I was in grade 9 and a friend of mine played guitar and harmonica on a rack. The sound of him bending a note was what got me hooked and I picked one up shortly after that. I think the first harmonica riffs I tried to play were from the first Supertramp record... Can’t remember the name of the song, but it had these long waling notes in the intro of the song. Once I figured out how to bend notes I quickly started to try to imitate what I heard on records. My mother had an old half inch reel to reel tape recorder that had a half speed on it. When you slow the music to half speed on the tape machine, it would be, well, half the speed, and an octave lower.
It was the only way I could try to figure out the nuances and subtleties of what these harp players were up to. Of course now this is so much easier with computer software where you can slow the music down to half speed without dropping the pitch. I think the first blues solos I tried to figure out war from the very first Paul Butterfield record – still my favorite Paul Butterfield record to date.
In the beginning, what I couldn’t figure out, I would then take some lessons with a few local players in Toronto. After about 10 years I started teaching myself basic music theory but never had the patience to really learn how to read music and to this day, although I understand chord charts, I am really a ‘play by ear’ player. After 15 years of playing, I met Howard Levy which completely turned my head around regarding the ability to play fully chromatically on the 10 hole blues harp. He also opened my ears up to a jazzier way of playing, with plenty of jazz theory thrown in. At this time I started practicing scales in all 12 keys and learning some basic II-V-I changes over jazz chord progressions.
All the while, I still loved blues and realized I never wanted to lose sight of this in my playing. So I have always been keenly aware of trying to marry a hard edge and gutbucket sound of blues harmonica playing with the sweeter and jazzier sound of saxophone players like Stan Getz or Paul Desmond – who are both very melodic players. There is also a certain tonal quality that both Paul and Stan have that I like to think I can emulate on the harmonica.
To this day I get into all sorts of trouble, because I haven’t released a CD that is really consistent ina specific musical style. They generally tend to be 50% bluesy and 50%... other stuff, that might delve into jazz, roots pop sensibilities, ska, Latin or even world music.
What harps do you favor, and why?
I am keenly awaiting arrival of a B-Radial harmonica from Harrison Harmonicas to try...Presently I use old stock Hohner Golden Melodies. To my ears, the tone of the harmonica is already so bright that I never really liked Marine Bands which tends to be the blues purist harmonica of choice- Golden Melodies are definitely darker in timbre. I also like the way they feel in my hand. The reason for only using old stock harmonicas is that about 10 years ago Hohner changed the metal alloy that they used in the reeds. And this may be a very subjective thing, but to my ears the older ZA5 reeds sound warmer – more woody as opposed to metallic... If that makes any sense...
Your name comes up often in harp-l, and other message boards, usually given as an example of the best way to do whatever technique is being discussed. What do you emphasize in your playing that makes it so memorable?
Geez, you should be asking that question to my fans... What, in my opinion, makes my harmonica playing so memorable...? Well, I have been told that my sound is quite distinguishable from other harmonica players. I am a combination pucker and tongue blocker, but primarily a pucker player that uses tongue blocking for emphasis and effect. Swing, phrasing, tone, vibrato, musicality are what make my playing unique (or any other player for that matter)...ask my fans...maybe some of this will be answered in the next questions.
Which harp players do you listen to and admire?
These days I hardly listen to any harmonica players. As I said above my very first influence was Paul Butterfield, but then I quickly started buying and listening to as many different harmonica players as I could which of course for any blues player included Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson(II), but also players Like Lee Oskar who I really admire for his sweetness of tone and vibrato. I have to admit that I was never as much of a student of the old players from the 50s like Little Walter and Sonny Boy, but now as I get older I really appreciate what they are up to and occasionally listen to and study them. Kim Wilson is probably my favorite contemporary traditional blues harmonica player. I was also a big fan of Paul DeLay and a lesser-known harmonica player (that only ever released one solo record) - David Burgin. For someone who is primarily a pucker player, Burgin has this huge deep vibrato and tone – and attitude - to his playing. David, like Paul DeLay, also had his own very unique style as a blues player. Both had and an amazing unique sense of time and phrasing. Is too bad that David’s only recording is not available on CD. It was released on Flying Fish records and was called Wild Child. Of course Howard Levy was also a very big influence on me as I spent quite a bit of time studying with him. The biggest thing that I got from playing with Howard was simply the ability to play different styles of music on harmonica as well as an introduction into jazz theory. ...not to mention that Howard could play just about any style of music you could think of on a diatonic harmonica and make it sound convincing.
When learning harmonica, what would you say is most important to learn?
That is a big subject... In the two things I always tell my students is first – less is more. By this, I don’t mean play less notes, I mean that as you are learning how to play something make sure you can play a simple idea very well before going on to something that’s more complicated. If you can do it slowly and execute well and with soul, then it shouldn’t be so difficult to gradually pick up the pace if you want to play it faster. But I think the main thing that I mean by less is more is the idea that at some point, you have to take he time learn one thing very well before you can go to the next level. A lot of players get impatient when transcribing something to memory and “sort of” learn the solo... It is easy to develop bad habits if you only ever “sort of” learn whatever it is that you are focusing on... You do this long enough and you will always be a “sort of” player. For instance when you’re trying to imitate something that you hear, there are so many levels of hearing and understanding. First you have to learn the notes that are being played (is your technique good, are you bending well, etc), and then get them into your muscle memory by repetition, and then hopefully and eventually learn how to play it with real soul and connection. All the great blues and jazz soloists spent hours and hours transcribing their favorite soloists. Eventually, once you've build up a vocabulary, you will start to play your own ideas and riffs and develop your own voice.
Which leads to the second thing that I always tell my students which is about focus and concentration. It is not always easy without a teacher to know how well you’re doing, but if you have the ability to be objective and honest with yourself you’re playing can advance that much faster. If you are “present” with what you are doing, you will advance that much faster. Easier said than done. You know how you have days where you just feel wishy-washy and you sit down for an hour and don’t feel that you accomplish much. Then other days you sit down and in 10 minutes you can absorb and learn something with a kind of laser focus. I find that meditating helps my focus. There are periods of weeks where I am too distracted and busy with the business of music to meditate – this really seems to affect my ability to concentrate when I practice.
Once you have a handle on the basic techniques of the instrument and you feel that you are able to make music, start recording yourself often – the tape recorder and never lies! Then you can hear right away what sounds good and what doesn’t. Always practice to your weakness, meaning always practice what is the most difficult part of the riff or song that you are learning. This is what makes playing sound more effortless. On another note, there is a book called “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner who was once asked by an interviewer: “if you want to have one more thing in you’re playing what would you want”. Kenny said “technique”. There are always new things to learn on any instrument. You never stop learning. And the harmonica has loads of different techniques to master. The soul and emotion comes from you as a person and your life experience. Having better technique only allows you to express what you feel more easily and freely – whether it is a simple ‘one note solo’ or a complicated jazzy run.
What are some of the more common mistakes a beginner might make?
As above, developing “sloppiness” in one’s playing. What ever it is that you want to learn, if you always take a half-assed approach, you will always be a half-assed player. It is important to develop one’s embouchure in the beginning - whether you are a pucker player or a tongue blocker - which translates to having good tone. Listen to the harmonica players that you enjoy, and if you like their tone, try to imitate it.
Your tone is fantastic. What are you putting into it?
I am primarily a pucker player using tongue blocking techniques to create emphasis on a riff I might be playing. Having a big open embouchure helps. It always amazes me how no two players sound alike tonally. I hardly listen to harmonica players anymore. I am always hearing guitar riffs and saxophone riffs in my head and trying to emulate that sound. Listen to David Burgin – he had a huge deep tone and for being primarily a pucker player. For the sweeter and jazzier tones, as I said above, the sax players Paul Desmond and Stan Getz who are both very melodic players. They both had this beautiful way of ending a note with a very light and lilting vibrato. I sometimes like to try to emulate this. I also like to imitate what I call the “fwah fwah factor” of sax players like Paul and Stan. It’s what makes Stan’s sound so sexy...
Some players are able to play emotionally. How do you put a feeling into an instrument?
As I said above, this usually has to do with what kind of a person you are. You can often pick up on parts of a person’s personality by the way they play their instrument. Maybe I’m a schizophrenic, because my CDs are so eclectic covering on the one side a raunchy gutbucket blues sound to a more sweet and sensitive jazzy ballad. I just tried to imitate what I hear around me, whether it’s the cry of a slide guitar, or the jump blues sound of a raunchy saxophone player... Hopefully it feels good and makes you want to listen again!
Anything new coming up?
I was just in the studio in May (2010). It will be my usual eclectic choice of material with 3 of the 10 songs being older tunes that have evolved from playing live so much that I wanted to re-record them to better represent how the band sounds live.
Any last words for HOOT?
Long live the harmonica!