Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Harping On: Adam Gussow

  Adam Gussow is one of my greatest inspirations when it comes to playing harmonica. His playing style combines blues and funk. I also admire his willingess to teach others. Adam has over 100 free lessons up on YouTube and many longer, more in-depth lessons for any level on his own website, Modern Blue Harmonica.                                                           E-Mail:
  1. What first interested you in learning to play the harmonica?      I heard Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band playing "Whammer Jammer." That was the song--and the band--that everybody in my high school was listening to in the early to mid 70s. So I decided that I was going to surprise everybody and learn the song. Then I surprised myself and got hooked on the harmonica.   2. In your early days of learning, what techniques were the hardest to learn. Would you get frustrated and think, "I'll never get this"?
     The only instructional materials we had back then were the occasional Hal Leonard book filled with insipid campfire tunes like "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," and Tony "Little Son" Glover's book, BLUES HARP. I didn't think in terms of technique. Bending was pretty easy for me. I invented tongue blocking. Nobody showed me how to do the basics--which for me were the 45 draw and 36 blow "octaves" that Butterfield does on "Too Many Drivers." I figured that out for myself.   3. You wrote a book a while back. Do you plan on writing any more?      I've written three books, all told. I'm just starting work on a fourth. All I can say is that it's about the devil figure in blues song and blues culture.
 4. Your grip technique is an interesting one. What advantage does it have over a standard grip?
     A guy in my HS showed me this grip after I'd been playing for only a few months, and it immediately felt right to me. It has two advantages. First, it's a CENTERED grip: you're supporting the harp equally with both hands. Second, because it's centered, it makes the high notes in particular much easier to play.
  5. Your playing sounds very unique. What do you mostly attribute your sound to?      Well, obviously I studied the masters, but I'd say that the 12 years I spent working with a unique blues/soul/funkman, Sterling Magee, a.k.a., "Mr. Satan," impacted my style in a major way. He swung hard on his shuffles, he had a jazzy harmonic sense, he had some fast "Mojo" grooves. I'd say that my style is unusual because it emphasizes the following: --high notes --overblows --a powerful sense of swing --a tone, especially vibrato, that owes more to sax players like Houston Person and Hank Crawford than to harmonica players like Little Walter and Sonny Terry, although harp players were of course essential to my learning curve. I think Junior Wells is an underestimated player! His approach to blue notes was very important to me.   6. You stand firm in your preference to Hohner Marine Bands. Have you tried a great number of harps, or have you always stuck with your guns?      I've tried a few other harps over the years--Special 20s, Golden Melodies, Blues Harps. None of them felt right. I'm about to headline at a Seydel event, though, so I plan on trying a few more of those! Seriously, I love the low-note bend sound on Marine Bands. They're fairly cheap and readily available. One in Europe I had to buy a Pro Harp--in Paris--and I just didn't like it.   7. In your lessons, you've spoken about the harmonica players that inspired you to become a better player. Does it feel strange now to have others look up to you in the same way?      Well, I'm happy to have been a positive influence. I was lucky enough to have a great and gifted teacher, Nat Riddles, show me the way after I'd been busting my head for about ten years. I wanted to return the favor. In certain ways I'm as doctrinaire as the next guy; I have my own ideas about what's important on the instrument--not really technically, but philosophically. Blues is always about a constructive tension between tradition and modernity, tradition and innovation. The way it's been done by the great players of the past versus the way it MIGHT be done. I think that blues harmonica, in the present moment, is still stuck in a time warp to some extent. In particular, many players are overly beholden, in a starry-eyed way, to the African American greats of the past. This is a mistake, and it's not the best way of honoring those greats and the music they helped create. I'm not really interested, except as a teacher, in how the harmonica was played in 1958, or 1908. I'm interested in what sort of new/old sounds we can create in 2008--sounds that SOUND like 2008. My heroes, as a result, are people like Sugar Blue, Jason Ricci, Carlos del Junco, the sort of stuff Dennis Gruenling played on his first album, Jump Time, where he put a 12th position blues out there, low-harp stuff. I think overblows are important, which is why Jason and Carlos are guys to watch. Of course I'd like to feel that I added something to the mix.   8. You also spoke about two things that matter when playing slow blues. One was the ability to keep a steady beat. Is this something difficult to accomplish?      It takes a long time to be able to keep that slow steady groove. At first it tends to surge and lag.   9. The other factor you mentioned was to "feel it". How important is the emotion behind the song versus the technique used in playing it?      Technique is relatively unimportant. Sound is important. It's much more important, as far as I'm concerned, to have an original sound--one that I can recognize on the radio after a few seconds--than to execute perfectly. But of course, as Ralph Ellison, John Coltrane, and many others have pointed out, you DO have to practice for many, many hours in order to be able, in a moment of powerful feeling, to blow freely, to play great, hot, fast, feelingful stuff. My best solos were almost all played from what I'd call a "hot heart." When I'm teaching, I rarely have this, but when I'm performing, I always hope to have it. That's where the best blues are played from.   10. Anything else you'd like to say to members of HOOT? Tips, advice, etc.?      Just one thing: Please remember that it's OK to have heroes on the instrument--guys (and gals) whose music really turns you on; players whose solos and styles you spend hours copying. But also remember that if you truly want to create music on the instrument, at a certain point you have to let all that go. You have to figure out what YOUR sound is, not what your version of Paul Butterfield's sound or your version of Little Walter's sound or your version of John Popper's sound is. What's your sound? The answer should not be a list of the great harmonica players who have influenced you! That's the wrong answer. --Adam

No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave comments here:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.