I’ve arrived at SPAH

Got in to the hotel at about 11:30 PM last night.  As I came into the lobby, I saw small clusters of mostly middle-aged men playing harmonicas.  SPAH is mostly men, and most of the membership seems to be in its mid-40s and up.  The younger generation of harmonica players that’s been inspired by John Popper of Blues Traveler hasn’t made a big impact on SPAH yet, though it’s obviously the most important new thing in harmonica since the 1960s. 

SPAH members tend to break down into the people who were inspired by blues in the 1960s and 1970s, and the people who were inspired by harmonica trios and vaudeville acts in the 1940s and 1950s.  The former group plays diatonic harmonicas mainly, and the latter group plays chromatics, basses, and chord harps.  It’s not hard to tell who’s who when you walk around the hotel. 

I said in a previous blog post that there are some great players here, and a lot of players who aren’t so amazing.  There are a lot of differences between the two groups, but one that hits you right away is that the great players have a completely different sound.  Harmonica in their hands has a big, striking sound that conveys a lot of power and emotion.  The lesser players may play the notes, but their sound just isn’t very compelling–it’s thin, reedy, warbly in an uncool way.

I’m doing a seminar here on using electronic effects with harmonica.  It’s a truism that it’s the sound of the player, not the instrument (or the effects) that matters most, but I’m going to need to talk about both to help this crowd walk away sounding better than they did before.


Going to SPAH 2007

I’m going to the 2007 convention for the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) in Milwuakee tomorrow.  

SPAH is an unusual event.  It’s insipring and nerdy, brilliant and silly.  Let me give you an analogy.  Suppose that you’re a guitar player.  Now imagine that there’s a convention every year where a hundred or so of the best guitar players in the world, guys like Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Julian Bream, James Blood Ulmer, EVERYBODY in EVERY genre who matters–gather to just hang out for 5 days and play and talk guitar, and anyone else on the scene–ordinary guitar players like you included–can hang out and play with them and talk to them too.

Substitute “harmonica” for “guitar” and that’s SPAH.  It’s inspiring and brilliant because the best harp players in the world are right there, and any newbie can get right up close to them and talk harp–a 5-day masterclass with the best in the world, up close and personal.  Wow. 

It’s nerdy and silly because a lot of silly harmonica nerds show up too.  You get guys in their sixties and seventies whose idea of harmonica is all about comedy and vaudeville, who think it’s great to play harmonica through the nose while they balance a stack of dishes in the other hand.  Just for example.

That’s SPAH.  I’m going for the brilliant and inspiring part.  But the nerdy, silly part will be there too.


Brendan Power’s great new swing recording

One of my very favorite players, Brendan Power, has posted clips from his new swing jazz album to his site at

I went and checked out these clips, and they are hot, hot, hot. Brendan's playing
on these clips shows a mastery of tone that is equal to Larry Adler's in Adler's
performances with Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt from the 1930's--which
is to say, about as good as it gets--and Brendan is obviously a much more accomplished
improviser than Adler was at the time. I do not choose these words lightly.

Highly recommended, to say the least. More like must-have. Go to
to hear/download/order. Start your listening with "China Boy" if you
want an instant thrill.

Standard disclaimer: I receive no remuneration from Brenda Power in any form, though
I certainly wish him all success.


Why I play 6 different harp tunings

Because one isn’t enough.

Seriously, when every piece of music played in the world uses the same scale and chords, I’ll stick to one harmonica tuning.  Maybe.  In the meantime, I need at least six different tunings to express my music.  (Joni Mitchell uses 31 tunings or so for her guitar.  Why shouldn’t I use six?)

Check out my recordings of “Big 17”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “Peppermint Life” at   There is no conceivable way that those arrangements can be played on the same tuning.  (In case you’re interested, the tunings on the pieces are Melody Maker, Natural Minor, and standard, respectively.)

I repeat: music is bigger than one scale.  That’s why I need more than one tuning.

Along those lines, I find myself playing a lot of chromatic harmonica lately.  It’s not just that it has all the notes. It sounds really good with my effects, too–like some kind of wierd cross between a harmonica, a synthesizer, and a human voice.  Very cool.


More on my effects trick bag

I mentioned in my blog about the Dragonfly gig that I used a few effects, including my Digitech RP200, a Boss OC2 octave divider, an Akai Intelliphase, and an Akai Headrush delay.  Here are a few comments on what these things do.

First of all, the order of the effects in the chain is exactly as specified above.   This is important, because different chains produce very different sounds. I don’t have technology that would re-order the chain on demand. I can just turn things on and off and make adjustments to particular effects.  (Not that that’s a real drag–I get a  lot of different sounds out of one chain, certainly more than I can use in a night.)

The RP200 is the real workhorse.  It has amp modeling in it, which saves me from having to drag a big guitar amp around with me, and it has a lot of useful effects, like a pitch shifter, whammy, flanger, phase shifter, etc. I’ve set it up with 40 sounds designed specifically for use with my Audix Fireball mic. If I only carry one box to a gig, that’s the one. 

The RP200 goes into the Boss OC-2, which takes whatever is coming out of the RP and adds a note one octave below, and another note 2 octaves below.  This is well below the normal range of a harmoncia, and it’s a big, deep sound–more like a bass synthesizer than a harmonica.

The OC-2 goes into the phase shifter, which adds a kind of swirl to the sound.  I can set the rate and depth of the swirl, so it can sound like a slow rotation, or a fast vibrato, or anything in between.  It’s really useful for making the sound deeper and more animated.

Last in the chain is the Headrush delay.  This adds repeats to the sound, which I can sync to the beat (manually–it’s not tightly synced via MIDI, which is what the rest of the Spinning Plates use).  A delay can do so many nifty things to a sound that it’s impossible to list them all here–anything from making it a little thicker to making it sound like you’re playing in a cavern or a canyon.  I have great delays in the RP200 too, but it’s always nice to have one at the very end of the chain.

That’s the setup.  When Spinning Plates post some of the recordings from the gig to, you’ll be able to hear these effects in action.  I’ve heard  the recordings, and I promise you will not be bored.


Spinning Plates gig

I played with Spinning Plates, the ambient improvised electronica band, last night.  Three sets of nonstop improvising and playing.  It was fun and very different, and pretty demanding mentally and physically, since I had no idea at any given point in  time what I was going to do next.

I used a big battery of effects for this gig, including my Digitech RP200, a Boss OC2 octave divider, an Akai Intelliphase, and an Akai Headrush delay.  It’s fair to say that the sounds coming out of the harmonica were not the usual.

But I don’t know yet what it actually sounded like (although the guys in the band told me it was a little more driving than usual).  The PA speakers were behind me–the band plays facing each other in a big circle–and there were no onstage monitors.  (The band works off headphones, and the only piece of equipment I didn’t bring was an adapter to change my 1/8″ headphone plug to 1/4″.)  Fortunately, the band always records its gigs, so I do have in my possession an SD card with all the music on it.  I’ll listen to it later and post it soon.

One cool thing is that Spinning Plates has a full-time video guy in the band, so while we played a screen next to the band displayed all sorts of video images–pictures of the players, pictures of the players warped in various ways, pictures of cars/buildings/hurricanes/etc.  At a few points I tried improvising to the images, instead of to the band.  Like I said–different.

 I sent out lots of emails to friends and fans for this gig, and plenty of both showed up, so it was a good time for all.  I met a lot of harp players that I’ve only encountered previously online, and collected a CD or two, including one from the harp player/singer/leader for CT-based blues band the Mojomatics.  I think he liked the effects–at one point (while I was working the Whammy effect, which makes the harp pitch dive up and down two octaves) I saw him looking at my feet, trying to figure out what the hell was making that strange noise.

Like I said, I’ll advise when the music is available online.  I hope I get to play with these guys again soon. 


How I wrote "Kill the Doctor (That Killed My Wife)"

First of all, my wife’s not dead.  But a careless doctor nearly killed her 5 years ago.  A couple of caring doctors had to put her back together again. It took a long time, and she nearly died on several occasions while it was underway. It was all pretty rough.  I learned a lot, but I paid a lot to learn it.  I don’t recommend it, really, even though I never would have known how amazing my wife is if all that hadn’t happened.

Anyway, how did this all get turned into art?  Indirectly.  A few months ago, my wife and I were hanging out in Moab, Utah with my daughter and my grandsons. As always, I had harmonicas with me. One day in the desert, I played a lick on the harmonica that I liked, and then I played it again, and then I recorded it on one of the devices that I always keep around for that purpose.  That lick is the instrumental hook for “Kill the Doctor.”  It was a short lick, but it had a certain dead-serious feeling and a groove in it already.

The next thing I did, back in my studio, was put a rough arrangement in place–bass line, drum groove, strumstick, and organ–using Cakewalk Sonar, my recording workstation.   It was around that time that I realized this piece was going to have lyrics, unlike most of my music.  I wrote 90% of the lyric in one pass, and took another few weeks to complete it.  (It was the first lyric idea that came to mind, so I guess that doctor must be in there pretty close to the surface, at least lately.)  When it was done, I restructured the song around it, which meant changing the structure from a 12-bar blues to a 16-bar blues.  Then I recorded all the remaining parts (14 takes for the vocals, 13 takes for the harmonicas) , arranged them, and mixed it all down.

This song began as a piece of music, not a set of words.  Most of my song ideas take that path,  even though a lot of my life involves writing words. Maybe that’s because playing, not singing, is what comes most naturally to me.  The harmonica is my real “voice.”  But I like the way this one came out, so maybe I’ll do more singing soon.

By the way: my wife didn’t die, like I said, and I don’t plan to kill the doctor.   But it makes a hell of a song.


Blogging the harmonica

This is my first blog entry, and I’ll use it for a statement of intentions.

I play the harmonica. I have been playing harmonica for over 40 years. In that time, I have written the world’s best-selling method for jazz and rock harmonica players, released two CDs of original music for solo harmonica, played on film soundtracks, jingles, and other people’s records both great and small, released dozens of original pieces of electric groove music featuring harmonica, and generally played a lot of harmonica.

Harmonica is something I care about. It’s one of my primary tools for turning my life experiences into art, which is something that matters to me. There are other things I care about in my life, but this blog is going to be about the part of it that involves harmonica. It’s a big part, as I suppose you’ve figured out by now.

I’ll write next about my gig tomorrow night with Spinning Plates, an ambient improvised electronica band. It’s my first time playing a whole night of ambient electronica. I’ll let you know how it goes.


SPAH 1998: A Personal Review, Part 1

This is a brief summary of personal highlights from SPAH 1998. This event, the 35th anniversary convention for SPAH, was held in Detroit, MI, USA from August 26-30, 1998. There was far too much going on at this show for any individual to provide a comprehensive overview, so this report describes only what I saw and heard there.