Kongsheng Solist – Harmonica Review

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Kongsheng Solist – Harmonica Review

Feeling low…G!

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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:

SBS Layout.jpg

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!Noble Low Tone.jpg

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.

Seydel info page on the Noble Low Tone.

Feeling low…G!

Soloing etiquette

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?

Soloing etiquette

New Directions for my Harmonica

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?

New Directions for my Harmonica

Blue Saturday in Bucks 2016

Below is an article I wrote that was published in Harmonica World Magazine late last year:
The Blue Saturday was advertised not just as a gathering of harmonica players but a day of tuition and workshops, followed by a jam session and an evening concert. The wegottickets website offered three different tutors and three different standards: Richard Taylor teaching beginners classes, Hugh Budden with the intermediate/advanced and Giles King with advanced playing. The techniques and topics they would be covering were clearly listed, I just needed to click and book.
Job done. This Blue Saturday was already looking quite slick and very well organised. High Wycombe offered a good choice of local hotels at reasonable prices, all just minutes walk from the venue.
The Arts4All Centre is centrally placed within the town and well set up with multiple rooms ideal for workshops. Clear space and multiple doors between each room meant that any noise from amps or group playing would not disturb other workshops. Upon arrival I met Big Azza who totally lived up to his name as a giant of a man. I was welcomed, signed in, name badged and wrist-banded according to which workshop I would be attending. The wrist bands helped identify immediately who I would be spending the day with and I felt that it really helped break the ice. We even received
a free gift of a beautiful leather harmonica pouch and a tie pin. A couple of fellow attendees were already milling around and more ice was broken over a coffee and discussions about what harps we preferred and our playing experience.
It’s fair to say that I am a very experienced harmonica player, but I have to tell you that this event demonstrated to me that there is always something for all of us to learn. I learnt a microphone technique from a fellow workshop attendee, I learnt acoustic and electric tone projection along with a deeper vibrato from Giles King as well as a new way of thinking about how many harps to take to a gig from Hugh Budden. The tuition continued unwittingly into the evening concert as I received a lesson in frontmanship (my new word, dedicated to the man) from watching Hugh Budden’s excellent onstage persona. Richard Taylor’s working of a band in a live situation was formidable as
he directed which chords they were to play AS he was singing!
For me personally the event served to make new connections and to be inspired to get out of the rut I felt my playing had slipped in to. It had been a few years since I last attended an event and my experience this time means that I will be attending regularly once more.
Well done and thanks to Big Azza and crew, a great event. See you next at the next one.
Blue Saturday in Bucks 2016

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want to.

That sentence has been my mantra for the past 20 years whenever I am asked the question: “Why aren’t you a professional musician?” It has always seemed like the ultimate ‘get out’ claus, the complete answer to the question that is far too complicated and emotional to go into at that particular moment. Far too much of everything to go into at any moment, if I’m completely honest. Anyone who has read any of my blog posts in ‘I Used to be in a Band’ on this blog will know that I had an early musical career playing the Harmonica. For those that haven’t and/or cant be bothered/don’t have the time, I’ll give you a brief summary.

In 1988 on a camping trip with the Scouts my 12 year old self picked up a mouth organ that one of the leaders had been playing. Within 6 months there was a band full of us all playing harmonicas in a group to a standard that got national and then international stage and TV interest. Tours, festivals, TV and more tours ensued, all crashing to a halt, when at the age of 17 I won the World Harmonica Championships in the Blues and Jazz categories.

Not long after the hubbub of being World Harmonica Champion died down (a performance at The Jazz Cafe with WAR and an appearance on Blue Peter) it all went downhill. I left home, got a flat and then fell in love with a very beautiful young girl. To support this extreme change in lifestyle I had to get a job. I could have moved down to London to seek my fortune, but I didn’t. I wasn’t in a good place and lacked the confidence to make such a drastic move. ‘Lack confidence?’ I hear you exclaim, ‘a musician lacking confidence?’. Well, yes, I’m sorry to break the illusion but most if not all musicians lack confidence, in fact its sometimes why we become musicians in the first place. Singers, in the main don’t lack confidence, but players of musical instruments are just the sort to be introverts. Think about it: learning a musical instrument takes years and years of practise. One locks oneself away in a room away from the world going over and over the same things in order to try and get better at playing phrases, scales, arpeggios and generally understanding one’s own instrument. At one time I spent at least 4 hours out of every day locked in my bedroom playing the Harmonica. Was this healthy? Probably not, but its an excuse a reclusive and non-confident person can use legitimately to hide away from the world without getting questioned.

Anyway, obscurity beckoned and I ran there like a dog through an open gate. I took a job as a screenprinter in a friend’s shed. He had a hand carousel(!) and printed 1 colour prints onto overalls for the oil and gas industry. It was great to learn this new skill. I learnt how to make screens, mix inks, load garments and all sorts of stuff that was earning me money and paying for my flat, girlfriend and increasing drinking habit. Eventually a job came up at a large local screenprinting firm and I applied. Based on the experience I had gained on my friend’s carousel I got the job and the rest, as they say, is history. Here I am twenty two years later, working as an artworker for a clothing company that screenprints onto tee shirts. I’ve been married twice and have two beautiful and very well behaved children, whom I adore. My house is vast and has 5, count them, 5 bedrooms. Yet despite all this I still feel a complete and total failure most of the time. Yes, get over yourself, I hear you cry. More and more lately I can’t stop the little nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me what a failure I am. The little voice that rears its head anytime I am asked that infernal question: “Why aren’t you a musician for a living?”

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want

Never slag-off your boss on Social Media

I know it sounds like obvious advice, but some of us have done it and some may also have seen that these ‘fails’ make for great memes too. But really folks, never slag-off your boss on Social Media.

In my previous employment I made the rookie and school boy error of slagging off work on my Facebook page. I was so smug about posting the cryptic and non-specific line. I was convinced that they would never catch me out, I was too clever. It was all about the outcome of what I considered to be a ridiculous task that my boss had had me bound up in for a couple of years. I had a beef and I decided to have a moan and let off some steam online.

I had my privacy locked down, I was not friends with any of the management team at work and I only took friend requests from work colleagues I thought had the same ideals as me, one of which being: ‘stick it to the man’. What could go wrong? Well, it turned out that someone held an old grudge against me that I thought was over. He had his revenge and he served it cold.

The incident that followed could of lead to me not trusting anyone ever again, but it didn’t. The truth is that you can trust people, but you can’t always trust human nature. It was obvious who showed the boss my post from his phone, so I tried to confront him about it. The said ‘grass’ evaded me right up until the day I left the firm. When I was confronted by my boss about the post I did the grown-up thing and denied that the post was about work at all!

I was so angry that I wrote a poem about it:

‘My boss is a dick’
I’ll post that on my wall
He’ll never get to see it
Just for my friends
Not public, at all

How was I to foresee,
Some fucking arse-licker,
Out in the factory,
Would show my boss,
Make him see the screen grab,
To prove that he’s working hard,
A wayward factory lad.

“You posted it in work time,
That’s what irks me most,
This firm has been good to you,
A most auspicious host,
This is how you repay us,
Calling me a dick,
I demand an explanation,
And I want it fucking quick.”

I’m sorry it cost you money,
For me to bad mouth you,
I’ll do it in my own time next time,
And edit my friend list too.

I didn’t actually write the words, ‘My Boss is a Dick’ but the words that I did write would have made for poor poetic coupling!

Thanks for reading.

Never slag-off your boss on Social Media