Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Harping On: Pat Missin

1. What is your background in harmonica?
I wanted to be a pop star when I was in my teens. I was never much of a singer, so I tried to compensate by becoming a multi-instrumentalist. Guitar was my first instrument, then keyboards, saxophone, trumpet, various ethnic instruments, etc., but harmonica just seemed to take over. I really don't have the time to keep in practice on all of them, but somehow I can never bring myself to give them all up in favour of the harmonica.
My first harmonica was a Hohner American Ace that I bought mostly because it was a very cheap way to add another instrument to my arsenal, rather than because I really wanted to play the harmonica.

However, I recall listening to the John Peel radio show one night at 11.45 and he played Little Walter's "Quarter to Twelve" and I thought it sounded pretty cool. I remember thinking "Well, there are only ten holes on this thing - how hard can it be to learn to do that??" It turns out that it wasn't quite so easy as I first thought...

As well as the usual blues harp influences, I was also trying to make my harp sound like Junior Walker's sax, Ernie Isley's guitar, Clifton Chenier's accordion, Booker T.'s Hammond organ and so on. I later added a bunch of more eclectic influences such as Eddie Harris, Basil Kirchin, Brian Eno, Adrian Belew and the entire contents of my local library's "World Music" section.

I was also fortunate enough to get to know a bunch of musicians who didn't have too many preconceived notions of how the harmonica should sound, so they would routinely expect me to play material that most people would not immediately associate with the harmonica.
2. Your website is a wealth of information. How did you decide to get that started?
I originally started the site so I could give my customers ideas of how various tuning options actually sounded. Then people would find my site, figure out that I probably knew a thing or two about the harmonica and email me their questions. I soon noticed that certain questions were very common, so I started putting the answers up on my site to save me from having to type them over and over again. It just kind of grew from there.

When I first started with the harmonica, I was amazed at how hard it was to find useful information about it. Things are a lot better these days, but there's still a lot of misinformation about. Especially when it comes to writing about the instrument's history, it seems like most people simply repeat what they've read elsewhere else, mistakes and all. I hope my website goes some way to fixing that situation.

3. How important is maintenance and customization to you?
Very important indeed. When I was living the life of the typical penniless musician, I simply couldn't have afforded to keep buying new harps when my old ones went out of tune, so learning to tune was extremely empowering. Then as well as maintenance and repairs, I got into alternative tunings and all sorts of other modifications which enabled me to do things that are simply not possible on standard harps.
4. What is the most important modification technique one should learn?
Learning how to adjust the reeds to suit your own personal playing style is probably the most useful skill. Harmonica players are often complaining about how many harps they have to buy just to find one that really suits their style. It's much better, not to mention much cheaper, to learn the basics of reed adjustment and make them play the way you want them to. Any decent guitarist knows how to adjust the action of their instrument - a harmonica player should be able to do the same. It's probably worth pointing out that I prefer to use the term "reed adjustment", as I feel that the term "gapping" tends to lead people to focus on just the tip of the reed, rather than its full length.

A very close second to reed adjustment is tuning - it makes your harps last longer and sound better. Both reed adjustment and tuning put the

player in control of the harp, rather than the other way around.

5. What common bad habits would you have harmonica students avoid?

Playing too hard. There's only so much volume you can get out of a harmonica by simply blowing and drawing harder. It's better to learn how to project and use your hands and vocal tract to support your tone - if nothing else, your reeds will stay in tune for longer. If you still can't be heard, it's time to get a bigger amplifier, or find quieter accompanists. My main diatonics are Lee Oskars that I bought in the mid-80s that are still going strong after more than 20 years and racking up thousands of playing hours on stage and on the street.

That's partly due to the legendary longevity of Lee Oskars, but it's also got a lot to do with learning how to play without placing undue tress on the reeds.
Then there are the related faults of playing too much and not listening enough. These are common problems with many musicians, but harmonica players often seem to be some of the worst offenders. If you're playing with a band, you really need to be aware of what the others are doing and you need to make sure that what you are doing is adding to the overall performance, not detracting from it. Even if you are playing completely solo, you still need to be listening closely to yourself and your surroundings - and not just listening with "harp player's ears".

All too often I hear harmonica players allow themselves to play something badly, just because it is difficult to play it on the harmonica. Of course it's true that the harmonica presents some unique technical challenges, but every instrument has things that are easy and things that are not so easy. Out of tune is out of tune, out of time is out of time and badly phrased is badly phrased - the fact that something may be difficult on a harmonica does not excuse you from having to make everything you play sound as musical as possible.

6. What is the best advice you can give about getting better tone?

Again, listening to yourself, I mean REALLY listening to yourself is key. However, you also have to know what it is that you are trying to hear. A lot of people talk about tone, but many of them don't really seem to know what it is. Without getting too technical here, sounds have a fundamental plus various overtones. Learning to hear these overtones is the first step towards learning to control them and shape your own sound. I talk a little about this topic on my website.

I also feel that there is no such thing as "good tone" or "bad tone". It's more a case of whether a tone is appropriate or not in context. A tone which is suitable for playing a Chicago blues tune is probably not one that would be suitable for a bluegrass tune or a classical piece. Rather than trying to develop one single tone, I think it's important to be able to coax a wide range of tones from your instrument.

7. How important is it to learn proper breathing when playing harmonica?
To be honest, I'm not really sure. In my teens I did a lot of martial arts training and I later got into yoga and meditation. Perhaps this has lead me to take my breathing skills for granted, I don't know. Compared with saxophone or trumpet, harmonica playing requires very little lung power, so if you are routinely finding yourself running out of breath as you play, it's likely that you are simply pushing too much air through the instrument.

You actually design harmonicas. How much do you have to take into consideration?

I think the most important thing is to keep in mind that most harmonica players do not want to learn a new instrument. The patent archives are full of highly innovative harmonicas with wonderful possibilities that were either commercial failures, or were never even produced in the first place.

Really, I think the vast majority of harmonica players just want a better 10-hole diatonic or a better solo tuned slide chromatic. Even things like Suzuki's valved diatonics or their Overdrive harp, or Hohner's XB-40 have not made huge inroads into the market, even though blues harp players don't have to do very much relearning at all in order to get the most from these instruments.
9. Which of your own designs is your favorite?Actually, my favorite is one that completely ignores the previous point! I have no idea if this will ever be commercially available, but I have a design for a harmonica that is fully chromatic, but doesn't require a slide or buttons or anything. I can't say too much about it, but it's based around a pattern that makes for easy transposition through all keys.

Every draw note can be bent just like a blues harp and each note of the chromatic scale is available as a blow note, a draw note and a bent draw note. It does require the player to learn a new interface with the instrument, although the basics of tone production are the same as on a standard harmonica.There are a few teething troubles with the prototype, but I think it's a really cool idea, if I say so myself!

10. Any last words to members of HOOT?
Yeah - stop by my website and say hi!

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