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?

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Soloing etiquette

Harpin’ By The Sea 2017

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.

Harpin’ By The Sea 2017