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…

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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.

We asked Dennis 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?

We thank Dennis for this gift to harmonica players everywhere, and we recommend to our readers that they catch one of Dennis’s seminars at an upcoming SPAH or Buckeye Harmonica festival. We note also that Dennis’s gear choices should be of great interest to amplified blues players; when Dennis talks about amplified blues gear, it’s a good idea to listen.

Dennis’s Top 5 Harmonica Records

Favorite Instruments

Favorite Gear

Bonfiglio’s discography

Dennis’s Top 5 Harmonica Records

The order of these records doesn’t indicate my preference; I love them all.

1. Big Walter Horton “An Offer You Can’t Refuse.” I consider these to be Walter Horton’s best recordings. Great tone, phrasing, and a never ending stream of ideas. (Now if only someone would release these recordings in correct pitch!!)

2. ‘Chicago/The Blues/Today!’ Vol 2.
This volume includes the Jimmy Cotton Blues Band, and I still get inspired when listening to his playing on these recordings. Some of the best Cotton out there. Intense amplified blues harmonica.

3. A tie between ‘Harmonica Ace’ and ‘Blowing the Blues’, both by George Smith. The first CD includes his classic early sides for RPM with great third position playing on chromatic and diatonic. The latter CD includes many rare singles by George in many different styles. George is a master of tone and phrasing and should not be overlooked!

4. Paul deLay, ‘deLay Does Chicago’. I’m a big fan of Paul’s, and have been admiring and respecting his playing for years. I picked this recording because it is most recent, but I love all his recordings. His playing is always fresh, creative, funny, emotional, and full of blues. A modern harmonica genius.

5. These two deserve to be mentioned:

– Any of Kim Wilson’s solo recordings. He is one of the best harp players alive playing in the traditional Chicago style. Always exciting, never stagnant, and at the top of his game. Not to be pigeonholed as a Little Walter clone.

– The imaginary recording I have in my head of Charlie Leighton and William Galison playing jazz together after hours at Buckeye 99. I wish there was a real recording of that jam session. Most definitely, it would be at the top of my list. Both these guys are beautiful chromatic jazz players whom I look up to.

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Favorite Instruments

Diatonic: Hohner Marine Bands customized by Joe Filisko and Richard Sleigh.

Chromatic: Hohner Chromatic harmonicas (270,280,64x) customized by Richard Sleigh, Steve Pruitt, and Dick Gardner.

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Favorite Gear

Live Gear:
I have three main microphones: two Controlled Magnetic Shure Green Bullets and one Controlled Reluctance Bullet. (Richard Hunter notes: “controlled magnetic” and “controlled reluctance” refer to the microphone diaphragm. Among other things, Dennis is a master microphone technician.)
In terms of amps, for club dates I usually use a Blackface Fender
Deluxe Amp (I have two, a 1964 and a 1965). For outdoor festivals/gigs I use a Fender Concert (I have two, a brown 1961 and a black 1963).

Studio Gear:
For my recent recording (see the discography below) I used a Controlled Magnetic Green Bullet mic through my 1964 Fender Deluxe.

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Dennis’s Discography

‘Dennis Gruenling and Jump Time,’ Backbender Records BBR701, Released 1999. For more information, or to order the CD, visit Dennis’s website, or Order from!

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  1. I am a para that’s been playin harp longtime and wanted to know a simple easy to carry bottom endy amp or box I can carry, I’m in a w/chair to maki it easy. I can do all the basic stuff thanks to Zep little walter and Magic Dick etc.

  2. @Joe: “Easy to carry” and “bottom endy” are not necessarily compatible, since big bottom end demands a big speaker, and bigger speakers are harder to carry than smaller ones. If you mean “bottom endy” for a harp, as opposed to a bass, and you really want portable, a good bet is any of Vox’s small modeling amps. Those are small enough to fairly easily be transported in a lap, they weigh less than ten pounds, and they make a lot of very nice sounds with a harp. The new Vox VXII is like an updated version of the DA-5 that I own, which I bought immediately after I played a party with one. It has a bigger speaker (8″), 30 watts of power, which is enough to get pretty loud, and 11 amp models, plus FX that include delay and reverb, and it’s still well under ten pounds and $150. However, it doesn’t run on batteries. The Vox Mini5 Rhythm has a drum machine builtin, which you may or may not want and don’t have to use, and is otherwise very similar to the DA-5 that I still use on occasion. Like the DA-5, it runs on batteries, so if that’s important to you check it out. A new one costs $159. If it were me, I’d see what I could get a used DA-5 or other Vox modeled amp for on or ebay.

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