Sunday, November 2, 2008

Harping On: Dave Gage

When someone asks me where they should start learning to play harmonica, there is a website that is always my first recommendation. Dave Gage has built an amazing database of harp instruction for players who are starting out, or intermediate players who wish to get better. It’s accessible, and easy to understand. The website also features a forum where anyone can participate. It does have a Members Only area, though, where people can post their own tunes and get personal feedback from Dave. The website can be found at


How did you first start playing harmonica?

When I was 17, I had friends that got together occasionally and jammed in one guy's living room. I wasn't much for sitting and watching, so I decided I wanted to play something and jam with them. I walked into a music store to pick an instrument and realized the only instrument I could afford was a harmonica. I didn't get serious with the harmonica until I went to college. I figured playing a musical instrument was a good excuse not to study, so I started playing a lot. The first 2 years of harmonica playing I probably averaged 6-8 hours a day. At that point in time, harmonica instruction basically didn't exist, so whenever I found someone who played, I became friends and hung out with them until I learned everything that they knew. When I got to the point where I couldn't get any more from local players, I decided to study music so I could figure out what I didn't know the old fashioned way. After about a year of serious practicing and playing, I transferred to UC Davis, CA—majored in philosophy and music, began teaching a beginners class through the UCD Extension program, and joined my first band (kind of a country-folk-pop-bluegrass band).

What first gave you the idea for

Although I've taught from very early in my playing career, I considered myself a player first. Our guitar player in the last incarnation of the "Dave Gage Band" suggested we put together a website to announce our gigs, set up an emailing list, and sell our CDs. I was intrigued by this fairly new "Internet-website" thing, so in 1997, I bought the domain (just in case this web thang actually went somewhere). I figured since I'd been teaching for about 20 years, I could throw some free harmonica instruction on at and entice some visitors to stop by and hopefully buy our CDs. The free instruction soon became the largest and the most popular part of the website. Since I had always taught "harmonica lessons", I thought a website called would make sense and would give me 2 websites to interest visitors in my playing and CDs. It took off fairly quickly. Any big changes coming up for We've just completed a substantial re-do for the Free Area of the website and we are now in the midst of re-doing the Members Area (better navigation. cleaner design, and printer-friendly pages). The text-based instruction has grown to the size of a massive coffee table instruction book, but we are now in the process of blanketing the website with audio and video. Also, since the beginners content is fairly complete, I'm planning on adding more instruction for intermediate and advanced players including more in-depth blues improv (turnarounds, triplets, using the Blues Scale, intros and outros of riffs, incorporating techniques into your playing, etc.), more country and bluegrass, more Target Notes and then Target Scales, Ha-Dah, Hey-Heys (a chugging type technique), more on using Positions, playing fast, and others. Basically, I'm far from done with the website.

So there's now a book...and I understand that there are some on the way. What can you tell us about these?

Although the content was essentially already written (i.e. taken from the website), the first book, " Presents Vol.1: Beginners Start Here", was more time consuming to complete than I had anticipated. Now that we know what we're doing (sort of), the other books should go much, much quicker. We hope to have the whole five Volume Beginner Series done this year. We not only published a standard hard copy book, but also created a downloadable e-book version as well. It's been surprising how many people have chosen the downloadable version. Both versions are about 95 pages and offer free audio examples and additional content for book buyers at our website. The first book is available at: Which harmonica players do you admire the most? All good musicians on all instruments have two things in common, good tone and good timing—this is essentially good technique and feel. For me, what separates the great players from the good ones though, is the great ones not only have the technique, tone, and timing, but are also original. Nobody sounded like them or did what they did until they came along. I have a ton of respect for innovators. It is admittedly difficult to become a good Elvis impersonator, and although they put on a good show, the real respect has to go to the original. The harmonica players I have admired because of their great musical ability and innovation include (not in any particular order): Paul Butterfield, Toots Thielemans, Norton Buffalo, Little Walter, Sonny Terry, Stevie Wonder, James Cotton, Lee Oskar, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Larry Adler, Charlie McCoy, Magic Dick, John Mayall, and Bill Barrett. I'm sure I forgot a few, but these are some of the guys I came up listening to (except for Bill Barrett who's a friend and great current player). To be honest though, I don't listen to anyone anymore except myself. I got to the point where I can play what I like to hear a harmonica player do (so I suppose I'm adding myself to the list).

What would be your best advice for getting a strong, solid tone?

Drop your jaw to expand your oral cavity, get the harmonica further into your mouth, and relax (details at

What is your favorite thing about the harmonica?

It's like asking "what's your favorite thing about sleeping?" The harmonica is so much a part of who I am, I don't really know how to answer that. I'm a harmonica player, I make my living from it, and harmonica is what I do. I suppose I could say, "it's easy to carry in your pocket", but somehow that doesn't seem to cut it. Bending is cool.

Do you do anything differently when playing a sad, somber song than when you're playing a bright, happy one?

Thinking is what you do when practicing and doing is what happens when you're playing. My technique and musical sense is so second nature, that when I play, playing just happens—I adapt to whatever I'm playing to. So yes, I do different stuff depending upon the song and feel, but I couldn't tell you what it is until I hear the song and start playing. I know that's not a very specific answer, but it's what comes to mind with your question. I can tell you that I'm a big fan of long-held notes regardless of tempo, chord changes, or feel. Dynamics are always good, but especially good on slow stuff. What are you currently practicing, playing, or working on with the harmonica? I got to the point about 10-12 years where I was satisfied with what I was doing on the diatonic harmonica in terms of tongue-switching, speed, tone, note selection, alternate tunings, and so forth. These days I mostly work on the chromatic. I've incorporated the tongue-switching on the chromatic as well as other techniques that I regularly do on a diatonic. I think I'm doing some very interesting things harmonically on the chromatic with the "Major Double 7th" scale (which is essentially a complete major scale with a flatted 7th thrown in—thus, the double sevenths). I use that scale modally and mix it in with blues scales so it doesn't get too outside (weird). For instance, for a song in the key of "C", depending upon the sound or "flavor" I want, I might use a Major Double 7th scale in "C", "F", "G", "Bb" or "Db". The cool thing about this scale is that you learn 12 different keys of it and then you can apply them in different ways over any key to create different harmonic feels. You'd probably have to hear it though for any of this to make sense.

Last words to the members of HOOT?

The secret to getting good at anything is just doing it a lot (quality instruction may save you some time, but it won't make you good). If you play a lot, you will get good. Wanting to get good won't help, you have to play. Most people find that the better they get at something the more enjoyable it is. There is some truth to that, but if you enjoy what you do while you're doing it, you will keep doing it, improve, and possibly enjoy it even more (it's a vicious circle that works to your benefit). So basically, keep playing and have fun with it.   Hear and see Dave play: Video at bottom of homepage- ===============================================================  Thanks again, Dave!

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