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The Harps and Gear I Used to Record “50 Grand”

“50 Grand” is the only piece on my record “The Lucky One” that has something close to a standard 12-bar blues structure. I broke up the 12-bar form with a vamp that includes a cool harmonica horn section, and the lyric structure–unlike a typical blues–does not repeat lines. So it’s a blues, but it’s not quite a traditional blues.

You can hear the full version of “50 Grand” using the player below. “50 Grand” is the third song–use the fast forward button to scroll to it.



As you can hear, the harmonica work on this song is all about the blues. The piece is dedicated to Charlie Musselwhite and Little Feat, and you can hear the former in the harp fills and solo and the latter in the groove and the arrangement.

The rhythm section on “50 Grand” is the same as every other song on the record: Mike “SloMo” Brenner on lap steel, Mark Schreiber on drums, and John Cunningham on bass. To that I add a whole lotta harmonica tracks, all recorded with a Seydel Session Steel harp in Bb played in second position, a Audix Fireball V mic, and a Digitech RP500 running my patch set:

  • A harp pitch-shifted an octave down, another pitch-shifted an octave up, and another using my ChampB patch (Fender Champ amp model plus Bassman 4×10 cabinet model, the same one I include in every one of my RP patch sets) for the horn section;
  • A harp running a rotating speaker patch for an organ sound; that’s the wobble sound for this song;
  • A harp running an autowah patch for squelchy chord hits on 2 and 4;
  • Another harp running the ChampB patch that just chunka-chunks away with a tongued rhythm, down low in the mix, to juice up the drums a little; that’s a trick I learned 37 years ago from Don Brooks; and
  • Still another harp running the ChampB patch, which plays all the fills and the solo.

  • That’s seven harp parts in this piece. Wow! In performance, I think you can get by with two–we’ll talk about that in a minute.

    Recording “50 Grand”

    Digitech RP500: Yep, it’s the rig on this one too


    In the studio, I recorded fills and a solo live with the band while I did a scratch vocal. I ended up keeping the fills and recording another solo in my studio, using the same ChampB patch. The great thing about using the RP500 with a direct line to the board (either audio or USB, take yer pick) is that every time you record with that patch, you’ll get the same sound. So you need to overdub a phrase or an entire solo later? No problem.

    I laid in the horn section, organ, autowah, and chunka-chunk parts in straight passes (more or less) in my home studio, connecting the RP500 via USB to the Sonar software I use for recording. The solo was the most demanding part of this process, because, well, y’know, I like my solos to sound good. Or better yet, great. It took me a little while to decide that I wanted to re-do the solo I’d done in the studio, which was really pretty good, but did I mention that I prefer great? Once I decided to re-do it, I recorded the first two choruses in one pass, and the third in 2-3 takes.

    Then it was on to the vocals, which is another story for another time.

    Performing “50 Grand”

    So there are seven harp parts on this record. Hmmmm… I doubt that I will frequently see seven harp players on any stage, for any reason, playing this song included. However, the most important harmonica parts on this piece are the organ sound and the lead. It might be nice to have a third harp player to cover one or more of the horn section lines, but you’d get a pretty good horn section sound with one of the players covering the low octave and the other covering either the high octave or the normal range blues harp. (Or two of any of those parts, assuming one player equipped with two RPs running in parallel, or with a single multitimbral pitch shfiter such as a HOG or POG from Electro-Harmonix. Easy enough if you have the gear.) With three harp players, you could cover the whole section. Because the sounds are right at your feet with the RP500, the harp players can just switch back and forth between sounds as needed with a footswitch press. Easy. Get a harp-playing buddy and start working those parts out!

    While you’re here, take another listen to the record, and maybe even go buy it!

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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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    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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    A Glimpse of “The Lucky One”: Orphan Jam

    This clip of “Orphan Jam” from the sessions for my record “The Lucky One” is based on a simple chord progression: G major and Eb major. The lap steel sets an appropriately grand and spooky tone, and the harmonica comes in like some kind of alien singing. The piece as you hear it here was recorded in one pass live in the studio with no overdubs. The band, with Mark Schreiber on drums, John Cunningham on bass, and Mike Brenner on lap steel, rocks hard.

    I’ve said before that every time I drag my complete harmonica rig out to a session, there turns out to be one song where I need an instrument from deep in my case that I haven’t used in ten years. This is that song for this session. The harmonica I used on this piece is a Lee Oskar that I set up years ago, dropped in my case, and completely forgot about. It has a unique pairing of reed plates, which is something you can do pretty easily with Lee Oskar harps. The draw reed plate is a standard C harp draw plate, which makes a G7+9 chord, and the blow plate is the blow plate from a Lee Oskar G Natural Minor, which makes a C minor triad. So G7 on the draw and C minor, relative minor of Eb, on the blow, and all the right scale tones are in place. There’s no Bb built into this diatonic tuning, which is not tops when you consider that one of the two chords is an Eb major, but you can get that Bb in the bottom octave with an easy bend on the draw 3 reed, and in the middle register with an overblow on the blow 6 reed. I used both on this piece. (That approach works for single notes, but of course it doesn’t work for chords. I used a chromatic harmonica in C to give me partial G and Eb chords.)

    The harmonica is played through an Audix Fireball V mic into a Digitech RP500 running a patch I set up myself that includes a big distortion, an octave up pitch shift, and a long digital delay set low in the mix.

    John, Mark, and Richard

    John in the moment

    Mike closeup

    We’re definitely in the 21st century now. If you like this music and want to make sure you get to hear the whole thing soon by helping us fund the project (and also get cool perks like a digital download of the music, a CD, a copy of the Digitech RP500 patch set I’m using for these songs, and more), check out Our Indiegogo campaign.

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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.

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    A shoutout for Jon Gindick

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

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

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

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

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    The new record is taking form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Enjoy.

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

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