Monday, March 22, 2010

Harping On: Dick Sjoeberg

What is your background in harmonica? I started playing harmonica at the age of 14, after having been inspired by an uncle of mine who always played harmonicas when someone had a birthday. I remember that I always wanted to sit close to him when he played so I would not miss anything! I joined the merchant marine as a mess boy at the age of 15, and from that day on I always brought a few harmonicas with me. Later on, i joined the Swedish Royal Navy for a year. During that period of time, I heard Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) from an old juke box for the first time in my life. I fell in love with him immediately, I had never heard anything like it before. That harmonica sound, his voice and pure Blues... I was never the same again after that.

After the navy period, I went back to the merchant marine, still with my harps. I remember trying hard to get the sound and the music SBW played. At that time, during the 60's there we didn't have the same resources we see today. I had to learn to play the blues the hard way, listening to SBW records over and over, and trying to understand what he did. second position was totally strange to me at that time. When I bought my first SBW record I went to a large music store in New York. I stood by the blues records trying to find SBW, the only harmonica player I knew of at that time.

This was 1969, and suddenly an older record salesman came up by my side and asked if i wanted to buy something special. " Yes please, I would like to buy a couple of records with SBW" The man stared at me for a while then he said, "Are you aware that you are in one of the largest record stores in the world? We have over 1 million records here. I can offer you anything. One doesn't have to listen to that blues s**t! I said, "But I want to by SBW records, and I want to make that decision myself!"

That was how I bought my first SBW LP record ("electronically altered" as it says at the front cover). The record was "The Real Folk Blues". When I played the record , I heard "Trust My Baby" for the first time ever. I remember that I cried because the harmonica solo and his voice were so emotional. Still today, when I listen to that song, it's special to me. Since I have spent almost 26 years in the merchant marine as crew and later on as an Marine Engineer, I have had the time to practice TONE on my harmonicas thanks to SBW, and of course others I discovered later on. I have my own blues band , Queen Josephine & the Blues Trail. We celebrate our 12th year as a blues band. We play locally, and some blues festivals as well.

What do you feel is your strength as an instructor?
I have taught students, beginners, medium, and advanced players for more than 12 years now and I have heard all kinds of questions during my lessons . . . questions I wasn't prepared to hear. That got me thinking more about how students were thinking, and the way they experienced and understood my sentences. Why he or she might ask a specific question about something that I presumed was understandable from my teaching.

That made me think of of time I spent learning with my old SBW records. It all came back to me, and suddenly I understood. I learned a completely different way of teaching and thinking. I think i have developed some kind of a trained ear after 48 years of playing, and I have my personal examples as to what a full emotional tone should sound like. I listen to how the tone is built up in microscopic detail; attacks, whether or not the lips are a little bit pinched, the breathing, how consistent the bends are, whether or not the student is keeping consistent pressure, etc. I think that's the strength i have as a teacher.

I never take anything for granted. Instead, I open my ears and listen to the problems the student experiences in the learning process.

What went into the design of your comb?
Very interesting question. After having played leaky harmonicas for decades, I was really tired of not finding any harmonica, at that time, that could fulfill my personal idea of what a "Blues tone" should sound like. I could never reach the "TONE" I searched for and had in my head. I always thought if i ever got the time, I would create harmonicas myself that could fulfill my expectations.

In 2001, doctors found that I had a tonsil cancer. I went through a horrible period in my life, with radiation treatment, operations and so on. I was lucky. I am still alive after 8 years and everything points at the cancer staying away. I am cured. But it also meant that I got into a life crisis and was not able to go back to my work as a technical manager.

My personality is such that i have always been very interested in all kinds of technical matters. When I thought my life was over, I said to myself, "I can't sit here the rest of my life doing nothing." Then I suddenly remembered the promise I had made to myself making harmonicas and combs that fulfilled my expectations. The rest is history, the years have passed on and I have spent thousand of hours in my workshop developing my customization techniques, developing my combs, and creating harmonicas that play the way I want them to play. Some of them are common some are not.

What can you tell the readers about the big project you recently finished for Richard Sleigh and Bradley Harrison?
Actually, it was not a project for them from the beginning. I had searched for a solution for creating a harmonica tuning fixture. This is due to the fact that I have tried to teach several players how to tune their harmonicas. Many of them failed on their blowing and drawing techniques.

The hardest part, when tuning a harmonica, is maintaining a low, consistent air flow throughout the process. It has to be consistent as a straight line to get the proper pitch. I knew that such a harmonica tuner was not available to average harmonica players. It existed only in the harmonica factories.

A year ago, I happened to come across a photo of such a factory tuner, and then I understood how it worked, just not in detail. I decided to try to create a tuning fixture that would be available for the public. In the factories, they are really heavy and bellow operated. Its impossible for us harmonica players to have such a thing in our living rooms!

After 13 months of development, it is finally finished and works the way it's supposed to. I knew about Richard Sleigh since long ago and when I found out that he sold customization tools. I bought a complete set from him. Later on, he e-mailed me and asked how I found out about his tools. I replied, and happened to mention my work on the Pro-Tuner.

From there, we decided to work together. Richard Sleigh is responsible for the marketing and distribution in the U.S.. Richard Sleigh and I are the only people that will sell the Pro-Tuner. It will not be available anywhere else.

What would you say is the foundation of strong tone?
To me, a strong tone is a tone that is convincing. We are all individuals, and have different shaped mouths, lungs etc. We also have different ideas of what a strong tone is. I personally think that a strong and convincing tone can be achieved by everyone if he or she learns to understand, in detail, how to use their mouth cavity, lungs, diaphragm, relaxation and the interaction between these techniques, as well as how and when to use them.

What first got you into customization?
In 1969, I opened up a harmonica for the first time because the reed was sticking every time I blew into the harp. Funny, but I still remember how careful I was, trying to understand the reed action, and how I suddenly found my tongue hanging out from the side of my mouth when trying to solve the problem! Finally I thought there must exist a position of the reed where it responds well and doesn't choke. I fixed it.

Ever since, I have been able to fix gapping problems and alignment on my own harmonicas, but the real beginning was much later, at the same time i decided to make harmonicas and combs. It was suddenly clear to me that harmonicas are as interesting as 20,000 horsepower main engines! A new technical area consisting of well known elements with which I was familiar.

It was an easy choice for me, since I found that I got the same kick thinking of the mechanical design of the harmonica, and its problems, and improvement potential, as I did from "wrestling" with huge main engines and steam boilers at sea.

Your customization techniques are very unusual. Why is this?
Hard to say. Probably due to the fact that I have a long experience and understanding of mechanical elements. I see the harmonica not only as a musical instrument, but as a "mechanical piece" consisting of a comb, coverplates, a pair of reed plates with 20 free swinging brass reeds fastened by the oldest fastening technique available . . . riveting. For example, here is I how I see the reeds and rivets.

The riveting technique is a mechanical process with given problems. If not correctly carried out, it can cause problems such as material stress, loose connections etc. Knowing these issues get me into solving the known riveting problems that may affect the free swinging reed and its action. To be aware of the single mechanical component and its strengths, weaknesses, and how it may affect the possibilities and function of the harmonica as an instrument, is my foundation for developing my customization techniques.
Tell us about your new embossing tool.
There are many embossing techniques, with so many different tools, but what they all have in common is that they all fail in one point; the ability to emboss the entire length of a reed slot with the reed mounted.

It is not possible to emboss the entire length of a reed slot, as far as I know, with the help of commonly used tools without denting the reed. I stumbled onto a solution for that problem while trying to solve a completely different issue. I am still evaluating it, but with this new tool, it is possible to emboss the entire length of a reed slot still with the reeds assembled. It's made of feather steel, and comes with a special wooden handle. As of now (December 2009), it's being manufactured and will come up in my web shop further on when the evaluation period is over, and I feel I can gladly stand behind it.

Another tool I am working on is the reed base adjusting tool, a tool with which one can, with only a couple of strokes, perfectly set up the reed base gapping without any risk of destroying the reed. This is normally a process that requires great precision.

If someone were to learn just ONE customization technique, which should it be?
Forced to name just one technique, that would be reed gap set-up. This should be done by closing the reed action to where the reed responds to a very gentle breathing pressure, no more than a normal whispering breath.

Close the gap by working at the the last 1/3 of the reed near the rivet until the reed chokes. From there open it gently up again by working at the same 1/3 near the rivet, but this time from the opposite side. This gives you full control over the opening and closing action of the reed. When the reed starts to sounds at the "whispering pressure", then its time to increase the blow/draw pressure to find out if it chokes with higher pressure. If it does, open the reed slightly until it just starts to sound at the new pressure. Repeat the process until you can apply normal pressure at the reed.

Any last words for HOOT?
I feel honored for having been asked to do this interview by Alberto Robles, who is one the students that has really listened, and also been able to adapt the material into his own playing. Thanks Alberto!
If I feel that I have contributed into the harmonica community with anything, then it has been worth all the years of work. I have been around for a long time and I enjoy seeing all the great, incredible talented harmonica players around the world that bring the harmonica to new levels all the time, as well as the customization pioneers, such as Joe Filisko and Richard Sleigh among others, who have made it possible for harmonica players to reach such levels. If it wasn't for their having shown new directions and possibilities, and forcing the harmonica companies into further developing their products, then I am convinced that we would never have seen these incredible playing techniques, and development of this "mechanical piece" that we see today.
I am not an American, but a piece of my soul belongs to the country after spending so much time in the US, from the beginning of the 60's and over the years. Having seen the great country from North to South and East to West, having experienced Bourbon Street in New Orleans, seeing Fats Domino and Ray Charles live at clubs, and getting to know so many great people, and having a lot of fun!
Having been asked making this interview brings out a special feeling in me. I'm suddenly connected again globally. It's great!
I would encourage all harmonica players to become better at working on their own instruments, from tuning to more basic customization. Learning about our instruments in detail will, in the end, lead us to continuous and sustainable improvements of the great instrument that is called the harmonica, making it possible for future generations of players to take harmonica playing into levels we've never seen.

Finally, I want to thank Alberto Robles for making this great moment possible for me. To the readers, wherever you may be, keep on learning. Look at harmonica playing as a lifelong project that brings joy and makes you feel happy. Try to develop yourself to be as good a player as you can possibly be.
—Dick Sjoeberg

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