Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blues Education Pt. 4-- The Blues Harp

So, after the movie Crossroads convinced me that I should re-visit my interest in the harmonica, I went out and bought a Hohner Marine Band 10 hole diatonic version of the instrument--which is what the real men played on those vintage tunes. Of course, it was about all that was available back then and it was all that was available to me in small town Texas. They all came with a little booklet of campfire tunes which could be replicated note for note by all but the talentless, which unfortunately applied to me. One of the first steps in playing the thing was to get a single note sounding from one hole and for the life of me I could not do it. The illustrated two methods, of puckering around the hole or tongue blocking out all but one hole, just would not work. My sound was coming from two, three or four holes, producing a chord of notes instead to just the one--which pretty much was the way I played it as a kid. I really could not understand why I was having such a problem and frustration began to rear its ugly head, but I didn't want to give up. Pretty sure that my wife was hoping that I would, because what I was coaxing out of the thing was hardly musical.

Then, one night as I was fooling around, I curled my tongue slightly as I sucked on the holes and Voila! I pulled a single note out to the thing and it didn't sound too bad at all. I commenced to sucking and blowing and soon was able to play through the little pamphlet songs of Oh, Suzanna type tunes with decent command of the notes. What I needed now, was some kind of instruction to get me to where I wanted to get to--and that was playing the blues. I was hit with the same problem that I had when first began looking for blues music. There was little out there to show me the way. The internet, with all its resources, was yet to come. I found absolutely zilch in the local music shop in regards to playing the harmonica, but did find a rudimentary Mel Bay songbook for harmonica over in College Station. It contained a few more campfire songs, but it did have St. James Infirmary and Amazing Grace which were relatively bluesy. It also contained a short section explaining that I was playing in what is known as first position (or straight harp), which meant that I was playing my key of C harmonica in the key of C and in which all the songs in the book were written. Good for melodic tunes, but lacking in the ability to get down with the bluesy notes that took drawing on the harp holes much more often than blowing on them and also enabling notes to be bent to achieve the soulful tones of the blues. This method was known as second position (or cross harp) and it changed the key of the music being played on the harmonica. This was the position that I needed to figure out how to play with my curled tongue method that I was quite sure that no one else on the planet used. I tried to play along with some of my recordings and seldom was in the correct key. It was soon apparent that I would need a box of harmonicas to do what I wanted to do. I can tell that this is already getting a little wordy, but I'm just trying to set the tone--something I've been trying to master on the blues harp for over 20 years.

I didn't have a heck of a lot of albums that were harpcentric other than some of the few Muddy Waters albums with Little Walter on board and James Cotton on Vanguard. Most of Chess records vintage blues had gone out of print and when they sold out to GRT their catalog went to hell in a hand basket until MCA took control and righted that ship in the late '80s and began reissuing Muddy, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Elmore James and other Chicago blues masters. They put out a series of Chicago blues compilations on cassette that represented outstanding collections of great music. One of my favorites was their The Blues Volume 6, 50's Rarities that had Little Walter backing many of the artists and an alternate take of Juke (his ground breaking, earth shattering instrument that put him and the amplified blues harp on the map). It also contains a nice Jimmy Reed harp solo outing on John Brim's Gary Stomp. I started out with my mail order collection by acquiring Alligator Records' James Cotton releases which were super. I think I mentioned that I had gotten their Johnny Winter's Guitar Slinger. This was not only a great guitar album, but it also introduced me to a great harpman in Billy Branch who was blowing his brains out on a number of the albums cuts. So, I began to gather a few examples of those that made a living playing the harmonica. Problem was that I could replicate very little of what I was hearing.

Every time I spotted a music shop that may just have a book on harmonica instruction, I would check it out. I came across a book about Sonny Terry by Kent Cooper that was chock full of tablature of the notes of many of his songs and it came with a little piece of floppy vinyl of the recorded tune--that was neat. I promptly made a copy to cassette and tried my best to emulate what Sonny was doing. It wasn't easy, but I improved a bit and could get some kind of blues stuff happening. Shortly after that I stumbled across Tony Glover's Blues Harp Songbook, which was a follow up of his instruction book that I couldn't find anywhere. The songbook didn't include any recorded music, but gave me a great list of music to track down by Little and Big Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson I&II, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, Howlin' Wolf and pre-war cats like Jay Bird Coleman and Will Shade. It was still a frustrating trip trying to find any of these in print anywhere.

So, my enthusiasm would ebb and flow and my woodshedding would do the same and my progress suffered in the interim. I had a number of harmonicas, in the different keys needed to emulate the blues blasters and was getting better, but what became an added frustration was the fact that I would blow out one reed on a harp and that rendered it relatively useless. So, it seemed that the more I practiced, the more frequently a harp reed would blowout. I experimented with different Hohner offerings, such as the Blues Harp and the Special 20. I still managed to blow out a reed after awhile and it took years (and years) of practice to get a playing technique down that didn't stress the harp reeds as much and today I don't blow them out very often at all.

My practice interest increased after finding a copy of Jon Gindick's The Natural Blues and Country Western Harmonica (for the musically hopeless) instruction book. It was really the first book that offered instruction that could be easily understood by one such as myself. It cemented my understanding of the differences between 1st, 2nd and 3rd position playing and it gave many examples of blues riffs that I could successfully copy and it made practicing exciting. He also included a set of cassette tapes of him conducting the lessons, illustrating what the riffs actually should sound like and he did it all with a great sense of humor. This book provided a much needed epiphany or one of those Aha! moments. I followed this purchase with his Rock n' Blues Harmonica and subscribe to his Crossharp News, which was one of the first harmonica publications that I had seen. It always contained a tune complete with riffs tabbed out and had tips, guidelines and news related to the harmonica. He also added to my hit list of blues harp recordings that I needed to track down.

One of first prize recordings that I stumbled upon during this period was an LP of Little Walter's Confessin' The Blues with Italian liner notes. Chess/MCA re-released this on CD just a few years ago. This was the first collection of LW's stuff that I had been able to find. I had songs where he was represented on a compilations release or as a sideman, but not a complete collection of his as a leader. To tell you the truth, much of what I had been hearing from the early Chess records gave me the impression that poor recording techniques had been used in producing the harp tones that he and others played. This recording magnified that opinion. Actually, it took Rod Piazza's Harpburn to set me straight to this fact--that was what amplified blues harmonica playing was ALL about, achieving a tone that was in fact distorted for a purpose and on purpose. Suddenly, the horizon broaden.

I ordered all that Gindick offered over the next few months and anything thing else that I could find on the topic of playing harmonica. I also discovered the American Harmonica News Magazine and subscribed to it and soon began to write articles for it. The publisher, Al Eichler, never offered any payment because he made very little money producing what was a labor of love for him. I wrote a slew of blues music reviews about such harp players as Gary Primich, Ted Roddy, Johnny Sansone, Fingers Taylor, Sonny Boy Terry and even a Hungarian harp player until the magazine faded away (as I've posted before-I plan on finding those and resurrecting them here). I began to listen to and converse with "real, live" blues harmonica players. A new world had opened with another Aha! Anyway--'nuff for now.

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