Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How Long Have You Been Playing?

Interesting....I started looking through old e-mails and thinking about where I worked when I first started playing harmonica. I think from being so obsessive about it and pursuing so many sources of information it felt like longer than it was.
Turns out I started playing in September, 2007. That's a little over two years! Two obsessive, very focused years!
How long have you been playing? Send an email or respond on the blog!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Incredibly Useful Document

Many of you know Adam Gussow and his website, ModernBluesHarmonica.Com. He has a great forum, and many great video tutorials available. Some are free, some aren't (but well worth their price).

This document, which is in PDF form, was put together for Gussow's site by a forum member named, mr_so&so. I don't know who he is, but I do know that he has put together one of the best resources I've ever found online. The download is free. Be sure to stop by Professor Gussow's site to thank him!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Playing For Change

Just a bit of harmonica playing in this. The player is Grandpa Elliot, a well known New Orleans busker. This video is a great example of pulling your own weight in music.
Remember that before you can play well with others, you have to listen well.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Time's running out!

Time's almost up to get your tickets to see Charlie Musselwhite at the Granada Theater. get your tickets here.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Geoff Atkins did a great study a while back. It is about coverplates, and whether or not they affect the sound of a harp. Thanks, Geoff! A.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cheryl Arena at Pearl

Friday, October 30, Cheryl Arena will perform at Pearl At Commerce in Dallas. If you've never seen her perform, then here's you're chance. Don't miss a great show. If HAVE seen her perform...then you already know! The show starts at 9:30 p.m.. I encourage all HOOT members to come to the show, then read about Cheryl in next month's newsletter.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rick Estrin Worshop and Show

Rick Estrin is coming to town! He will be doing a show on October 10th, at 10:00 pm. Once again, HOOT will be hosting a workshop before the show. The cost of the workshop is $10.00. None of the workshop money goes to Pear, but they do ask that you stick around for the show afterward, the cost of which will be $12.00. Rick Estrin is a great harp player, as well as a great showman. This will be a valuale workshop you do not want to miss! You can check him out at . A.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Charlie Musslewhite Coming to Dallas...

Fellow HOOT member Lance Bruening has informed me that the legendary Charlie Musselwhite will be coming to the Granada Theater in Dallas on Sunday, Novemeber 22. This is a fantastic opportunity to see one of the greatest harp players around. If you're a harmonica enthusiast, this is one you don't want to miss. Tickets available here:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Just thought you might want to know... Ronnie Shellist is currently offering 45 minute long online classes for $10 each. They are live. you'll be able to see and hear him on video, as well as submit questions via chat. . The classes are listed on his website.The classes will range from 1st position blues, Total Beginner Class, 3rd position blues, breaking down (tabs) to various YouTube videos that he has made, Amplified Harmonica Techniques, and many, many more. . Here is a link to a calendar of ongoing classes which will be updated each month: . Classes can be purchased through the website after viewing the scheduling and deciding which classes you'd like to attend. . Visit or email for more info.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jamming at SPAH 2009

The players are LD Miller, Brendan Powers, Christelle Berthon, and Jay Gaunt. This video is from YouTube user Noams210. You can see his YouTube page at
There are other great SPAH videos there as well.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Jason Ricci Returning to Texas!

Attention fellow harp players…

If you are in Texas and didn’t get to see Jason Ricci’s amazing performance in Houston, you get another chance. Jason will be returning to Houston to play at the Royal Harmonica Rumble on Saturday, July 26. This will be another big harmonica event that will feature many players.

It’s hosted by Steve Krase ( and runs from 2:00 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Warehouse Live (

What I’m personally more excited about though, is that Jason will be playing right here in Dallas on Friday, July 25. The show will be start at 9:30 at Pearl at Commerce (

It gets even better. HOOT will be hosting a harmonica workshop/seminar before the Dallas show! The workshop will be from 6:30 to 8:30, also at Pearl (upstairs).

This is an incredible opportunity. If your in the area for either of these nights, be sure not to miss it!

Looking for old harps...

I've come a long way in learning customization and repair. I hope to someday be HOOT's technician. If you have old harps with fatigued/broken reeds or that you simply do not play, please bring them to the meeting in September (I will not be at this month's meeting and there is no meeting in August).

If you would like to donate some and do not live in the Dallas area, please contact me at and I will provide an address to send them to.

Thanks for your support!


Monday, July 6, 2009

Harping On: PT Gazel

How were you first introduced to the harmonica?

I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee and being only 90 miles from Chicago it was a regular stop on the blues circuit. On any given weekend you might see Paul Butterfield, James Cotton or Charlie Musselwhite. This of course is only a partial list of great players that I saw. Most of the traveling blues group had an outstanding harmonica player with them. There were also several very good local bands that featured harmonica players…Jim Liban with Short Stuff to mention just one. So I was exposed to the instrument a lot from early on.

Do you play in various positions? Or do you mostly stick to a few?

I play 75% of the time in second position. 5th has become my first choice for minor keys and I play in 12th when the song just lays better there. I also use 1st position to play melodies sometimes for the same reason as 12th. Some examples of 1st position songs would be things like “Take the A-Train,” “Ruby,” “There Is No Greater Love.” 12th seems to work out really well for “Yesterday,” and many other tunes. But you have to understand that with my valved harmonicas and the ability to fill in the missing notes with bending, 2nd position is really my bread and butter.

Your tone is incredible. What are you consciously doing to produce it?

I am a pucker player and always try to play very clean and precise. I think over the years I have developed my embouchure to the point where I am able to concentrate a tremendous amount of air into one hole at a time with no leakage to the surrounding notes. I also play with what I call the extended belly method. Whether I am inhaling or exhaling I try to push my stomach out which really seems to open the whole airway.

What are some good practice habits to develop?

I t seems to me that since it is so easy to make music almost immediately on harmonica that a lot of beginners ignore the basics and that leads to trouble. I like to compare learning to play harmonica to learning to play golf. Your first golf lesson would most certainly include: how to hold the club, how to align yourself, and what is a good basic posture. All of these points apply to the harmonica as well.

For me it all starts with the grip. If you can’t get to the mouthpiece to get a good seal you might as well just quit. I see so many frustrated players who are not holding the instrument in a way that allows them to play or get better. I hold the harmonica basically with the second joint of my index finger, and the ends of my second and third fingers. I then form a cup around the rest of the instrument, which allows me to get my mouth as far as I want onto the cover plates. My thumbs are out of the way and I have full access to all ten holes. In most cases about halfway onto the cover plates is about right. This is important for whatever style you play (pucker, tongue block, u-block.) The cup I form is airtight. This produces better tone and allows you to use your hands for vibrato and effects.

Playing slumped over is another really bad habit. You are cutting off the airway, how can you play? It’s OK to sit when you play, but make sure your maintain a good erect posture, the rewards are worth it.

Another thing that is almost never talked about is warming up. I try to take about 10 extremely long and slow inhales and exhales before I practice or perform. At some point we all run into some song or passage that is difficult. If your lungs are open and you are warmed up you can work on the music and not fight two things. I also will do this exercise during a practice session when I can’t execute the songs or passage to my satisfaction. More times than not this helps right away. I always try to relax when I play so that my muscles are not tight (golf again.)

Learn melodies!!!! Don’t just play riffs. Try and learn to play songs so you get familiar with where the notes are on the harmonica. This will reap benefits for your soloing.

I read that you specialize in playing half-valved diatonics. Can you explain to readers what those are, and why you favor them?

A half-valved diatonic has a valve placed over the first 6 draw reed slots and the last 4 blow reed slots. That makes 10 reeds on a 20-reed instrument, or half.

The following is based on a Richter tuned C harmonica for explanation purposes.

When we bend a note, draw or blow, on a conventional (non valved) harmonica, the note produced is the result of both reeds vibrating together to produce a tone, or a double reed bend. This explains why we can only bend certain notes on a conventional harmonica. When we bend draw hole #4 for example, we are flatting the note a half step from D to Db. Since the blow reed on hole #4 is C there is a half step interval available. Hole #3 draw is B and hole 3 blow is G so we have 3 semitones available…Bb, A, & Ab. Hole #5 draw is F and the blow note is E so there is no semitone available here and explains why we cannot bend 5 draw. Blow bends on a conventional harmonica follow the same theory. Hole #9 blow is a G note and the draw is an F so we can blow bend to the Gb.

Half-valving to obtain additional notes:

By adding a valve to the opposite reed slot we are trying to bend, we can now do single reed bends of the notes we are playing. For example, by adding a valve to the 5th hole draw reed slot, we can blow bend hole #5 to produce the Eb. Note that I said reed slot and not the reed. In the case of the blow reed slots, these would be under the top reed plate cover. In the case of the draw reed slots these would be located inside the comb between the teeth. The result is two complete chromatic scales and elements of another on both ends in cross harp position. In first position, three full chromatic scales can be produced. All extra notes, valved and non-valved, are flatted. They are referred to as valves because they function as an opening and closing device. Windsavers were designed to eliminate air leakage on harmonicas like chromatics, and to also cut down on how much wind was needed to produce a tone. However, when we blow into hole #5 that has a valve on draw reed slot #5 the valve is pushed down on the slot, sealing off the draw reed from vibrating and allowing us to do a single reed bend of the E, or blow note, to an Eb. The opposite is true for hole #8. When we draw out on hole #8 the valve on the blow reed slot closes and shuts off the E note from vibrating and allowing us to do a single reed bend of the D, or draw note, down to the Db.

The advantages:

First of all, the additional notes that become available from valving are all obtained using the same technique that we use when we do conventional draw and blow bends. I do not change my bending technique (draw or blow) to do the additional bends that the valves allow. Secondly, all 20 reeds on the instrument can now be played with more emotion and feeling since they all can be shaded for expression. And finally, I think the sound of the instrument more closely resembles a chromatic harmonica but retains the unique voice like quality that the diatonic possesses. It is important to note that none of what we could do on a diatonic prior to valving is compromised. We are only increasing the instruments versatility. I normally tell people that if they can successfully blow bend holes 9 and 10, they only need to transfer that same technique to holes 5 and 6. The valve simply allows the notes to be obtained. I would find it very difficult to play without the valves now.

Any projects coming up?

I am planning my next CD that will explore some material that I have always liked but could never seem to get around to recording. I am also trying to book some dates in Europe and planning a return to China over the next year.

Why is the harmonica your favorite instrument?

I think the harmonica is the most voice like and emotional instrument that we have. Besides, it’s like a magic trick…I mean if you’re a guitar player and hear something on record and can’t figure it out, if you go see the person who played it you can see how it was fingered and go home and practice. The harmonica on the other hand is still a mystery even if you see it played by someone. It’s just all too cool. The diatonic in particular seems to be something that humans really like because of the emotion of the bent notes.

Who are your biggest influences?

In no particular order, Nat King Cole, Bob Wills, Dan Hicks, Benny Goodman, Louie Jordan, Ben Webster, Sweets Edison, Wes Montgomery, Pops, Charlie McCoy, Don Les, Tiny Moore, Big Jim Murphy, Charlie Christian, Jethro Burns...

Any last words for HOOT?

Yes…congratulations on being the best harmonica club in the USA bar none. When I came to play for your Christmas party several years ago it was first class all the way. You folks work at making your club a success and it shows.

PT Gazell Discography:

“Pace Yourself” Bluegrass and Country with Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs

“Back To Back” A harmonica duet CD with Brendan Power

Swingin’ Easy…Hittin’ Hard” PT Gazell & the side effects

These are available at:

Video Examples can be viewed at:

Friday, June 5, 2009

Big News for Hering fans!


The general concensus and my experience in the past has been that Hering harmonicas were, as a rule, very responsive, but there was a considerable obstacle in the United States of maintaining those instruments and many were frustrated because there was no repair department in the country to send the instrument to.

Hering has realized this and has made an effort to rectify this situation by establishing a repair department in the United States to handle repairs, thus when customers purchase a Hering harmonica, they can have the confidence of knowing that there is a local entity representing the company for after-the-sale service to maintain those instruments.

That entity is me. Hering and I recently worked out an agreement where I am the company's official repair representative in the United States. I am in a position to offer that now with life changes in recent weeks, I am in a far better position to organize such an effort and get the work done in a respectable time frame. In the past, I was managing Elk River Harmonicas, plus working full time in the news media. Thanks to meager conditions in the news industry, I am now a full-time harmonica man...

Official Hering repair is one of many offerings of Elk River Harmonicas and nothing else about Elk will change in the immediate future. My relationship with Seydel is unchanged and I will continue to offer authorized Seydel repair for Elk River customers (non-Elk customers work with Seydel USA prez Rupert Oysler for those services).

I am also now an authorized Hering dealer. That means I will be selling Hering harmonicas as well and will be customizing the Hering 1923 diatonic and, at some point, Hering chromatics. Those will be on the Web site soon.

With the lack of a Hering repair department in country, there are some folks who have done Hering repair on the side. If you have somebody you are already using for Hering repair and are happy, by all means continue that relationship if that is what you wish. You can, of course, use whomever you want.

Hering is sending me the initial parts from Brazil and will build over time according to customer needs. Before harmonicas are sent to me, I want to make sure I have parts on hand for the repair to avoid any confusing delays, especially for the first few months as the finer details are worked out. I know there are many of the older Hering chromatics out there with cracked combs (my forte repair) and those customers can typically send with impunity as there is no need for specific parts to make that repair.

You can contact me at



Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bye Bye Bird

This one's a classic! 
If you have other suggestions of great videos to post, be sure to send them in to .

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

R.I.P Don Sanders

To inform all that our Don Sanders of the Hoot organization and member of the Harmonichords passed away last week and his Funeral services and viewing schedule is as follows.


Sparkman/ Crane Funeral Home at the corner of Garland Rd. and Easton in east Dallas.

Viewing : Thursday evening 6:30--8:30 pm

Funeral : Friday morning 9am--10am

Family would love to see as many as possible to attend.

Services include music by Paul Harrington, John Payne and Jerl Welch

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Harping On: Christelle Berthon

Christelle Berthon is well known for her videos on YouTube. She has quickly climbed in fame throughout the harmonica community. Born and raised in France, Christelle is one of the best known female harmonica players today.

1. How did you first start playing harmonica? It was in 1992. I wanted to entertain myself from the oboe (I was a classical musician) just to explore new territories, so I said a harmonica is cheap so why not give it a shot, at the start I was thinking it as a joke, but the future proved me the opposite.

2. Many people are surprised to find this out about you. Please tell our readers how long you’ve been playing. I've been playing for 2 and half years since 1992 till 1994-95...Then I've meet my partner, and she was not fan of blues, and I've to pay the rent (Paris is very expensive) and the life in a flat not allow to play (neighbors all around)...All these things lead me to stop playing music....I've not played a single note in 11 years, till November 2006 I was in Ireland and a lady offered me a CrossHarp in C by Hohner, because she knew that I was a former musician...So I've started again...So Yes I'm considering myself as a sort of beginner.

3. What do you think makes your playing stand out? I don't really know...Most of the comment is about my tone...Some say that I play fast but not as fast as I wish. I'm playing music without patterns or licks, just the instant moment, trying to build a melody of my own...This is why I love to do my You-Tube Videos without rehearsals.

4. You have become a very recognized harmonica player in the internet community, mostly due to YouTube. How do you feel this has affected you and your playing? Not at all...I mean it's always nice to be recognized as a good musician and everything that will happen in 2009 (SPAH 2009 has invited me, I'll play out there with Jimi Lee on the guitar) is a consequences of my YouTube videos, BUT all that has no consequences on my play or even me...

5. What kind of feedback do you receive from people? The 90% is that it's good I think....Some other people think that I'm faking my videos, or insults me and most of the time these people have NO VIDEOS to show whatsoever....

6. Is any of it ever over the top? Yes some people are saying to me that they hear my channel in the morning taking their breakfast or people saying that I make them cry, or giving them shivers... I'm so touched by that.

7. What are the advantages/disadvantages to being a female harmonica player? Not being taken seriously, and very often. Having the jealousy of male harp players....

8. In the states, the harmonica is often unnoticed and/or not considered to be a “real” instrument by many. How is harmonica playing received in France? Exactly the same as in the USA.

9. What is your favorite thing about being a harmonica player? I'm a harmonica player by accident, I'm more a musician....But being a harmonica player as well is gorgeous, I mean the feeling you've have while you eat some notes, bend, and OB. Almost like a French kiss...

10. Last words to members of HOOT? The key is inside you, not in tabs not in playing like your idol....Play as yourself, and play 2 hours a day... And you'll be the best.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Pocket Full of Soul" Festival in Houston

Hi readers! As promised, here is my review of the pocket full of sould festival.
. I arrived at around 5:45. Gary Allgretto was teaching new player how to play the "Mannish Boy" riff. Among the booths was one for the HOOT chapter of Houston! There I met Jim Early, who runs HOOT Houston.
. I wasn't there long before I spotted a very tall fellow. Although I'd never seen him in person, his hair and clothes left no room for doubt. I was lookinging at one of my heroes of harmonica, Jason Ricci. I introduced myself to Jason. We'd spoken before for an interview, and got along well. Before long he was called away for an audio check.
. A few minutes later the show opened up. First up was Guy Forsyth, whose playing I'd never heard before. He spoke about the power of the harmonica, holding it up to show how small it was. He opened by playing an old prison song (if someone remembers the name please email me), using nothing but his harmonica, voice, and a stombox. It sounded fantastic...powerfull.

He was shortly joined on stage by Gary Allegretto. Guy played guitar while Gary played the harp. They played well together, backed by New Blood.

The next performer was local great, Dave Nevling, who was backed by his band, The Blues Kats. His performance was good. He was very relaxed while playing, and gave a great show.

After he played, a projector was turned on, hitting a huge inflatable screen. "Pocket Full of Soul was about to start.

I enjoyed the movie. It seemed just about everyone was in it. John Popper spoke about the history of the harmonica. Sugar Blue had some great things to say about the harmonica being the most intimate, expressive instrument. He spoke about the connection between a player and the harp. They had a few graphics that showed the different parts of the diatonic harmonica and how they go together.

The movie also was good at illustrating the tremendous impact the harmonica has had in ou culture. I enjoyed the movie very much. This is something I'd like to show to non-harp players, as it illustrates what a harmonica is capable of.

After the screening of the film, the concert was back on. Before the show, I had never watched Survivorman, a television show hosted by Les Stroud. Les came out and played a good show.His playing was very good. He came out stomping and dancing around on the stage. He was energetic, and put on a show that got a few people dancing.

Finally, Jason Ricci came out. I had never seen him play in person before, and let me tell you...I've never seen anything like it. Jason Ricci and New Blood is the best live performance I've ever seen. Jason played some songs from his new album, "Done with the Devil". Jason's control over the harmonica is simply unbelievable. It's smooth, musical, and sounds effortless. Just as great, however, was the incredible guitar playing by Shawn Starski. If you haven't heard him play, look up New Blood on YouTube and find a few clips to watch. These two guys playing together was amazing experience.

The festival, I would say, was a great success. I've included some pictures in this article, but there are many more. The next blog entry (which will be soon) will be nothing but pictures from the event.

Thanks for reading!


Friday, April 10, 2009

Review of Pocket Full of Soul coming soon!

I attended the Pocket Full of Soul Festival in Houston. It's been a busy week, but I'll be putting up a review of the event and the movie as soon as I can.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Harping On: Chris Michalek

     How did you first become interested in playing the harmonica?

After the stories I hear about when I was a child, I think I was born to play.  At the age of two I was constantly stealing harmonicas from my babysitter - I still have them they are Hohner old standbys. I'm told my dad gave me my own harmonica when I was three or four.  I remember being 10 and trying to write my own music on the harmonica. Then I didn't play much for a few years.  

I was a senior in High School when were coming back from a Football game. We lost and one of the guys had two harmonicas. He gave me the C harp and he played the G harp...we played a bunch of garbage but that was the moment my interest in harmonicas was renewed. That night, I went home and found four of my harmonicas at the bottom of a toy basket.  I had three diatonics - A blues harp, marine band and a golden melody.  I also had Hohner 270 chromatic but the button was broken off from sitting in the bottom of a toy barrel for 6 or 7 years.

    You are known for being great at customizing harmonicas. How did you learn to do this?              

I brought my broken chromatic to the local music store thinking they would somehow be able to fix it.  That's when I saw a business card for Dick Gardner.  I called him and went out to his shop to have the 270 fixed.  He showed me a lot of things that day.  He souped up my 270 before my eyes. I went home and did what I could with my diatonics.  Dick was also my vehichle into the larger harmonica world. I went down to the Twin City Harmonica society and learned about harmonica repair from him once per week for maybe 7-8 years.  

TCHS also got me involved in SPAH where I met Joe Filisko in 1991.  We chatted about harp mods and repairs.  In 1992 he gave me some tools to use when I work on harps.  I've been modifying my own harps and a few for others since about 1991. The biggest trick is being a good player who knows how to squeeze the nuances out of every note. I set my reeds according to resonance points in the mouth, some reeds resonate differently in the mouth than others. And every reed on every key is different... it's a LONG process to get it right.

    What kinds of lessons do you offer?

I teach the harmonica.  Whatever style music the student chooses to play is up to them.  I get them going with basic music theory, we work on tone and how to get every note on the harmonica.  I also show them different approaches for practice and how I approach playing music.

     Do you also teach maintenance and repair?

I think knowing how to work on your own instrument is important. I cover the basics of repair and harp set up with all of my students.Nothing plays as well as a harp you set up for yourself but you need to know how to do that first.

    You often mention the importance of using the harmonica to imitate other instruments. Why do you feel that is important?

Music is often an imitation of nature.  Listen to the Tuvan Throat singers, all of their music and sounds are based on wind, horses, water...sounds they experience in nature.  One reason I encourage student to listen to other instrument is because harmonica players are notoriously terrible musicians. I feel copying somebody who doesn't have it together musically only perpetuates the cycle or more or less ignorant musicians. Another reason is so many players are looking for an original voice on their instrument. How is that going to happen if you're only listening to other harmonica players?  Listen to the true original artists of the harmonica, Stevie Wonder, Howard Levy, Little Walter etc... their unique sounds come from interpreting other instrument via the harmonica.

    We have a post on the blog of you playing Purple Haze and making the harp sound like an electric guitar. What other instruments would be good for players to imitate?

Anything really, my sound is based on the Violin. Trombone relates well as does the Armenian Duduk, Electric Guitar, Trumpet, Clarinet, Soprano Sax.  I also have spent time trying to play like a tabla. Rhythm is so important and in many ways more important than melody.

There are all these hand drums from around the world that play rhythmic melodies on the drums. The African talking drum for example gets it name from it use as a tribal communication medium. Tribes could actually have full conversations with other tribes by only using the drums that mimic their language.

    What bad habits would you advise a harmonica player to break? Common mistakes for new players, bad practice or playing methods, etc… 

OVER PLAYING!!!  If you don't know what to play then don't. There is nothing wrong with silence.  Players don't have to use every technique they know during every solo.  Another thing, thinking Overblows are difficult or is an advanced technique is a fallacy.  I teach my students all of the notes within the first two lessons.

When practicing scales don't always start on the root note.  Learn to play the same scale starting on any note within that scale. When you can do that then it's time to understand the greek modes of music.

It's ok to take a break.  Sometimes, I go months without playing when I get into a rut. I always come back with fresh ideas. Learn to play piano or guitar. Lastly, STOP listening to only harmonica players!  If you're going to copy a musician to learn something, it helps to listen to other things.

    What would you encourage players to work on the most?

Relax the body. Tone.  Tone to me, is much more important than chops.  You can be able to play a gazillion things but if it sounds like shit then it sounds like shit and who wants to listen to that? Phrasing... play something that makes sense, repeat it, repeat it again and then do something else, then come back to the first thing you played. 

Who are your favorite harmonica players, and why?

My main influences are Lee Oskar, Madcat Ruth and Howard Levy. My R&B, funky horn stuff comes from Lee, he is also the main inspiration for my usage of effects. Madcat showed me how it's cool to integrate different forms of music into one.  I learned it's ok to break out of classic molds and be wild and different.

Howard Levy showed me that anything is possible on the harmonica.

    Last words to members of HOOT?

Be yourself, don't compromise.  Don't quit trying because you think you can't do something. If you stop working on something, somebody else will come along and do what you wanted to do. See your goals on the highest peak possible.  You may not reach the pinnacle but I guarantee that you will have an incredible journey trying to get there … and you will never regret the effort or the beauty it brings to you.


Harmonica Hero

This is too funny. I had to share!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pocket Full of Soul Festival

It's getting closer. Be sure and make arrangements if you haven't already! Click on the image below to see a bigger version.

Hand Resonance

Here is a fantastic article I found on Pat Missin's web site. Be sure to go to his site for other great articles.

Hand resonance

As a child, you may have learned to make owl noises by blowing over your cupped hands - not surprisingly, there are several websites devoted to this pastime (see the links at the foot of this page).

Technically speaking, your cupped hands are acting as what is known as a Helmholtz resonator. You can use this effect to help give increased volume and improved tone with your harmonica, a technique most closely associated with British classical harmonicist Douglas Tate. The basic idea is to alter the size of the chamber formed by your cupped hands so that its resonant frequency matches the note you are playing, or a harmonic of that note.

The basic technique is quite easy to learn. Start off by playing a single note (6 draw on a standard C diatonic is a good starting point, or 7 draw on a chromatic in C), with your hands forming a tight cup at the back of the instrument. Slowly and gradually open your hands a little, paying very close attention to the tone produced. As you continue to open them, you should notice that at a certain point, the note suddenly becomes louder and seems to take on a much fuller tone. As you continue opening your hands, the volume will drop and the fullness of the tone will decrease.

Here is an audio example of what I just described. I am keeping my breath pressure constant for the whole exercise. You should hear the point of fullness reached about 2 1/2 seconds into the sample:


Each note on your harmonica will require a slightly different hand shape - higher notes will require your hands to be more open - but it will only take a very small adjustment of your hands for each note. Once you find the "sweet spot" for a note, you can add a lovely vibrato-like effect with just the slightest movement of your hands - literally fractions of an inch. This effect is much more subtle and in my opinion, much more musical and much less corny than the typical "hand vibrato" used by many harmonica players:


This technique can even be used effectively whilst cupping some microphones, particularly with small condenser mikes. It may take a while to be able to use it to best effect, but it is well worth investing some practice time into it. Combining this technique with Overtone control can result in some extremely powerful tones.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Harping On: Scott Albert Johnson

Scott Albert Johnson wrote an article for the HOOTer about bending a few months ago. His harp technique is strong.  His album, Umbrella Man, has quickly become a favorite of mine. I hope you all enjoy the interview.

1. When and how did you start playing the harmonica?

I sang and played bass guitar in bands during high school and college. During those years, I used to doodle with the harmonica and learned some basics like a major scale and some note bending, but that was about it. Then I stopped playing music for several years while I worked in the journalism and communications fields. In 2000, I was working for a nonprofit group and started singing a bit with a coworker.

I started playing with the harp again to have something else to do besides just singing, and I very quickly got obsessed with it.

2. What about the harp was the most difficult to learn?

Oddly, I would say that tongue blocking took me the longest to get the hang of. I say "oddly" because it is completely second nature to me now -- I switch back and forth between pucker and tongue block without really thinking about it -- but at first, it was a real challenge.

3. What harmonica do you prefer and why?

I usually end up coming back to the Hohner Special 20, because I think it's a very good harp that offers a lot of versatility for the money, and it suits my style. But there are a lot of other great harps, including a bunch of the models from Suzuki, Seydel, and Bushman. I'd like to experiment some more with those. And I do use a lot of the alternately tuned Lee Oskars. I think those are great harps, but the equal tuning of their regular diatonics sounds a little weird to me. I prefer the just intonation on the Special 20s, and they also overblow a little better.

4. Some of your playing is pretty fast. Does this come from experience, or from repetition of scales?

I guess from experience. When I first got back into playing, it wasn't so much from the perspective of trying to emulate the great classic blues players; we were doing rock and pop songs mostly, and I was playing more melodic lines. Now, later, I did really immerse myself in people like Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, and Sonny Boy Williamson. But I would say that, overall, I am more influenced by guitar and horns, and that definitely comes out in my style.  

Also, I think John Popper gets a lot of richly undeserved criticism from the "blues purist" crowd. He has a unique and, I would say, revolutionary style, he's an excellent musician and songwriter, and he definitely influenced me. Great harmonica playing is not mainly about speed, but when a player can play fast and still be musical, that's a very valuable skill and it sounds great when it's done right.

5. Any advice for playing strong blow notes?

Good posture helps a lot. Also, try to "mentally center" yourself in your chest area. Don't focus on "blowing" with your cheeks; hold that air in your chest and release it in a relaxed but smooth and steady way. Also, make sure your embouchure is good. The important thing in blowing those single notes is a smooth column of air, and a "pinched" mouth opening can lead to a lot of wasted breath. Beginners, and even intermediate players, often play "too hard". The longer play, the more you will realize (and internalize in your playing) that you don't have to play very hard to get a smooth, rich tone. Your harps will last a lot longer, too!

6. The photos for Umbrella Man were very interesting and well thought out. What is the concept behind the song, and where did the album design come from?

The song concept came while I was sitting in a cafe in Amsterdam in 2001... it was three months almost to the day before the 9/11 attacks. The "umbrella man" of the title refers to the figure in the Zapruder film of the JFK assasination, who opens his umbrella just a few moments before the firing of the fatal bullets. Some believe that this was a signal to the shooter(s) to open fire.

I intended this song to be about those people or events that cause the ground to shift under our feet.... "strange attractors" and wild cards. It's about fanaticism and obsession and cunning and temptation and daring and courage. The "Umbrella Man" could be the ones who pulled Oswald's strings, or Bin Laden, or George W. Bush... or any one of us, given the right or wrong circumstances. There's a line in the song, "I'm sending out false messages and I'm burning buildings down", that is a little disturbing now, looking back after these last seven years.

The album artwork was based on the work of the surrealist painter Rene Magritte. The art director was the very talented James Harwell, and the photography is by two award-winning local photographers, James Patterson and Susan Margaret Barrett (the latter happens to be my lovely wife and is an amazing talent).

7. When playing through the microphone, do you hold it in your hand, or is it on a stand? It sounds very natural and it seems you have some and effects going on.

Usually, when I play live, I am cupping a mic in my hand unless I am going for a purely acoustic tone. On the record, half of the songs use amplified harp and half are me playing

acoustic through a condenser mic on a stand. I do use extensive effects on some songs, particularly on "Walkabout" and "Umbrella Man" (but I use light effects on a lot of songs, mainly reverb). I use effects a lot more live.

8. Which harp players do you admire most? 

List is long... LIVING: John Popper, Howard Levy, Mickey Raphael, Carlos del Junco, my good friend Kurt Crandall, Kim Wilson, Lee Oskar, Stevie Wonder, Charlie McCoy, Bill Barrett, Hugh Feeley, Magic Dick, Charlie Musselwhite, Toots Thielemans, Richard Hunter, Jason Ricci, Billy Gibson, and my fellow Jacksonian Greg "Fingers" Taylor.

IN HARP HEAVEN: Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, Larry Adler, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells and many more. As I said, I am at least equally influenced by non-harmonica players, particularly Bruce Hornsby, Mark Knopfler, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison (who actually does blow a decent harp), all the members of the Police, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Daniel Lanois and many others.

I think of myself as a musician first and foremost, not a "harmonica player". The harmonica is just one part of that, but it's an instrument with so many possibilities.

9. What can you tell us about the new album?

We start the first sessions next Friday... I think it will have a different flavor from the last record. But it's hard to say until it's done! I think most songwriters put their own experiences into their songs, either overtly or in more subtle ways. My life has changed a lot since I recorded the first album, especially in the family area, and I am sure that will be evident.

10. Last words to members of HOOT?

Don't get bogged down in the idea that things "have" to be done a certain way. There are certain techniques that everyone should know, and players that everyone should be familiar with, but at the end of the day, set your own boundaries. Anything else leads to cliche.

Little Walter was a legend and a revolutionary, but we don't need 100 more of him; he already cornered that market. Learn from him and the other greats, but then you have to take that and make your own statement. There's a saying that is often told to aspiring actors: YOU are a thousand times more interesting than the most interesting character you could ever hope to play. Be yourself!!!!



Dave Gage has updated me on two quick things about HarmonicaLessons.Com:
  • They now have a 6 month full membership fo $29.95.
  • They now sell and ship harmonicas and accessories directly (vs. the old referral sales method). 
Take care, and happy harping!

Events: Ronnie Shellist and Gerry Hundt Workshop

On April 11th from 1pm-3pm, Gerry Hundt, from Nick Moss and The Fliptops, and Ronnie Shellist will be putting on a workshop for guitarists, harmonica players, and any lead player who would like to get insight as to how to most effectively play blues with other musicians.    
Once again, it is being held at the Boulder Outlook in the large conference room near the bar.  The cost of this event will be $20.  
Blue Ensemble Workshop
One of the most important aspects of playing blues is accompanying your fellow musicians in a way that both supports and adds to the music.  In this workshop, the architecture of Chicago blues (the mother of rock 'n' roll and numerous strains of roots music) will be broken down and presented interactively.  We'll take an in-depth look at some of the blues' most effective sidemen: Eddie Taylor, Robert Lockwood, Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter, and Little Walter.  
Guitar players, you'll learn how to creatively keep rhythm behind other guitars and harmonica, propelling the soloist or vocalist before and after your turn to shine.  Harmonica players will learn how to effectively play "underneath" and around the vocalist, as well as comping patterns.  We will also discuss how to most effectively add to the music without getting in the way.  These ideas can applied to any style of roots music.  There will be plenty of jamming, so - most importantly - come prepared to have some fun!       
Ronnie Shellist, Denver blues harmonica player and teacher and Gerry Hundt of Chicago IL will be putting on this one time workshop.  Gerry is a two time blues music award nominee for instrumentalist of the year and three time nominee for band of the year (Nick Moss and the Fliptops).  He plays guitar, bass, harmonica, keys and drums as well.
Ronnie has been teaching harmonica to players around the world and has plenty of experience as a full time musician here in Denver,CO.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Chops Workshop: First Position

- What is a position? Think of a position as being a starting point on your harmonica. By changing your starting position, you can play a single diatonic harmonica in several different keys.
- Today, we'll discuss first position.
- First position is the actual key of the harmonica. If you are holding a harmonica in the key of C, first position will be the key of C. Your root note in first position (meaning C on a C harmonica) is in 1-blow, 4-blow, and 7-blow.
- The diatonic harmonica covers three octaves. The most common octave used for first position playing is the middle octave, which starts on hole 4.
- Remember when reading tabs: 2 means hole two-blow, -2 means hole two-draw, -2* means two-draw bent a half step, -2** means two-draw bent a whole step. Practice this scale forwards and backwards.
4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7

- For the more advanced players, here is the first position scale on the bottom octave. You need to be able to bend in order to do this., but once you learn it, it can add a great new sound to some simple songs you already know.
1 -1 2 -2** -2 3** -3 4

- And here is the first position scale for the top octave.

7 -8 8 -9 9 -10 10** 10

- If you're just starting out, you might find this post a bit overwheling. Don't worry. For now, you just need to worry about the middle octave. That will cover you for quite a while.

Remember that if you are struggling with two-draw, you can substitute 3-blow. They are the same note.

- As an exercise, figure out "when the Saint Go Marching In". Now try to play it in the other two octaves!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Harping On: Ed Vadas

1. You are a very meticulous musician. What is important to you in your music?


The important thing is that I make the music for me.  So that I like it.  Of course, I want the public to enjoy it as well, but I don't like to write or perform with guessing what people will enjoy.  


As for specifics...I want to always have a unique way of saying things both lyrically and instrumentally  included in the tune.   I want my songs to always have something subtle and special, where the metaphor thrives while being natural.   Arrangements should not be like cartoon chase music, but appear to bo something that might have happenned spontaneously.


2. You know a lot about the harp. I mean a LOT. How have you learned so much about the instrument?


Well... let's say that I have an idea about harmonica.  My philosophy is to try to use the harmonica in a way that emphasizes it's strengths.   Most players or all instruments these days emphasize the solo aspect of their instrument and spend little time thinking orchestrally on how best to use their instrument to make the song and arrangement better.   Rather than having a philosophy of play that involves theme and structure, they most often fallback on chugs and call and answer cliches both.   After one gets to a certain...relatively easy accessible skill level on the harp...who is soloing makes little difference... lack of playing thematically just makes one another harp player. (or any instrument including drums...themes make music...cliches and the mundane kills music)


3. What is your harp of choice, and why?


I am a horner "marine band" man.  Probabally because I like the way it mutates tuning wise.  (until it goes just plain awful!


4. What harp techniques are the most important to learn?


Get a great warble and seven hole blow

Learn to tongue block everything chords and single notes alike.

Learn to play all single note riffs as chords and warbles and vice-versa.

Learn to sing...if only to understand, plavement and phrasing.

Learn to play diaphragm breathing, it will help your singing

Learn that the harmonica harmonizes and that what you think is only to be played over the first, second, or third four bars of a 12 bar tune, can be played interchangeable...thinking of thing like a turn around being just for a turnaround is ONLY setting a false limit on your scope of playing.

Play thematically!


5. What important aspect of harp playing do you think is often ignored?

Like I said for the previous answer to question 4.

and learning some theory so as to give the harp player more of a chance to be creative within those 10 holes.


6. Do you do very much harp maintenance?




7. Who are your favorite harmonica players?


There are plenty of good ones around these days but they pretty much learned from the early folks.

Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Boy 1 and 2, and sonny Terry should give you enough chops for this lifetime


8. What would you say is the key for successfully playing music with others?


You have to use your ears and instincts combined with your philosophy of play to really be able to play with quality players and be welcomed. (anyone can be stupid and sit in, but not for long)


9. What advice would you give to anyone currently learning to bend?


Know the note you are bending to, play it on a guitar or piano then bend to match.  Keep in mind that lower key harps  need  slight changes in breath to stay in  pitch.


10. Any last words for members of HOOT?


It is easy to lull yourself into a feeling that you are good, but remember...most harmonica players SUCK!!



Well the last answer is true enough...the harmonica is in harmony with the key it is in, so it is very easy for someone to think they are better than they are because the notes are in tune...but then, most beginners start sucking and bend good notes to the last answer is a warning more than a put down....You can fool around with fellow novices and think you are making music, but it takes a lot of understanding, study, and practice to make the toy harmonica into a viable instrument.  Unfortunately...most harmonica owners actually delude themselves into believing they can play without anything tangibel to back up their assumption....

such is the harmonica.