Dennis Gruenling is a rising young star in blues harmonica. His major influences include George “Harmonica” Smith, whose West Coast swing style and fat amped tone resonates in much of Dennis’s playing, and swing saxophonists such as Lester Young and Ben Webster. Dennis’s sound is something new in blues harp; in particular, he combines very low-pitched (low D and below) diatonic harps with swing style lines, unusual positions, and overblowing to produce uncanny imitations of tenor and baritone saxophone sounds. His horn section work in particular is well worth hearing (see the discography below). He currently performs in the New York tri-state area with his blues band “Filthy Rich and the Poor Boys” and his swing band “Jump Time.” We expect to hear a lot more from and about Dennis in the next few years.
Category: Meet the Pros
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.
New York-based Robert Bonfiglio is the leading classical harmonica virtuoso on the planet, and the guy with the best shot right now at establishing the harmonica as a legitimate instrument for Western art music. He has been called "the Paganini of the Harmonica" by The Los Angeles Times, and while he is no Little Walter or Kim Wilson, he can play the blues convincingly on demand.
Annie Raines is a young blues harmonica player whose initial training was with Jerry Portnoy (of Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton’s bands). Annie’s consistently excellent, deep, traditionally blue harp work has earned her a steadily growing following for the last several years. Her recent performances typically find her paired with slide guitar master Paul Rishell, another player with deep roots in traditional blues. To my ears, Annie’s best work is done with a Chicago-style amped setup, where her subtle tone changes and ability to work the mic and amp are projected with lots of style and authority. She is one of the obvious leaders for blues players in her generation, as Kim Wilson was for the generation that preceded her.
We asked Annie 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?
Annie’s answers are below, and we note in particular her very detailed comments on the differences between Green Bullet and Astatic mics (a subject of great interest to many blues players), as well as her favorite records, a virtual catalog of blues must-haves. We thank Annie for this gift to harmonica players everywhere.
Raines’s Top 5 Harmonica Records
Raines’s Top 5 (Actually, 8 ) Harmonica Records
Oh, boy, it’s torture to make anyone choose. Some big influences and favorites not mentioned in the list below are: John Lee (Sonny Boy I) Williamson, Jerry Portnoy, Kim Wilson, Lazy Lester, Jerry McCain, Junior Wells, George Smith, Sonny Terry, Noah Lewis (by himself and with Cannon’s Jug Stompers), Gary Primich, Al Wilson, and Bix Beiderbecke (Bix played cornet, but he’s got too many great ideas to miss). CDs are fine, but if you can find LPs, 45s, or 78s of these artists, grab ’em! It’s difficult to do digital justice to a great harmonica tone.
- Little Walter: The Essential Little Walter
- Big Walter Horton: Offer You Can’t Refuse
- Sonny Boy Williamson (eponymous double LP)
- Jimmy Rogers: Chicago Bound
Jimmy Rogers was a guitarist and vocalist but the harmonica playing of Little Walter and Big Walter on this album is supreme. Also supreme is Kim Wilson’s playing on Rogers’s live album,Ludella. Muddy Waters’s The Best of Muddy Waters is another great album, with Little Walter showing us how it’s done.
- Slim Harpo: Best of Slim Harpo (The one with “Tip On In”, “Ti Na Ni Na Nu”, “Good Thing” and “Keep What I’ve Got.”)
This album is a primer of position laying, demonstrating simple, catchy melodies in a laid-back style.
- Charles Leighton: Old Standard Songs
This is available only on cassette, so far as I know. Charles Leighton is my all-time favorite chromatic player, and one of my favorite musicians to listen to. His tone is unbelievable – even, round, and superbly resonant. He conveys beautiful melodies like “Please” and “Stardust” with pure reverence. (Richard Hunter notes: in mid-1999 I attended a meeting of the New York Top Brass harmonica club, a loose aggregation of players hosted by Wade Schuman and Rob Paparozzi, at which Annie Raines and Charles Leighton were also in attendance. Leighton played “Body and Soul” that night more beautifully than I have ever heard it played by anyone on any instrument.)
Hohner 1896 Marine Bands, right out of the box.
Super 64x chromatic
Filisko Marine Bands (in my dreams)
The occasional Big River, usually a low F or low D.
Stage: I use various different amps live, depending on the size of the room. The current live roster, from smallest to largest: Fender Vibro-champ, Fender Deluxe Reverb (pre-CBS), Fender Bassman (reissue, and hot-rodded so badly that no one will ever repair it if it breaks down, which it could do at any second. I use this one when we play with a full band).
Studio: In the studio I use a Fender “brown” Princeton or a 2×10 tweed Super (actually a ’54 Bassman head, hooked up to 2 blue Jensen speakers in a tweed cab. The electronics for the early Bassmans and Supers were identical). For effects I use a tube-driven Echoplex (tape delay) and some reverb off the board. This effect is nearly duplicable with a Boss RV-3 (reverb) pedal, which I use on live gigs.
Acoustic: Onstage, usually a Shure SM58 for acoustic playing, and I don’t know what all in the studio.
Amplified: On my new CD with Paul Rishell, I used a Shure Green Bullet for some songs (“Moving to the Country”, “Good Women Have Bad Days”) and an Astatic JT-30 (worked on by Dennis Gruenling, who did a fantastic job) on the instrumental “Sweet Tooth”. On Paul’s and my last CD, I Want You To Know, I had a beautiful Astatic 200-S (gold, long-stemmed with an on/off switch) that died right after we finished recording. The Green Bullet is good for a raunchy, in-your-face sound, but in my opinion it gets boring after awhile because the tone of it never changes. I prefer Astatics with crystal elements. Although they are more vulnerable to breakage than Green Bullets, they have a milkier, warmer sound that is kinder to the ears. Also, their sound changes as your body temperature changes, giving you more dramatic range throughout the show. If you want a sound with balls, use a green bullet. If you want a sound with soul, use an Astatic.
Paul Rishell and Annie Raines:
Moving to the Country, Tone-Cool 1174, 8/99
I Want You to Know, Tone-Cool 1156, 8/96
Swear To Tell the Truth, Tone-Cool 1148, 11/93 (3 tracks)
Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin, Legends, Telarc 8346, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, Just Won’t Burn, Tone-Cool 1164, 2/98 (2 tracks)
Susan Tedeschi, Better Days, (self-produced) 4/95
John Sebastian and the J-Band, I Want My Roots, Music Masters, 2/96 (2 tracks)
John Sebastian and the J-Band, Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, Hollywood Records, 7/99
Rory Block, When a Woman Gets the Blues, Rounder (1 track)
Maria Sangiolo, Blue Earth, Signature 1243 (one track)
David Hamburger, Indigo Blue, (self-produced) 1999 (one track)
Hound Dog Taylor: A Tribute, Alligator Records (one track with Ronnie Earl)
Blues Harp Greats, Easydisc 7023 (one track: “Ol’ Heartbreak” from TC 1156)
Boston Blues Blast, Tone-Cool 1146 (one track, backing up Shirley Lewis)
Terry Kitchen, Blues and Grace, (label and date unknown)
Chris McDermott, Man on Fire (label and date unknown)