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.