New York-based Robert Bonfiglio is the leading classical harmonica virtuoso on the planet, and the guy with the best shot right now at establishing the harmonica as a legitimate instrument…

New York-based Robert Bonfiglio is the leading classical harmonica virtuoso on the planet, and the guy with the best shot right now at establishing the harmonica as a legitimate instrument for Western art music. He has been called "the Paganini of the Harmonica" by The Los Angeles Times, and while he is no Little Walter or Kim Wilson, he can play the blues convincingly on demand.

Bonfiglio has been a concerto soloist with leading orchestras around the world, including the Luxembourg Philharmonic, the Leipzig MDR-Radio
Symphony, the Cologne WDR-Radio Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, the Madrid Radio Television Española Orchestra, Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla, Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao, and the Mexico City Philharmonic, as well as the Milwaukee Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the Utah Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He performed the world premiere of the Henry Cowell Harmonica Concerto with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the West Coast premiere of the same piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under conductor Lucas Foss. He appeared as a soloist with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, John Williams and the Boston Pops on PBS, and John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. His first RCA recording, with Gerard Schwarz and the New York Chamber Orchestra, featuring the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto, was released to critical acclaim; he has performed this Concerto over 200 times with major orchestras worldwide.

Robert has appeared on "CBS Sunday Morning," "CBS Morning Show," "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee," "Larry King," "Tom Snyder" and Garrison Keillor’s "American Radio Show." He has had feature stories in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, his credentials are as strong as any harp player’s on the planet to date.

Robert got his Masters degree in composition from Manhattan School of Music. He studied harmonica with Cham-ber Huang and was coached for 12 years by Andrew Lolya, the first flute of the New York City Ballet, during which time he studied the major works for harmonica and orchestra. Robert studied composition with Charles Wuorinen and Aaron Copland, two of the greatest American composers of their respective generations. Robert is the Founding Director of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. His students are a who’s who of contemporary rock and jazz players, including Donny Brooks (former harmonica player for Waylon Jennings and Billy Joel), top New York session pro Rob Paparozzi, jazz monsters Randy Hennes, Mike Turk, William Galison, and Clint Hoover, blues monster Sugar Blue (whose previous employers include The Artist and The Rolling Stones), Richard Hunter (yeah, me), Eric Roberts, and Bruce Willis (we assume that Robert did the latter two some good).

We asked Robert the same questions we ask every pro whose profile we publish here:

  • What are your 5 favorite harmonica records?
  • What instruments (harmonicas) do you use?
  • What amplification and other gear do you use, on stage and in the studio?
  • What’s your discography?

Robert’s answers are below, and they show a remarkable span of awareness of the full range of styles and techniques available to harmonica players. As the leading classical virtuoso worldwide on his instrument, his answers are of critical interest to the new generation of harmonica players, whose primary goal, regardless of style, is to play with the big boys. Robert plays with the big boys; he is the big boy in this league.

We’ll close by noting that Robert’s comments here show a lot of self-confidence in his own work, and we have no problem with that. Robert is blazing a trail, and pioneers who don’t have a lot of self-confidence don’t make it past the first bend in the road (if there even is a road). We also note that we have observed Robert playing onstage at SPAH with absolute amateurs, sharing his gifts with people who would never get that close to Yehudi Menuhin (to pick one typical classical virtuoso) in a thousand years. Robert’s dedication not only to his own music, but to the thousands of harmonica players worldwide who are struggling to establish their own legitimacy in a world that is at least skeptical (and often downright hostile), cannot be doubted. We thank Robert for this gift to harmonica players worldwide.


Bonfiglio’s Top 5 Harmonica Records

Favorite Instruments

Favorite Gear

Bonfiglio’s discography


Bonfiglio’s Top 5 Harmonica Records

  1. Sonny Boy Williamson – complete
  2. Chicago — The Blues — Today (Vanguard) Vol. 1 – James
    Cotton and Vol. 2 – Junior Wells (including Messing with the Kid) – this stuff blows Little Walter away, in my opinion.
  3. Eivets Rednow (Richard Hunter note: This is the legendary Stevie Wonder instrumental album that contains, among other things, a killer cover of Alfie.)
  4. Toots Thielemans, Toots – (Command) RS 930 SD – His ballads "The Good Life" and "I Can’t Get Started" can not be touched by any other player.
  5. Robert Bonfiglio, Romances – (RCA) — It takes an Ego to be a classical soloist, and this was my benchmark for classical playing in all respects – power, sound, phrasing, technique and interpretation.

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Favorite Instruments

Diatonic: For blues harps I use Filisko custom Marine Bands, which I often raise the gaps on. I keep them tuned as they age.

Chromatic: I play the CBH 2016. (Richard Hunter note: this instrument is now out of production, though Hohner continues to sell new reed plates for it.) I round and polish the mouthpiece and polish the slide. I set the reeds at a very high gap, mostly the low ones, so they respond to power. I practice on the plates for about a week and then take the best ones to tune for concert use. I tune to A445 because orchestras play so high, and playing a cent sharp is better than flat. I use micropore valves and a heating pad to warm the instruments; in so doing I avoid valve "buzz" and condensation causing "pops."

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Favorite Gear

For harmonica concertos I often play without amplification, but in big halls I use a Sennheiser EM 1031-U 16 channel receiver and a wireless Sennheiser MKE2 lapel microphone. It has a very clean sound and is great even out-of-doors like in the Hollywood Bowl. I EQ by reducing the frequencies a little above 8,000 Hz and boosting the low-mids sometimes. Nothing else is added to the sound.

For blues harp in a live band setting I use a Green Bullet mic and a Fender Champ amplifier. In the studio I record this sound with an AKG 414, but I mostly play with an acoustic sound even on blues harp.

The best classical and acoustic studio mic is the Neumann U87, and I like to use a pair together for classical pieces. (Richard Hunter note: the Neumann U87 is also a favorite of country harmonica pro Kirk “Jellyroll” Johnson; see Kirk’s page at this site.) Lexicon reverb is added to the sound if a close microphone is used. When I recorded the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto, two U87’s were placed up and about 6 feet away so I could let loose.

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Bonfiglio’s Discography

Harmonica Classics – From Bach to Lennon
(Sina Qua Non) with harpisicordist Edward Brewer

Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto
(RCA) Gerard Schwarz conducting the New York Chamber Orchestra
DESCRIPTION: Works of Villa-Lobos including his Harmonica Concerto. REVIEW: Newark Star-Ledger -"Bonfiglio is a stunning musician by any measure… He could do for the harmonica what Segovia did for the guitar."

Romances
(RCA) Bruce Ferden conducting the RCA Studio Orchestra
DESCRIPTION: Romances was one of the last recordings made at RCA’s Studio A before it was sold for IRS offices. For this recording I selected
the most beautiful classical melodies, including the Vaughan Williams Romance for Harmonica, Strings, and Piano, that fit well on the harmonica. This recording is my best playing, and conductor Bruce Ferden did a great job with the RCA Studio Orchestra.

Through The Raindrops
(High Harmony) produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: This highly successful recording spent 8 months on the
Billboard charts. I’ve played cuts from
this recording on the
Larry King Show, Tom Snyder, Garrison Keillor’s “American Radio Show,” “CBS This Morning,” and my own PBS Special “Bonfiglio, Live!”
REVIEW: “. . .for those looking for something unusually beautiful and completely unique, this surprisingly lovely combination of keyboards, strings, and harmonica is a must have. This is my
dark horse best for Find
of the Year!” – New Age Retailer

Order Through The Raindrops from Amazon.com

Live at the Grand Canyon
(High Harmony) produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: Live version of "Through the Raindrops" with some blues added. Laura Seaton,
violin; Jay Berliner, guitar; Gordon Gottlieb, percussion.

Order Live at the Grand Canyon from Amazon.com

Every Breath I Take

(High Harmony) produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: For QVC, a recording of Pop Hits

Order Every Breath I Take from Amazon.com

All is Calm
(High Harmony) produced by Tommy
West
DESCRIPTION: The Billboard charted Christmas CD
REVIEW: "Sophisticated acoustic music"


Order All is Calm from Amazon.com

Noel
(High Harmony) produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: The companion holiday CD to "All is Calm"

Love Me Tender
(High Harmony) produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: Mood music, perfect for the candlelight dinner.
REVIEW: "Wait till you hear a guy named Robert Bonfiglio; he can make a harmonica sing like nothing you’ve ever heard before…"
Paula Zahn – CBS This Morning

Order Love Me Tender from Amazon.com

Always on My Mind
(Time-Life) produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: A double CD produced for Time-Life, still sold by the Columbia House catologue. The "greatest hits of all time," sold on late night TV.

Home for the Holidays
(Streetsong), produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: Sound Track from the PBS Special, “Bonfiglio: Home for the
Holidays: a ‘Down Home’ Christmas.”
REVIEW: New York Post – "America’s Leading Harmonica Virtuoso plays a ‘down home’ Christmas on this PBS Special sound track.
Marvelous!"

Order Home for the Holidays from Amazon.com

Season’s Joy
(Streetsong) produced by Tommy West
DESCRIPTION: The companion holiday CD to Home for the Holidays

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