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.



  1. Great profile of a great player. I didn't start until I was 20, so Chris got an 18 year start.

  2. God Bless You Chris! The last paragraph says it all. RIP

  3. A people's true champion of harp.
    Chris. RIP

  4. Peace. RIP, Chris.

  5. Teach them angels to overblow their harps Chris, but stay off my cloud eh?


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