It occurred to us recently that lots of players we know seem to constantly buy new gear, and some of those players don’t think much about how to get more out of the gear they’ve got. With that in mind, we’ve put together a few thoughts for our visitors on our philosophy for getting the most out of your gear.
Category: Pro Tips & Techniques
Tom Ball, besides being one of the top acoustic harmonica players working today (as visitors to our Pro Pages know well), is also a harp scholar, and a great student of the masters. Tom recently posted this message about Little Walter’s acoustic harp work to the Harp-L list. It’s re-posted here with Tom’s permission. Anybody who thinks Little Walter never played harp without an amp is advised to read this piece at least twice, then go out and get the records Tom names below.
Tom Ball is one of the top acoustic harmonica players working today, as visitors to our Pro Pages know well. Tom posted this message to the Harp-L list recently; it’s re-posted here with Tom’s permission. (Don’t ask what we had to do to get it . . .) If you want a clean sound off a PA, here’s yer Bible.
Robert Bonfiglio, as visitors to this site know, is the most accomplished classical harmonica player now active, arguably the greatest ever. This discussion Robert’s response to a thread concerning the effect of equipment such as microphones and amplifiers on “killer tone” originally appeared in a slightly different form in a message posted to the Harp-L List in April 2001. As always, Robert’s comments are well worth reading. They are presented here by permission of the author, with our thanks.
There are still a lot of players talking about tone as if we played guitar, and if one were to buy the right guitar, and the right pedals, and the right amp, that one would get "killer tone." If Kim Wilson picked up such a guitar and picked it he would probably get "killer tone," but if a guitar player played Kim’s harp through Kim’s amp and mic it would sound pretty lame.
This is not to mention that most great harmonica playing does not even use this elusive amped "killer tone," like none of Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry, little of Junior Wells, and maybe only one-third of Little Walter. It takes more to overdrive an amp with a harp than the right gear, and even overdriving it can sound pretty dull if you ignore other musical elements, which brings me back to my previous post on intensity. You have to be able to play the harp without the mic first!
The elements of intensity include:
- Dynamics – Loud is more intense than soft.
- Tone or color – A bright tone is more intense than a dark tone; an open tone is more intense than a closed tone; a full tone is more intense than a thin tone.
- Vibrato – Vibrato is more intense than non-vibrato; a wide vibrato is more intense than a narrow one; a fast vibrato is more intense than a slow one.
- Attack – a hard attack is more intense than a soft articulation.
- Tempo – fast is more intense than slow; accelerando (speeding up) is more intense than ritardando (slowing down).
- Pitch – dissonant is more intense than consonant; sharp is more intense than flat.
While it is possible to work on the elements of intensity individually, in actual music they all must be taken into account. You can’t just talk about dynamics without talking about the entire phrase where twenty levels of dynamics might be used. Great players vary these elements from moment to moment to build a phrase.
Therefore, if you hear a pianissimo, non-vibrato, no attack, closed tone in the high register (death, that place is strong with the dark side of the Force) followed by a full, loud, hard attack, vibrato-laden note, the tone on the last note will sound big, big, big in comparison.
Learning how to control the elements of Intensity to make good music is a life long process.
Filisko on Levy
The essay below was published by Joe Filisko, undoubtedly the greatest diatonic harmonica maker in the world as of late 1999, on the Harp-L internet mailing list in May 1999. Written in response (in part) to my comments on the 1999 Buckeye Harmonica Festival, the essay sets a historical and musical context for the roles of both the player and the instrument in fully chromatic playing on the diatonic harmonica. We do not agree with everything Joe says in this piece; we do believe that Joe succeeds in moving the debate on fully chromatic diatonic harmonica style forward. We are pleased to publish this piece with Joe’s approval, essentially unedited.
Members of the Harp-L List regularly ask how they can achieve a “Chicago” style sound when using the PA system as the main amplifier for harmonica. This page, with help from guest writer Dom DeStefano, offers a few solutions that have been tested and proved to work.
NOTE: This discussion originally appeared in a slightly different form in a message posted to the Harp-L List on December 2, 1998.
There’s been some recent discussion on Harp-L of the uses for the Huang Jazz Harp (which is in what Hohner calls Country Tuning, i.e. Richter tuning with the fifth draw reed tuned up a half step.) Here’s the layout of this tuning on a C harmonica:
This tuning produces some really big, full-sounding chords in the low and mid-range, and it sounds great on lots of rhythm licks as well as on sustained chords. It works very well on almost any roots-based style (like blues or reggae or folk or country), and it’s also a strong choice for rock, pop and jazz stuff. The sharped draw 5 reed gives the player a major triad
and a +6 chord on the V chord in second position (i.e., tonic is draw 2).
The straight triads on the IV chord in this tuning
work better for many country and blues tunes than the IIm chord that you get in the low register on a Melody Maker (which is the same tuning with the blow 3 reed tuned up a whole step). You also get a major triad,
and major 7+9 chord on the tonic,
plus IIm7 (root omitted)
and IIIm7 chords
in second position, plus a VIm9+11 voicing (no root),
and not to mention a V#9 (7th omitted) voicing, courtesy of the natural 3rd (of the V chord) in the middle octave and the flat 3rd in the top octave:
etc., etc. . . .
The above analysis of the chords available on this tuning in second position may be useful for jazz-oriented players, maybe not for blues or country, though who knows; a lot of those chords show up on something like "Stormy Monday." In any case, for almost any style except classical, it’s a very versatile and good-sounding tuning. I used this tuning on a Lee Oskar (I had to tune the draw 5 reed up by hand) on "Billy The Kid" on my second CD, The Second Act of Free Being; if anyone wants to hear what the harp sounds like, there’s a sample here. I believe the key of the instrument is Eb, and it’s played in second position.
Since we’re on the subject of special tunings, I’ll also note that special tunings on the diatonic are a very easy way to add a lot of color and new sounds to the instrument. It is relatively cheap it’s the cost of a harmonica (or a new set of reed plates if you use Lee Oskars) and Oskar (mostly) and Hohner and Huang (a little) make a bunch of tunings that sound new and different right out of the box, even when you play the stuff you’ve played for a while on them.
Right now there’s a lot of action going on for standard Richter-tuned diatonic harmonica players in fully chromatic single-note approaches that rely heavily on overblowing and bending. A few years ago, most of the players using this technique heavily were in their late thirties and up. Lately I see much younger players using the technique fluently. It seems to me that overblowing is now or will soon be a mainstream technique, and multiple players are now pushing the limits of that technique in terms of both expression (e.g. Howard Levy on the soundtrack of “A Family Thing”) and virtuosity (Levy, Clint Hoover, Sandy Weltman).
I see far fewer players trying to get extra mileage out of unusual (even slightly) tunings. It makes me wonder: will Magic Dick’s new Magic Harps, which include some radically different tunings, some of them explicitly designed for hip chording, find a large audience? I don’t think a majority (or even a large minority) of players have jumped at the special tunings that are readily available. If people don’t want a reasonable amount of variety (i.e. six or seven different factory standard