You are quite the showman! You have fun introductions to songs, and have gags such as playing the harp while it stick out of your mouth like a cigar. What is it that makes you go that extra mile for the audience?
I'm from the old school. I believe that when people come out of the house and pay money to be entertained, they deserve to be entertained! Plus, with no skills and no education, I gotta do whatever I can to stay out of the labor pool!
You have an an instructional video out there, Rick Estrin – Rick Estrin Reveals! Secrets, Subtleties & Tricks of the Blues Harmonica. How did the idea to create this first come about? I started out with no idea about the content. First, I only had the idea for the title. Next, I thought of the scene with the homeless guy squeaking on the harp in the alley. Then, I thought I should put some good-looking chicks in it, along with a great big plus-size woman and a cute little midget woman. And then I thought, "What can I teach somebody?"
So I started writing down my opinions about some of the specific things that I believe can make blues harmonica effective, and I realized I had some very important things to communicate. And, they were things that had never been previously addressed in any instructional material that I know of.
What do you feel makes this video stand out from the rest?
One principal difference is that there's not one bit of information in my DVD about how to physically operate the harp!
There's plenty of instructional material covering all that...David Barrett, Jerry Portnoy, Dennis Gruenling...their stuff is available and excellent.
The things I address in the DVD are concept, timing, groove, phrasing, contrast...all the things that can help someone to play more effectively. It ain't about licks. It's about feel!
In your eyes (or ears), what makes a good harp player? The stuff I just mentioned: concept, groove, feeling and tone.
What is your harmonica of choice, and why? I've always played Marine Bands. The last several years I've played custom harps by Joe Filisko, and before that by Richard Sleigh...Those guys really have me spoiled! I also play the Hohner 270 Super Chromonica, and the 64 chromatic.
I get those worked on by Steve Malerbi. Dick Gardner used to work on my chromatics but he's always so backed up I started sending stuff to Steve. He actually learned some from Dick and he does great work. I have a vintage 64 that he reconditioned and it's so good, I can't even tell you...I start playing it and I have to watch myself because time ceases to exist...for me...not for the audience...
Do you only like to play blues, or do you enjoy other styles as well? As a player, I'm strictly a bluesman. I listen to several kinds of music, Soul, Gospel, Honky Tonk Country, Sinatra-type Great American Songbook stuff...all kinds. I have messed around trying to play some jazzy type stuff on the chromatic, and even recorded a couple things like that, but really, I feel like I've still got plenty to learn within the blues. I'm still hearing new nuances in the playing of the great blues harp originators and trying to incorporate these things into my own playing.
What is the key to improvising on the harmonica without being repetetive? Feel. Feel and an understanding of some of the mechanics that go into making the blues effective.
Believe it or not, repetition is one of the most important aspects of playing blues harmonica.
It's about repetition and repetition with small variations, and then, departure from that repetition...surprise!
It's like telling a story. You don't want to be boring...you've got use dynamics and imagination to your advantage.
How did you first start playing the harmonica?My mom gave me one...I think I asked her to get me one, but then an older guy down the street, a guy who had a band gave me another one and told me I ought to learn to play it. I was about 15 and my father had just died. I needed to latch on to something and the harp was it.
There are many things that different players focus on, such as tone, accuracy, speed, etc.
What would you say is most important to learn? I can only talk about blues harmonica playing. For playing blues the most important things are groove, timing, tone and an understanding of what it is that can make the blues be either moving and exciting, or boring and pedestrian. It ain't about licks, I can tell you that for sure. I almost had a chapter in the DVD called "F#*k A Lick".
That's one of my very favorite quotes from a late, great friend of mine named Sonny Lane. He was a blues guitar player who was born in the delta and lived in Oakland CA. As I get older and more experienced as a player, I understand more and more what he meant. It really is not about licks! Listen to Rice Miller, Cotton, Wolf, Sonny Boy, Big Walter, Junior Wells, Junior Parker...not a lot of licks. Really the only guy who had a lot of licks was Little Walter, but it was still his ability to convey deep emotion with his playing that made him so effective.
Any last words for HOOT?
Listen to the great traditional players. Study the old recordings. Listen very closely...there's a whole world to be discovered. When you're not listening...play!
What is your background in harmonica?
I bought my first one when I was about 9 years old, in the 1950s, from a toy store, and learned the songs on the little piece of paper. After that I always had one with me, and eventually I discovered Blues, Folk Music, cross harp etc. and taught myself. Later I developed a group teaching method, trained myself to read music with chromatic, and took (long distance) lessons from Robert Bonfiglio and Stan Harper. Eventually I returned to total focus on the diatonic.
What first got you to start tinkering around with harps?
Early on I began to take them apart when reeds would stick etc.Then when i was in college in the 1960s a guy upstairs knew how to tune chromatics with solder, and some other exotic things, and I learned some stuff from him. Later, when I got serious about the chromatic, it became necessary to really learn how to replace reeds etc. just to keep them going. Later when I re-focused on the diatonic I began to do things to make advanced techniques like overbending more possible.
You have some home-made tools in your kit. How did you make some of those?
I just used crude methods with a hacksaw on piece of old reedplate, and then finished them with files and sandpaper etc.
Why is it necessary for players to learn some customization tehniques?
I think it helps everyone's playing to be able to adjust the harmonica to their individual lips/breath/air column/attack etc. For advanced techniques like overbending it is almost essential to make some adjustments to the harp. Even just understanding HOW the harmonica works, what reeds are doing etc. seems to help anyone play better.
What gave you the idea to make your video?
I was answering questions, and getting a lot of requests for visits etc. and I thought there has to be an efficient way to transmit this information, rather than hours of one-on-one, and some way that people could take the information with them to refer to as they went through the inevitable learning process of mistakes/practice etc. I really wanted to share this with other people because I thought it would improve their individual playing, and also raise the whole level of playing possible on the harmonica.
Can you give us any details about the production of the video?
I wanted it to be more than just a home video, because i felt that it would be something that people would keep referring back to through many years (and that has turned out to be true) , and I wanted it to be entertaining, since the subject matter is pretty inherently boring. A local production company helped to put it together.
Are there any techniques that you've learned since the video was made that you prefer over the ones you demonstrated?
The videos really show a lot of different experiments, and are meant to hopefully get people experimenting on their own to find out what they like and what they will use. I still do a lot of those things, and also have experimented with chamfering the edges of reeds, as described by Rick Epping on Harp-L. I've made some little additional tools too, like a little wooden piece that holds the base of the reed down, since my finger would wear out when doing many reedplates.
Which customization technique was the hardest to learn, and why?
I think the hardest thing is probably just the patience to do anything to a whole harp. Because once you've refined one reed/slot combo, now you've got to go on and do that to 19 more...and many times redo and redo and redo....
What playing advice would you give to new harp players?
I would say to have fun, and continue to revisit whatever sources/sounds inspired you to take this up in the first place, and to continue to delve deeper and really listen and realize the incredible depth that is available in this tiny instrument. And be as earnest and serious as you can (within your enjoyment) to reveal some of that depth in your playing.....
Any last words for HOOT?
Congratulations on being there! Organizations that help promote the harmonica, and provide ways for interested players to interact and share and learn are a terrific benefit to everyone. And thank you for your interest in my work.
This Saturday, July 17th, 7:30pm-9:30pm (duo with Hash Brown)
Alligator Cafe (great Cajun food in East Dallas and no cover!)
4416 Live Oak Street
Dallas, TX 75204-6719
Plus, don't forget that I get to bring my whole band up to Big D about once a year!
Friday, AUGUST 27th, 9:30pm-1:30am
5 PIECE BAND! with Milton Hopkins on guitar (9 years with BB King!) and Christian Dozzler (from Vienna, Austria) on PIANO!!
PEARL AT COMMERCE
2038 Commerce Street
Dallas, TX 75201-4425
Thank you so much for supporting live music and I hope to have you with us,
Playing too much and stepping on everyone's toes? Well, even if you are you might not know it. Here are some easy to remember rules you can follow when playing with others:
1.) Never play over the vocals. It's always best to lay back and not play at all in my opinion. Sometimes a tasteful very quiet melody or long note is OK. In general, playing nothing while somebody is singing is my preference.
2.) It's also important to lay back significantly during other solos. Quiet and simple rhythm comps on the 123 draw chord are fine. I hear many players honking away at the same time as another solo is going on and it really detracts from the music. So, keep it simple and play softly if you do play outside of your solo.
3.) Less is more. If you start a solo off with everything ya got, where can you go from there? Exactly, nowhere. So, start simple and hold some long notes and play some tonal based sounds or rhythm lick to get into the groove. Take your time and enjoy the journey of your solo. Most players move around too much in my opinion, always trying to say something. Let the music play YOU. Don't try to play IT.
What's new at www.Harmonica123.com?
lessons, packages, and harmonicas!
Yes, www.Harmonica123.com has been refreshed. From the home page, to the lessons and more! I have added the "Complete Package" for those of you who are looking to pick up every single lesson, jam track (50 tracks in all on the site), and my blues CD "Chicago Sessions". If you purchase the Complete Package, mention this newsletter and you will receive a complimentary 30 min lesson with Ronnie. Simply email him at RonnieShellist@gmail.com to set up the lesson after your purchase. Want to purchase this package right now? Click here.
I have also added the "Ultimate Blues Jam Tracks" package to the website as well. This is a must buy for anybody who is working on their chops. The level of talent and quality of the tracks is superb on these full band electric backing downloads. There are 3 CD downloads in all: 30 tracks. This package can be found by clicking here and heading to the Jam Tracks Tab. If you're looking for more blues licks, the "Song Ending Blues Licks" lesson is a perfect download now available on the site. This lesson can be found by clicking here and heading to the Intermediate Tab.
Lastly, there is also now a Harmonica tab where very soon you will be able to purchase harmonicas. I plan on creating a one stop shop for every harmonica player out there. Please stop by and check it out: www.Harmonica123.com
Tongue Blocking vs Puckering
what's your approach?
First let me say this: I learned to play single notes by puckering, you know making the big kiss shape with your lips to create a pin hole in order to play just one note at a time. So, it wasn't until I was year and half into my playing that I really started messing with tongue blocking single notes. Here's the thing. If you're not putting your tongue on the harmonica at all, then you're really missing out.
Certain techniques,as you may already know, require that you do so: octaves, tongue flutters, tongue warbles etc. So, what about single notes? Well, there is a different tone and attack when playing single notes with tongue blocking. For example, I just love playing tongue slaps which requires tongue blocking. A tongue slap is when you play a chord just before or as you slap your tongue on the harmonica to play one note. It gives a very nice percussive effect to your playing.
For me it's a split deal. I play all of my bends with the pucker method. Aside from that, I tongue block and pucker about 50/50 mixing mid riff from a block to a pucker. So, I guess the message here is: Don't avoid tongue blocking all together! It truly is crucial for blues harmonica and other styles of music as well. To learn more about tongue blocking, book a SKYPE lesson with Ronnie by emailing him at RonnieShellist@gmail.com.
I have awesome things on the horizon coming your way soon. My 3 "Bite-Sized Instructional Videos": Amplified Harmonica, Mastering Nuances, and Putting It All Together will be released by the end of the month. To be notified when these videos are released, simply email me at RonnieShellist@gmail.com and put "Bite-Sized" in the subject line. Thanks for tuning in!