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How I recorded “Put The Lever Down” (2017 version)

Where “Put the Lever Down” came from

I wrote the lick and harmony on which “Put the Lever Down” is based while I was hanging out in my car at one of my daughter’s skating meets around 1981, playing with a Dorian Minor tuned diatonic harp; I don’t remember whether I recorded the licks on the spot, or if I memorized the piece. I was already in the habit of carrying a portable Radio Shack cassette recorder around with me at the time. However I did it, I had the song’s structure laid out when I went to the studio not long after to record my first single.

“Lever Down” was the one of the first two pieces I recorded with Erik Lindgren producing, in 1982. We recorded to 8 tracks of analog tape, the state of the art in small-studio setups at the time, and the whole thing took 5 hours from first take to final mix; everyone was just on fire that day. Andrew Maness played guitar through a pitch shifter–I think it was a Boss Octaver–and I played harmonica through a Shure 545 (I think, one of the old pistol grip models that unbeknownst to me at the time was one of Paul Butterfield’s favorites) into a Boss BF-2 Flanger and a Fender Champ amplifier, one of the old ones that had a single knob for volume, in that order.

The amp was Erik Lindgren’s; he found it in the garbage in Cambridge, MA one day when he was out on a stroll, took it home and plugged it in, and found that it was working. My guess is that some very angry girlfriend or wife dumped that thing in the garbage, because there is no damn way that anybody who’s ever plugged an instrument into a vintage Champ is going to wittingly dump it on the street.

It was one of my first recordings using an altered tuning, in this case a Dorian Minor tuning (D Dorian minor in 2nd position), played in third position (A Natural Minor in 3rd position) on what would be a standard G harp if we hadn’t retuned it. It was also my most-admired recording for a long time–among other things, it was the theme song for a show on harmonica music titled “The Tin Sandwich” broadcasting on NPR from Worcestor, MA, and it was received with wild enthusiam by reviewers in Boston.

That was then, this is now

I thought of this version of the recording from the start as an update with a wider palette of harmonica orchestration. This version also features the contributions of an excellent band, while the 1982 version only included two human players plus a drum machine. (For all that, it rocked hard, with a raw, furious, mindbending harmonica solo over an implacably relentless, steady groove in the bass via Andrew Maness’s pitch-shifted guitar.) Finally, the idea of a dual lead in the last half occurred to me when I was comparing takes in my home studio and discovered that different takes were mutually complementary–I tended to alternate my phrasing on every take, so when one part was highly active, the other was just hanging fire on one big, screaming note. So this piece includes two big harps chasing each other to the end instead of just one.

In the end, the mix presents a somewhat less orchestrated and more improvised sound than I originally had in mind, and that decision was about making room for the leads–both of which are red-hot by the time the second half is well underway–which might otherwise be smothered in a cloud of harmonicas.

Let’s talk about all those harmonicas. In the meantime, take a listen to the piece. You can hear it at cdbaby. If you use the player below, “Put the Lever Down” is the fifth song on the record, right after my cover of Morphine’s “Early to Bed.”

The Chord Changes Dictate the Harps

The structure of the tune begins with a fierce rhythm lick, articulated by an amped harmonica in alternating octaves via alternate side of the mouth tongue-blocking, followed by a long solo harmonica solo that never dips below the 5th above the root (A, or draw 4) in the second octave. It begins relatively quietly, and ends shrieking and jumping around in the top octave of the harmonica. The harmony shifts from A minor to B minor before settling on A minor under the solo as it digs in, and for this part of the piece I used a standard G harp, a Seydel 1847, playing in third position (A minor on a G harp) and 5th position (B minor on a G harp) as necessary. I also introduce an A Natural Minor harp here playing chords with big, wet, squawking autowah sounds on the 2nd beat of every measure.

When the harmony settles on A minor, I keep that part going and introduce another harmonica entirely, a Chromonica II. This wicked chordal instrument offers lots of cool variations on scale-tone and passing chords in the keys of C, G, A minor, and D minor, and you can hear it in the background here with chorded rock licks that jump back and forth from A minor to D minor.

After the first extended solo, we enter a bridge. The chords on the bridge are a repeating cadence of D minor, G, and A minor, with a crescendo on E7 at the end, and I play the first three chords on a single Dorian Minor-tuned harmonica in the key of D (equivalent to standard G richter), doubled by the Chordomonica II. The D Dorian Minor tuning is made from a G harp by reducing the pitch of the draw 3 and 7 reeds, the 3rds of the scale in 2nd position, by 1/2 step each. (Pitch reduction can be accomplished by filing the reeds, or by matching the right draw reed plate, e.g. a D minor, with the right blow reed plate, e.g. a G.) This yields a harp that offers a minor I chord in second position, a major IV chord, and a minor V–in this case, D minor, G, and A minor. In third position (A minor on a D Dorian harp) the mode is Natural Minor (flatted 3/6/7), which is perfectly usable for lots of cool stuff. The D Dorian harp I used was a Lee Oskar, and I probably put it together by combining reed plates from a D natural minor (draw) and standard G (blow) harps. I used a Seydel Session Steel A harp in 2nd position to play the E7 chords. On all the bridge harp parts, I recorded multiple layers with different FX; see below for a detailed discussion.

After the bridge, the piece includes an extended two-harp solo over alternating A minor and B minor chords. Here I used a standard Seydel 1847 G harp for both of the leads, using 3rd position for the A minor sections and 5th position for the B minor sections. I also used A Natural Minor and B natural minor harps to provide the same chord hits that I performed with the Chromonica II in the first half, and to play rapidly ascending and descending cascades of chord tones, like a big fireworks plume (albeit a plume that’s low in the mix).

There are plenty of harp tracks on every tune on this record, but there aren’t a lot of tunes where I used 6 different harmonicas, with different tunings, or layouts, or performance features like double slides. (That’s 1 G harp, 1 D Dorian (modified G) harp, 1 A Natural Minor, 1 B Natural Minor, 1 standard A, and 1 Chordomonica II.)

Lotta harps, golly, huh? How do we keep alla those harps from stepping on each other? Well, we use a lotta different sounds from our magic RP500 setup, like this…

The FX on “Put The Lever Down”

The first lead on “Put the Lever Down”–the one you hear in the first half of the piece–was recorded live in studio with the band. I used my workhorse ChampB (Champ amp plus Bassman cab) patch for that lead–I wasn’t sure about using something more effected-up, like with a flanger or chorus, for example, notwithstanding that I recorded the 1982 version with a flanger inline–and I decided pretty much on the spot to go with the traditional blues harp sound. I’m glad I did–I was able to use vibrato and other techniques to get a more intensely emotional sound than I think I could have achieved with a flanger.

The setup in the studio for the live sessions in philly. Notice the default chain of iStomp followed by Digitech RP500.

On the bridge, I recorded three big chorded parts, two with the same Lee Oskar D Dorian harp–one with the ChampB patch, one with the autowah patch–and a track using the Chordomonica II into a Digitech iStomp running the Swingshift pitch shifter with a sub-octave added to the tone, into a chorus patch on the RP500 for a big, wide lower-midrange sound. Together these tones produce a big, shifting, deep sound that’s intriguing because it keeps changing in multiple ways.

I recorded the second half live with the band in the studio with the same ChampB setup, but in the end I didn’t much like it. I felt at the time like I was blowing too hard for too long, and the solo seemed to hit a peak early and stay there, which is not tops. By the time I figured that out, in my home studio I had recorded the Chordomonica II parts and the Natural Minor harps, all using various clean reverbed/delayed/chorused sounds, among them a patch that pairs a Tweed Deluxe amp model–nice amp model with a full body that’s not openly distorted–with a TC Electronics chorus model.

All of those parts were intended to provide color and increased intensity as the piece progressed. Maybe they’re mixed a little low for that. The payoff for that decision is that the two lead harps have the freedom to take up a lot of space with lots of movement and color changes in the second half of the piece.

When I decided I didn’t like the second half lead from the studio, I recorded a new one with the ChampB patch. Then I recorded another one with a patch based on a high-gain heavy metal amplifier, which puts a lot of edge on the sound, and a mild chorus effect, which makes a sound that stands out just enough from the traditional ChampB Chicago amped harp sound. I listened to them one at a time, and then listened to them together, at which point I realized that they were mutually complementary. That’s what I sent to Chris Peet for mixing.

I think Chris might already have started mixing the record, maybe even mixing this song, when I sent him the updated solos. Hope not… but all’s well that ends well, though travails did not end there.

A Little More Drama Than Usual

We ended up doing five different mixes on “Put the Lever Down.” In the end I approved the 5th mix for mastering. I listened to the master again just before I sent it off for pressing, and I was aghast to realize that I had approved the wrong mix for mastering! The 4th mix was a lot more dynamic and exciting in the second half than the 5th.

I immediately emailed Ed Abbiati to advise that we needed a new master with the 4th take of “Put the Lever Down.” Ed listened and agree that the 4th take was better. He contacted Alex McCollough at True East Mastering, Alex redid the master for the song with the 4th take that very day, and all was well. Phew.

Performing “Put the Lever Down”

I think that “Put the Lever Down” can be performed effectively by one player–the lead part is the most important one once the rhythm lick that starts the piece has done its work, which is to say by the time the extended solo on A minor begins. If additional players are available, any of the chorded parts played on any suitable chord harmonica instrument would be great, and if two soloists are available, one can do the octave-jumping parts up front, and both can solo together at the end.

Don’t forget that there’s a lot of harmonica technique involved in playing the octave jumps that are the motor behind the rhythm in “Put the Lever Down.” In other words, it’s not just about the FX in this piece. Learn what you can about “corner-switching” techniques. The intensity of the octave jumps in this piece, and the fact that they’re happening on both blow and draw octaves, means that you need a harp that responds reliably at a given pressure level on every note. Lee Oskars are good for that, and I’ve been using Lee Oskars to play this piece for a very long time, especially the bridge.

The key is to make sure that there’s enough difference between the harmonica tones for a listener to tell them apart. To get exactly the same range of tones that I get on this piece, you’ll need a Digitech RP500 loaded with my patch set. But you could get similar kinds of contrasts with a decent amped setup and a pedal effect or two (autowah and chorus preferred, delay pretty high priority too).

The energy in this piece ultimately comes from the wildly driving lick that begins it and the groove that results. The band of Mike Brenner on lap steel, John Cunningham on bass, and Mark Schreiber on drums plays the hell out of it. The harps shout hysterically above the general funky din. What’s not to like? Play this one with your own band.

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How I recorded the big harmonicas that light up “Make the Noise”

Sometimes it takes years to write a song. I wrote the first draft of some of the lyrics to “Make the Noise,” the leadoff song on my record “The Lucky One,” 15 or so years ago for a piece called “In the Time of Your Life” (as per Aram Saroyan: In the time of your life, live). When I began work on this record, I reviewed more or less all the lyrics I’d written, and I kept coming back to “In the Time of Your Life.” The lyrics were about life and–death. Kind of a bummer, that. On reflection, telling people to hurry up and live cause they’re all gonna die doesn’t seem likely to inspire a lot of cheer, unless grim determination qualifies as cheer. And it seems likely that people who feel good, as opposed to grimly determined, when they hear a song are likelier to want to hear said song again.

The setup in the studio when I recorded “Make the Noise”

So I decided to take those lyrics and make them all about living. “In the time of your life” began with these words:
Fact/We all die young/Compared to earth and sky and sun

In “Make the Noise” those lyrics become the chorus, and they’re a lot happier:
Compared to earth/and sky and sun/you and I are always young

Just as true as the previous version, and a lot more cheerful about the overall outlook going forward, don’t you think?
Check this song out on CDBaby before you read about the harmonica parts. Use the player below; it’s the first song on the record.

The History of the Harmonica in 4 minutes

Musically, “Make the Noise” is something of an autobiography. The groove at the beginning has echoes of the Doors, one of my earliest rock influences, with a harmonica horn section punching out riffs to move it along and a vibrating lead harp adding fervor and mystery. The solo goes to a Bo Diddley groove, an explicit reference to early rock, with a harmonica sound and attack that’s all about amped up blues (plus a little pitch-shifting modern twist); and the piece goes out on an extended jam with the harmonica horns and the bluesy solo harp making a chugging, pulsing bed for the vibrating lead. 1952, meet 2017. As Faulkner said, the past isn’t past.

Lots of harmonica color on this track, and as per usual for this record, some of these harp sounds have never appeared on any record before. (Anyone who’s purchased my patch set for Digitech RP500 can use these sounds in their own pieces once I release the full set of sounds I used on this record, of course, which I’ll get to as soon as I finish my write-ups on the songs.)

Digitech RP500: It’s on every harp track on “The Lucky One”

How I recorded “Make The Noise”

The rhythm section for “Make the Noise”—Mike Brenner on lap steel, Mark Schreiber on drums, and John Cunningham on bass
—was recorded live in the studio while I sang a dummy vocal and played the amped-up blues harp sound that you hear on the first solo and a chugging rhythm part at the end. I wanted to do that solo with the band playing behind me to get the vibe of real people playing music together, reacting to each others’ ideas in real time. (You know, jamming.) I used a very tough, even harsh sound on that first solo, and if I were to do it over I might back off the distortion a little—but I ultimately kept the solo because it was true to the moment, and true to the spirit of the song. “Make the Noise,” indeed. Noise is naïve, isn’t it?

That harp track was recorded with a Seydel Session Steel in A, played in 2nd position, with a handheld Audix Fireball V mic plugged into a Digitech RP500 running my patch set, with the RP’s stereo XLR audio outputs going straight to the recording console. (In other words, harmonica aside, I used exactly the same rig on this piece that I used on almost every other harp track on “The Lucky One.”) The modern twist is that I put a whammy effect, with a pitch shift of a major 2nd down, on the RP500 patch I used on the track, which allowed me to pitch-shift between E major and D major chords—y’know, the chords you need to play a Bo Diddley riff.

Most of the song is in E minor; the solo is in E major, and the chorus that follows it uses an E major chord in its C-D-E sequence, as opposed to the C-D-E minor sequence that’s heard in all the other choruses. To me it feels like the sun coming up when that Bo Diddley groove ends with C-D-E, and the harp line reflects that glorious feeling.
At the end, the A harp is playing over an E minor chord, and I was careful to play partial chords on the 1 and 2 inhale reeds, meaning the 5th and root of the chord, no third, in order to preserve the minor tonality while chugging away on the A harp, with a little bit of whammy thrown in to keep the harmony moving between E and D. Traditional blues and—not.

5th position carries the horns and lead

When I began laying down the harp overdubs for “Make The Noise,” I knew that I wanted a big, deep horn section. (Like I said elsewhere, the influence of Morphine is all over this record.) The first track I overdubbed was a harmonica pitch-shifted down two octaves to emulate a baritone saxophone playing a simple, punchy riff on the verses, and long notes on the roots of the chords on the chorus. Then I recorded a harmonica pitch-shifted down one octave to emulate a tenor sax playing the same line. I was instantly in love with the sound. 40 years ago I used to listen to King Curtis and envy the powerful blasts he could generate on the low notes of a tenor sax. Now I’ve got a pitch shifter, and I envy no more.

Both those tracks were recorded on a Suzuki Manji in the key of C, played in 5th position (i.e. root = E, tonality is minor). I used the same harp with an RP500 sound that included a vibropan effect for a deep, psychotic vibration that makes the harp jump straight out of the mix. That sound is used to play long tones that add texture and emotion in the intro and on every chorus, to play fills on the verses, to play E minor chords behind the blues harp solo, and to play a little bit of chug and a pair of high-flying solos, one after the other, on the E minor outro. Both solos were improvised in one continuous pass, and I felt inspired when I played that take. I don’t really use 5th position all that often—I’d usually rather just use a Natural Minor harp in 2nd position, which is the same mode—but I’m glad I did this time. Thinking through the lines in 5th position forced me to come up with some new ideas, and when I listen to the solo now I hear very, very different phrasing than is usual for me.

I seem to recall that every overdub I did on this song was a first take. It was a moment’s inspiration to select each of the sounds I used, and the parts came together instantly in my mind and in combination with each other. I didn’t write anything down—I just played the lines, listened, and moved on to the next. Sometimes it works like that. I don’t suppose it would have if I hadn’t had years of looping harmonica parts to teach me what sounds work together.

I played the tracks for my wife and she said “don’t add a thing.” True that. It’s a good thing to know when to stop. When the thing is sounding really, really good is about the right time to stop.

Plenty of colors means at least two harp players for live performance

The harmonica arrangement on “Make the Noise” has a lot of depth and color. There are four harmonica tracks, but two of them are playing the same lines an octave apart (i.e. the low horn lines), and a single player could do those using either a pair of Digitech RPs connected via an ABY pedal (to split the mic signal) or with a multi-voice pitch shifter like the Electro-Harmonix POG or HOG. Ideally you’d then have one more player doing the blues harp parts in 2nd position, and a third playing the vibrating parts in 5th position.

If you’ve only got two players, I’d put one on the low harmonica parts, and one on the 5th position parts, with the player on the low parts switching to the blues harp sound on the solo, where the low parts aren’t as important. Alternatively, the player using the vibrating sound could switch to the blues harp sound on the solo while the low harps carry on.

If you’ve only got one player, play the vibrating sound everywhere but the Bo Diddley groove, where you can rock out with the amped up blues sound. It won’t be my arrangement, but it’ll still be fun.

But hey! I set this arrangement up to show off a bunch of harp sounds. So get your friends together and work it out. It’s time for harp players to put more harmonicas on stage, innit? Make all those sounds work for you, man. 21st century harmonica has entered the building.

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How I Recorded the Effected Chromatic Harps for My Instrumental Love Song “Deeper”

I released my first recorded version of “Deeper” in 2002-3, when I had just started a series of monthly releases of free original pieces for harmonica. The recording of this song that I made for my record “The Lucky One” represents the first time that this piece was played by a live band, and it’s clear to me that the emotional level is a lot higher when real people are playing the music, together. (Duh.)

This piece is dedicated to my wife of 41 years, Patty. The meaning of the song is that love gets deeper over time. (Or not, in which case I guess it wouldn’t last 41 years. Or it would, and that would be bad. But anyway.) Given that meaning, the obvious thing to do in the arrangement for this piece, whose overall form is repeated twice, was to make the second half literally deeper than the first, and I did that by adding two low pitch-shifted harmonicas to the arrangement.

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the song and the band first. You can hear the complete recording of “Deeper” from my record “The Lucky One” by using the double right arrow on the player below to navigate to the seventh song on the record, at which point you can listen to “Deeper” in its entirety.

Recording Deeper

The Lucky One Band–Mike Brenner on lap steel, Mark Schreiber on drums, and John Cunningham on bass–recorded the rhythm section for “Deeper” in a complete take in the studio, and there are no overdubs or edits for any of their parts on the record. The performance is stripped down and quietly grooving, with plenty of Mike’s trademark lap steel sounds, like the thick, quivering single notes that fill an entire room with emotion.

Seydel Chromatic Deluxe–it’s all over Deeper

I played a Seydel Deluxe chromatic harmonica on that take. I leaned on that Seydel a lot for this record, mainly because its action was smooth and predictable compared to my Hohner CX12, which I used only on “Orphan Black” for its heavier tone. The chromatic was played into an Audix Fireball V mic running into a Digitech RP500, which was configured with a patch that included a Tweed Deluxe amp model and a flanger. As per all the rest of this record, the RP500’s XLR audio outputs went direct to the board.

I discussed with the band the possibility of recording the track with the flanger dis-engaged–on the thought that maybe I might want to try a different sound later–and they generally agreed that it was a better idea to go with the effect. So I did. With or without the flanger, I would definitely have used a patch based on a Tweed Deluxe amp model, one of my favorite Digitech RP amps when I need something to make a smooth, solid platform for an effect. That Tweed Deluxe sounds good with every modulation effect Digitech offers in the RP500, be it pitch or wobbles.

The setup at my feet in the studio when I recorded the melody for “Deeper”

I did not write “Deeper” as a platform for improvisation, and in the studio I stayed very close to the melody for the piece. On the second half I moved the melody up a third, keeping in mind that I’d be adding low harmonized parts in overdubbing.

Overdubbing the “Deeper” Harmonicas

In my home studio, I overdubbed two pitch-shifted harmonica tracks on the second half of the song, using the same Seydel Deluxe chromatic, Audix Fireball V, and Digitech RP500, which connected in this case to my recording software (SONAR X3) via USB. This recording method and chain never fails to produce great-sounding harp tracks (as this record amply demonstrates, of course). The first track FX chain included the RP500 running a patch based on a Fender Twin Reverb amp model paired with a chorus effect, with a Digitech iStomp running the Swing Shift pitch shifter set to an octave down added to the front of the chain. That gave me a warm, clean, low, wide sound for playing the original melody alongside the now-harmonized flanged harp sound. To that I added a third track recorded with the RP500 running the same octave-down-wahwah patch I used to record the sax-ish motif that opens “The Road Out of Here.” On that song I worked that pedal pretty hard; on this one I used long, slow movements of the wahwah pedal to make the sound evolve slowly (and, I thought poignantly) through the long notes that make up the melody.

The end result is a deep, evolving sound filled with yearning and quiet beauty. The individual components of this sound may have appeared on other records–I was using flangers on harmonicas on my records in the 1980s–but the ensemble sound is absolutely new.

Performing Deeper Live: 2 harps will do it

“Deeper” is a simple piece, and you can do plenty of justice to my arrangement with two harmonica players: one to play the flanger lead part, and the other to play one of the two pitch-shifted parts to fill out the low end. (I’d recommend the one with the wah wah.) The sound of the chromatic harmonica is critical to my arrangement, and I’d certainly recommend that both players use chromatics. The one I played was in the key of C, but there’s no reason why a chromatic in a different key couldn’t be used if the player was willing to make the necessary transpositions.

Enjoy playing “Deeper.” I do.

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How I recorded the alien harmonica on my cover of Morphine’s “Early to Bed”

I love Morphine–the band, not the dope. I also loved Treat Her Right, Mark Sandman’s band prior to Morphine, with harmonica and vocal ace Jimmy Fitting (now performing with Session Americana in Boston) among others filling out the roster. Both bands featured unconventional instrumentation, Treat Her Right having a three-piece drum kit and no bass guitar, and Morphine winning the most-unusual-power-trio-of-all-time award with its lineup of baritone sax, two-string slide bass guitar, and drums. Much as I like Treat Her Right, it’s Morphine that made me think that if you could make rock and roll with a sax, bass, and drums, you could do it with practically anything, specifically including a bunch of effected-up harmonicas.
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How I Wrote and Recorded “Why Should I Make History”

How I wrote “Why Should I Make History”

Thanks for checking out my series on the harps and FX I used to record “The Lucky One!” If you haven’t heard the rest of the pieces in this series, check the record out on CDBaby.

I’ve been fascinated for years by the paradox that we can mean so much to each other, and yet be invisible to history. That’s what I tried to express in this song. The title can be read either as a serious question or as a sour-grapes comment (as in “why should I bother”). The answer to the question is presented in the fourth verse:

“We all wanna write our names in fire on the sky
“We want someone to know we lived and we died
“We want some kid to say, Man, that could be me
“And be inspired to make history”

Why should I make history? That’s why.

“Why Should I Make History” is the 10th song on “The Lucky One.” Use the double right arrow on the player below to scroll to it and play it if you haven’t already.

How I recorded the harps

The rhythm section for this song was recorded live in studio with Mike Brenner on lap steel, Mark Schreiber on drums, and John Cunningham on bass. I played a throwaway piano part on an electronic keyboard in the studio while I sang a scratch vocal to keep everyone aligned. (In fact, when the rhythm section was recorded, I hadn’t figured out what I was going to play on the harp.)

The first thing I overdubbed in my home studio was a better piano part. I recorded a MIDI track freeform without quantization on a weighted piano keyboard connected to my laptop. I corrected the errors in the MIDI track, editing the MIDI notes by hand, and bounced it to audio using the TruePianos Amber Piano virtual instrument in Cakewalk Sonar, my digital audio workstation. I did the same with the organ part, using the shareware plugin VB3 with a Vox-ish organ setting.

With the keys sorted, I started on the harmonica parts. This was a process of discovery, not just performance–I needed to hear some things before I settled on an arrangement. As per usual, every track was recorded with a Digitech RP500 running my patch set and an Audix Fireball V mic. Most harp parts were recorded with a Seydel Session Steel in C, played in 2nd position (G); one part (the low chorded part described below) was recorded with the same harp playing G and C chords, and a Lee Oskar Melody Maker in D for the second half of the chord structure (D and E minor).

The screen shot shows the eventual lineup of harp tracks on this record (click on the image for a bigger picture); the muted tracks (the ones with big yellow “M”s) are tracks I recorded and either didn’t use or bounced in combination with others.

The harp tracks for “Why Should I Make History” in Sonar X3

I wound up with a small set of parts that included:

  • A harp part with a sound based on a twin reverb amp model and TC Electronics chorus model, pitch-shifted down an octave via the Digitech Swingshift effect (yes, I had another pedal plugged in between the mic and the RP500). That part provides low, subtly modulated “accordian” chords to support the verses. This is the track I played with the Melody Maker.
  • A low tenor-sax style part, played with one of my standard RP500 patches called “Tenor Sax Wah,” which patch is intended to mimic a tenor sax (duh). This part forms a horn section with a third part, an amped-up blues harp sound supplied by a patch that features GA40 amp and cabinet models for a tough amped tone with a little bit of screech in it.
  • Another amped up harp part, an overdubbed lead that I put on when Ed Abbiati told me that we needed a new harp intro and solo. I used a variation on my ChampB patch (57 Champ amp model with 4×10 Bassman cab model) with a long delay because it was clear that something traditional was needed for the lead, and there’s nothing more traditional than the sound of Chicago blues harp played through a small Fender amp. The Bassman cab model gives the Champ a little more grunt that it has with the 57 Champ 1×8 cab model that’s also available in the RP500. (In general, the RP500’s 4×10 Bassman cabinet model has a punchy, compressed, darkish sound that works well with lots of different amp models for amped harmonica tones.) I also laid down a bunch of fills with plenty of delay throughout the song on this track, all of which we ended up using. We ended up using the second half of a Tenor Sax Wah track I’d recorded previously for the second half of the solo, right after this one. That little tenor Sax Wah solo, which lasts all of 8 bars, is one of my favorite things on the record.


    Relatively early on during overdubbing, my son heard this track and commented that it sounded like Springsteen. I think so too. The harps on this tune combine to give an effect of traditional Americana. A low chorused harmonica evokes an accordian, a low amped harp subs for a tenor sax, and an amped-up harp is the voice of traditional blues. Put it all together and it’s old and new–just like Americana.

    It’s not always easy to hear exactly what every part is playing in a busy mix, so let me take a moment to note that I used a range of harmonica textures on this piece: full triad chords in the low register of the C Richter and D melody maker harps for the accordion parts, open 5th and 6ths for the C harp in the low and middle registers on the verse fills and backing, octaves in various places, etc., etc. 21st century harmonica isn’t just about effects, much as we like and use them; it’s about exploiting the full range of textures that a harmonica can provide. It all starts there. If you want to hear the kinds of textures I use stripped down to a solo harmonica playing without accompaniment, check out my groundbreaking CD from 1995, “The Act of Being Free in One Act.”

    Performing “Why Should I Make History” live: two players will work

    The Lucky One


    The most important harmonica parts on this piece are the tenor sax-ish harp and the ChampB amped-blues lead, and since they occur together frequently, you need two people to play them (or one person playing a mic into a signal splitter, which then takes the signal to two RPs running in parallel, one with the tenor sax sound and the other with the GA40). If you have two people, the one playing the Tenor Sax Wah parts can also play the accordian-ish parts, since the two never play together. You’ll also need someone to sing the piece, since the harp lines are everywhere behind the vocals, and you can’t sing and play harp at the same time. (Alas.)

    This is one of my favorite songs from “The Lucky One,” and certainly one of my best vocals. Enjoy, and get together with a friend to work out some of those horn section lines.

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    The Harps and FX I Used to Record “96 Tears”

    “96 Tears,” the cover song that closes my record “The Lucky One,” is a perfect teenage-stupid song about unrequited love (and self-pity, of course–it’s a teenage-stupid song!). The original is as messy (the organist makes an outright mistake at one point, and the structure is kind of in flux throughout) and distinctive in its own way as “Tainted Love,” another song driven by an obsessive organ lick. I played “96 Tears” as organist in my first band, Tiki and the Wambesi Gods, on several occasions–it’s one of the first songs I ever played for an audience. I have never ceased to marvel that this messy, crazy song appeals to me so much. But I suppose there have been messy, crazy people in my life that strongly appealed to me, too.
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    The harps and gear I used on “Double Lucky”



    As a rule, most of the pieces on “The Lucky One” have somewhere between three and five harmonica parts in the mix. “Double Lucky” is an exception, with only two harps, and I think its simplicity makes it a good place to start my series on the instruments and FX used on the record. Don’t worry–we’ll start on the more-complex stuff in the next post in the series.


    “Double Lucky” is a Double Blues



    “Double Lucky” is one of the hardest-rockin’ tunes on “The Lucky One.” The piece is structured as a double blues (24 bar) form in the key of C, with vamps on C between repetitions of the form. The chord changes on the first half of the form are C/C/C/C/Eb/Eb/C/C/F minor/G7/Eb/Eb. The chord changes on the second half of the form are the same, except the last two measures are on Ab instead of Eb. This form has the same harmonic rhythm (i.e. the timing of the chord changes) as a standard 12-bar blues, but the usual I-IV-V blues structure has the IV chord swapped out for a flat III chord, and the turnarounds are substitutions too. Because the traditional 12-bar blues form is so familiar and strong, the song is still recognizably a blues (and the structure of the lyrics reinforces that impression, with two repeated lines followed by a response line in each verse).


    I wrote the double blues form after I finished the lyrics for the piece. (I’m finding lately that it’s a lot easier to write the music when I have the lyrics in hand, but maybe that’s just me.) I came up with the vamp lick–of which I admit that I am truly proud and grateful, ’cause it is one hard-rockin’ riff–a few weeks before the session when I was driving down Packsaddle Road in Tetonia, Idaho, jamming away on a Seydel Session Steel A harp. As soon as I played that lick for the first time, I pulled the car over, took out my iPhone, and recorded it. Before that, the tune consisted of the double blues structure, period. But that vamp upped the energy in the tune by about 5000 percent, and when we heard playback on the first take in the studio it was obvious that it was meant to be. So know how to access the voice recorder in your smart phone, and don’t let those inspirations get away from you!


    Two, Count them, two harmonicas

    I wanted to play a chorded harmonica part on this song similar to what a rhythm guitar might do, but it’s impossible to play C, Eb, and Ab chords on any single diatonic harmonica. This is where the Digitech RP500, or your favorite pitch shifter, comes in. I set the RP500 up for this song using Gibson GA40 amp and cabinet models for a big, gritty tone, and to that I added a pitch shifter with a shift of a minor 3rd up under footpedal control. (I could have simply used the Mod FX on/off switch on the RP500 to kick the pitch shifter in and out, and assigned the footpedal to something else, but I felt more comfortable using the footpedal.) When I play a C chord (on a Low F Suzuki Manji in this case) and engage the pitch shifter, I get an Eb chord; when I do the same thing on an F chord, the pitch shifter bumps it to Ab. Add octaves on F and G, and every chord in the form is covered.


    I used the Low F harp on the vamp sections as well as the double blues. That wasn’t necessarily the original plan, but when we started running down the tune in the studio with the band, it was immediately obvious that a standard (high) F harp didn’t have the sheer power needed for the vamp lick. You can hear the sound of the low F harp on the vamp here.



    “Double Lucky” rhythm harp


    The only other harmonica used on “Double Lucky” is a Lee Oskar Natural Minor in the key of C, played (like the Low F) in 2nd position. That’s the harp I used on the solo, and it’s processed through the same GA40 patch on the RP500, without the pitch shifter.


    You can hear it here, with the rhythm harp, which plays throughout the tune. You can hear the rhtyhm harp play C and Eb chords in this sample, the latter courtesy of the pitch shifter.



    “Double Lucky” rhythm and lead harps


    Whenever you use two or more harmonicas on a tune, it’s important to give each of them its own space in the mix. (I’ve heard recordings where the artist chose to overdiub two or three harps in the same register with the same amped tone, and it sounds like somebody falling all over himself.) The standard C Natural Minor harp is pitched an octave higher than the Low F, and that gives both harps plenty of space to do their respective things. An alternative would be to apply a different effect to each harp, but that would produce a less-bluesy sound, and I wanted something more traditional in this case. (Granted that neither a Low F or a Natural Minor are exactly traditional–those instruments didn’t exist in 1950, and you certainly never heard either one on a Little Walter recording. But the basic approach to the harps on this song is obviously all about the blues.)


    Recording the parts, in studio and at home


    Digitech RP500: Two harps, one patch on “Double Lucky”


    The Low F rhythm track was recorded live with the band in the studio, using the dual XLR audio outputs from the RP500 direct to the board. The solo was recorded in my home studio, using the RP500 as the audio interface to my computer. I actually recorded a scratch solo in the studio with the band using a standard F harp, but after reviewing it I decided to switch harps for the overdubbed solo. The C Natural Minor is based on an Eb scale, and it’s better suited to the changes in “Double Lucky” than a standard F in 2nd position.



    The solo is pretty complex and high-velocity. I recorded the first half in one pass, and the second half phrase by phrase to make sure it was played right, working out the lines as I went along. The mix engineer added some delay to the lead harp to give it that gee-I-like-this-big-ol’-stadium sound, but otherwise the harp parts on this song sound exactly the way they did when I laid the tracks in. That’s one of the really, really great things about recording direct with the RP500: you can be confident that you’ll get EXACTLY the same sound on every part you record with a particular patch, no matter where or when.


    Two harp players is enough to do “Double Lucky” live


    And that’s the harmonica story on “Double Lucky.” Two harps, one RP500 setup, lotta big tones and drive. It should be obvious at this point that this piece could be played exactly as recorded by a band with two harmonica players, one to play the Low F rhythm part, the other to play the lead. (Ideally the lead harp player can also sing.) So get together with a harmonica-playing buddy and work it out!


    And take a minute to drop by CDBaby and hear samples of the rest of the songs on “The Lucky One.”


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    Making the Harps a Little More Grippy

    When I recorded with the band in Philadelphia for my upcoming record “The Lucky One,” we had to turn off the air conditioning in the studio every time we did a take, and that room got pretty toasty after a while. On some of the tunes, especially the ones where I was blowing hard for three minutes straight, my hands got sweaty and the harps got slippery. I had to put a lot of energy into just holding on.

    That’s not tops. I decided to make my harps grippier. After soliciting advice on that subject on the Harp-L list, I came to the conclusion that 1) no one is commercially offering cover plates with grippy surfaces, and therefore 2) I had to make them myself.

    Some of the solutions offered on Harp-L were, to say the least, impractical. (Coat the cover plates with glue and apply sand? Please. I put that thing in my mouth.) Ultimately I decided that the easiest thing to do was to cut some kind of grippy tape to size and apply it to the cover plates at the outer flange.

    I found egrips .75 inch wide tape on Amazon.com and ordered a roll. At $40 per roll, it’s not cheap, but one roll is enough to do over 100 diatonic harp cover plates, top and bottom, so if you’ve got plenty of harps it’s cheap enough. So far I’ve treated 28 harps with the stuff, so the price per harp is currently a little over $1.

    To fit a harp with the tape, I cut off a 2″ long strip from the roll, then cut that in half lengthwise to make two strips 2″ long by 3/8″ wide. That’s just about the same as a finger’s width, so I can apply it to the plate without worrying about my mouth coming in contact with the tape.

    Here’s a picture of a Seydel Session Steel with the tape in place. This harp also has its key spelled out with a 1/2″ tall stick-on label, which I applied so I can see the key of the instrument on a dark stage.

    Seydel Session Steel with grip tape

    Seydel Session Steel with grip tape

    When you’re holding a harp, the tape is invisible to the audience, and when you’re not it looks pretty good, as opposed to looking like an obvious hack. That was important to me. I don’t want other musicians catching a glimpse of the inside of my harp case and thinking “What sort of musician has a box full of that kind of jury-rigged crap?” (My cases, including the cloth 14-piece Seydel case in which I currently carry 19 harps, the aluminum purpose-built one fromcustomharpcases.com., and the 8-piece compact folding case from Suzuki, all look nice, but still.) Once I got the hang of it, it only took a minute or so per harp to cut the tape and fit it. I did all 28 harps in well under an hour.

    So my harps are now non-slip, and I can play in a hot room without worrying about the instrument popping out of my hands in a spray of sweat. A small thing, perhaps, but better is better.

    From my point of view, I’d rather be able to buy something like this off-the-shelf (ideally, as part of a new harp, rather than an aftermarket add-on) than spend my own time putting it together. But this is a pretty simple, quick mod that’s easy to get right on the first try, so I’ll live with it until harmonica manufacturers realize that it’s better to sell instruments that people can hold on to even when they’re sweating.

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    More from “The Lucky One”: Make The Noise You Came To Make

    Like other pieces on “The Lucky One”, “Make the Noise You Came to Make” relies on a horn section made of harmonicas shifted down one and two octaves. To that we add an amped blues sound with a Whammy that shifts the pitch down a major second, creating a slide guitar effect, and another sound that uses a vibropan effect to create a psycho organ. All those parts were created with a Digitech RP500, and all can be heard on this 30-second sample. The thing rocks hard with a cool vibe that owes something to both Morphine and The Doors.

    Check out 30 seconds of “Make the Noise”:

    “Make the Noise You Came to Make” copyright 2016 R. Hunter/Turtlehill Productions/ASCAP, all rights reserved.

    And contribute to our Indiegogo campaign to fund this record here.
    img_6749-ph-3-splatter-blue-cut-out-winner-half-size

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    A Mysterious Piece of “The Lucky One”: Deeper

    “Deeper” has been in my repertoire for years. I recorded a version of this piece for my subscription list, a decade or so ago. The original had a few harmonica parts and a lot of cool synth sounds, many of them courtesy of the hard-edged synth Pentagon.

    This version was recorded straight through by me and the band in the studio with me playing the lead on a Seydel Chromatic Deluxe into the Digitech RP500 running a Tweed Deluxe amp model–a nice clean, full sound–with a triggered flanger on it. Very smooth and electronic. In the second half of the piece, the lead harp is augmented by a patch that pairs an octave down with a wah wah for some very cool articulations, and by a patch that runs the Audix Fireball mic through an iStomp running Swingshift to drop the pitch an octave before it hits the triggered flanger in the RP500. Like the title says: Deeper.

    Check out 30 seconds of “Deeper”:

    “Deeper” copyright 2016 R. Hunter/Turtlehill Productions/ASCAP, all rights reserved.

    And contribute to our Indiegogo campaign to fund this record here.

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