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?
Recently I attended the funeral of a very old friend of mine. Well, when I say ‘friend’ I’m not even sure what I mean by that anymore with this particular person. I’ve been very lucky and only attended a handful of funerals in my lifetime. Some might say that having reached the age of 39 with both parents alive and a full compliment of grandparents is very lucky indeed. I only lost my great grandparents in my late twenties. The prospects look good for my own longevity, if only I could learn to look after myself better. Having said all that, the funeral of the 78 year old man I am attending today had a mother who lived to be 102. The secret of her extraordinary long life; she quit smoking when she turned 80.
So, having a full compliment of parents and having attended only a smattering of funerals, how am I supposed to feel about the death and proceedings of someone who was really close to at one time in my life?
I remember at some point in my youth my father, being somewhat fascinated by Egyptology, told me about the god Anubis. Anubis attended to the recently departed souls, weighing their hearts. If their heart was light then the soul floated up to heaven, if heavy they descended to the underworld. I always thought this unfair. How could a person be entirely good all their life? As a child I was raised as a Christian and as such was taught that Jesus would forgive me my sins. I was also taught that it was probably best not to sin anyway, just in case. That always seemed a big ask for a me, especially given the circumstances I have often found myself in and the lot I was dealt in life. Today I find myself weighing my departed friend’s heart. Unlike Anubis I am not looking for the weight to be light so that it can float up to heaven. I am looking for the good and bad deeds from my friend’s life to even themselves out.
Thinking back in time, I’m becoming more certain that it is this train of thought that led to my subsequent atheism. I think that I wanted to be judged by an unfair system. Through childish eyes I hear myself screaming ‘it’s not fair!’ into the abyss of my distant youth. Eventually I came to judge myself more harshly within the confines of my own life, not waiting to be judged after my death by a mythological deity. I judged myself harshly as a child and gave up on being good, at times almost completely. My recently deceased friend never gave up on trying to be good. He always judged himself by his own system and lived by his own rules.
My friend’s name is (was) Norman and I first knew him as a Scout leader. I joined the Cub-Scouts the minute I was allowed to at age 6 and it subsequently consumed my life. Norman was a part-time leader, only turning up at the odd meet and attending camps as a extra man to help out the other leaders. Aged 11 I moved up to the Scouts and coincidentally, Norman became more involved in the group. Norman owned a large, white transit van that he allowed us to fill with kit to take to our annual summer camps. Being a patrol leader, I was allowed to sit in the cab with Norman on the way to the camp. Casually strewn on the dashboard of the van were two shiny mouth organs. I asked Norman if I could have a go, a question both he and I both joked about on many an occasion since. Long story short, I never put the harmonica down. We formed harmonica groups and traveled the world performing on stage and TV alike, Norman as our band manager and mentor. The first time Norman and I shared the joke we were standing in New York’s JFK airport and silly o’clock in the morning. The tail end of a grueling schedule of TV performances and touring. A tired and tour-worn Norman looked at me smiling and said, “Next time you see something you like on the dashboard of my van, bloody well leave it alone!” It always made my heart rise to believe that my actions that fateful day had in some way being responsible for all the great times and success we were having.
By age 16 I was a seasoned musician and traveler. I had spent nearly every waking hour playing the harmonica and every weekend traveling around to one gig or another. My parents had divorced when I was 12 and the fall out was devastating. My relationship with my mother soured and my father retreated to lick the wounds of their 12 year marriage. My mother needed me at home on weekends to look after my little sister and to keep the house while she worked. She was too tired to do anything after her long shifts. I wanted my own life and not to be a parent to her and my siblings. I needed a parent, I needed a way out. Music was the answer. Norman was the answer. Norman owned a Harmonica mail-order business that he was looking to take on the road to festivals etc. The perfect answer was that I would go and live at Norman’s house and work for him. As an Harmonica player of some note by then, I could sell Harmonicas to practically anyone. I also made myself useful round his house, cooking and cleaning up after his elderly mother. Norman paid me handsomely for this with both room and board.
As I turned 17 things had evolved nicely in our household to a secure routine of making a little bit of money and growing the business nicely. We drank more, ate more and had a great time. Norman loved playing devil’s advocate to any point that I cared to raise and in a humorous way helped me question so many things that I took for granted in my life. It was within the framework of this relaxed atmosphere that Norman made some disturbing confessions. I wouldn’t like to go into them in great detail, but dear reader know only this: Norman NEVER hurt anyone nor forced anyone to do anything against their will. Norman did, however, exploit his position of authority where children were concerned and gave in to a couple of temptations that he really shouldn’t have done. In retrospect I am able to see that these morbid confessions were little more than grooming. A grooming which I never gave in to and he never again pursued.
To this end I find myself weighing Norman’s heart on my own set of scales. On the day of his funeral I found myself smiling at the crass jokes he used to tell, his argumentative nature and his techno-phobia. His lack of personal hygiene raised a smile in me that couldn’t go away. The generosity he showed, not only to me, but to everyone he came in contact with; all these things and many more aspects of Norman’s personality made up the good side of the scales.
The heavy, in my estimation, was evened out. In conclusion I think it is not only possible to love the good and the bad in someone, but it is also possible to love the good enough to forgive the bad.