Author Topic: So- Harmonica- What kind do you play? What is your go-to style?  (Read 2248 times)

Offline jawbone and jolene

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So- Harmonica- What kind do you play? What is your go-to style?
« on: November 29, 2012, 11:57:37 PM »
I've messed with "harps" for about 40 years now.  Began with what was available at the local store, Hohner Marine Band and Blues Harp, with a few odd other models thrown in.  Many years ago the Marine Band was a fine instrument but things happened and it descended quality wise in the 80's and through part of the 90's at least.  Blues Harp was also a good one that declined and imo has not come back.  It was adopted into the MS series of harmonicas with replaceable reed plates, but the replacement plates are not so hot.  Again my opinion!
The Hohner Special 20 was in my case for a long time.  I must have bought about 100 of these over several years.  Good sounding harp and fairly durable but I was really hard on them and would sometimes blow a reed out very quickly doing hard draws while playing in blues style- cross or 2nd position.  Partly for that reason, but mostly my own bad habit of expecting way too much out of a harp, I moved on in my quest for the perfect harp.  I do use a Sp20 here and there these days.
I tried Lee Oskar harps for a while and they last quite a long time but they seemed kind of tight and shrill for my taste.  I did get a good deal on 5 of them with a nice hard case a few years ago but ironically i just don't use the harps any more!
Over the years I have tried Huang- a couple of cheaper models which had virtually no quality control apparently; the Cracker Barrel variety of $5 harp available a lot of places, usually a cheaply made plastic comb harp;  Hering, the Vintage 1923 model, which is very attractive but I don't care for the tuning; Bushman Delta Frost which is an ok harp but basically- my opinion- it's a Suzuki harp with different covers that costs more.  I have also tried a few Suzuki models and these I have really liked.  the ProMaster, which has an alloy comb and is nicely tuned;  the Pure harp which is pricey but beautiful- the comb and covers are rosewood, which give it a warm and mellow overall tone.  The Folkmaster, a cheaper harp but decent enough; the Bluesmaster, a bit more than Folkmaster and an ok harp;  and my favorite currently, the Manji model.  Manji was designed by the owner of the Suzuki Harmonica business and features some really good innovations which to me bring this model into the third millennium.  High precision reed to slot alignment, braised reeds, very well tuned, a dense composite wood/resin comb, and cover plates designed to let the maximum sound out of the harp, all work together to produce a very good harp.  True, it does cost more than the usual harp, but it's in a class with Hohner's Crossover and Marine Band Deluxe models, and to me it's a better built instrument. 

I speak from the viewpoint of a dedicated harp player and singer.  My primary interest musically is blues and roots.  I do like some folk, rock, funk, jazz, and other genres but my style is pretty solidly as a blues player. 

I wanted to make a couple of suggestions to you guys who use a rack harmonica along with playing a guitar.  I've seen this setup for a long time.  Frankly, the tone one can get with a rack and no hands to help shape the sound can be pretty thin.  I notice most players in this style play either straight harp- 1st position- or cross harp- 2nd position, which is more blues style.  So the first thing is, listen to what Jimmy Reed was doing with straight harp.  He was among the real masters of the high end of a harp esp. an A harp.  He flat made it wail and with some practice this is very do-able.  And it adds a real cool dimension to straight harp or 1st position. 
Next, I have seen a guy- from Texas, Bobbie Mercy Oliver by name- who has one of the best rack harp tones I have ever heard.  He gets this in cross or 2nd position by duck taping a green bullet mic to his harp, in a rack, and plugging into a tube amp.  He sings into this mic as well.  He is a one man show sometimes and really does very well with it.  Worth checking out.
Thirdly, along with 1st and 2nd positions, I have been working on what is referred to as "slant" or 3rd position.  This is playing harp in a key one more step from the root key than 2nd.  Example if the root is A, 1st would be an A harp, 2nd would use a D harp, and 3rd would use a G harp.  It follows that if the root key is D, 2nd is G and 3rd is C (which by the way is a very popular key for chromatic harp).  This position is associated with both jazz players and country, and a lot in between.  I heard a guy- Arkansas native by the way- John Weston, who played racked harp with guitar and he used a chromatic harmonica in C and I think a 12 string guitar, and got a really big sound.  My point about 3rd or slant position is, especially if you can do some octave work, there are a lot more possibilities on the harp.  Example I cover 4 holes of a given harp with my mouth and then use my tongue tip to cover the 2 middle holes.  This when blown or drawn produces an octave.  This method can be used on all holes of a diatonic harp, and all of a chromatic harp as well.  Many more possibilities.  What has drawn me to 3rd position is the fact of more variety of notes to use and also a haunting quality to the overall sound.

My only other comment is about breathing.  If you know any yoga or have ever worked with a voice coach or teacher, you know what I mean when I say that most of us use maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of our lung capacity.  If we train to sing or do yoga, we learn to use much more of our capacity and this in turn strengthens our associated muscles from diaphragm all the way to tongue and lips.  We gain a lot better control and find we use less air and less effort, and get better results.

Just a quick look at harmonica and some possibilities based on my own experience!  I am curious about how you play, and what, and if we can teach each other some things.