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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.

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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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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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So When Will Digitech Fix Nexus, not to mention the rest of their software?

Digitech’s RP360 and RP360XP have been on the market for about six months now. The box still sounds great, and the software still sucks.
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“Me and the Devil” by Ed Abbiatti/Chris Cacavas rated 5 stars by R2!

I was informed this morning that the UK-based mag Rock n’ Reel (R2 for short) has rated “Me and the Devil” by Chris Cacavas (formerly of Green on Red) and Ed Abbiatti 5 stars, and called it “a work of genius.”

For those who haven’t checked it out yet, I’m playing on two tracks, including the title track, where the harp is playing heavily effected lead and accompaniment (FX courtesy of the Digitech RP355).

You can check out the review here:

And check out the record here:
or here:

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The latest RP360/360XP patch set is up and running!

We’ve updated our version 18 patch set for the Digitech RP360XP to include a few new patches and some needed adjustments to the existing patches. Does it sound great? Sheesh. It sounds great.

The RP360XP: now with new and improved patches from us

The RP360XP: now with new and improved patches from us

We’ve been delighted recently by the comments we’ve received on this set. One guitarist/harmonica player told us that he’s using our patches with his guitar as well as the harp, and he loves them. We’re glad to hear it! We always thought that the Digitech factory patches were 1) too loaded in the FX chains–do you really need all that stuff between the instrument and the output?– and 2) too heavily oriented towards heavy metal, with not enough stuff for the guitarist who likes a little crunch and some smooth FX in their sound. So it’s delightful to hear that our perception coincides with guitarist realities.

The v18 update has been distributed to all current customers, and will be the default set for new RP360/360XP patch set customers going forward. If you want these sounds in your kit, visit our store.

By the way, we haven’t forgotten our RP500 and RP1000 licensees. We’ll be making the same updates to those patch sets, in that order, in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

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Live with Derrik and the Dynamos, Wilson, WY, August 2014

I had the opportunity to perform with Derrik Huffsmith and his band Derrik & the Dynamos at a gig near Wilson, Wyoming this August. The band included Phil Round on bass and vocals, Ed Domer on drums, and Don Christenson, who I’d never met before, on keys. We played a lot of covers at this gig; this performance, of Dylan’s “Ill Be Your Baby Tonight,” is one of my favorites from the gig.

Derrik is singing lead on this piece, Phil harmonies. The harmonica solos at about 2:41, after the piano, by which time the song has built significantly, and maintains a prominent presence from that point on. The emotion in the entire performance is very strong throughout.

I played the gig with my Audix Fireball mic, Digitech RP360XP, and Peavey KB2, as usual, and it took about 5 minutes to set up, as usual. Derrik didn’t have a spare XLR cable, and neither did I, so we ran a 1/4″ cable from the Peavey’s FX send to the PA, and I used the Peavey as on onstage monitor, also per usual. I don’t recall what patch I was using on the RP, though I know it’s one of the standard ones from my patch set for RP360XP. It’s a clean sound with just a touch of reverb or slapback on it; it could be a patch based on a Twin Reverb amp model, a direct amp model, or something else. I think it’s probably either my direct + room reverb (DIRROOM) or direct + hall reverb (DIRHALL) patch–I can hear that the reverb is under footpedal control. Anyway, it does the job here, which is allow the harp to cut through the band without grating on single notes, chords, and octaves, all of which are in use in this arrangement. Lots of clean gain in this patch. The harp is an orchestral element on this piece, and the clarity in the sound helps make the changes in tones and textures come through clearly.

The harmonica is a Seydel Session Steel in A, played in second position. I like Session Steels–they play hard and stay in tune, two qualities on the top of my list for harmonicas. I took to the A and Bb Session Steels right away; for some reason it took me longer to love my C and D, but I do now.

The piece was recorded via the internal mics on the Zoom H4, with the Zoom hanging at one side of the stage, near the edge of the outdoor tent that surrounded the dance floor, and its mics facing the band from about 20 feet away and a height of about 6 feet. The recorded sound is surprisingly good, largely because there was a clear line of sight from the Zoom to one of the band’s PA stacks, though of course the crowd makes noise.


“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” performed by Derrik & the Dynamos with Richard Hunter, harmonica, August 2014

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Live with Michael G. Batdorf at Pendl’s Cafe, August 24 2014

I spent August 8 through August 26 in Idaho this summer, and I sat in with Michael G. Batdorf, notable singer/songwriter, twice at Pendl’s cafe in Driggs during that period. (On a third occasion I showed up to play and found that Michael was held up behind 600 bicyclists conducting a road trip from Jackson Wyoming to Victor Idaho, so I ended up playing the gig solo.) I recorded the entire two hours on the morning of August 24, and this piece, which is titled “Beyond The Mask,” is one of my favorites from the set.

Michael G. Batdorf in studio
Michael G. Batdorf in studio

The piece is a beautiful ballad in Eb minor; I heard it for the first time during this performance. The only harp I had in my kit that could manage that key was a Hohner CX12 chromatic in the key of E, which meant that I played it in the equivalent of B minor on a C chromatic. That wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice, but it turned out that the low chromatic harp (a minor 6th below a 12-hole chromatic in C) worked very well on the piece.

The performance here is entirely improvised. As always when I sit in, I tried to create an arrangement for the piece, not just play licks, and this arrangement has a beautiful, yearning feel to it, with variations on the basic line that include octaves and various chords. I recorded the performance live with a Zoom H4 positioned about 20 feet from the stage, and while there’s some crowd and ambient noise, the overall quality is thoroughly listenable. The gear I used in this performance includes a Digitech RP360XP running my DIRROOM patch (direct amp model with room reverb) from my latest patch set, an Audix Fireball mic, and a Peavey KB2 amp. It all sums to loud and clear, which works for this music.

The harmonica is relatively restrained until about half way through the piece, roughly at the two minute mark, when the intensity of both the harmonica and the guitar increases dramatically. The harmonica in effect becomes a voice, taking center stage while the guitar strums a ferocious accompaniment.

The music goes to some pretty unusual places, far beyond the stylistic boundaries of the typical guitar/harmonica duo. There’s only two ways to get music like this: you compose it note-for-note and get great people to play it, or you get together with somebody great and improvise it on the spot. The latter was the approach this time. It grabbed the audience by the throat, not to mention the musicians. I’m glad I had the recorder running.

Beyond My Eyes by Michael G. Batdorf, harmonica by Richard Hunter

I have more recordings from the gigs I did in Idaho on this trip, including some good takes from a show with Derrik and the Dynamos. Stay tuned.

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Funking it up with the RP360XP Looper

I’ve been in Idaho for a couple of weeks with only my RP360XP for a looping device. The 360XP has a usable but limited looper: 40 seconds maximum loop time, can’t have more than one loop in memory at a time, can’t remove the latest layer of a loop (as you can with the JamMan Stereo and Solo XT), can’t save a loop for later use. So it’s really a live-only looper, and its usefulness there is hampered by the fact that you have to step on it twice in rapid succession to turn a loop off, which makes timing an ending pretty difficult. But for simple loops, it’s functional enough, and it records audio through whatever patch is running on the RP at the time. So it’s ideal for showing off what kinds of sounds you can make, and roles you can play, with the RP360XP.

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Jamming in Driggs, RP360XP vs. RP355

I arrived in Tetonia, Idaho on Friday last week, and on Sunday morning I headed to Pendl’s, my favorite bakery in Driggs or anywhere else, to sit in with my friend Michael Batdorf, who plays acoustic guitar and sings lots of his own songs and some by other people. His basic style is Americana, and he takes the chord progressions farther than you’d expect in that genre. Michael greeted me warmly, and I was set up in time to start the first set at 9 AM.

I guess I haven’t spelled it out before, so here’s what it takes me to set up my basic road kit with amp. If I’m running straight to the PA, I skip step 3. But I do prefer to take the amp when I can. I just like the sound of air moving.

This complete procedure takes about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how much flexibility I have in terms of where stuff gets positioned.

  • Unpack the gear–harps, mics, cables, power strip, etc.

  • Plug in the power strip.
  • Position the amp and plug it in to the power strip.
  • Position the RP360XP and plug it into the power strip.
  • Plug the lo-hi-z converter into the mic cable.
  • Plug the mic cable into the mic and the RP.
  • Run a line out from the RP360XP to the amp
  • Place the harps where I want them onstage so I can quickly and easily get to the harp I want.

  • I was a little worried during setup because I was standing–and placing my gear on–damp grass. I was concerned about the potential for electric shock,but no problems there. Anyway, the music just got better and better. I played a few too many of my big licks in the first few songs, but then I caught myself and began playing what I thought of as “arrangements” for the songs–signature (repeated) melodies from the harp, with different approaches to different sections of a song. It was pretty clear that something very good was happening, and to my dismay, my Zoom H4 chose that very time to run out of space on the SD card. So no recording. I’ve cleared the SD card, so I’ll get a recording next week.

    By the time the gig was halfway over, the crew included local stalwarts Greg Creamer and Brian Maw, the latter of which I of course played plenty of gigs with a couple of summers ago. The jams were surprisingly cohesive, with one hilarious episode involving “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” in which everyone fumbled the structure, and we eventually coalesced on performing the song as an E blues. I had to modify the rhythm of the licks to make the words fit, but it solved what could have been a train wreck.

    The RP360XP: a very nice device, and the host of my latest patch set

    The RP360XP: a very nice device, and the host of my latest patch set

    I used the Digitech RP360XP and a Peavey KB2 amp for this gig. The rig sounded great, of course, but I learned something about playing with FX at low volume. Did I mention that the volume was VERY low? The amp was positioned ahead of me and to my left, and the volume was set so low that I had trouble hearing what the FX were really doing. The audience could hear it easily; everyone in the place went bananas when I started soloing through my new tenor-sax-with-wahwah patch (which I’ll distribute to my patch set licensees soon). But what I heard mostly was the harp in my hands, not the amp. Lesson learned: for very low volume gigs, put the amp behind me, not in front. It’s not like feedback is an issue under those circumstances, and it’s a lot easier to hear what you sound like than to imagine what you sound like.

    The tenor sax wah patch aside, mostly I was pretty conservative with my amp and FX choices. I used my DIRROOM and DIRHALL patches, direct signal from the mic with room and hall reverb respectively, on a lot of stuff; acoustic harp with reverb works with acoustic guitar, duh. I also used the TW_SLP patch, Twin Reverb amp with slapback delay, on a few tunes; it’s a clean sound with a lot of power and cut. I used my BASROTON patch–Bassman amp model with rotary speaker on/off under footpedal control–on a lot of stuff, especially the rockers where I wanted to sound like an organ on the accompaniments and like an amped-up harp on the leads. And I used a few octave and double octave down patches for various bass and low-saxish stuff. When I wanted Chicago in the sound, I used a range of patches based on the Gibson GA40 and Fender Champ with various cabinets. I especially like the sound of the Champ amp model with the Tweed Deluxe 1×12 cabinet model, the patch I call CHAMPD in my patch sets for the RP360XP, 500, and 1000.

    RP355 in the middle of the red board: it's great, but the RP360XP is great-er

    RP355 in the middle of the red board: it’s great, but the RP360XP is great-er

    I keep an RP355 at my place in Tetonia just in case, and I had the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison with the RP360XP. No surprises there: the RP360XP sounds better. The 355 sounds great–just check out “Me and the Devil,” the new release by Ed Abbiatti and Chris Cacavas–but the 360XP is noticeably more articulate and vivid. From this point on, the 360XP is the default device for most of my gigs, with the RP500 the leading choice for my solo looping gigs.

    I’ll post some samples of the latest RP360XP sounds soon. Stay tuned for those. In the meantime, if you’re planning to be near the Teton Valley anytime soon, I’ll be sitting in with Michael again on Sunday 17 August, with Brian Maw’s band at the Knotty Pine in Victor on Saturday 23 August, and with Phil Round’s band at the Stagecoach in Jackson on either Sunday 17 August or Sunday 24 August. Fun fun fun…

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