What do the two harps pictured above have in common? One is a 365 14 hole Marine Band in the key of G and the other is a Seydel Noble Low Tone in low G.
Tenuous link coming up…
In the 1990’s Steve Baker developed the ‘Steve Baker Special‘ or SBS for short. Based on 14 hole 365 Marine Band harmonicas, and for those that don’t know, it was the laid out with the first 3 holes of a regular diatonic harmonica repeated on holes 4 to 6, then the rest of the harp carried on as a normal Richter tuned diatonic. The other way to look at it is that it it’s another three holes an octave lower tagged on the beginning of a regular harp.
Or just look at this diagram:
I managed to obtain a low G version of one of these beauties in the mid nineties from a deal Norman Ives did with Kevin’s Harps, who was the distributor for Hohner USA at that time. My harmonica teacher David Michelsen was a proponent of the chugging technique and made some crazy sounds with the low G SBS. The octave splits on the first 6 holes at the lower end of the harp lost their disjointed sound when compared to a regular 10 hole diatonic as they become true octave splits on the draw notes as well as the blow notes. Like a say, when mixed with chugging this made for a monster sound.
To start with these where just detuned Marine Band 365’s with a multitude of solder on the reeds to weigh them down and make the notes real low. Unfortunately I sold my low G SBS on ebay years ago and haven’t hankered after it since.
That was until I spotted the other little beauty pictured in the main image: the Seydel Noble Low Tone. Before the Bristol 2017 international Harmonica festival I had never seen one. I guess I just haven’t had my ear to the ground! I spotted it on the Seydel stand for a festival special of £55, a bargain for any Seydel harmonica, so I had to see what it was. It’s a lovely weighty chunky little number with coverplates that stand well proud of the reedplates to prevent the reeds hitting the inside of the coverplates when played. Windsavers cover the reedslots at various places to stop air leakage over the large reedslots and in place of old bits of solder are actual chunks of metal on the reeds to weigh them down to those low notes. The chap on the stall also told me that the comb is 1mm thicker than usual as it creates 20% more airflow. Is this true? I don’t know but it sold me!
Pic above shows weighted reeds (bottom left) wide coverplates (bottom centre) and windsavers/valves (bottom right). As you can see by the main image the harp certainly is a chunky little number.
I have contemplated soldering the reeds of the 365 to make a low G SBS but I think I’ll leave it as it is and enjoy the extra notes. I think I’ll go and use my Noble low G more and more. The first thing I’m gonna do with that low tone is make some Cello type notes to go behind the guitars in the indie band I’m in. Then I’m gonna chug out some solo stuff ’till my little heart’s content! Brilliant harp.
I love a bit of band politics and a recent experience has got me to reminiscing about a certain situation that has arisen in bands I have been in:
“I think you two should take it in turns to solo during more numbers,” Came the input at band rehearsal last night. “I think it makes a great extension to the songs and gives you (points at me) a chance to show off your harmonica skills.” Five minutes later during the soloing section of the song in hand, our guitarist was happily noodling away. As soon as he started I backed off the mic, took the harp out of my mouth and waited out the allotted ‘one time around the verse and chorus’ that he had his turn to solo in. I did my usual introductory riffs to take the lead from him at the end of the turnaround, but to my surprise he wasn’t budging. He just kept on soloing. I tried the eye contact, but his eyes were closed, lost in his solo. It was actually a truly epic solo so I took the chance to listen to what he was playing and felt awed at how good his chops where. ‘I’ll get it on the next one’, I thought to myself. The turnaround came again and… you guest it, he carried on soloing! This time around the verse when the turnaround came the singer had decided that it was time to bring the last verse in so he wilfully started singing, my chance of a solo in this song passed by. I automatically dropped back in to backing mode and the band played on.
At the end of the song our singer wasted no time and addressed the issue straight away.
“When it’s Paul’s turn to solo you have to stop playing so that we can hear him.”
“I did!” protested our guitarist.
“No you didn’t I was here and I heard it!” Our singer shoots back. The singer and guitarist have been in bands with each other for many years now so how they speak to each other looks like crap when written down but is actually always spoken with complete affection.
“Alright, maybe I did carry on soloing, but I did play a bit quieter during his solo.”
“That’s still soloing even if it is quiet, maybe you should just play chords while Paul solos?”
“Yeah man, no probs!”
An amicable solution had been found and the issue addressed.
The whole situation took me back nearly 30 years to the first band I was ever in. I then realised that this ‘solo stealing’ had been happening all my musical life. Thankfully, these days it was dealt with in an adult and (semi) professional manner. Back when I was in a band with 4 other teenage boys, all playing harmonicas it was a completely different story…
We had a tune called ‘Random’s Boogie‘ and we played that tune everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. It was a mostly improvised 12 bar blues boogie where we started off with a slow section and then after a couple of times round the 12 we kicked off into a fast paced boogie chug. The structure after that was to take turns in having a solo and show off our skills. There being 3 lead players in the band there was plenty of room to extend or shorten the tune depending on the time slot we needed to fill. This made the tune perfect for radio and TV so we wheeled this tune out time and time again. You can probably see where I’m going with this…
The solo stealing started by accident, we just weren’t listening to each other and couldn’t tell who’s turn it was. Everyone wanted to play at once and it just sounded like a dog’s breakfast. Needless to say that the tact of a 13 year old boy is far removed from that of a 30something, so the suggestion that we take turns was not given or taken as lightly or amicably as it was at my recent band rehearsal. To be blunt, we just swore and shouted at each other over it. Far from resolving the situation (quelle surprise), drawing attention to the issue only made things worse. Knowing that stealing each others solos wound each other up we started to do it on purpose. When the solo stealing started out in rehearsals it was quickly jumped on by our managers and musical directors, especially when we were rehearsing for TV slots. We would start just soloing over each other and it sounded proper awful. After being reprimanded we would all play nice and take turns during the next rehearsal. The very second the red light turned on on the TV cameras it was a free-for-all again. We all played over each other, stole solos and made each other really angry. Being the goody-two-shoes that I was at the time I stopped participating and just back and didn’t take my turn to solo, I just carried on playing the backing. I started to feel like a side man in my own group. I began to resent the situation and came to hate playing the tune at all. I was 14, moody and if I couldn’t play I was gonna take my ball home.
What I have taken away from this is that what we are playing, the tune, the song, is bigger than those of us playing it. We are party to creating a great thing and should feel privileged to be part of the song, no matter how small a part we play. It’s a cliche for a reason but the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The solo is no good without decent backing to play it over. But it’s tough, because if we’re doing it properly we commit ourselves emotionally to the song and give a piece of ourselves away. The trick is not to be too precious about it and give that piece of yourself willingly and accept deference to your higher power: music.
My advice: keep your ears and eyes open, remember what you rehearsed and most important of all leave your ego at the rehearsal room door!
Has any of this happened to you? How are the politics in your band?
So after ten years of being in the same band I was astonished to be asked to join a new one. It’s true to say that I was incredibly humbled and flattered to be asked, especially being that the new band is well established and has a fantastic bunch of experienced musicians in it. Unfortunately this new venture caused much eye rolling from my wife due to the fact that I would be absent from the house for ANOTHER night of the week, but she knows who she married…
Anyway, the band I have enjoyed the company of these last ten years is The Harpoon Blues Band. Whilst I continue to enjoy their company alongside this new venture, I thought it was interesting how very different beasts they are. I also thought it definitely worth a write about, as some of you out there may have had the same experience.
Lets start with a bit of background about The Harpoons:
The 9 years previous to this year we were not very serious at all, well, we took our music very seriously indeed and we didn’t muck about at rehearsals and have fun times at gigs, but we never really put too much time and effort into promoting the band and getting gigs. Until this year. At the start of January 2017 we no gigs at all, nada, zip, butkiss, nothing. So I got on the campaign trail and managed to rustle us up LOADS of gigs! I went mental bugging every venue I possibly could and we have had a gig or two nearly every weekend throughout summer 2017. My hard work paid off. I say it paid off but really just by booking the gigs my hard work had really just started. Before I say anything else I want to make it clear that I love the band and I get on really well with the guys in it. What my aim is here is to get across what a logistical nightmare organising 4 blokes with family, wives, kids, businesses, jobs and houses into twenty dates at twenty different venues in twenty different locations. My head has literally been thumping over the organisation of these gigs before I even got to any of them and played a chuffing note.
The Harpoon Blues Band is a lively band that I front, sing and play harmonica for. Our music is upbeat Rhythm and Blues and people dance for most of our two hour set. My harmonica playing is never held back and is a bit ‘balls-out’ to put it bluntly. I play my face off and trade riff with the guitarist until we are dizzy. I talk to the audience, get them going and encourage those to dance that aren’t. For my part I try to involve the audience in what we are doing; I talk them through the song history, share onstage jokes that are happening between band members and so on and so forth. It really can be hard work and most gigs I come off stage feeling very tired, dehydrated and mostly hoarse in the voice as I’ve been giving it too much beans on the vocals. I’m also pretty deaf by this point too. We play a little game on stage that goes a little something like ‘let’s each get slightly louder in turn until no one can hear anything but a wall of noise and we are all deaf’. It’s odd because during soundcheck my harmonica can be heard finem, then by the start of the second set it comes about that I can’t be heard at all. Thanks. Have I been blowing my head off for the first set and not being heard at all, or is everyone else just getting louder? The drummer wears earplugs as he’s worried about his hearing. I think he has the right idea, I’m seriously getting worried about mine.
So now on to my new venture: The Jamos and Sir Mathew Band.
I play the harmonica.
That’s it, in a nutshell. I turn up, plug my amp in then help with the rest of the PA etc. It’s mostly acoustic guitars, bass guitar, a cajon and some growling grungy vocals from the band’s front man, Jamos. In this band I just stand at the back and blow my harp. For my presence in the musical spectrum I am the string section, the horn section, the twin guitar line, the backing vocal, mandolin, violin or even the keyboard. I get to express all these things with my harmonica and I have to say that it can really be quite challenging. The sound I have on the harmonica doesn’t have to be so ‘in-your-face’ and for the better part of the band’s sound as a whole I can be ‘felt’ instead of being really ‘heard’. I’m also an extra, so there is no pressure at all on my shoulders to engage the audience: we already have a front man, his name is Jamos and he’s great at it. Another point is that my ears don’t ring after a gig as we really aren’t a loud band.
As a covers band the song choices are mostly from the nineties, as that is our age group and era. Nothing is very obscure and people know what the song is that they are listening to. Some modern classics make it into the set too and I also feel that I am part of something very contemporary. The drummer in The Jamos and Sir Mathew Band arranges most of the gigs and manages the band’s Facebook page etc so I don’t have to. I help out where I can; sharing posts, using my graphic design skills to create posters, T Shirts etc for the band. But mostly I just play the harmonica. I don’t even have to sing.
All in all, TJASMB can at times seems like a bit of a holiday compared to the effort required to be in the Harpoons. But both have seperate and equal merit and I love both and now I’ve had both I’m not sure I could be without either. Greedy, I know but I don’t care. I’ve not had any gig clashes so far so I will have to cross that bridge when I come to it. One last thing to mention is that in both bands I am considered a musician of equal standing. This is something I have not always been used to as a harmonica player. In both bands I am considered a full-time, permanant member and never as an add-on or an afterthought. It’s a wonderful feeling.
How many bands do you dep/frequent with? What are your experiences?
It’s a can of worms, searching for your tone. It’s not like you ever had it only to lose it and had to look for it again. It’s not even like you can describe it to someone properly without gesticulating madly, making incoherent noises and using large amounts of onomatopoeia. Your tone is your sound, it can define you. So you think. As a young man I listened to a LOT of harmonica players on records, or CD’s as they were called back then. I wanted to play like they did and I wanted what they had. It was strange though, because my focus was always on their techniques, abilities and song choice and hardly ever on their ‘tone’. I say ‘hardly ever’ as I did have a dabble at one time, around the age of 17, with an astatic mic and a tube amp but it was short lived and lasted as long as someone else was buying the equipment. So it was that I spent (wasted?) hours learning the bends, overblows, overdraws, trills, scales, arpeggios, breathing patterns etc etc etc that came out of my stereo, placed there by my harmonica heroes. It will be 30 years next year since I picked up the Harmonica and I’m still acquiring new techniques this way.
But what about my ‘sound’?
For decades I have tried to find my own style, my own sound. These last two years I have invested a large amount of time into trying to find it. There has been tears, tantrums and a few angry gigs I have to tell you. I’ve bought and sold gear I bought on a whim and held on to stuff I can’t let go of as I am convinced that it will work for me at some point as it seems to work for everyone else! Take the vintage Astatic mic I bought earlier this year. I thought I had paid a fair amount of cash for it but some quick internet based research told me that I had gotten an absolute BARGAIN. Very pleased I was to have an actual Astatic as I’ve not had one since I was 17 years old. I actually had a band to gig test it with this time around. So with giggling schoolboy excitement I tested the mic with my amp choice; a Marshall AVT. Now, I know hat the Harp-tone junkies amongst you are saying right now: “That’s a gain-y amp! You wanna get a fully valved one.” I know it is and I know I do. However, I was well happy with my Marshall, an old CAD vocal mic and a noise reduction pedal until I got that old harp-tone itch again.
For the 8 years preceding my recent harp-tone odyssey I used a clean, cheap radio vocal mic that went straight into the PA. It was a clean ass sound and I could always be heard, never got any feedback/recirculation and didn’t have to lug a massive amp around.
My tone was sooo clean though… Squeaky clean, country clean!
Did I ever have any sound problems? No, I did not.
It was clean though.
I blame the boys in the band. I’m so easily led. They happened to mention that they had seen some old blues players with ‘those bullet mic things’. I explained what they were, how I’d had a bad experience twenty-something years ago and never gone back. Was it worth another go with an older head on my shoulders? Like I said, I’m easily led. So I looked around for an amp and a friend had one for sale for 20 quid. Worth a punt, I thought so I bought it, plugged my radio mic in and experienced what I had done all those years before when the volume pot would creep past the number 2: howls of feedback. I know, I thought, I have an old vocal mic in a drawer that is even DEAFER than the cheap radio mic I had been using. I plugged it in and gave it a blast. The squeals and howls came again but this time not as prominently. The tone was thin though, very thin and everything I read said I NEEDED reverb and/or delay. Never having been a fan of either of those effects, even on vocals, I shunned that idea and carried on regardless. I’d heard of a noise gate before and thought that might be an idea. A mate had one for sale for 20 quid (it’s the magic price round my way) so having plugged that it, turned the bass up, the treble down, the mid up a gnat’s cock and boom! It sounded great! So I thought…
I had a distorted harp-tone. At last. It was kinda raucous and kinda rough and ready but I now sounded like those skinny rockers who played guitar on my Dad’s records. I did not, however, sound like the harmonica players of old that my band mates wanted to hear from me. SO far my tone journey had led me to Rocksville circa 1979 when what they wanted was Bluesville circa 1959.
So I bought the bargain Astatic (this time costing a bit more than 20 quid) and played a full two numbers of a gig with it, unplugged it, plugged in my ancient vocal miv (not the radio mic I had ebayed that already) and haven’t looked back. That was until my wife spotted a vintage looking amp in a junk shop that her friend owns. ‘A find’ I thought to myself. I’ve seen stories on Facebook pages of people finding vintage amps in thrift stores etc and they turn out to be stonkingly good amps. This was my turn for a bit of awesome luck! They wanted £120 for it and it was an Electar amp, another valvestate this time made in the Gibson workshop, the shop owner said I could trial it before I made a decision to buy it. I took along my old mic and noise pedal and gave it some noise. Number 2 on the volume knob, no feedback. Number 3, 4, 5 and still no feedback. Number 7 was the feedback magic number. The sound was breaking up nicely and the amp tone had a warmth that the Marshall didn’t have. I think I liked it. Then I noticed a switch for a ‘boost’ channel. Volume down first then a little tap of that then volume slowly up again…what a beauty! It’s a lump though and I started getting hacked off lugging it around this festival season but it’s been totally worth it. No feedback, reasonable warm tone and lush overdrive/honk when I want it.
I guess in conclusion I’m really glad that I learnt my techniques before my tone, although maybe I should have grown them at the same time? My old Harmonica teacher David Michelsen used to say that if you don’t work on your acoustic tone and you sound shit, if you then play through an amp all you have is loud shit. I guess he had a point. I love my little cheap set up and I will think long and hard before I spend a friggin’ fortune on an all valve amp!
(I am actually saving up for one though!)
What has your tone journey been like?
Last year I attended the awesome ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks‘, this year I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ for more Harmonica shenanigans.
Here’s what happened:
Back in February I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ in Hove here in the UK. A one day Harmonica festival of tuition, masterclasses, jam sessions and concerts. A fine excuse to get away for the weekend and spend some time brushing up on my Harmonica skills. Practise is something I rarely get time to do with a young family, a full-time job and all the trappings of life. They are all welcome trappings, but some ‘me’ time was definitely needed in the bleakness of a British wintertime.
I filled up my 17 year old Beetle with gas and trundled on down to the south coast on a 3.5 hour journey that was both uneventful and at times pleasant. ‘Pleasant’ not being a term associated with British road travel, but at 5.30am on a Saturday in February it seemed like I had the roads to myself. Having read the travel advice on the excellent ‘Harping By The Sea‘ website I had planned ahead and booked my parking to a private driveway using my Justpark app. Gotta love the technology! A fifteen minute walk along Brighton and Hove’s glorious and historic seafront to the Brunswick in Hove and I was there.
Once inside the Brunswick, registration was only held up by my bumping into old friends and it was my fault there was a wait in the queue as I was bloody chatting! This was a well attended event and it was great to see so many new faces. Some familiar faces I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, John Vaughan being a stand out guy and between us we held up the line catching up on old times. Once registered I took a table and scouted round for more faces. Relief, the crew from ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks’ were there. Big Azza, Francis and Russ grabbed me a seat at their table and we caught up on the harmonica happenings since the BSiB festival the previous year. For anyone that hasn’t met Big Azza, you really need to. Azza is a total inspiration. Lately I’ve been calling myself a ‘has-been’ when anyone asks about my harmonica career. I was part of a band who did tour when I was much, much younger. I am always implying that my musical career is all over and done with now. Azza is a different story altogether; firstly he overcame throat cancer and did not even pick up the harmonica until he was two years older than I am now. Azza described to me how he dedicated time to teaching people the harmonica, formed bands, put himself out there and got a new lease on his life through playing the harmonica. His band was booked up for the rest of the year, three gigs a weekend! At this point in the year, my band The Harpoon Blues Band, had none at all. I was all woe is me until I heard all this and it made me wanna pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again. Thanks Big Azza.
So onto the learning…
The advanced class is what I chose as I like to consider myself an advanced player. Always dodgy ground for me. What makes one an advanced player? Is it like social class and totally subjective? If you think you are advanced then are you? The organisers, Richard and Stuart made it clear in the welcome speech that we could change workshops at anytime if we felt that the workshop we were in wasn’t for us. I had my ‘get out of jail free’ card so I felt safe.
Cajun and zydeco were on the menu and boy was it an eye opener. Ably lead by an old acquaintance of mine, Aidan Sheehan it was a rip-roarer of a workshop. Aidan and I had met many years before on the judging panel at the Bristol Harmonica Festival in 2005 (I think it was 2005 anyhow!). He was judging and I was compere at the time, we got on great and he’s a very knowledgable chap. A multi-instrumentalist, Aidan plays harmonica, accordion and squeezeboxes all with the same ease and fluency on each. I had to concentrate to keep up, which was great, this was pushing me and my abilities. The work sheets Aidan had copied had the tab really clearly laid out and he led us through it all by the hand (metaphorically I might add). In no time at all we were making convincing zydeco and cajun noises. Loved it!
Over lunch attention was drawn to my T-Shirt. I was working at a T Shirt printers at the time and had fashioned myself a little ‘Harmonica Player‘ T Shirt as a heat transfer onto a black shirt. I’d stolen the initial design from a website and added a distressed look, changed the font slightly and boom: self-made designer T Shirt! Big Azza said that if I made a bunch more I’d be welcome to sell them at the next Blue Saturday event. I had a few more ideas I’d knocked up in illustrator in a slow moment at work the week before which I showed round the table on my phone. “I’d buy one of those!” and “Do they come in 4XL?” came the reactions. I put a pin in the idea and decided to give some serious thought to making my own brand of T Shirts. After all, what could be a more perfect combination; Harmonicas and clothing?! I’d found the perfect job.
After lunch it was Lee Sankey’s turn to put us through our paces in the advanced class. Richard had again chosen a very knowledgable and established player in Lee and I have always admired his harmonica playing (even if he does play the harp upside-down!). Lee focused initially on what mad an advanced player, so he asked us which of us considered ourselves proper advanced players.I put my hand up, not really noticing anyone else’s hands going up. I’m sure they went up I was just letting my anxiety show and not noticing anyone else. I managed to get myself singled out at this point. Lee was stating that as an advanced player we should be putting some light and shade into our playing and also should at least be able to do a 3 octave major scale on a diatonic harmonica. He pointed to me and asked me tif I’d like to play one. “no,” I said initially, not wanting to be singled out and have to play to a room crammed full of advanced harmonica players. “Can’t do it?” Lee asked me? Taking this last sentence like a red rag to a bull I played the scale from one end of the harp to the other. Thunderous applause echoed throughout the room. What had I done? It was just a scale! It seems that not everyone can do this and I had forgotten my own abilities. It was turning out to be a day of awesome learning for me.
As I said previously, it was a very well attended event. I’d not seen so many harmonica players in one place since the early days of the Bristol festival. Bloody brilliant to see and encouraging as I think sometimes our beautiful instrument is a dying art. It seems that the only thing that was dying was my knowledge of the community, its easy to isolate in my part of the world. A man from a very different part of the world is Jerome Godboo. This Canadian harpmeister was giving a masterclass that afternoon and I’m glad I caught it. I have to admit to having never heard of the man until the festival but I’m glad I’ve heard of him now. What a player. Jazzy licks with a bluesy twist, this man knows his altered tunings and gave us an insight into a regular gigging musicians experience and lifestyle. A very cool guy.
The evening meal was yet more discussion over what we had all learnt that day, Aidan’s cajun workshop being a favourite so far. After a semi-heated discussion over the use/need for overblows (me being for, the other person being against) the jam session loomed. I could feel the nerves creeping up me from the moment I heard sign ups had been called. I didn’t want to have gone all that way and not played as much as I could! It took some awesome encouragement from Lee Sankey to talk me into it in the end. I signed up to knock out a version of ‘The Blues Overtook Me’ by Charlie Musselwhite from his ‘Ace of Harps’ album. Opting for a slower more acoustic feel than the shiny, bouncy album track I only made one glaring error in playing and then sat down to enjoy the rest of the performers. It has to be said that my friend Mr John Vaughan is an outstanding Blues harmonica player, if you get chance then please check him out. I heard three requests for the video of his jam session slot before he’d even finished playing! His partner Yuki plays harmonica too, and gave the best rendition of Sonny Terry licks I have ever heard (better than Paul Lamb? I thought so). How I wish I could get ANYONE else in my house to play harmonica, but they won’t, John is a lucky guy!
I hung around as long as I could for the evening concert but the day was starting to take its toll on me. I thought it best to retire for the long drive home in the morning, my head full of new harmonica knowledge, my pockets full of new harmonicas and my wallet empty of cash. I caught Lee Sankey’s set (which included a blistering William Clarke tribute) and the start of Richard Taylor and The Blackjacks. Tight. As. Hell. Well worth a listen, especially for Richard’s understated harp playing and his interplay with the rest of the band. I don’t know but I’d wager they know each other pretty well to play that tight.
Thanks Richard and Stuart for putting this on, see you next year for definite, this time with my Harmonica-tees stall in tow.