which was a pleasant experience. If a crew is worth playing with, they’re worth listening to, and Jones’s music is a unique blend of rock with jazz chords and blues sensibility. Fun stuff. I put my name on the signup sheet and waited for the jam to start.

It was interesting to see the jammers show up. Blues was the dominant music of the 20th century, not the 21st (at least not so far), and most of the musicians present were definitely from the 20th century, overwhelmingly male and in their 50s-60s, supplemented by a smaller contingent of players in their 20s-40s. (One of Jones’s guitarists looked like he might still have been in his teens, but he was pretty much the lone representative of that cohort.) The vast majority of jammers brought guitars, with a few bass players, a saxophonist, and a handful of drummers in the mix–and me with my harps, of course.

The good thing about being over 50 is that if you’ve been playing since your 20s, you’re way past the 10,000 hours that you need to put into your instrument to qualify as an expert, and the players at that jam knew their instruments well. I had a good time listening to a number of blues standards, and to players like Johnny Carroll, who I’ve met and played with a few times.

Johnny Carroll--dude can play

Johnny Carroll–dude can play

After about an hour, the guy who’d played excellent lap steel in Dov’s band got up to play harp. He used what looked like a Hohner 365–one of the extended-range Marine Bands that Sonny Boy Williamson favored, with a red comb–and he played straight through a vocal mic (a Shure SM58, I think) into the PA. That’s not my favorite setup for blues, and I didn’t much like the sound of it listening to him. It turned out to be the only setup available when I got up to play, because I didn’t have time to get the RP360XP up and running with a line into the PA. At least I was able to unwrap the mic cable from the stand so I could cup the SM58 comfortably.

Saved by the Key

Fortunately, the guitarist leading the tune called a medium shuffle blues in C, which meant that I could use an F harp (the Manji I carry in my road kit) in second position. That’s close to ideal for a harp into a vocal mic, because high-pitched harps let you project farther and tougher with less effort than the low-pitched ones. It’s not easy to play a low-pitched harp with a tough, punchy tone, because those low-pitched reeds don’t respond quickly or cheerfully to high levels of air pressure. That’s why amped setups are SO important to working with styles like Chicago blues, where you need lots of punch in the harp no matter what key you’re in to get the rhythmic message across. (A slow attack on big notes works okay for ballads, not so much for medium and uptempo blues.)

Anyway, I was certainly loud enough to hear myself clearly, which is more than half the battle, and I stopped worrying about my sound after about the first 8 bars of the tune. I got a lot of space in the tune to work the harp, and I was able to bring a few different roles to bear–harp, horn section, organ–even without the ideal sounds to go with the roles. (Well, hand or throat vibrato can be applied to make organ sounds, sort of, and if you use octaves and chords in the right way, it’s sorta horn-ish. The impersonation is a more convincing with a few FX, like a pitch shifter, rotary speaker, vibrato… it’s the difference between a reference and the thing itself.) With the first role I tend to use more-traditional licks and sounds for a starting point; for the latter two, I concentrate on texture and rhythm to add weight and punch to the sound of the band. It all worked.


The thrill ain’t gone

The second tune up was “The Thrill is Gone” in B minor, and this was a little more complicated. The ideal harp for this tune in my opinion is a Natural Minor in 2nd position. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a B Natural Minor in my kit that night. I could have gone with a G harp in 5th position, which like 2nd position on a Natural Minor delivers an Aeolian mode, but 5th position on a G harp into a vocal mic isn’t tops–lots of low notes that don’t respond all that quickly under pressure, a lot of work to get the desired effect. I ended up using a Seydel Session Steel A harp in 3rd position, overblowing the 6 reed up and bending the draw 3 reed down to get the flatted 6th degree of the scale that’s so important in this tune.

Both tunes went down with the audience very well, and I had a good time playing them. After I finished, the lap steel/harp player asked me what rig I was using on those tunes. I told him that it was the same as the one he used. He was surprised. There’s a tendency among a lot of casual harp players to think that it’s the gear that makes the sound, but the fact is that it’s the player, not the gear, that makes a tone big, and a big tone sounds good no matter what kind of gear you put it through. Of course the gear lets you create a wider range of sounds and emotions, and who doesn’t like that? I sure do. But in the end, if you can’t make your message heard with nothing more than a harp, you’ve got some work to do.

It’s always fun to check out the scene in London, and I’ll look forward to my next trip.

Blog, Upcoming Performances

Back to the Windmill in Brixton with Lowlands on March 6

I’m playing an acoustic set 8 PM Sunday, March 6 at the Windmill in Brixton, London, UK with Lowlands. You can find out more about it here.

This is gonna be a great show, at least if you like great songs, great guitar (Lowlands regular Robert Diana will be on hand) and great harmonica without a lot of other stuff to get in the way. See you there, I hope.

Blog, Hunter's Effects

An Open Letter to Digitech: Let’s Get With the (Software) Program

Yo Digi-folks,

I’ve been an avid user of Digitech’s products since roughly the year 2000. I own four loopers made by Digitech, and nine Digitech RPs of various sizes, shapes, and capabilities. I don’t need to be convinced that the hardware works very, very well. What I need is better software, and I think it’s well past due.

Digitech’s software for managing the configuration of RP devices is a little better–not enough, but a little–than most of their competitors’s offerings, except of course for Line6, whose software makes Digitech’s look like something created by a dyslexic kindergarten student. On the other hand, I can’t even get Korg’s crap software for their Pandora devices to recognize the Pandora. Their user forum has plenty of similar complaints from disappointed Pandora owners, among whom I no longer count myself.

Digitech’s Xedit is a reliable program, and its functions include all the essential ones: save and load individual patch setups and the entire contents of the device, move patches around on the device, and so on. It’s easy enough to use, and it works. But Digitech took a big step backward with the software for the RP360 and 360XP; the Nexus program used with those devices doesn’t permit drag and drop changes to the patch list, and the firmware update that they demand you do after purchase is a straight-up nightmare. Even more shocking, Digitech hasn’t produced software for converting patches from one RP model to another since they introduced the RP350–I guess that’s, like, ten years ago? So if you want to convert patches from ANY RP device to the RP155, 255, 355, 500, or 1000, you’re out of luck. I would think that any marketing professional with half a brain would realize that the absence of such software is a strong disincentive for RP users to upgrade their devices to better RPs, but perhaps I don’t understand marketing; maybe it’s a more powerful incentive to have to throw away all the great sounds you’ve already created in order to upgrade your device. (That’s Bizarro-Superman logic: me thirsty, me want sand; me want people to buy my new devices, me make it harder for them to carry over their work from the old ones.)

Digitech’s software for its loopers has exhibited the same worrisome trend. JamManager XT offers no functionality that was not present in JamManager, and in some ways it’s more difficult to use, because the various functions are spread around the interface in non-intuitive ways. Some functionality is crippled in weird ways; why, for example, can’t I export a loop to audio from my looper’s internal memory directly, instead of having to put it in the library first?

The fact is that we’re not in Kansas anymore, Digi-folks. A physical device that only talks to itself is less and less useful going forward. Software that makes it easy for me to set my device up, order its contents, and restore it to a previous configuration on a moment’s notice is a necessity, not an option. Software that reminds me how little a manufacturer cares about me and my device management issues, every time I use it, is not helpful to me or anyone else.

I said above that Digitech’s competitors–well, some of them, anyway–aren’t doing much better with this stuff. So Digitech might comfort themselves with the idea that they’re not any worse than anyone else (which of course is untrue–see my previous comments re: Line6). I’d think instead about how much more competitive the products could be if only the software was as good as the hardware. Or about how ridiculously stupid Digitech’s software looks alongside Line6’s.

What do you think, Digi-folks? Ready to take your software game to the next level? I sure hope so, and not just for my sake.

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Looping with the Pigtronix Infinity

Pigtronix Infinity Looper:  more bucks for more power

Pigtronix Infinity Looper: more bucks for more power

I’ve been using the Digitech JamMan Solo XT, Jamsynced to an Express XT, for a few months now. It’s a decent setup for multi-track looping, and certainly the most powerful setup at anything near its price point, but it’s got some issues where live performance is concerned. In particular, you can’t erase the latest layer in a loop on either pedal easily or instantly–you have to hold the pedal down for three seconds to do so. Ditto for clearing a loop. The Jamman Stereo is a more flexible device in that regard, but it doesn’t offer the flexibility in layering that you get from a Solo XT connected to another looper via Jamsync. What’s a looping musician to do?

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Blog, Discography, CDs, Projects, Info, Notes, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Artists & Recordings

Recording for the next Richard Hunter record begins in July!

It’s been over a decade since my most recent CD was released. In the meantime, I’ve been busy with lots of stuff; I wrote three books, I saved my wife’s life a couple of times, and I created a revolutionary new way for harmonica players to get loud. So I haven’t exactly been lying on a couch eating chocolates since 2005.

But enough is enough. It’s time for the next Richard Hunter record, and this one will be electric. It’ll have plenty of looped textures, plenty of jams, and plenty of big freakin’ harp sounds. It’ll take full advantage of everything I’ve learned in the last 15 years about the harmonica as an instrument for the 21st century.

There’ll be plenty of news coming about this project in the next few months, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’m very excited about this opportunity to lay down a major statement about the future of the harmonica. Now excuse me while I go write some songs…

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