Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rick Estrin Reveals!

Rick Estrin Reveals!
Secrets, Subtleties
& Tricks of the
Blues Harmonica

Rick Estrin
Coastin' Hank DVD

Way Cool Alert! Rick Estrin is by far the hippest blues harp master alive today and has arisen to a level of cool that very few have achieved, but all have aspired to reach--he is also definitely one of the best at his craft. This also is by far the hippest instructional blues harp DVD that I've ever had the pleasure of watching. Just listening to Estrin's line of jive is cool enough, but it's when he puts his harp in his mouth that real magic happens. Go to for a little teaser vid and you'll have a pretty clear idea of how it's gonna go.

Estrin tells the viewer upfront just what his intentions are in that little clip. This is not a "how to" play the harmonica. This is a "now that you think you can play", here's how to raise it up a notch. He has an absolutely "no b.s." approach to explaining what it's all about. He says what he means, then he adds, "Check this out" as he rips it out on the harp. He ain't gonna tell you how to do it, he's just going to do it and expect you to grasp what he's getting at. Someone who has been at it as long as myself understands every syllable. He may be a world away from what a beginner can comprehend, but they will benefit in the long run just listening to him. If nothing else, just listening to a great blues harp player play and share HIS philosophy of how to get to where you should be headed is super valuable.

Estrin's video is broken down into the following sections:
Hold That Groove: He explains himself here and then just starts grooving on the harp, playing examples of Little Walter, Big Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson I&II styles and how they kept a groove going. He explains the importance of throwing in those little rhythmic chords that sets up solo riffs that he is such a superb master at doing better than anyone out there.

Phrasing & Solo Strategies: He shows by example of how important phrasing is to playing a song, especially in a band context, and how to vary texture and tone with different techniques. Again, he ain't going to explain how to play octaves, flutters or double stops--he's just going to play 'em for us to show us how to incorporate variation and keep it happening.

Note for Note: I think that everyone coming up during Estrin's generation understands the importance of learning the blues classics note for note--then taking it somewhere else and developing a style of their own. I hear way too many newer gurus talk about listening to anyone but harmonica players in order to progress. They mention stuff like "Little Walter listened to horn players for his style". That may be true, but he had the blues harp down pat before he took it out for a swinging spin and developed his own groove.

Performance & Showbiz: Estrin puts the exclamation point on the importance of being a showman in this showbiz--and, man, no one can beat him at that game. He talks about looking the audience dead in the eye and have them convinced that they are about to hear the most important s$#% that they'll ever hear in their life. Got to convince them that what you just played was "some really deep s&%#!" This brings up the expletive that I've edited here that he's fond of using for emphasis. Might just make this a PG-13 flick for some that use that rating. He says during this segment that Lightnin' Hopkins was one of his models as to how to be a showman when putting a blues song across. Nothing flashy, just Po' Lightnin' and his ultra cool persona. Estrin does explain how to perform one of his tricks of the trade--the harp stuck in the mouth like a cigar and then nailing down low down, soulful blues riffs.

Outro-Back From The Alley: He wraps things up here and I don't think I've given away his many of his secrets, so I'll wrap things up with what he says is the REAL SECRET: KEEP IT IN YOUR MOUTH. Ain't it the truth? Need to also mentioned that the guitar whiz, Rusty Zinn is at his side throughout the entire video helping him get his point across.

I got my copy from They are apparently affiliated with cdbaby, which is a great site to find lots of independent stuff that can't be found elsewhere--including great blues. The problem is that the first time I searched the site, they were out of stock. The next time, they were in stock and my order was promptly delivered. I noticed while writing this post that they were out of stock again, so it is great to see that this marvelous little flick is finding an audience. Keep checking back with them until you get your hands on one. Anyway--

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thrill On The Hill

Thrill on the Hill
Johnny Nicholas
Topcat Records

I mentioned Johnny Nicholas in a couple of previous posts and how I became familiar with him through his work with Big Walter Horton and also on the Blind Pig Records Johnny Shines/Snooky Prior release.

I miss out on a lot of marvelous music, such as what Johnny is laying down here on Thrill on the Hill, due to economics more than anything else. At some point, I had to narrow my focus and purchases down to my personal preference of listening to that nasty ol' amplified blues harp stuff. Just can't buy it all. Back in the day when I reviewed CDs for the Delta Snake Blues website, I was deluged with volumes of blues releases that covered the spectrum of the genre and many times stretched the imagination in an attempt to find anything bluesy in some of them. So, for a period of time, I sort of heard it all--the good, the bad and the ugly. There were some solid gold blues gems with plenty of dogs mixed among them--but I didn't have to pay to listen to them.

So, even though I had read very positive reviews of Thrill on the Hill when it was released on Antones Records back in 1994, it didn't fit my economic criteria and I passed on it. I figured that at some point maybe I would pick it up, but like often happens it ended up out of print. I was glad to see that Guitar Johnny and Topcat Records were in collusion with each other and saw fit to re-release this 'un and add four bonus tracks while they were at it. I've already mentioned that I thanked my daughter and son-in-law for picking it up while they were dining at his Hilltop Cafe. Gettin' long winded here, so I'll get on with it.

This is just rollickin' good music played by a great group of musicians that are obviously have fun and for an audience that eggs them on to keep it doing it. It is not hard to determine that these guys are having a jam up and jelly tight good time (although, it's hard to determine just who is playing what because the information is not printed anywhere). There is a picture of Johnny and his cohorts gathered around singing a chorus or two, but that only helps those that recognize those. I do know that Asleep at the Wheel alumnus, Floyd Dixon is banging' the 88s on some of the tunes, because Nicholas calls out his name a time or two. Being the multi-instrumentalist that he is, it is probably Johnny applying his skill to the harmonica, guitar, mandolin and maybe even piano on Johnny's Deathray Boogie/Thrill on the Hill, because he calls in Dixon to lend his hand about halfway through the jumping, jiving, dive bombing instrumental. Pretty sure, also, that Stephen Bruton is bending some strings somewhere in the room, since he lent his hand in the production and appears to be a partner in rhyme with Johnny.

They do be boppin' on this original which is way down on track 15. The CD opens and closes with Robert Johnson tunes and before you think that you've heard his stuff more than enough by more than enough players, just listen to the long moanful blues harp note that Johnny opens Kind Hearted Woman with and realize that there ain't many that apply the harp to RJ's songs. He nails the King of the Delta Blues' vocal nuances on Phonograph Blues which wraps up the proceedings. He throws down some great Resonator slide on one other Johnson tune, Stones In My Pathway, just for good measure. Hanging around with Johnny Shines had to have helped influence what Nicholas gets going with these chestnuts and it didn't hurt to have Big Walter as a companion to straighten him out on the harp licks--many of them played very well from a neck hung rack. Johnny's harp finds its way into quite a number of the tunes here and he gets a great acoustic tone going on and I'd bet that he could do some real damage with a bullet mic cupped in his hands.

Most of the other cuts are good examples of how important ensemble playing is to the blues. These guys are all jumping in there contributing to the overall sound to make joyous noise together. Even though he's nicknamed Guitar Johnny, the only time that he really lets it rip is on a solo acoustic original called Thinkin' Bout Junior. The electric guitar shows its presence on the high spirited, but down hearted shuffle, Blue and Lonesome that sounds very similar to Jimmy Reed's High and Lonesome. Whoever is leading the charge on the electric string bending here (maybe Johnny, maybe not), does so with restraint and taste, but drives and guides the tune and throws down well chosen riffs when soloing. The only other time the electric stands out is during a couple of well manicured solos within a Tin Pan Alley type crooner, Tomorrow Night, which is awarded with a hearty round of applause and whoops from the crowd.

A few songs, such as that one, break away from the twelve bar groove and add a little variety to the set. There is not a heck of a lot of covers of Link Davis' material, but Johnny's harp leads the way in the Cajun flavored stomp,Let's Go To Big Houston and the acapella rendition of Son House's John The Revelator with the group providing a doo-wop, gospelish background chorus is just too cool. My Rice Ain't Got No Gravy isn't exactly blues either, but it fits the good time vibe and illustrates Johnny's penchant for penning humorous lyrics when he sings: My rice ain't got no gravy/Just about to drive me crazy/My rice ain't got no gravy/When I ain't got my baby/Things just ain't so nice/When I ain't got gravy on my rice.
Beulah Facyson's House Cleaning Blues mines similar humor laden territory along with like minded Nicholas penned numbers, Prince Charming and Mandolin Moan. The latter tune showcases Johnny Young's influence with some might fine tater bug (slang for mandolin) picking, which he does the same on Mandolin Boogie. Ironically, the one Young song that he covers is Sleeping With The Devil that has no mandolin, but as on the original, is pushed by the electric guitar and has its own twist of humor.

This stuff is just plain infectious and when I need a bit of a lift, I grab it and give it a spin (or whatever a CD does in there)and before it finishes, it definitely coaxes a grin or two out of me. That's good music. It ain't going to appease anyone's needs for nasty ol' amplified blues harp, but it sure will remind us of what we're missing. Anyway--

Friday, January 16, 2009

Once More With Feeling ('nother Silvertone mod)

I've posted up most everything that I tweaked on the 1483 Silvertone amp to make it quite a substantial blues harp amp and also how Stephen S would always find one more mod to make it sound better. One of the last tweaks that I kept putting off, because I felt the amp sounded as good as it was going to get, was to beef up the first stage power supply filter capacitor--I had raised its value from 16mfd to 20mfd when I originally replaced the filter caps, but he was suggesting doubling that. He had recommended the same mod for my Kalamazoo Model One and I put it off for the same reason--it sounded darned fine as it was. But, as I related in an earlier post, I did jump into the Kalamazoo and it fattened it up and beefed up the bottom end and made a great harp amp better. So, I tackled the 1483 the first part of this week.

I replaced the Sprague 20mfd cap with a 47mfd/500v F&T capacitor (that's the large black cap pictured towards the left in the chassis picture) , which is substantially smaller than the Spragues. I put the amp through its paces and it is certainly more floor thumping and has lost no articulation with the added whomp. Like with the 'Zoo, I don't know why I put off doing this. It took me all of 15 minutes and is completely reversible (which won't be happening).

I know that after the Kalamazoo mod, I had read on one of the harp bulletin boards, from a respected amp tech, that he doesn't do the mod on the Kalamazoos that he refurbishes because it changes the character of the amp. Well, these are amps designed for guitar (in the case of the 1483, Sears sold it as a bass amp), so we harp players are trying to change the characteristics of these amps--aren't we?. To each his own, but no one has to ask, "Where's the beef?" with these two amps--and the smaller of the two needed it most. Stephen is dickering around with a '58 Gibsonette to see what beef he can coax from it right now. I'm interested in hearing how that turns out.

For those that are curious. I've played around with oodles of preamp tube swaps in the 1483 to get the right tones happening with the least feedback problems. The combination that I'm liking at the moment is a GE NOS 12au7 with a Tung Sol Reissue 12ax7. I really do like what I'm hearing with this combination and I really like the Tung Sol. In the past, a 12au7 with any combination was just lifeless and a 12ax7 in any combination fed the feedback monster, but the Tung Sol is so robust that the 12au7 can't kill its tone and compliments it nicely. I tried an EH 12ay7 with the Tung Sol, but things were a little too touchy with that pair. Now, if there was just a stage around here to place the 1483/4x10 cab upon, I could see if it passes a real world test. Anyway--

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ian Collard & Lester Butler

Thought I would try my hand at embedding a youtube blues clip into a post here as an experiment and at the suggestion of Brad Knapp to try it. Maybe I'll stick something up every now and then that really peaks my interest, but I don't plan to go overboard with it. I've gotten about as hi-tech as I plan to get on the blog--but a vid every now and then won't hurt. I do figure that anyone reading along on their computer can pull up youtube and search for anyone that I've mentioned during the past 8 months or so.

What prompted Brad's suggestion was a youtube clip that I sent him of Paul 'The Kid' Size playing with Lester Butler's Red Devils at a European festival. It is a good example of his guitar skills. I'm not going to embed that one here, but I am going to share a link that better represents Lester Butler's blues harp when the band was The Blue Shadows and before they signed a recording contract with Rick Rubin and Def American records and that Stephen S turned me onto. Now, you might know that the clip can't be embedded because Checker 764 reserves the right to not allow that. So, I'll pass along the Blue Shadows link. Warning: you might get lost off into some Lester Butler for awhile. The Red Devils were the darlings of the Hollywood set. Particularly promote by the likes of Bruce Willis and Mick Jagger. Some of you might have a bootlegged copy of Mick Jagger's first solo album that was great low down blues backed by the Red Devils, but was never officially released. These guys were on their way when Butler overdosed at age 38.

I am going stick some Collard Greens and Gravy up in here for those that are not familiar with Ian Collard's playing and his band. This is a great example of what the band does when covering the legends such as Howling Wolf and is a good example of what Ian gets going with amplified harp.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Red Raider Blues

The son, John, and I had an unexpected treat laid at our feet during the holidays. My daughter, Megan, called to ask if we wanted to come up to Dallas to watch the Texas Tech Red Raiders take on the Ole Miss Rebels at the Cotton Bowl on January 2nd. Jumping in the pickup and travelling 3 1/2 hours wasn't something that I was planning on doing the first rattle out of the new year's box, but free tickets to a Cotton Bowl was just too good to pass up and the fact that it was the last Cotton Bowl game to ever be played at Cotton Bowl stadium made it a "must do". Also, I like Megan's father-in-law, Wes Knapp, and enjoy his company and haven't seen him in awhile and I knew that as a Tech season ticket holder that he would have some kind of good seats.

We ventured up on New Year's day and met up with Wes and his father-in-law, Wes Masters, at Brad and Megan's. He related the tale of his trip from Amarillo, pulling a trailer with a friend's 1974 Chevy Suburban, which he said was the ultimate Tech Cruiser tailgater special. He said that the Red and Black machine drew quite a few stares along the route, including a few thumbs down from a car load of Aggies.

Now, John and I are far from die hard Texas Tech fans, but we decided that when in Rome, do as the Raiders do and we trekked over to where the Alumni faithful were partying and selling Red and Black stuff for us to buy. Of course, we have been tagged as traitors by my Aggie daughter, Erica. If her and her husband, Danny, had been invited, I know that they would have worn maroon, regardless who was playing. Of course, I've been an Aggie fan since I was a young pup, but I'll root for any Texas team against any out of state team. That's not necessarily true with a lot of Aggies.

We rolled into the Cotton Bowl parking lot around 9:30 and found the Techmobile that was everything Wes had said it was. Painted in Red Raider red and black, this model Suburban sported only three doors (no door behind the driver's side). The owner, Walter Riggs (who's fraternity supplied the groceries) said that those Suburbans were designed to serve small West Texas schools as school buses. The Tech Cruiser sported a Bud Light beer tap handle coming out of one side with a keg-o-lator tapped into a keg of Bud Light. He kept a remote in his pocket that would sound out the Tech fight song from the horn and he click it freqently as folks walked by and it was amazing how many stopped to have their pictures taken--as I did (some may notice an incognito Aggies gig 'em thumb in my pose).

Daughter and Son Flank Dad At The Tech Cruiser Provided By Walter Riggs

Well, as I said before--this was much more than just another Cotton Bowl outing. The 73rd Bowl game was the last one ever, with the largest crowd ever at close to 90,000 fans that were pretty much evenly divided in the stadium. The Ole Miss fans were pretty impressive in their co-ordinated cheers. The view from the 7th row behind the Red Raider's bench was outstanding and it was a Great football game. Even though the Raiders came out on the short end of the 47-34 contest, Wes and Wes, who are both Tech alumni, conceded that the Rebels just whipped Raider butt. As Wes Knapp said, when you are a realistic Raider fan, you await the inevitable let down. I know quite a few good Aggies that would accept an 11-2 season or a decent bowl game. Thanks, Wes. John and I will always remember the Last Cotton Bowl.

This post is not completely devoid of blues music because Brad & Megan gave me a copy of Johnny Nicholas' Thrill On The Hill, that they had pick up at his Hill Top Cafe that I mentioned in the previous post. I've been listening to it as I write this post and it is a fantastic example of good Ol' Texas Jukejoint blues. I'll come back with a few impressions of that one, soon. Anyway--