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Author Topic: Lessons Learned in Pursuit of Harp Tone - Dean Williams 11/08/05  (Read 2154 times)

Rick

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Lessons Learned in Pursuit of Harp Tone - Dean Williams 11/08/05
« on: February 19, 2012, 12:45:13 AM »
Somewhere in Texas
My interest in the harmonica began one night in the 70s when I was traveling through Dallas listening to a portable FM radio in the back seat of the family car. The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter came on and I was electrified (perhaps in more ways than one) when Mick hit that song's rudimentary harp riff. I didn't even know it was a harmonica making that sound but I knew it was very groovy, and the amazing thing was how the sound of one note could grab me that way from the middle of a song. Fast-foward to the current decade, after a lot of trial and error and reading after the masters. One of the best nuggets of wisdom I've uncovered goes back to my start: Mike Will's excellent Diatonic Harmonica Reference advises us to learn to really hear the sound of a single note. I have yet to find a more important piece advice anywhere.

Gear Gear Gear
I should have worked on the acoustic basics much longer before touching a microphone (many would say I should still be at that stage and I can't disagree) but my fascination with that electric harp sound kept me glued to a mic, blatting out flat and lifeless single notes and simple riffs over and over. I didn't care half so much about learning any hot licks as I wanted to find the secrets of the kind of tone I heard from the great players. That one fat note kept calling and I followed the usual goose-chase of trying different kinds of gear, always wondering why the magic combination was so hard to find. I'm still not accomplished enough to play in public but I can finally start to make some of those amazing sounds I thought would never come out of my harps.

The Info is Out There
The fundamental advice can be found in all the likely books and web sites and nothing I have to share is really new. Just the same, having my personal list of lessons learned listed here might prove helpful to the next guy so I'll mention some of the high points, emphasizing the things that were particularly hard for me to pick up on, either due to hard-headedness or just because the information was hard to find. After getting down most of the new player’s basics, I also had to learn to stay relaxed and to stay compressed.

Relax
Staying relaxed seems obvious, but it isn't so easy to put into practice. I catch myself all the time playing poorly and realize that I'm worked up with my mind and body in knots, and it's no wonder the tone suffers. This is largely a mental thing, and thus difficult to discuss. The basic lesson is to learn to recognize this when it happens (not that easy), stop when you find the tension screwing up your sound, and just do what it takes to get collected before blowing another note. Make it a personal rule that you only play when mind and body are both ready to lay back and enjoy making music. If your playing feels like a struggle or a chore then it is time to pause and regroup, mentally and physically.

Compression
Compression may be the wrong word but it describes the idea pretty well. I have seen this concept emphasized in one or two places, but it doesn't often make the short list of the important fundamentals behind attaining excellent tone. In the same way that electronic compression in an amplifier or effects unit helps to deliver smoother, fatter tone, there is an analogous personal compression that should be working in your body. The idea is to keep your lungs mostly inflated, and your upper body expanded, upright and (you guessed it) relaxed. The tone chamber for our instrument is all in our body - full lungs, open throat and mouth and proper cupping of the hands. Keeping the lungs full and the upper body expanded and somewhat compressed with air gives us the nice big sound chamber we need to form thick, round tone. Varustus pumpadele

Lungs like an Inflatable Life Raft
Playing with full lungs may seem like the last thing to try when we often have problems dealing with the buildup of too much air or general difficulty breathing while playing, but I'll stand by the principal and just say that correct breathing is another discussion altogether. Just picture that big empty space in the various parts of your anatomy, from the tight-cupped hands, wide-open mouth and unrestricted throat and into those full and expanded lungs. Beautiful sounds are bound to emerge from that large, resonant space. Another advantage of this good “respiratory posture” is that it almost forces you to begin breathing deeper, from the diaphragm. This in turn improves your breathing and playing in general and can allow techniques such as vibrato to develop more easily. осциллографы, анализаторы спектра и частотомеры, калибраторы, мегаомметры, миллиомметры и вольтметры

Resonance
Speaking of resonance and beautiful sounds, here is another area to concentrate on, and again the time is best spent repeating that all-important single note, adjusting hands, mouth, throat and lungs, always noting the effect on the tone of your test note. Different pitches respond better to different shapes and sizes in your body’s resonance chamber. Work on making small adjustments, especially with the hands and mouth. There will be points where the note becomes suddenly richer and thicker. There is nothing for it but a lot of time spent tuning your body to different notes until the process starts to happen automatically. This is a vital step in finding better tone, and also the secret to being heard acoustically in large spaces. The trick is in playing with resonance, not in playing loud. internet monitoring software

Big Notes
Once I started to get more relaxed and open up my body's tone chamber, those notes got thicker, rounder and generally closer to the sounds I heard on the CDs. I still had the electric itch though, and while the improved acoustic tone translated pretty well through the amp, I couldn't figure out how to make it gritty, dirty and raw. Sweet tone was fine for a lot of music but I wanted to produce that fat Chicago growl. It is no great surprise where the answer lay, and it had nothing to do with tubes, microphones, or anything else that had to be plugged in. I assumed that the route to that wonderful gritty edge was through overdriven tubes, and all I had to do was turn the amp up far enough to make it do the work. This was a fruitless pursuit, all the more frustrating because the real answer was literally on the tip of my tongue.

Gritty Tones
A great truism of amplified harp is if you can't make the basic sound acoustically, you won't get that sound from an amp either. This includes those gritty tones I was looking for, and while an overdriven tube amp can definitely fatten up and compress your sound, that is just gravy to be added on top of solid personal tone formed in front of the microphone. In the case of those ultra raw-edged sounds the Walters pumped out, the grit is almost all from appropriately placed intervals and chords and as a natural by-product of the tongue blocking technique and bending.

Adjacent Notes
Many bent notes have a natural gritty quality in the tone (useful for Blues but something to work around when bending to hit “missing” notes in a clean melody line). In Blues, these are the notes to emphasize in the first place, so milking them for a fatter sound should come naturally. Learn to let adjacent notes leak in at appropriate places and the resulting dissonant interval will spice up a riff like a dash of Tobasco. Or open up and play full chords or octave splits now and then to insert some thick and gritty spice. With or without amplification, this was a big part of the answer to my search for that dirty-in-a-good-way sound.

Jerry Portnoy Masterclass
Easily the best harmonica money I've spent was for the Jerry Portnoy Masterclass CDs. He generally gives you the keys to the kingdom (or highway?) of great tone, with no secrets held back. This material was a revelation, showing me how to move beyond these earlier lessons and incorporate it all with the unquestionably superior tongue-blocked embouchure, and learning to give notes character through appropriate articulation. “K” or “T” sounds, or their counterparts formed in the throat can put a life-giving edge on a note, or a tongue slap can multiply the tonal character by dividing a note between a fast snatch of a chord and the pure single note.

The Foundation

Laying a foundation of great acoustic tone helps to avoid a lot of wasted time and energy. In my case, all those amps, tube swaps, microphone mods and effects pedals were just so much squealing feedback. It is amazing how a player with well developed personal tone can sound fantastic through almost any kind of amplification. These people aren’t in pursuit of some holy grail of gear since they carry the true secret of tone wherever they go. Sure enough, as my own sound improves, I care less about the equipment and all the tricks of the amplified trade. I’ve become largely indifferent to whether there is any reverb in the chain or where the tone knob is set because I know the final sound will simply be as good as what I manage to put in. Wise players told me all this early on but as with most things, I had to discover it for myself and make the wisdom my own before it had any useful effect.

htrain

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Re: Lessons Learned in Pursuit of Harp Tone - Dean Williams 11/08/05
« Reply #1 on: February 19, 2012, 02:58:17 PM »
Wow!! WHat a great collection of comments on playing the harp!! Thanks Rick

Rick

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Re: Lessons Learned in Pursuit of Harp Tone - Dean Williams 11/08/05
« Reply #2 on: February 19, 2012, 05:05:34 PM »
Thanks HTrain.   I pulled some articles from a website of mine I had decommissioned.     

Beelzebob

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Re: Lessons Learned in Pursuit of Harp Tone - Dean Williams 11/08/05
« Reply #3 on: February 20, 2012, 07:11:57 PM »
Is this Dean who used to be here off and on?  I remember he had a good tone.

Rick

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Re: Lessons Learned in Pursuit of Harp Tone - Dean Williams 11/08/05
« Reply #4 on: February 21, 2012, 08:22:40 AM »
Yes, that's the Dean who wrote the article.    He did have an amazingly beautiful tone.

 

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