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RIP Toots Thielemans

I learned a few minutes ago that Toots Thielemans died at the age of 94.

Toots Thielemans at 90, blowing strong.

Toots Thielemans at 90, blowing strong.

It’s impossible to overstate how important Toots is and was to the development of modern harmonica styles. If you play chromatic harmonica, you had to decide whether you were going to follow Toots’ lead, or find your own path; he was impossible to ignore either way. His sound was his own–you knew it was him after hearing two notes of a recording. His rhythmic conception was shaped by John Coltrane, and his harmonic conception cleverly took into account the physical structure of the chromatic harmonica and the things that structure would and would not allow. He made beauty on every record he touched.

Thanks, Toots, for all the great music, for the generous spirit, and for choosing harmonica as your voice.

Blog, The Lucky One

One Month to Go to “The Lucky One,” and We’ll be Ready

The recording sessions for “The Lucky One” begin Sep. 16 in Philadelphia. I’m still writing lyrics and music for this project, and I’m feeling good about the repertoire. Producer Ed Abbiati and I conferred on the final song list a couple of days ago, and I’m putting together the demo packages for the players on the session, which I’ll deliver to them in the first week of September. I’m doing rewrites on the songs as necessary as we go along, and I like it–I feel like the stuff is getting better all the time.

I worked today on my song “Hurt and Far,” which Ed told me last week he wanted on the record. It’s a sad, slow song with beautiful chromatic harmonica. Have I mentioned that chromatic harp on a ballad is a sure thing for breaking someone’s heart? At Ed’s request I rewrote the chorus changes today and recorded a demo, and I think it’s better than it was before. But I’m still wondering if it’s just too sad. I dunno. It’s sad for sure. I already rewrote the lyric on my song “Make the Noise You Came to Make” to turn it around and make it positive; can I, should I, do it again? I’m thinking yes.

Anyway, those are the kinds of questions coming up on this record, and I’m happy to be dealing with them. I’ve never put my lyrics first on any recording, and it’s exciting to be doing it now. Stay tuned for more news about “The Lucky One.”

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An Outtake from “The Lucky One”: Waka Blues

The sessions for my upcoming record “The Lucky One” are taking place in Philadelphia in the third week of September, and preparations are feverishly underway. My producer, Ed Abbiatti, passed on this piece, a basic blues driven by an auto-wah harmonica part. If we’re not going to put it on the record, we might as well give you a glimpse into the kinds of sounds we’ll be putting down in September.

So here’s “Waka Blues.” The demo you hear in this clip consists on a programmed bass line, drums courtesy of EZDrummer, and me playing harmonica. It’s a pretty traditional harmonica line with the auto-wah (delivered via a Digitech RP500 running my patch set) adding plenty of juice. If I were to record this for “The Lucky One,” I’d add another couple of harmonica parts, and Mike “SloMo” Brenner would put in some lap steel magic. So you can imagine all those things when you listen to this, or just enjoy the big sound of the auto-wahed harp.


“Waka Blues’ by Richard Hunter. Copyright 2016 R. Hunter/Turtle Hill productions, all rights reserved.

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Another day, another (country) session

I took some time off this week from working on the songs and arrangements for my upcoming record, “The Lucky One,” which is set for recording in the third week of September in Philadelphia, to record harmonica parts for Austin TX producer Bobby Flores. (Congratulations Bobby on winning the 2015 Ameripolitan Male Western Swing Award! That’s the style Bobby was playing when I met and jammed with his band years ago in Austin, and it sure was fun.)

Bobby contacted me late last week and sent a couple of mp3s. The music was very interesting: country with more than a touch of rock and roll, and some unusual chord changes for this genre. (When you’re going from F major changes on the verses to C major changes on the chorus to a solo in Bb major in the same song, it’s a little unusual for country.) Bobby told me he was going to send the changes, but he never got around to it. Oh well; that’s why we make the big bucks…

As per usual for this time of year, I’m out in Tetonia, Idaho, far from my home studio in Monroe CT. Not to worry. The laptop Jim Rosenberry built for me is portable and powerful, and it goes where I go. Add a Digitech RP–in this case my RP500, loaded with my patchset for Digitech RP–for an audio interface, plus an Audix Fireball V, and I have everything I need to make great harmonica tracks. The Fireball V is crucial, because it’s the only mic I know of that can produce beautiful acoustic harmonica tracks when it’s hand-held, which is REALLY important when you’re recording in totally crappy rooms like the one I use for recording in Idaho. (The place is essentially a long rectangle with no sound treatment, and it sounds like a cave. There is no way I’m going to let that room sound into a recording.)

Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

FX? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ FX

All those chord changes notwithstanding, country music demands pretty simple harmonica sounds. To put it another way, the first thing I think of in terms of harp sounds for the genre is never a patch with an octave down pitch shift followed by an envelope filter or a flanger. The first thing I did with the RP500 was dial up one of my Direct amp model patches. The Direct amp model basically takes whatever’s at the RP’s input, adds or subtracts gain to the signal, and sends it to the output. When coupled with the Audix Fireball V, the resulting sound is clean, clear, and full–a great harp sound to send to any producer. (Hey, if they decide they hate clean and they want to f— it up, they’ve got all the FX they need on their own computers.) I have no doubt that Bobby is going to add whatever ambience he wants to my sound, so before I recorded I used the RP500’s dedicated footswitches to turn off the reverb and delay, so the only effect running on the RP was the amp modeling.

I set up a new project in Cakewalk Sonar, my DAW, and loaded in the mp3s Bobby sent to me. Then I set up three harp tracks for each of the songs (we’ll call them “Texas” and “Tennessee,” which happen to be the first words in their respective titles) and started recording.

I did three takes on “Texas”, two with an acoustic sound and one with a patch based on a GA40 amp model for a little more grit. The GA40 patch had a LOT of gain dialed in, so I dropped the gain level on the patch down to a much more moderate 34 (as opposed to the original setting of close to 60, which is some pretty crunchy gain) to smooth it out a little. (I did mention that this is country music, right?) Of course, I took off all the FX except amp modeling before I recorded with this patch. For all the takes on “Texas” I used a Manji in C played in second position. I like Manjis for country music; they play fast and sweet, and they’re just the thing for those quick Country lines. The first harp I tried was a Seydel Session Steel in C, but I just couldn’t get the chords to sound sweet enough, so bye bye Session Steel, hello Manji.

Let the Producer Choose

My favorite of those tracks was the second acoustic take, which featured a rippin’ solo, but I sent Bobby separate rough mixes with the acoustic and amped-up takes, and one with both, because I liked the way the rhythm licks sounded when both tracks played together. I used the same Direct model setup to record two acoustic tracks for “Tennessee,” of which I sent Bobby the second. “Tennessee” is the song with all those chord changes, and I ended up using a Manji in F, played in first and second positions, for the verse and chorus, and a Manji in Bb, played in first position, for the solo section.

It took more time to record two takes for “Tennessee” than to record three for “Texas,” because all those chord changes on “Tennessee” demanded a lot of extra attention. But that’s part of the fun, innit? Taking a beast of a song and making it behave?

Get Paid and Wrap it Up

Bobby checked out the rough mixes and liked them. He paid me via Paypal, and I sent a RAR (compressed) archive file containing all the harp tracks, soloed, in the form of 24-bit 44.1 kHz WAV files–a nice high-resolution format that happens to be the RP500’s highest-quality recording mode.

So there you go: another session conducted over the Internet, with the participants separated by a thousand miles or so, collaborating on their own schedules. Of course it would be absolutely tops to be in the room with the producer when the tracks are cut, so we can get double the brain and emotional power working on the song in real time. But I’m still knocked out by the fact that I can collaborate with musicians all over the world, no matter where they, or I, happen to be. How cool is that? And if you take all that for granted, lemme tell you, you weren’t recording in the 1980s, when a basic recording setup with overdubbing capability cost thousands of dollars, and sending a track to a producer the second you finished it was a wishful and seemingly impossible fantasy. (It takes time to box a tape and take it to the post office, and more time for that tape to make its way halfway across the country.) How delightful to live in an era when those fantasies come true.


Harp players may not all use music theory, but they ought to respect it

A post to Harp-L last week, and some of the responses to that post, reminded me that many harmonica players don’t know much about music theory, and some of those players have attitudes towards theory that are not helping them to grow as musicians. So herewith a few comments on why we should all stop sneering at theory.

The circle of 5ths: Know it.  Love it.  Use it.

The circle of 5ths: Know it. Love it. Use it.

It’s my observation that people who took the time to learn enough theory to understand and play whatever music they want to play are glad that they did. People who didn’t take the time are generally either embarrassed about it, or perversely proud of it. The solution to the embarrassment is to put in a little time to learn some theory; chords and the scales that go with them are a good place to start. The solution to the perverse pride is to get over it as quickly as possible. It never hurts to know something more about music today than you did the day before, and it never helps to know less.

Depending on what kind of music you play or compose, and the skills of the musicians you play with, a broader or narrower knowledge of theory is necessary. Jazz and classical musicians know theory well; they have to, because the music demands it. (You can’t improvise effectively over chords changing twice per bar at 200 beats per minute if you don’t know your scales.) Most folk styles don’t require a lot of theory, but even then it helps to know some. In his college days, my brother was in a blues jam session with a bass player who didn’t know the names of the notes he was playing. (My brother specifically asked this guy to change a certain note from an F to an F#, at which point the guy said “Man, I’m not into theory.”) Trying to teach a part to that guy was like trying to teach a dog to sing. If you’re the player in that situation, you’re struggling to do something that everyone else in the room thinks is easy; if you’re in a recording session, you’re painfully aware that everyone else in the room is waiting for you to get your act together, and you’re costing the producer tens or hundreds of dollars for every minute you take to make that happen. wouldn’t you rather know a little theory?

Theory is an infrastructure, not a prison

Brian Wilson was mentioned in a previous Harp-L post as an example of a guy who broke all the rules, which is true, but make no mistake: Wilson knew what the rules were, and he knew why and how he had to break them to get what he wanted. He was a schooled musician. Who do you think wrote out the parts for the dozens of players on the “Pet Sounds” sessions? Wilson’s mom? Or do you think that Wilson sang all the parts to all the players, one by one, and they magically heard and remembered every part accurately on the first try?

This example points to the real value of theory: a common understanding of theory, like a common understanding of anything else, helps people communicate about what they’re doing more quickly and accurately. Theory exists so we can get to the point–which is the music–more quickly with less confusion. Theory isn’t a prison, it’s an infrastructure. The more variety in your music, the more you need to rely on that infrastructure.

When it comes to learning a skill, a little bit of work every day equals a lot of skill over a longer period of time. For people who have ambitions to play lots of different kinds of music, it’s worth putting in that little bit every day. You can start by listening to some of your favorite records and breaking them down. What’s the bass doing? What’s the guitar doing? What’s the name of that chord the guitarist is playing, and how do the notes in that chord move to the next?

Theory deserves respect and gratitude

Whether you choose to put in that effort or not, it’s silly to imply that theory doesn’t matter, i.e. that serious musicians can safely ignore it. Of course the music comes first. Theory is always derived from what has been done. That doesn’t make it any less valuable. Lots of people worked hard to develop the theory behind the music so ignorant sots like you and me would have an easier time learning to do what someone else already did. Their labors deserve respect and gratitude even if the music you play doesn’t require every last bit of the knowledge they created and shared for the benefit of posterity–i.e. you and me.

As musicians we are all part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Theory describes the structures that support that tradition. It’s a good thing, and the only thing it costs is your time and attention, which admittedly are scarce and precious. So take what you need, and please don’t disparage the knowledge, even if you don’t need a lot of it to operate effectively in the styles you choose to play.

Blog, The Lucky One

The Kickstarter Campaign for “The Lucky One” is over…

… and we didn’t make target, alas. Thanks to everyone who offered to contribute; we appreciate it deeply. The project is moving forward, come Hell or high water, and we’ll be back with a new campaign soon (and with a record this year, whether the campaign succeeds or not!).

Thanks to our contributors!  We'll be back...

Thanks to our contributors! We’ll be back…

Blog, Hunter's Music, The Lucky One

“The Lucky One” quote of the Day June 17: Garrison Keillor

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. ”
Garrison Keillor

Click in this space to check out the Kickstarter campaign to fund Richard Hunter’s 21st century rock harmonica record “The Lucky One”!

Blog, Hunter's Music, The Lucky One

“Make the Noise You Came to Make”: Lyrics from “The Lucky One”

I’m writing lyrics and music every day for the record I’m cutting in September, “The Lucky One.” These lyrics are for my song “Make The Noise You Came to Make,” and maybe later I’ll post the rough demo with music. In the meantime, enjoy these. Check out my Kickstarter project when you get a chance.

“Make The Noise You Came to Make,” words and music by Richard Hunter/Turtle Hill Productions, ASCAP. Copyright 2016 R. Hunter, all rights reserved

If your voice is cracked and gritty
Sing a song that’s more than pretty

At 6 AM the sky is cool and grey
It looks to be an ordinary day
To my eye everything is just the same
But I doubt that there’s a thing that hasn’t changed

Compared to earth and sky and sun
You and I are always young
we get the time we came to take
Let’s make the noise we came to make
Yeah make the noise we came to make

Now the ordinary takes a turn to glamor
You throw a look that fills my head with drama
I’ll have a smoke and feel my motor running
I’ll drive all through the night to see what’s comin

Compared to earth and sky and sun
You and I are always young
we get the time we came to take
Let’s make the noise we came to make
Yeah make the noise we came to make

I think I’ll have another day
to sweat and strain and dream and play
Maybe even one more night
To laugh and love and scheme and fight
And if I die before I wake
I know my life was not a fake

Compared to earth and sky and sun
You and I are always young
we get the time we came to take
Let’s make the noise we came to make
Yeah make the noise we came to make

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