I use and endorse Hohner harmonicas. The diatonic models I use include: Golden Melody, Marine Band, and Meisterklasse, and one Special 20 that's been factory tuned to a D harmonic minor (used on "Bubba, The Wandering Gypsy", Harmonica Anthology). I sometimes use re-tuned diatonic harps with the 5th hole draw note raised a half step for more melodic playing in 2nd position (more on this later). I also have three Chromonica 270s, in keys of A, C, and G, and a Toots Thielemans Mellowtone chromatic in the key of C, and a couple of 64 Chromonica 280s, one of which is an old antique.
Because of the inconsistencies that occur with mass production, it can be a challenge to find and maintain harmonicas for playing at a professional level. Early on, as I began to advance on the harmonica, I was often dissatisfied with the way a new harp played – a note wouldn't respond well or seemed too hard to bend, or there were air leaks and rattles. Either I would send the harp back to Hohner for adjustment or sometimes just buy another instrument. After I became an endorser of Hohner harmonicas, I began to get some special attention from their service department, and most of my needs were met.
In the early '90s I met my good friend Joe Filisko. Joe was already on his way to becoming an expert in harmonica repair and harmonica history. He graciously offered to make some repairs and adjustments for me and has continued to do so for the past 15 years. Joe customizes Marine Bands by sealing the wooden comb, adjusting the reeds, and modifying the cover plates. Since I prefer the M.B. sound on certain styles of playing, he's customized a few keys for me, as well as produce some low octave harps (check out "The Road to Lisdoonvarna" on the Happy Man CD on which I use a low octave C to play in 3rd position or the D minor Dorian scale*). These days, there are lots of people customizing harps out there. I've listed a few on the resource page.
As you can see in the key charts section, I sometimes use re-tuned harmonicas. I retune my own harmonicas, but there are some manufacturers out there, like Lee Oskar, that offer factory tuned versions of their own. The tuning I use is often referred to as "country tuning", due largely to country harmonica king Charlie McCoy who has greatly utilized and popularized this tuning. Of course, I also play in first, or straight, position, which gives me a complete major scale without re-tuning. However, in first position there are usually less opportunities to use bent notes, and as we all know, bent notes are cool. It just depends on how I want to play something as to which position I use.
*In recent years I've begun to explore 3rd position. Besides The Road To Lisdoonvarna, I've found there are lots of Celtic tunes, like The Star of Munster and The Musical Priest, that can be played by using third position. It's also great for certain slow minor melodies like Jesus, Lover of My Soul or Mary, Did You Know?, or an old time tune like Shady Grove.
INSTRUCTIONAL RECOMMENDATIONS AND LINKS:
Jon Gindick has a great website – www.gindick.com - for instruction books, CDs, videos, repair kits, jam camps, you name it.
Phil Duncan has produced scores of books, CDs, and DVDs for Mel Bay – www.melbay.com - on styles ranging from blues to country to folk to gospel.
Jack's Harmonica Page – www.volcano.net/~jackmearl - is another good place to look for on-line instruction. Jack has over 300 hymns tabulated for the diatonic scale harp.
Every player needs some wonderful inspiration!
Here's a partial list of my favorite harmonicists and their specialties:
One half of the duet Sonny & Brownie (McGhee), Sonny's style was mostly 2nd position, country blues, tongue blocking. His rhythm was great, and he sang and whooped as he played. He was a great stage personality, as was Brownie. There have been lots of imitators, but no one can do Sonny like Sonny does Sonny. Check him out on some of the old black and white youtube clips of him and Brownie McGhee. His rhythm is amazing.
Possibly the greatest Chicago style blues harpist, Walter Jacobs played mostly amplified 2nd position harp, but sometimes played 3rd position on a 64 Chromonica in a chordal, amplified manner.
Sonny Boy Williamson II, aka Rice Miller
As you can see, there were 2 guys sharing this name, although I'm more familiar with Miller. Another great, mostly acoustic, 2nd position player.
The inventor of modern country harmonica, and, after more than 40 years on the scene, still a force to be reckoned with. Charlie's style is all about taste, precision, control, and flawless technique. I'm probably more indebted to Charlie than anybody else in developing my own style.
This man has literally redefined modern harmonica playing through the technique of overblowing (producing an overtone on certain blow notes one and a half steps above the natural pitch of the reed). Howard first came to prominence as a member of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. He has since gone on to establish himself as a peerless performer on the diatonic harmonica. Jazz, classical, country, blues, pop, literally nothing is beyond his reach. Howard is heard from time to time on public radio's A Prairie Home Companion sitting in with the band.
One of the most popular performers of The Grand Ol' Opry in its early days, Deford was amazing. His life is well chronicled in the documentary DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost, which was broadcast on PBS.
This brilliant player from the San Francisco area blew me away when I first heard him in the late 70s. He had 2 great albums out back then on Capital Records, but has recorded more since. Norton is a monster on diatonic and chromatic, as great rhythmically as he is melodically.
I first heard Mark's great playing on some of the recordings of one of my favorite artists, Tim O'Brien. Mark's basically an old time player from the northwest, who plays straight and cross, and has fantastic rhythm. If you like your harmonica with clawhammer banjo or washboard, Mark's your man.
Equally proficient on diatonic and chromatic, Brendan is great with blues, pop, jazz, basically any style, but I especially love the way he plays traditional Irish. He's got a great website with a world of information.
Jelly Roll Johnson
For the last 20 years, Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson has been quietly carving out a place as one of Nashville's top players and sidemen, playing on dozens of hit records.
Stevie Wonder, Toots Thielemann, and Larry Adler
While there are many great chromatic players out there, these three, in my opinion, have done the most to define the instrument in the last 50 or 60 years. They are equally great stylists, amazing technicians, and totally musical and original in their playing. Though I'm not much of a chromatic player, I get lots of ideas and inspiration by listening to these guys. Great stuff on youtube for all three.
Another great old time player, David's playing can be heard on an obscure recording, "Salt & Grease", by a now defunct group called The Boiled Buzzards. This record, which features David's excellent playing on every cut, can be found at CDBaby.
Joe is known mainly as a harmonica historian, teacher, customizer, and repairman for some of the greatest players in the world. He travels around the globe to festivals and harmonica events of all kinds providing his amazing expertise, not only as a teacher, but a player of considerable prowess, especially the old time tongue-blocking styles of greats like Deford Bailey and other bluesmasters.
There are lots more, of course. Madcat Ruth, Terry McMillan, Jerry Portnoy, Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, and the list goes on and on.
Jack's Harmonica Page – here you'll find about 300 hymns tabulated for the diatonic scale harp as well as 10 lessons for harmonica, 600 other popular songs, and endless other resources.
Harp Depot – an extensive site for harmonicas, accessories and harmonica festivals.
How long have you been playing harmonica?
I started at around age 20 when I saw a couple of friends of mine jamming on Marine Bands. Knowing that neither one of them were very good musicians, but were still able to have a whale of a good time, I decided I was missing out and recovered an old Marine Band of my own I had discarded when I was 11 or 12 years old. Within no time I had figured out a few tricks like train whistles and bending notes. I was hooked and began to play several hours a day. I had a job as a delivery boy for an auto parts store and drove a truck which had no radio, so I started carrying the harmonica and practicing on my delivery route. The job only lasted 6 months, but I played so incessantly that I was pretty good at the end of this period. Within a couple of years I was starting to play it on stage.
Who were your early influences?
Probably my earliest influence was Jimmy Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who played quite a bit on the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. His style was more of a country blues approach. Sonny Terry completely mesmerized me with his rhythmic chops, syncopated hoots and totally unique country blues style. Of course when I first heard Charlie McCoy it was like discovering a new world. Charlie's playing was so sophisticated, clean and technically proficient. He was so precise with his bends. Plus he had all these neat solo albums featuring the harmonica playing familiar country hits of the day. So I began to discover the melodic possibilities of the diatonic harmonica and how to play melodically in the cross harp or 2nd position. My next big influence was Norton Buffalo who was like a pop version of Charlie only with more dazzling chops, being equally adept at diatonic and chromatic. In the early 80's I was introduced to Larry Adler and his variety of tonal sounds challenged me to try and color more with the diatonic even though Larry was doing everything on chromatic. Though I'm not a very good chromatic player, my favorite practitioners are Toots Thielman and Stevie Wonder, both amazing stylists.
How much do you practice?
Early on I had time to practice for hours on end, but now it's rare that I find even an hour to play. But usually once or twice a week I'll pick up a harmonica and work out for as long as possible.
Do you read music?
No. I play by ear. That's not to say I don't have some rudimentary musical knowledge. Along the way, I've sort of educated myself with some basic theory that helps me understand things like keys, positions, intervals, chord progressions, etc… Most of this I've learned as a guitarist and singer which helped me early on to progress rapidly on the harmonica.
What do you concentrate on when you practice?
I usually warm up by playing a fiddle tune or something else lively and challenging. Then I might improvise in a bluesy idiom for awhile. I often try to learn a new melody that I've not tried before. Fiddle tunes are great to learn because they are usually melodically and rhythmically challenging. I also like to play along with recorded music that doesn't have a harmonica featured, like a blues or a bluegrass CD. I often get new ideas from listening to other instruments being played by good soloists. I generally don't like to play along with other harp players (on CD), although when I was first learning that's about all I did. But after I had gotten proficient I wanted to find my own style and voice on the harmonica, so I started listening to and playing along with horn players, fiddle players, guitarists, etc…
What positions do you use?
I generally prefer 2nd position or cross harp. But will often play a tune in 1st position especially if I'm trying to play something in a pretty or a lyrical manner – it just depends on the song really. If a tune can benefit from bluesy phrasings, slurs and bent notes, then I'll obviously work it out in 2nd position, but something sweet and pretty like Beautiful Dreamer just seems to dictate 1st position. I guess it really depends on the arrangement of a tune as to which position I'll use. I really haven't explored much of the other positions, but will occasionally stumble across something that intrigues me. I often find that the so-called country tuned diatonics help me play melodic tunes in 2nd position, for example, Danny Boy or a fiddle tune like Blackberry Blossom.
(note: see recommendations for Buddy's recorded examples -ed.)
Do you teach?
Not on any kind of one on one basis, but I do get to give workshops from time to time. In recent years I've been invited to some harmonica festivals like the Buckeye State Harmonica Festival and the SPAH convention, where I've performed and conducted workshops on everything from playing fiddle tunes on the harp to harmonica etiquette. I've been asked to give harmonica demonstrations from time to time at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame, and sometimes on the road I'll do workshops or demonstrations in alliance with local harmonica clubs or when I am with a group for several days at a time. All of these opportunities are lots of fun, and I learn a lot myself in the process.
Who are your favorite harmonicists?
I still love Little Walter when it comes to blues. I love what Jerry Portney did on Eric Clapton's blues album a few years ago. I think Mark Graham is really a great folk/blues player. His work with Tim O'Brien is exceptional and he has a great solo CD. Brendan Powers is phenomenal. I've got a CD of his where he plays nothing but Irish fiddle music and he's incredible on diatonic and chromatic. I love Larry Adler and Toot Thielman but their music is basically beyond me – I just listen and marvel. And hands down, Stevie Wonder is the most soulful player on the planet, probably the greatest chromatic stylist of all time in my opinion.