Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My musical instruments (Part 2)

Continuing our series of "stuff I use to make music and stuff", we progress to part 2: the harmonica.

The harmonica (or, as I will often refer to it for the remainder of this post, the harp) is actually the most recent instrument I added to my arsenal of sounds. Obviously, damn near everyone has blown some air through a harp at one time or another in their lives, and I've messed around with them for many years. But it wasn't until about five years ago that I really got into playing them, and it was only three years ago that I got a full set of good harps to call my own. Therefore, I will make no claims to have any type of mastery of this sound-making device, compared to how I feel about my guitar or bass skills, or even keyboards to a degree.

However, for the type of music I do, virtuosity is not required. My harp playing is inspired by Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who both use it in the same way I do: as an accompaniment to the guitar. Using a special holder, I can strap the harmonica to a holder which goes around my neck, and hence play guitar, sing, and be able to do solos on the harp while I'm not singing.

Why bother playing harp at all? Well, I like a little flavor in music, and harp is another taste of sound for my listeners. As you know, I've spent much of the past few years performing live as a solo artist, and after awhile of just playing guitar and singing, it's nice to have a whole other type of sound to break up the routine. Plus, it's one of the few things that you can play while playing another instrument. That's important, as a live player.

The harp makes a brief appearance on my album. I play it on the song "Falling Down", which I'm including here for you to listen to as an example. The harp solo is after the first chorus, about 1:15 into the song.

Why do you call it a "harp"?
It's not just me. There's a story about why this appellation became popular; you can read it if you want. But it goes back to the 1800s, so it's far from new. In any case, the big distinction is really the type of music you play. If you're playing rock, folk, or blues, the name "harp" is much more acceptable. If you're using a harmonica as part of a classical ensemble, it's probably best to call it by its proper name. Since my harp stuff is folksy rock, I call it a harp. No one's ever thought I was referring to the large stringed instrument that you pluck, so I guess it's okay to keep calling it that.

For the purpose of this post, I'm only going to talk about one kind of harmonica: the blues harp, more properly known as a 10-hole diatonic harmonica. There are several other kinds, but for my type of music, this is the one you need to know about.

Why do you need so many of those things?
Harps are unlike most instruments in that they are preset to a particular key, which is usually etched on their surface for easy identification. So, if a song is in D major, you'll probably choose a D harp to play over it.

Note that in the upper corner, you'll see the key of the harp... in this case, D.

Those of you who are musically inclined will know that D major is diatonic to B minor, so if I'm playing in B minor, I may also use the D harp. And (getting super geeky for a moment), you can also play in all the various modes of music. Playing a D harp in D will give you the standard Ionian mode, while playing a D harp over an Em accompaniment will give you a Dorian mode, and so on.

You blow. And you suck.
Even though there are 10 holes in a blues harp, each hole is actually connected to two different reeds (the elements that produce the sound). Blowing into the hole will give you one pitch; pulling air into the harp through the same hole gives you another one. This is very important for any type of expressive playing, and it's crucial for the two main types of playing: straight harp and cross harp.

Straight harp is using the harp in the standard key it's meant for. Cross harp offers you a bluesy sound that's in the Mixolydian mode, with a flat 7th note. Using the same D harp as mentioned above, I can play straight harp in D, or I can play cross harp in A. It's always a fourth above (aka a fifth below) your standard key. Here's a handy little chart to tell you what the cross harp key is for each diatonic key:

Key of A: Straight: A, Cross: D
Key of B: Straight: B, Cross: E
Key of C: Straight: C, Cross: F
Key of D: Straight: D, Cross: G
Key of E: Straight: E, Cross: A
Key of F: Straight: F, Cross: Bb
Key of G: Straight: G, Cross: C

I know this isn't always easy to understand, but hearing it should help a lot. Therefore, here's a short video I just made for you to help explain it better.

How the #&*% do you bend notes???
Ah, here's the part that took me awhile to learn. As a person who didn't have experience with any kind of wind instrument, I wasn't at first aware that your embouchure (the way your lips are shaped in touching the instrument) makes a big difference. This is something you just need to practice until you figure out. Basically, I adjust the angle of my lips against the harp, and the note bends like magic. Again, you need to spend some quality time with your harp until you get it, because no amount of reading about this will help. As Nike used to say, just do it.

What kind of harp do you use?
There are lots of great choices out there, and any reputable brand will be fine for you. When I got into playing, I chose to get a set of Hohner Special 20 harps. First, they're made by Hohner, who have been making harps since the 1850s. Second, many of my heroes, including Dylan and Neil, have used these for their music, which I figured made them good enough for mine. As opposed to buying one harp at a time (and constantly bemoaning that I didn't have the right one for a particular key), I went out and got a set of seven harps for each diatonic key (A through G). It included a nice carrying case and some other accessories. You can usually find these at music stores or online retailers. The model of Hohner I chose, the Special 20, is not very expensive at all. A quick look around the web says these things go for between $20-$30 each, and you can often find full kits like mine for under $200. If you're a fan of the particularly well-known harp player, John Popper of Blues Traveler, he's another guy who uses Special 20s. They are really fine for nearly all harp techniques.

Well, that's it for this part in my musical instrument series. In Part 3, we'll talk about the many great instruments I used in the studio in the making of my debut album.

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