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.
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: