Advice for the Diatonically Challenged
October 2017 Edition
Night falls, but because no one is in the forest, it makes no sound.
A dark sedan speeds noiselessly through the dark, because, well, see above. There is someone at the wheel, a stranger barely distinct from the genuine ostrich-grained leatherette headliner, playing this weekend only to packed audiences. The rich, Corinthian ostrich textured dermis is covering the capital dome of that beacon of hope for the diatonically distressed, the diaphoretic drinker of the Circle of 5ths, the often imitated but never fully domesticated Dr. Harpo. He suddenly grins, in a display of Chicklet-esque dentition festooned with a soupcon of organic kale, looking for all the world like a picket fence onto which an errant green Hefty bag has blown.
He powers the throbbing jitney to a brisk halt, throttling down the former charabanc converted to a roomy two-decker with panoramic views, curbing it and his dog simultaneously. The silence is suddenly cut as if by the oxidized dirk of destiny, as Harpo reaches overhead to the plinth of the concealed overhead combination Murphy bed and crow’s nest, from which he deftly dislodges a cadge of missives from yet another brace of those in a tangled, tangled imbroglio of harmonica-driven angst. As he slides the multipurpose plinth back into its former berth, he deftly prods open the envelope to discharge the plea for help from within it. He notes the watermark, and makes a mental note to get the plumbing checked, as he reads…
Dear Dr. Harpo,
I wrote you some time back, bemoaning the fact that there were, at least at the time when I wrote, no amps specifically manufactured for playing harmonica through. Well, now just the opposite is true. That’s were the problem lies. I have too many choices! On one hand, I can spend more than I have ever paid for a car on one of the numerous boutique amps that are on the market for harp players, or I can buy one of the numerous little practice-sized amps that are available for playing harp. Unfortunately, since it appears that, as always, there are so few harp players that the music stores never, ever, ever have any of either category of amp on hand, I can never get a chance to either hear one played, or else try one myself. Do you have any suggestions for what to do, without losing my shirt in the bargain?
Moulty “Two Tops” Jenkusic, Andover MA
Harpo scratches his head distractedly, and it begins to purr appreciatively and snuggle oh, so much closer. He tosses his dark and roguish eyebrows back with insouciance, with a beer chaser, and riddles this one out. Flicking the ash distractedly from the joss stick he always keeps lit so that he doesn’t have to be, he formulates a response, double-checks his math, and forges ahead like an incontinent searching for a comfort station at Niagara Falls. Could we not also be so bold? The question begs, but all I have is a ten-spot, so I’ll get you next time, hokay? Regardez…
Not the guy who was the drummer for The Barbarians, are you? In any event, I get the drift. Back a ways, we were as a harp-playing community relegated to settling for guitar amps. These amps were great for guitar, but guitar is not harmonica, as I once demonstrated at a Pointless But Showy Musical Gymnastics symposium in Gutta Percha NM, where I sustained a Grade 2 sprain of my frenulum when attempting to play the harmonica behind my back, with my teeth, and with an empty beer bottle.
You know the old bromide (Old Bromide once released a minor hit on the Fistula label called "If You're So Rich, How Come You Ain't Smart?" Pure coincidence and of no great relevance to this discussion, but that never stops us) about harp equipment; "If you don't sound good acoustically, you'll just sound bad louder with amplification." True that, but I have never heard anyone brag about getting great tone from a harmonica that costs 6 bucks new. That is, while good equipment won't make you sound good if you're not, bad equipment will make even the best player sound like a rube.
Guitar amplifiers are, well, great for amplifying guitar, an instrument that produces a miniscule electrical signal by moving a vibrating metal string through a magnetic field, boosted multiple times in the pre-amp, and fired up to full volume via the power amplifier, making the speakers move air by pulling and releasing a paper cone that is moving courtesy of the big permanent magnet at the rear of the speaker. Although the process for amplifying harmonica is virtually identical to the foregoing sequence of events, the difference is in the amount of signal which is produced at the source. Whereas the guitar pick-up picks up (cute, eh?) a small amount of signal which is sequentially boosted in pre-amp and power amp phases of this amplification process, the microphones which harp players use are either stock or customized vocal mics, which produce a (relatively) great deal more signal than a guitar pick up. That signal is increased even more when the player cups the mic and harmonica with their hands, and further boosts the signal.
Consider this: if a guitarist is going to use the squeal of feedback from his amp as a part of a solo, he or she must have the amp so loud that it is sending a signal from the speakers to the wimpy little pick-ups to re-circulate that signal through the amplification circuit again, producing that controlled whine of a feedback-based lead. Harp players produce an uncontrolled whine when even a misstep in front of the amp that you're using will get a werewolf love song howling out of your amp, even at moderate volume. This eventually and rapidly results in an uncontrolled whine from the audience. Need I say that this is not the optimum scenario for your stage presence? Can you even hear after all of that howling?
So, as far as we harp players are concerned, guitar amps are musical mismatches for harp players to attempt using for harmonica/microphone combinations. In retrospect, even though amplified harp playing certainly pre-dated Little Walter's big hit "Juke" in 1952, (the recording generally acknowledged to have sparked awareness of, and interest in amplified harp as a separate instrument), meaning that since that time a relatively large audience expressed approval of and desire for more amplified harmonica, the amp manufacturers were unresponsive. So, although guitar amps were very challenging to use, we tried, through trial and error, to find some simplification source through which to get the volume and tone which we wanted out of an amplification source.
There were various combinations used by the pros, both in person and on recordings, mostly old all-tube amps like Fender Twins, Super Reverbs, Princetons, Champs and so on. There was, and continues to be, a market for ancient tube amps, particularly the ones intended for use with lap steel guitars, those things that look like a GI issue shovel that were the ancestors of the modern pedal steel guitar. Further afield, there has been a pretty consistent demand for old PA amps, like Bogens, and it’s not unheard of to see offerings on e-bay for old tube amplifiers taken from movie projectors, tape recorders and record players.
Notice that there’s not a single amplifier ever manufactured expressly for playing harp through exclusively. Never. So, in an attempt to find a source for the sound we wanted, we resorted to doing modifications to these amps, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Stuff like trading out tubes in the pre-amp in order to make the power amp work hard enough to be fooled into thinking it was working at full throttle, causing a nice ripped sound. Stuff like trading out speakers for either vintage ones or different new ones. Stuff like re-wiring amps, switching out capacitors, transformers, jewel lights and knobs, in an attempt to get the amp to punch the frequencies we wanted and squelch the dreaded feedback demon. A lot of these approaches worked to a degree, some better than others, but none so well that there was not a demand for dedicated harmonica amps and dedicated obsessives to design and build them.
Then, there was the amp of mythic powers, the 1959 Fender Bassman, the undisputed champ of desirable harp amps. Then came the Bassman clones. Fender took the hint and re-issued the ’59 Bassman. Little Sonny amps took the idea further, combining multiple configurations of tubes and speakers to allow flexibility in the power and volume that his amps produced. The models which I have seen have the flexibility of numerous speaker types and sizes, various pre-amp tubing and an overall strong amp in one package. There are a number of boutique (that is, as you said, costing more than the cars most of us drive) harp amps, all to my way of thinking, just variations on the Bassman theme. Not that the Bassman format couldn't be improved upon, it was just generally regarded as a production amplifier that could potentially produce good tone for a competent harp player.
Then, a number of smaller manufacturers got into it. For example, Meteor makes a beautiful little amp that is in the Bassman vein, very high quality, and just under 2 grand. There used to be Holland Amps, but they went the way of many small custom operations quite a few years ago. There was also Fat Dog Amps, based upon a pretty ambitious concept, in that every speaker had its own dedicated amplifier. Unfortunately, RIP. Since these are small manufacturers selling to a small pool of players, this is not where Goldman Sachs will invest a lot of dough. It's not a cash cow to do this, it's a labor of love.
Even harmonica manufacturer Hohner introduced its all-tube, 5 watt Hoodoo amp in 2009, and it's worth trying out. It's a bargain at $249.00 USD. It has 1X8" speaker, and a spring reverb built in and XLR out. I have heard good players play through it, with very gain-ey mics like harp players favor, and the results are pretty good. It appears that the engineering of this unit actually tried to tailor an amp to the relatively large and strong signal that high-impedence mics generate, and supplied a power and pre-amp tube combination which allows the nut behind the mic to crank up the volume sufficiently to drive the amp hard and produce an overdriven sound that works for harp.
This just in...well, not really, but it may be news to some. There is a small company out of Louisiana called Lone Wolf Blues, and they cater to harp players. How, you ask? Well, I'm glad someone is still awake. They have harp-specific pedals (and a pedalboard for gang power sourcing a bundle of pedals, rather than having more cords on stage than a Gordian knot has, well, you know...), cords, all kind of stuff that is top quality and a welcome alternative to the tedious, expensive and largely fruitless practice of trial and error shopping for effects that enhance your playing. More about them in a future column, but the main thing which attracts me to their company is their amp line. Specifically, the Harp Train 10.
Enter the Harp Train 10. That is, 10 as in 10 watts. It has a 10" speaker that is designed to not require break-in, and produces vintage ripped-up tone that will make it hard for you to play until you wipe that silly grin off of your face. There is a big 6L6 power tube, pushed by an all-tube pre-amp that has a "balls" circuit that you can dial in for relatively clean tone, or go to the other extreme and push the "balls" circuit to the limit, for a truly nasty tone without sounding like a kazoo on steroids. This is an amp you should try out in person if possible. Lone Wolf has a few local distributors that are listed on their website, and it's definitely worth an Uber to go try one of these out. Second best is to listen to the demo videos, as I can attest that they are pretty accurate in conveying what this thing sounds like. Best of all solution is to drop $387.00 and buy the thing outright. As the saying goes, a great amp won't help a poor player much, it'll just make them sound bad much louder. But, a good player can get enthused by using a great amp like this, so that their practice time increases and the dream of that perfect tone gets closer to a reality. Great players, this thing can help you to stop searching for the perfect rig, and free you from working to overcome the limits of your current set-up. Another nifty feature is the line out that will allow you to bypass the Harp Train 10's speaker and go directly into the house sound system. Then, the house sound person can dial you in to both tweak your tone and make your volume consistent with the rest of the instruments in the mix. No more losing competition with treble-happy guitarists getting their guitar hero on.
Or, the other side of the coin is to continue on the vision quest for the perfect amp, since there's no guarantee that the above-noted amps will definitely work for every player. In my experience, in situations where I have been playing on stage and getting a nice tone at a listenable volume, another guest harp player will play through that same sweet rig and it sounds like tabby is taking a ride in the blender. It still continues to be an ongoing search, because I guarantee, no other harp player will sound as good as you do on your own favorite mic and amp combo, and they'll sniff snootily at your rig and keep on searching for their perfect set-up du jour. Remember that perfect sound is as elusive as any fantasy that drives the true seeker crazily onward, heedless of challenges from man, beast or crappy bargains on E-bay. We may have that ideal tone for a moment in a room where the acoustics are just so, you've had your Geritol, and your chakras are as open as a 7-11 at 3 AM, but you can't easily find the stage set-up for all seasons. We all just think that we do. Then you have a night where, on your previously perfect rig, you can't do better than sounding like you're playing a kazoo with a head cold(Fun fact: 34% of all kazoos are currently dealing with sinusitis. Ask one.) See the following letter regarding jam sessions.
While plumbing the depths of the Chez Harpeaux seat cushions, Harpo finds a pessary of indeterminate prior ownership, which he adroitly fashions into a jaunty beanie. Noting in the vanity mirror that the ambient tension which the elastic watchcap now exerts on his visage has instantly rendered him a vision of youth, while simultaneously rendering his eyes as wide-set and widely opened as a startled monkfish, he mumbles, "I likes, I likes. Wonder if Carol Channing wears one of these?" the muse muses. A sudden snap and his eyebaslls converge with the kinetic energy of a returning bowling ball, as his dewlaps resume the configuration of an elderly and dissipated shar pei. As his eyes again approximate a distant vanishing point, so does his thinking. His eyes fall on the next letter from a needful neophyte. Torquing his ponytail in a helical pattern, he builds sufficient tension to pull those eyes back in. He focuses, first visually, then intellectually. Is something burning?
Dear Dr. Harpo,
No one calls me up to play at jam sessions. Well, sometimes, but I always show up before the host band starts playing, so I'm generally the first one on the sign-up sheet. On the rare occasion that I get up to play, I am always drowned out by the band, and more often than not, I get to only do one or two songs before I get the hook "because we have so many great players in the house tonight," but there rarely are any other harp players there besides me. What gives?
Zak "Pez" Anserine, Kenosha WI
Rubbing his nose pensively until an errant wisp of smoke curls languidly from his left nostril, the will'o'the'wisp is to morph into a djinn attired in waders and a pair of LL Bean overalls-cum-waders replete with dropseat. He brandishes a brace of crappies, looks askance, looks another askance, then mutters in a tone reminiscent of Abe Vigoda, "Wishes? Who knew from wishes? I thought the work order said deliver three fishes! Now what?" What indeed? Oh, the kid from Kenosha that can't pass the jam. Escribo ahora.
Somebody loves you, even if it's just the shopkeeper selling you all of those amps mentioned in the above letter. Please don't blame yourself as a first resort. There's plenty of time for that, later. For now, it's not you, it's them. You can still be friends...
Okay, let's eliminate some obvious reasons why you aren't being purveyed on a palanquin with vestals strewing rose petals and sweetmeats in front of your adoring procession. Don't laugh, that's my go-to entrance. Gets me noticed. You're punctual, hopefully not dating the ex of the jam-meister taking names of potential jammers, and have a brace of Tic Tacs at the ready, just in case. No obvious explanations that even your best friends would tell you. You hold your head up, put the seat down, and generally are renowned as a decent chap.
So, obvious question; is this a jam session amenable to harp players? IS it billed as a classic rock, heavy metal, jazz, bluegrass or klesmer jam? If so, as incredibly versatile as you are as a player, the clipboard-wielding musical bouncer may see you as incongruous to the genre du jour. If so, you might want to grab a craft beer and a plate of used food from the groaning board and just listen. This worst-case scenario may still turn up a player or two who would like to wax musical with you. Who doesn't like wax? The dynamic at play here has something to do with the public in general and other musicians in particular thinking that the best you could do is tweedle a few notes in "Roadhouse Blues", and they don't play no fricken Doors.
If all that you really want to play is blues of whatever stripe, you really would maximize your chances at a jam put on by, for instance, a local blues club or your local blues society. If you want to branch out, you can certainly go to a country jam if it's not too laid back and ballad-heavy, and put your mic where your mouth is. If you consider it for a bit, you might also be a welcome fit at a funk jam. That is, unless all you want to do is Sonny Boy II and Jimmy Reed tunes. You'll have a hard time adapting the band to you in any but a true blues jam; you may have to stretch your style a bit to fit what is going on around you. Like that's a bad thing, right? It's a great way to stumble across new songs and styles besides the obvious.
If you reeeeeely reeeeeely can't ever, ever, ever be heard over the band, there's a couple of creative possibilities for you to consider. If you have a rig you play through and you really should...alright, let's address that right now. If a harp player goes to a jam without their own mic and at least a small amp, the odds are astronomically stacked against you. As discussed way too extensively in the foregoing letter, the likelihood that a stray guitar amp on stage, assuming that there is even one there for you to use, probably will never really sound good. Or, you could be relegated to playing acoustically through a vocal mic. Don't screw yourself by chancing your stage sound to fate. Anyhow. You admittedly are hyper-punctual. Use that time wisely. Ask a band member or the bartender who's running the sound tonight. When you find out, go and talk to them. Typically, no one talks to the sound person until and unless something awful has happened, like sudden feedback or a guitarist shorting out on an ungrounded mic. So, go and introduce yourself, stick out your paw, and say something like," Hi, I hear you're running the show tonight. I'm ________(your name here), and I wanted to ask your advice about the possibility of playing some hrp with the band at the jam tonight." Then shut up. I will bet you a stale pack of Nabs that the soundperson brightens up considerably at the prospect of something more interesting than sound checking the drummer's kick drum for 5 minutes of hell. It sure would go a long way to either buy them a drink or slip them a fin (that's hip tak for a 5-dollar bill), and make an instant conjoined twin with them. If there is any chance at all, they will be the wind beneath your reeds.
Also, come correct, as they said in "The Wire". Pick out 3 straightforward songs that are generally known by a decent classic rock band. Know their names, the artist who is most associated with the song, the key, and the words. Hopefully you can count off the song, and describe the style of beat to the drummer, and know how and when the band joins in behind you. Wait, did I say "Know the words" for a reason? Could it be that, if you're a singing harp player, you triple your chances for getting on stage, as now you are a walking coffee break for the other singers in the band. If you don't feel that you sing well, you also felt that way about your harp playing not that long ago, and here you are conniving how to play in front of an audience. Is singing that much different?
Take it a step further. What do you call it if, say, you show up with your amp, harps, mic, all cords including an extension cord, and you sign in with your name, voice and instruments, specify keys for the band and song titles? Call i
Dear Dr. Harpo September 2017
Harpo has really opened up a can of worms this time. On the heels of a shopping spree at the Vomitorium, “Home of Used Food”, he chanced a purchase from “Refluxarama Closeouts.” The offerings, burnt and otherwise, included various noshes poetically labeled “Cuisina Occulta, AKA “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner.” The pile of unlabeled cans offered a repast not for the faint of heart or for households lacking copious drafts of hot sauce. He should have known when each can had a trial size of bicarbonate of soda taped to it, as if by an anonymous benevolent alimentary guardian angel. What portended to be only slightly botulistic antique Spaghetti-o’s can, was revealed on direct visual inspection to have a mind, body and agenda of its own.
Tacking hard to starboard, deftly jettisoning his mystery guests to a waiting but unsuspecting receptacle, and simultaneously banking off of the Northeast wind and turning his boot heels in the direction of his gustatory plan B, The Ipecac Café (“Where Good Dining Takes a Day Off!”), nestled in the ample silicon valley of the bosom of The Neutrino Casino, the only Greater Las Vegas casino not only constructed on a former test site, but also made from only home-grown radioactive components. Even in the wee hours, this joint glowed with the faint green aura usually only reserved for Indiglow Timex watches and government agency waiting rooms.
He ordered with confidence, knowing that, if not good, at least the food was consistent. “I’ll have what I had yesterday.” Nodding with a world-weary look that Harpo thought had gone out of fashion last season, le serviette walked into the walk-in, reached into the reach-in, and found the Tupperware that she had interred Harpo’s leftovers from another round of gastronomic roulette the previous day. “Here, kinda eat around that part right there. I tried it, but I didn’t like it. Too much Miracle Whip.” Harpo inspected the Tuna Surprise with a jaundiced eye, decided that he didn’t want the eye part after all, and hunkered down for a true dining adventure. He adjusted his pith helmet, cross-threading it to his furrowed brow as he remembered the cry for help with postage due that he had secreted into his safari jacket breast pocket. Moving the breast to one side, he proffered the note, filleting it open with a stray butter knife. He reads, and we can only hope…
Dear Dr. Harpo,
In your last column, you mentioned that midrange was the frequency shared by crying babies, harmonicas and Siamese cats in heat. Well, my tone on my harp, when I play it amplified, sounds kind of Siamese. I really think so. Did you mean that I need to turn down the midrange on my amp, or that I need to somehow boost the midrange and back off on bass and treble? I know that treble sucks, because every time I put even a little on my amp, it sounds like a kazoo with a head cold, and feeds back with all kinds of squealing. Do I boost the mids, or back them off? What about the bass settings? Should I use some effects? How do I get a full sound like the pros get?
- Barr “Whoop” Snively
Getting a full sound like the pros get, but covering it by waving his industrial-strength Whoopee Cushion, Harpo passes on the whole magilla. There is nearly half a magilla left, but there is a need for counsel, and you will be hearing from mine, my good man.
He dips his frilled toothpick into the Secret Sauce tureen, and scribes diatribes, to wit:
I must elaborate on my previous statements regarding tone and amplifiers. The whole midrange thing, it’s like a blessing and a curse, in that, as in the dissonant simile referenced altogether too much in this whole tonality discussion, midrange is the frequency of crying babies, cats in heat, air raid sirens and Lucy Arnaz’s voice. The response to this frequency is immediate and intuitive, and we hear it loud and clear. No one wants to be run down by a crying redheaded tomcat in an airplane, after all. Midrange good, but midrange can be bad. Like Frankenstein and fire.
So, the trick here is, how do you get that arresting and attention-getting frequency under control? How do you change the tonality (like on sound equipment, the range from low to high tones, AKA bass and treble) on a harp, particularly a potentially ear-shattering amplified harp, to a minimum of abrasiveness and to a maximum of effect.
It begins with you.
First, choose a harp that has a deep tone, such as the better quality Hohners. At a certain level, it becomes a matter of preference as to whether you like Marine Bands, Blues Harps, Golden Melody or Special 20’s. Just don’t buy student grade harmonicas, as they will always be harder to play and have a thinner sound. Also, make certain that the harps you use are tuned to A440, as are all of the above. There are numerous models that are tuned higher, a little sharp, in order to carry better over a band, but it also means that you are always a wee bit out of tune relative to the rest of the band, as most stringed instruments tune to electronic tuners that hit the A note right at 440 cycles per second. That slightly sharp tuning will sound bogus to at least some of your audience, and probably most of the people you share the stage with.
Second, practice getting the sound that you get when playing unamplified to sound both full and varied. Since the means of generatinv your tone has something to do with the position of your tongue, teeth, lips, face, harmonica and hands, every player has at least some range of tones that they can call upon at will to vary the tone that you project through the instrument. Even you, if you ‘d just stop chewing Bazooka while you practice. Give a listen to Sonny Boy Williamson II, AKA Rice Miller, for a wonderful example of how your tone can be varied from thick and deep to thin and tinny. The strange and wonderful thing about any sound, or really any stimulus to any of your senses, is that variety is the key to maximum enjoyment. If you vary your tone, you avoid ear fatigue, as you are not monotonous. Literally. You have more than one tone.
Third, when you put your Kung-Fu grip on your mic of choice, please do so in a way that no air leaks out around the harp or your hands. Easy way to test this out. Grab your mic and harp, and play it without amplification, just you, the mic and the wayward wind. Blow into the harp while you try to get as tight a seal as possible with your hands on each other, hands around the harp, hands against your face and between your fingers (if you’re bony like me). If you got it right, it will feel kind of like you are blowing up a whoopee cushion, in that the tight seal will give your breath some resistance if no air is escaping through gaps and leaks. Practice this, and feel it rather than listen. Your mouth will feel the resistance, and when you feel it, it will also sound really rich and full if you either speak or play harmonica within that space, almost muffled. That’s your maximum bass setting. Lift a finger or move away from your face a bit, and man, does the sound thin out!
As an aside to skinny-faced individuals such as your humble savant, part of the seal around the harp is the junction where your hands meet with your face. Skinny-faced people with cheekbones like Johnny Depp (a male) or the former Mrs. Peter Wolfe, Ms. Faye Dunaway (most assuredly a female) have relatively bony faces and relatively hollow cheekbones, and thus will have a harder time getting a successful airtight seal on the harp at the facial-harmoniacal junction than someone with the copious jowly well-marbled pillow-face of, for instance, hissoner Antonin Scalia, or the late, great and corpulent Chris Farley. But I digress. If your face lacks the gasket-flex of a Charlie Brown stunt double, you need to get into the habit of pressing the harp-holding hand tangle against your face so that you feel pressure on the top above your upper teeth, on the sides beyond the borders of your lips, and on the bottom below your lower teeth but above your chin. That whole piece of facial real-estate forms a roughly oval depressed area of your skinny-bony face that, once you rehearse the move a few times, forms a very comfortable but very snug air-tight seal between you and the object of your musical desires.
Next, for that 10% of you who, like your humble servant, are left-handed, a word of advice regarding your gripping. Southpaws have a natural tendency to hold the harp in their left hand and wrap their right hand around it, with the low holes on the left. Unfortunately, this decreases the size of the hollow resonance chamber that you are trying to create within your cupped hands. Try it with just your hands, no harp. First, do your harp-hold pantomime with your left hand underneath and the right on top, and gauge the distance. It’s about 1 ½ inches across, right? Now, reverse your hands so that, while you are pinching the left side of the harp between your left thumb and index finger, you have your right hand on top of the digital pig-pile, and look at the hollow between your cupped hands. It’s about 3 inches across, roughly twice as big. That creates an effect similar to playing harp in a stairwell or in a tiled restroom. Instant reverb and mucho bottom end.
Try this…cup your hands around a live microphone that is set up for speaking or singing through. Grab it like those guys who do beats with their mouths, so that it sounds like you’ve suddenly become possessed. That big, bassy and distorted sound is what you want to create in your harp mic, and you want all of that Exorcist-voice driven directly into the mic. Unfortunaltely, you have to do all of these gyrations mentioned above in order to get that sound, because you have to hold all of this harp-mic junk in your hands while trying to overload the mic. Persevere. It is well worth the effort, and a hell of a lot cheaper than dropping 500 bucks on a mic that someone guarantees will make you sound like Shaky Horton as soon as you plug it in. And don’t even start with me regarding boutique harp amps that cost more than my car. Read the fine print on that one, since, although the guy selling the amps gets a great tone through the rig he’s hawking to you, he probably would get a good sound out of most any decent mic and amp anyway. If your sound sounds like you’re playing a kazoo while you have a clothespin on your nose, do your homework first, before buying a box of empty promises in an amplifier crate.
Fourth, set your amp on no treble, no mids and full bass. That may not be where you end up, but it is a real good place to start. You can add a bit of mids, and maybe even a little treble, if you find that it is just too bottom-heavy and thick, but not too early-on. Remember, you were complaining about thin tone. While you’re at it, if you’re using a guitar amp, make sure that you have the “Bright” switch off. It engages a capacitor that makes for a more trebly (AKA brighter) guitar tone at lower volumes. If you are playing through a guitar amp, which will tend to be perky-bright sounding anyway, for the benefit of all of those Duane Eddy twangy guitar types, the last thing you need is a switch to make your playing sound more like the harmonica-testing bellows at the music store.
Fifth, try different speakers. I had always been a strong advocate for 10” speakers, but I changed to playing with either one or two 12” speakers instead, and have liked the results. It seems that if you are playing at very bass-heavy settings on the pre-amp, twelve’s will push a lot of air without pushing a lot of high frequencies, which means you can crank up and work your amp harder without deafening or alienating your audience. Even cooler, Fender has issued a new Pawn Shop line of retro-styled amps that are small, simplistic and all tubes. I currently am using one, an Excelsior, which is 13 watts through a 15” speaker. There are no tone controls, only three different inputs with pre-set EQ settings. I plug into each one in turn on each job where I use this little monster, and stick with the one shat suits the room best. Simply put, try them all and use the one that sounds best. Then, crank it up to where you get a slight whisper of feedback squeal, then back off a bit, do your best harp-cupping, and listen to that thing honk. I am now using this thing for small to medium-sized gigs, miked if necessary, maybe with a bit of echo or reverb, and it is a great workhorse. At under 300 bucks for a Fender tube amp, you should at least try one out.
While there are hard-core devotees of 6X9 speakers, 6”, 8” and a whole lot of 10” fans in the harp-playing world, you should be getting the impression that the equipment is merely an aid, not a magic potion to sounding like you want to sound. And, this is the weird part, I can try the rig of someone else, or they can try my mic and amp setup on the same settings, and the tone will be so different that it leads to the inevitable conclusion that it all depends on the player, not the gear. Kind of like the old expression, wherever you are, there you are. Trite, but true. All of those different speaker configurations in many different combinations have been used over the years by harp players of renown. I can only speak for what works for me, which may not be what you discover, but this is a starting place.
Last, I will pass along a piece of advice that I got from Richard Salwitz, AKA “Magic Dick” of the J. Geils Band and Bluestime fame. When I asked him how he got his tone, using a stock Hohner Blues Blaster and a new Fender Twin Reverb with 12’s for speakers, he asked me if I ever made recordings of my playing, so that I could hear how I really sound when I think it sounds so great. I had to admit that I didn’t, and now that I have heard myself recorded so many times that I don’t even wince much anymore, it really makes a difference. You will lose your delusions about how your playing sounds, for better or worse. You could take some small comfort, however, in this: go to E-bay, and do a search for harp mic’s. There’s a boatload of mics for sale to harp players, almost always, and some sellers will try to seal the deal with a home cooked video of them playing a mic that they are trying to sell you., promoting it as the last word in tone. Some are very good, but there is always a seller or two that sounds like he is blowing cigar smoke up Garfield’s tailpipe on his pride and joy custom mic The point is, the challenge is common to all harp players, and it is something that all musicians have to constantly try to polish up, as it fades away quickly if you don’t practice. So, practice, already! And call yourself up and record a message with you playing into the telephone, and see what you think when you play it back. Cheapest studio time in the world, especially nights and weekends. Keep on honkin’ that horn!
Feeling a faint rumbling beneath him, the Healer of Harpititis rises from his chair slightly, thinking without thinking a thoughtful thought that his subway had arrived at the track below the Casino. However, since there are no subways in Las Vegas, it had to be causally related to the quickie cuisine container contents coming due and passing below. Stubbing his Parodi as to avoid a flare-up, Harpo passes on the rest of the artistry formerly known as food, and heads for some real food at the “Lotsa Luck Buffeteria.” How could he lose? Stay tuned for details.
- Check out bass amps.
- Bossman pedal
- harp grip tight on face, no air around it, pushonto face like a gasket.
Dear Dr. Harpo
Harpo ponders the big questions: What do they call Chinese Food in China? If a restaurant has Daily Luncheon Specials, doesn’t that make them Daily Routines? How can you advertise that you have a Secret Sauce? What do they call that little bellows thing with the slidey doo-dad that tests harmonicas in music stores? How do you know that the fellow from the stockroom that always wears an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt, but is always by himself, isn’t doing unseemly things with the little bellows thing, after hours? Is there no end to this madness? Well, yeah. We have a caller on line one…
Dear Dr. Harpo,
I am finally ready to commit. I have been playing harp with bands around here for 2 years, using borrowed equipment when I sit in with a band, and taking my chances on stage at jams, playing whatever is available on stage for harp players. It has really been frustrating to have no control over what I play through, or, worse yet, to show up and have no equipment except the PA to play through. Sometimes that is OK, but mostly there is not a sound guy there to set it up so that it doesn’t feed back like a mother. I need to get an amp of my own! The problem is, what do I look for? As I said, I haven’t been playing out for too long, but I now can tell when it is me that sucks, and when the amp that I am using sucks. Can you give me some guidelines to get that authentic “honk” out of my equipment? Any help that you can offer would be appreciated, as money is tight, and I don’t want to blow a wad of dough on something that I take a guess on. Thanks for any help you can offer.
Skip Bittman, Lima, Ohio
Harpo ponders the question. The question ponders Harpo. Harpo blinks first, but the question used the little bellows thing with the sliding doo-dad on him. Harpo picks up a nuance of a bad-tooth smell, then feels suddenly stupid, and so, so alone. He is comforted by the question, who then proceeds to plump his pillows, which look kind of big in that outfit he’s wearing.
You have asked one of the most vexing questions that all harp players contend with. The only other one is, “Hey, do you eat with that mouth?”, and I bet you have a fine enough answer for that one already. One of the reasons it’s tough is that a lot of what you choose is a matter of personal taste and style. Kind of like the “I’m With Stupid” t-shirt thing. Well, style, anyway. There are, however, a few constants.
- Tube amp, not solid state. Tube amps are a topic for many future columns, but suffice it to say that tubes generally will give you a better sound than solid state.
- Speakers. There are some devotees of amall (6” or 8” speakers, either singles or multiples at a time. The premise here is that, if you have a small amp (like a Fender Champ, which has one 8” speaker), you can drive that thing like a rental car, so that it sounds all ripped up. Particularly with a small, low-watt amp, you can take the amp to the point where the power tubes are really starting to breathe hard, and will give you a real nice, warm, edgy tone. However, at the same time, the size of the speaker generally will dictate what frequencies can be pumped out of them, and there is a reason that bass players often use 18” speakers to move a lot of bottom end. So, I would suggest that you try an amp with small spakers and see if it works for you. Like any discussion, the coices that you make regarding wquipment are specific to the player, their styla and their desired tone.
Tens were usually put into amps that country guitarists used back when it was “Country and Western”, and they can be a good balance of tones for harp players. They are kind of the Goldilocks of speakers, in that they produce a tone that is not too trebly and thin (as speakers 8’ and smaller tend to do), not too bassy (as speakers 15” and larger tend to do), but just right, in the middle range, perfect for twangy guitar. Tens produce a lot of midrange, the same slice of the sound spectrum that dominates the sound produced by the voice of a crying baby, harmonicas and Siamese cats in a mood for love. Notice that the foregoing three sounds rapidly become very unpleasant with overexposure. Thin tone is a topic that will be covered in another column. Maybe two nother columns. 10” speakers have been used by players such as Big Walter Horton in his Princeton amp, and his huge, deep tone is legendary.
12” speakers will give a harp player more assurance of achieving a big, fat and rich tone, like the vintage Chicago and current West Coast players get. They are a nice pairing with a crystal mic, because a crystal can tend to have some shrill overtones. Many, many guitar amps are made with twelves, and you should have no problem finding many different amps to try out, as most any guitar amp will be hooked up to 12’s. Be advised, many if not most guitar amps are set up for
15’s were not generally a
- At least 15 watts of power, probably not more than 40 watts. Anything under 15 watts is generally best mostly for practicing, and anything over 40 watts will result in a Siamese cat circling your amp with champagne for two. Wattage is widely variable from manufacturer to another, but I tend to gauge wattage in Fender proportions. See below.
- Fenders. Rarely made a dud. Not flawless, but if you follow the foregoing, a safe bet.
- Old beats new equipment. There are books written on this topic alone, but for a first amp, you owe it to yourself to at least try out a vintage tube amp, and see what it sounds like to you. If it crackles, don’t kick it. The reverb tank will make a noise that drives Siamese tomcats wild.
Many other variables enter into your decision regarding your ultimate dream amp, such as what style you play, what sound you produce, what sound you aspire to producing, what type of band you are in, what mic you will use to play through the amp, whether or not you will be traveling, and on and on and on. Columns, columns, columns. Get out there, Skip, and start trying stuff out. Keep in touch, and send in future questions that you may have. Happy hunting! (P.S., there is no perfect amp, just the right amp for the situation at hand. Don’t obsess!)
No questions, no answers, no future columns. Send questions to “Dear Dr. Harpo”, c/o this we
Dr. Harpo column #1
When last Harpo reared his ugly head, his location was Midcoast Maine, where he worked his cover as an unassuming Chiropractor (living proof that when you assume…). That was back in 2001.
Fast forward, 2013. Where in the GPS has he gone? No advice to the diatonically challenged for 12 years, and the world is no better for the intellectual vacuum that this has created. Maybe even worse than the intellectual vacuum that Dr. Harpo created when he wrote the column. No matter, the point is moot, as there are stirrings…
Gentle reader, recall the Ballad of Dr. Harpo, the humble but anatomically correct origins of the Swami of the Tin Sandwich, who took a jolt of pure DC while working as a DC to make the lame halt and the blind go back up in the window. A blast of electrons morphed the humble articulophile into the One True Pain, the fountainhead of mostly superfluous information regarding amplified harp. His loss, arguably our gain. Maybe, maybe not. Whatever.
Apparently, he done it again. In what he will go to his grave insisting was an innocuous attempt to perform a radiographic exam on a female clam digger with a chief complaint of lumbago, there was a simultaneous perfect storm of events; as Harpo hit the kill switch, it decided to hit him back, rendering him moot. Real moot. Like King Tut, only not as much fun. Kinda like the protagonist in the classic novel, “Looking Backward.” For all intents and purposes, a hunka, hunka burnin’ jerky. It was only the fast thinking of that nameless lobsterwoman who packed the Chiro Formerly Known as Harpo in a combination of brine, Irish moss and a secret blend of herbs and spices, secreting his desiccated shell into a Playmate cooler.
Unfortunately, she had to return home to Bailey Island, having abandoned her churlish children to a favorite home-school pastime, picking out Where’s Waldo from a rasher of black pepper, but that will only occupy them for so long. So long it was, for she left the cooler-cum-Harpo in the foyer. A portentous move, that, as the landlord, Haystack Levine, sensed a disturbance and entered as she left, quickly assessing the scene in a positive light, seeing not a tragedy but an opportunity. Hastily showing the property at the first dawn of the next day, he rented the now-vacant office to a real estate agent specializing in selling acre lots of sky to unsuspecting Canadian investors from the Maritime Provinces, seeking the relatively balmy tropical climes of the North Atlantic. The net contents of the office, including the desiccated and tropically balmy doc, went to storage.
And there he remained.
Fast (well, not so fast, bucko) forward to 2013. As no payment for the storage unit was forthcoming for lo these 12 years, the contents of the storage unit were auctioned off to the highest bidder. In fact, he was so high that he put the Harpo remains in the trunk of his ’62 Rambler American station wagon. Apparently the thrill was too much for him, as he succumbed to a terminal fit of ennui, and was immediately transmuted into a pillar of the community, which if you’ve been to Maine, makes Lot’s wife look like a contortionist.
So, the Rambler is shipped West, with a promising future as a coffee table, after being compressed unceremoniously. At the Pahrump Crush-a-rama, the site of the 1969 moon landing television broadcast, as fate would have it, the jaws of fate interceded with the crusher of inevitability, causing the Rambler to pop its hood as the compression reached terminal velocity, which in turn caused the wizened husk of Harpo to pop up, undetected, and cascade into a nearby cistern of a heady mixture of rainwater, aqua regia and salsa picante. The effect on the wizened Wizard was as immediate and discernible as throwing a sponge into water. Harpo always was quite the sponge. He re-hydrates on the spot, excuses himself, and immediately resumes where he left off 12 years ago, oblivious to the intervening time. He is, after all, oblivious to most everything except that ’62 Rambler American Owner’s Manual tucked and rolled into a very inconvenient bodily fissure
The rest was history.
Harpo was not gone, only forgotten. That can change. He still had the eternally out-of fashion sport coat with two pairs of creases enrobing his frame, and that frame contained a letter, the last missive received from a harp in need (a harp indeed?).
He opens the letter, with an accompanying cascade of white powder. Unfazed by the cascade of what he knows to be only the dust of the ages and some of that stuff that he always finds in his pockets, he reads. Why should we be any different? Here we frickin’ go again…Hopefully, the technology has progressed in 12 years. Hope springs eternal, Harpo springs for the free note pads and ballpoints at casino phone booths. Oh, well.
Dear Dr. Harpo,
I love to improvise, and really think that just doing songs like the record is kind of pointless, as the person who recorded it already did it the best that it can be, so why bother? Can you offer any suggestions regarding how to improvise so that I don’t wind up playing the same old stuff over and over?
Deshaun Dupree, Savannah, GA
Still rehydrating, Harpo quaffs a gallon of Lake Mead and listens for his wrinkles to start popping out, leaving a smooth sheen of youthful vigor. That fades in about 13 seconds, leaving behind the craggy visage that stays crispy even in milk. He ponders, raising a small eddy of dust in the process. After all, Small Eddy shouldn’t have to fend for himself…
Improvising is the antithesis of classical music, in that there is nothing on the chart for you to copy. That, to me, is the joy of it. If your goal is only to play a piece as perfectly and exactly as the originator of the piece, well, you are in a tribute band. I don’t care if you wear a tux, it still will never surpass the original.
However, now that you mention it…
Improvisation is, to me at least, the soul of musical creation. If a player takes a tune, twists and turns it and makes a few interesting and unexpected mistakes and turns them into inspires variations on the theme that the music establishes, that is what elevates music to an art form. You are expressing your take on a theme established by the song, not being constrained by the song. In other words, you don’t have to play by the rules if you don’t want to.
That is, if you already know the rules.
In order to improvise, a bit of homework needs to be behind you.
Know the instrument: learn the notes on the harp. No you don’t have to memorize the notes on every harp in every position that you play in, but it is very helpful to your musical acumen to know what scale position each hole is. It’s pretty simple, when you are playing in cross (2nd) position. The blow notes are the chord of the key that is stamped on the harp, repeated all the way up. It is also the IV chord of a blues progression. The draw notes are also pretty simple. The lowest note is the 5th note of the c=scale. Holes 2 through 6 are the notes of a 9th chord, which contains a 7th chord. You know the 7th chord because it is the one that guitarists play frequently when the chord of a song changes. The 9th is 2 steps above that, and could also be called the 2nd note of the scale, but an octave higher. That’s it. That is why 2nd position works so well for blues progressions. The right notes of each chord are built right in.
Know the harmonica alphabet: Learn some theory. If you don’t understand all of the terms referenced above, get goggling and U-tubing. This stuff is material that you are already used to hearing, and you kind of half-way know it intuitively, but learn the terminology that the other players on stage are using to communicate. If you want to be thought of as a musician start thinking and acting like one. That does not mean to quit your job and sleep until 1 PM. Puhleez!
Know the tone: Ideally, you want a tone that has some bite, so that it can be heard over the rest of the band, but you also want to not gnaw on anyone’s hearing apparatus. That is the razor’s edge that harp players walk. We will have a future column about how to exorcize tonal demons through choice of equipment, hand position, settings, all of the variables. Stay tuned.
That being done, now you can begin your study of the artists that you want to emulate. If you only imitate, we are reverting to the old problem with playing off of a chart again; you want to get what you can from the master players, play the pieces that you love as closely as possible, and then go off from there. So, Imitate first.
Pick out a song from your favorite player, one that you can get kind of close on some parts. Break it down into little chunks, and learn it a bit at a time. Get so that you can play just about all of the little chunks as parts, then string them together.
Next, keep doing this with a number of other tunes by the same harp player. Get about a half-dozen by that artist.
Rinse thoroughly, and repeat. Do the same process twice more with two other players that you want to sound like. If you struggle too much and bog down, save them for later.
After this, whether you picked Sonny Boy I or II, big or Little Walter, James Cotton, Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed, you now can do songs by them.
Next comes the moment of truth, and you are at the big jam. Your favorite dive bar, The Ipecac Café, has an open mic that you want to occupy. Here is where the improviser meets the road.
What if the worst happens, and you flub up some part of the song that you wanted to play none-for-note. Well, you could stop when this happens, as if you hit a musical brick wall, and stop playing. This has the dual effect of making you feel really incompetent, and also calling your (perceived) mistake to the attention of the other band members, all of the other musicians present, and, oh yes, the entire audience. There must be an alternative way to deal with it, because the above is an avoidable humiliation-fest.
Consider that mistakes, including periods of mental absence where you can’t recall what comes next, are really opportunities to do something different. Particularly on harmonica, but with any lead instrument (that is, one that solos), there are no notes that cannot be tolerated by your ear for at least a moment, if you land on a note that sounds good right after the mistake. Try it, it really works, and it might lead you to trying something completely different that the original version of the song. Another trick is to play the mistake again a minimum of three times. Yes, I know that is counter-intuitive, but with repetition, the note does not sound sour, it only serves to build tension that you resolve when you (where have I heard this before?) land on a good-sounding note.
So, take heart. Improvisation really can be seen as the pathway to creating a new song altogether. If you get used to playing some of your improvised passages, they eventually become part of your arrangement, and can become the basis for a new composition entirely.
Harpo by now has meandered into a parking lot of a truck stop, where a benign driver offers him a lift. He puts the lift in his shoe, and climbs aboard, where he is offered safe passage to Sin City. Arriba!
Dr. Harpo Does Vegas, and Vice Versa
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