Brendan Power’s Favorite (Harmonica) Things
London-based diatonic and chromatic harmonica master Brendan Power has forged a remarkable style on both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, many of which he modifies and retunes to meet the requirements of his traditional and modern repertoire. Power plays a wide range of material Irish jigs, the music from Riverdance (which show he toured with), blues, and amped harp that goes all the way to metal with style and assurance. He is a player to be reckoned with.
We asked Brendan the same questions we ask every pro whose profile we publish here:
- What are your 5 favorite harmonica records?
- What instruments (harmonicas) do you use?
- What amplification and other gear do you use, on stage and in the studio?
- What’s your discography?
Brendan’s answers are below, and they reveal a thoughtful, articulate, highly original musician. His comments on his favorite records in particular show tremendous insight and empathy, and his detailed description of the pros and cons of half-valving demonstrate his extraordinary attentiveness both to sound and to the means by which his sound is produced. His gear choices mic, amp, and reverb are similar to those of many of the Pros profiled on our pages, especially those who play as much rock as blues, but his harmonicas are anything but. Power modifies his harps more extensively than any other player we know of, and it’s done for the right reason: it makes some great music easier to play. We thank Brendan for this gift to harmonica players everywhere.
Power’s Top 5 Harmonica Records
Nowadays I’m more into sax and fiddle players for inspiration, but in the formative stages certain harmonica players and albums really resonated with me. I’ve chosen the ones who had the biggest effect when I first heard them.
- Sonny Boy Williamson II: This is my Story (Chess)
Hearing Sonny Terry with Brownie McGhee live in
Christchurch, NZ in 1976 was my inspiration to start
playing harp, but this two album set of Sonny Boy’s
great singles for Chess in the 50’s was my Bible for the
first couple of years of playing. Everything about Sonny
Boy II was larger than life, especially his gorgeous
acoustic tone. His style is deceptively simple, but loaded
with aching amounts of soul. A song like ‘Trust My
Baby’ sets a benchmark for pure sensititivity that may
be very occasionally matched, but never exceeded: a
- Little Walter: Juke
I heard Juke on the little floppy EP that came with
Tony Glover’s book ‘Blues Harp’, and it totally knocked
my socks off. The huge sax-like tone and jump-blues
swing were immediately mesmerizing, and like countless
others I sweated over that tune, trying to grab some of
Walter’s magic. Through listening a lot to a player’s
style, you eventually get to hear that most have a bag of
tricks, a bunch of well honed licks that appear in
different guises on many recordings – but Little Walter
seems to sound fresh on every tune. A true natural
- Charlie McCoy: Charlie My Boy (Monument
I bought this in a bargain bin only because it was very
cheap, as the cover didn’t look promising: a chubby little
fellow in a white suit holding a giant plastic harmonica
surrounded by a bevy of Nashville chicks… At first my
suspicions seemed realised: syrupy country ballads
played in a straight kind of way, nothing exciting to my
blues-tuned ears. But then ‘New River Gorge’ burst out
from the vinyl, and that really turned my head around! I
went back to the second hand shop and bought every
Charlie McCoy album I could find, at first just for the
incredible bluegrass instrumentals, but later I even got to
appreciate Charlie’s touch and control on the ballads.
Another great innovator, who fused cross harp style
with the fiddle phrasing of Appalachian dance music and
bluegrass to create his own highly original synthesis. A
big influence for me and many others; even beyond the
playing, he opened my ears up to other possibilities for
the harp beyond blues.
- Toots Thielemans and Bill Evans: Affinity (Warner
Bros. BSK 3293)
The master of jazz chromatic playing at his peak, in a
sensitive partnership with the wonderful Bill Evans.
Toots has made countless albums, but this is something
special; ‘affinity’ says it all. He is again someone who
has really invented a whole style and technique without
a blueprint, and set a benchmark which no one else in
the idiom has yet matched – even after nearly half a
century since his first recording.
- Stevie Wonder: Eivets Rednow
Everyone above is really defined by their harmonica
playing, even though some (like Charlie and Toots) play
other instruments, compose, etc. However, Stevie
Wonder is in a class of his own: an incredibly soulful
and original stylist on the chromatic harmonica – for
whom it is just a sideline compared to his singing,
composing, producing… you name it! Another hugely
influential player, who has turned thousands onto the
chromatic harmonica, including me. Whenever I was
getting totally frustrated with that recalcitrant beast of an
instrument, I’d put on ‘Alfie’ and get re-inspired.
Other harmonica players I like are Claude Garden (my
favourite classical player), Tommy Reilly for his
innovative playing of Irish tunes on chromatic, Howard
Levy (in his more romantic moments), other blues
greats like Big Walter, Junior Wells, and Dave Burgin,
Irish overblow-diatonic and chromatic player Mick
Kinsella (due to release his first album this year), and
young Spanish chromatic player Antonio Serrano.
DIATONICS: I’ve been through various phases: Hohner
Marine Bands early on, then custom 11 hole Special
20s (Richard Hunter notes: now THERE’s a drastic mod), then Suzuki Folkmasters, Huang Silvertones,
Suzuki ProMasters, and currently Hering Blues. The
common thread is that they’re all half valved (Richard Hunter notes: half-valving is another mod applied by Brendan, not the factory), and in a
range of different alternate tunings I’ve developed over
the years. I enjoy modifying harps almost as much as
playing them, and it’s always a buzz to come up with an
‘improvement’ that really works.
(Richard Hunter notes: We asked Brendan for an explanation of “half-valving,” which we’d never heard of before this. Here’s what Brendan told us:)
Half-valving means that the lower of the two reeds in an air channel
is valve-affected, while the higher pitched one is not. In practical terms, if you visualise a blow C and draw D, the valve would be glued on the inside of the draw reedplate opposite the draw reed on the outside of the plate. Thus, when you draw, the valve lifts up and allows the normal interaction between blow and draw
reeds that happens on a typical diatonic harp (because some air still comes through the blow reed slot), allowing bending of the draw down to Db. (That’s how it sounds but, as we now know, what’s really happening is that the C is rising to C#.) (Richard Hunter note: this is true, though not necessarily well-known among harmonica players. When you bend, it’s the other reed in the slot that’s making the altered pitch, not the one you’re bending.)
However, when you blow, the valve closes over the draw reed slot and all your air goes to the blow reed, allowing the kind of valved bending and vibrato that you get on a chromatic harmonica (where both reeds are affected by valves). To me, half-valving gives the best of both worlds, as it allows the normal high reed bending as on a standard diatonic, but also pitch bend on the lower reed. A Richter tuned harp that is fully half-valved would have valves glued on the inside of the draw reedplate for holes 1-6, and glued on the outside of the blow plate for holes 7-10, allowing valved bending of the lower 6 blow notes and the higher 4 draw notes. (If you’re using a different tuning, you’d follow the principle of valve-affecting the lower pitched note, so where the valves are placed on the reedplates might change).
Another good thing about the valves is that they balance up the tone
and volume of the lower blow reeds, which on an unvalved harp sound breathier, softer, and less crisp than the opposing draw reed, especially on holes 1-4. The valves make the blow reeds pop out and respond better, which is really good for modes that emphasise a lot of blow notes (Ionian, Aeolian, etc.) in the lower two octaves.
However, as is almost inevitable, there are some drawbacks:
1. You have to alter your playing style with a half-valved harp, as the blow notes require less breath to sound, and will ‘blank out’ if hit too hard. This takes some adjustment for someone used to normal unvalved harps.
2. The tone changes a bit, as you lose the soft breathy resonance of a blow chord. The blow notes are ‘tighter’, with less decay, and many players prefer the traditional breathy tone (on the other hand, you can bend blow chords to some extent on a half-valved harp).
3. You can’t overblow a half-valved harp, because there is no interaction between the blow and draw reeds when you blow (and the same goes for overdraws on the high reeds).
4. You could say “Who needs overblows, when you can pitch bend all reeds?” – but the catch is that the valved bends are extremely difficult to control. They sound OK in a fast chromatic run, but are almost impossible to hold steady at bent pitch with good tone – or so I find. I use them mostly for colour (eg. bending up to or off a note), or vibrato. To me this is enough of an advantage, as it makes a harp
much more expressive to my ears.
I started half-valving my harps around 1979, and have done so ever since. When I play an unvalved harp now, it just sounds lacking in half its expressiveness to me. I imagine I wasn’t the first to do so, but I approached Suzuki with the idea in the mid-80’s, and they incorporated half-valving into their alloy-bodied diatonic ProMaster
350V – for which I received a royalty. (Richard Hunter note: Thanks, Brendan!)
CHROMATICS: Initially Hohner 270s, for which I
made polycarbonate bodies, and in recent years
modified Hohner CX12s. I love the shape and feel of
them, but the Hohner reed tolerances are not great, so
quite often I’ll take reedplates from another brand harp
(eg. the Hering 5148) and fit them to CX12 bodies
(although it’s a time consuming job involving a total
retuning). Like the diatonics, I have chromatics in lots
of different keys and tunings, and all half valved.
LIVE SETUP: I’m a bit lazy when it comes to selecting gear for playing
through. As far as mics go, I just use a decent vocal mic
(currently the humble old Shure SM58), but reading
what the other ‘pro page’ artists say about mics has got
me thinking it’s time I went downtown and did some
proper sound comparisons. I have a Green Bullet
(which I used to play through a Fender Champ back in
New Zealand as a member of Maori singer Sonny
Day’s Blues Band), but only really use it nowadays for
sessions when a Chicago sound is called for. Generally I
play clean through a hand held mic into the PA. What I
do have to have are on-mic volume control and my own
reverb (an old Alesis Microverb 1).
STUDIO SETUP: In a studio situation, I’d normally ask for a Neumann U87, as I know from experience it gives a full bodied tone, with a warmth and crispness that I like. If the studio doesn’t have one, I’ll follow the engineer’s suggestions. The AKG 414 is a mic a lot of the cheaper studios have, and it’s OK, but lacks some warmth (a bit hard and nasal for my liking). On New Irish Harmonica we used one, but added in your basic Shure SM57 as well on another track, and mixed the two sounds to get a fuller, gutsier tone. (Richard Hunter notes: every cut on my first CD, The Act of Being Free in One Act, was recorded on a Neumann U87; “How Long Have I Loved You” and “Blue Hunter” from The Second Act of Free Being were recorded on an AKG 414. All tracks on both CDs were mixed and mastered by the same engineer. Check out the samples at this site to see whether you can hear the difference.)
As far as reverb goes, I’ll just use what the studio has, and choose the best one I can find when mixing. The heavy amped sound I used on the slow air on my Riverdance album was produced with a cheap lapel mic run through an even cheaper guitar distortion pedal that I bought second-hand years ago in New Zealand (I think it’s an Alron (Richard Hunter note: maybe an Arion?), but most of the name is scratched off at this stage), with reverb added in the mix (I think it was a Yamaha of some sort). (Richard Hunter note: the sound on that piece is as heavy, hard, and singing as any amped harp you will ever hear, and it was produced with some of the cheapest gear on the planet. The lesson is clear: know what you want and know your gear, and you’ll get the sound.)
As many others have said, most of a player’s amplified tone comes from their acoustic tone anyway – you can hear two players on the same gear, and they’ll sound totally different, even using the same harmonica. So I’m not sure how important gear really is. Crap playing will still sound crap on great gear, and good playing will still be recognisable through the worst gear imaginable. That’s not to say you shouldn’t place importance on having gear that gives you a sound you like, but it’s not the be-all-and end-all. Your natural mouth tone is the main thing to work on, and if that’s good, even average gear will convey it, whether live or in the studio. (Richard Hunter notes: Word.)
Since 1984 I’ve released about 12 albums under my own name or with groups, and have 5 more in the pipeline. The albums and current projects reflect my eclectic tastes in music:
Country Harmonica (1984) Country hit song tunes (“Rocky Top,” “San Antonio Rose,” “You Needed Me,” etc).
State of the Harp (1990) Mostly original tunes in various styles (Rock/Jazz/Celtic/Bluegrass).
Harmonica Nights (1990) MOR (middle-of-the-road Pop), from
Steve Wonder songs to Lloyd Webber.
Licks n’ Spits (1991) Live acoustic duo recording with NZ guitarist Gary Verberne. Blues, Irish, Jazz.
Digging In (1991) Original tunes in diverse styles (Rock/Experimental/Jazz/Celtic/Pop/Blues)
New Irish Harmonica (1994) Traditional Irish tunes, with guitarist/co-producer Chris Newman.
Jig Jazz (1996) Live acoustic duo recording with Irish guitarist Frank Kilkelly. Irish & Originals.
Blow In (1996) Music from my soundtrack to the Irish film ‘Guiltrip’, plus extra stuff. Celtic.
The Music From Riverdance(1997) My interpretations of the tunes from the hit dance show.
Harmonica (1998) MOR, but a more rootsy approach than Harmonica Nights: from House of the Rising Sun to
Dawn to Dusk (1999) Compilation of pieces from previous albums, for relaxed listening.
Tanks Aloft (2000) All original tunes inspired by Irish music (Only available from my website at present).
IN THE PIPELINE
Two Trains Running To be released in May 2000. Down home blues with singer/guitarist Dave Peabody.
The Bulgarian Project Recorded in Sofia, Bulgaria in July 1999 with Bulgarian master musician Georgi Petrov, and his band. Bulgarian and original.
Ph.B: Qualified Debut album for new trio, with jazz guitarist Rick Bolton and swing fiddler Chris Haigh. Celtic/Jazz originals.
Iron Lung Recorded in Ashland, Virginia, Dec. 1999, with harp players Rick Epping and Mick Kinsella, and guitarist Martin Dunlea. Eclectic.
Power & White Debut album for duo with guitarist/singer Andrew White. Original Celtic music.
There is background information for each of the albums and projects (including harmonicas used, and numerous soundclips), on my website.
I’ve also played on lots of other people’s albums over the years, in New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, and Europe. The high profile ones are handy career-wise, but often not as interesting or challenging from a musical standpoint as the albums by great, but lesser known artists. Easily my favourite is Causeway, by Arty McGlynn and Nollaig Casey (Tara 3035).
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