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…

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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