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June 2016 Articles
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Issue: June 2016

I've Got A Mind To Ramble
By Rick Cain

Harp School

I don't remember the first time I ever played a harmonica. My mother told me my grandfather had an old one he gave me, but I have no memory of that. I do remember when I was in high school, a friend gave me one that his father had and I started fooling with it, trying to play "Love Me Do" to the Beatles song on the radio. The British invasion turned me on to blues music and I started listening to the original artists and trying to learn how to get the tone and licks those guys had.

Fast forward five years or so and a couple of J Geils concerts and I was hooked. I kept a harp in my pocket and played in the car or whenever I could get a few minutes alone. Got to where I thought I could play a little. So I got myself into a band.

The Fat City Band was born at a Labor Day party on a farm some friends and I owned. A lot of local musicians were there and people played all night. Later that week, George Mill, a wonderful guitar player (and brother of the great trumpet player Andy Mill), called and said he was putting a band together and asked me to join. We called the band Fat City after the name of my farm. We were together for a couple of years, with some success, and it was during that period that I met Lamont Gillespie, who was fronting the first incarnation of the Stray Cat Band. Lamont was the first cat I knew who was SERIOUS about playing the harmonica. We played in all the same venues, became friends and learned a lot about watching and listening to him play.

After Fat City broke up, I moved to Austin, Texas for a couple of years and, while I was there, got to meet and play with many great and well-known musicians. By then I thought I was well on my way to being a good harmonica player. Came back to Kentucky and put together the KingBees with Jim Haswell and John Carby and we've been together ever since.

I met Jim Rosen and had several conversations about playing that I didn't really understand, because to me playing harp seemed more instinctual rather than technical. Jim was the real deal and a dynamic harp player. I wish I had gotten to know him better. The 'Bees have been fortunate to play with some real musical icons but the person who influenced me and inspired me the most was the late Pat Ramsey.

I didn't know who Pat was until we opened for him at Stevie Ray's several times. Pat was the best harp player I ever heard and could do things I had no idea could be done with a ten-hole harmonica. That's when I started to realize I didn't know much about playing that thing. During one of our conversations, Pat mentioned to me that his protege, Jason Ricci, was playing with Big Al and the Heavyweights. After Pat passed, I started checking Jason out and came to realize that not only is he perhaps the best harmonica player in the world, he also knows more about the instrument and theory as it pertains to the harp than anyone I know of. All of the above is a long-winded intro to my decision to go to the 2016 Harmonica Collective, or "Harp School," in Indianapolis, Indiana."

The Harmonica Collective was founded by Jason Ricci as a forum to teach harp players of varying levels of expertise both playing lessons and theory. He assembled an outstanding group of players as teachers, including Winslow Yerxa, Ross Garren, PT Gazell and Buzz Krantz, who wrote the "Harmonica for Dummies" book. There were two tracks; one for individual work on basic techniques and another for more advanced players. The collective lasted three days and ran from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. every day. It was attended by about 30 people from all over the country and one guy from Sweden. One guy drove to Indianapolis from Oregon. These were some serious harmonica nerds.

Jason brought his band, the Bad Kind, from New Orleans and during lunch, everyone took turns playing with them, the object being to show the ones with no experience how to communicate to the band how you want a song to be played. In the evenings, Jason and the Bad Kind played a show, then had a jam. One night, L. D. Miller played a set. L. D. is a twenty-two-year-old harp phenom who finished 2nd on America's Got Talent when he was 12 and had his own show in Vegas shortly after that. If you're not familiar with him, check him out. He's a serious talent.

The meat of the Collective, though, was the workshops. I never have thought I was a great harp player, but I thought I was okay to pretty good. It didn't take me long to realize I've been faking it. Without getting too technical, ten-hole diatonic harmonicas come tuned to specific keys. I have always played what is commonly known as cross, or second position harp; that is a harp tuned four keys up from the song being played. With this technique, one can play all the notes available on the harmonica. There are, however many other positions available and one can, in fact, play in every key on the same harp if one knows how to do that, which I do not. But there were workshops on playing in many different positions which can make a given song sound very different depending on which position one chooses to play.

Playing in different positions is not intuitive because only certain notes on the harp work, depending on the key and what position the player chooses. There were workshops on third position, fourth and fifth positions, first and secolnd positions on the chromatic harmonica and fifth position minor. There was a workshop on phrasing, one on mastering different song structures and one on maintenance and tuning the instrument.

The workshops that worked best for me were those discussing alternate positions. There are some very good harp players who only play in second position, but all the great ones I have met or heard know how to play in many different positions, which enables them to give similar songs very different sounds. I'm still working on it.

P.S: I don't know if Jason is going to do another one of these, but if he does, I'm going to try to get him to have it in Louisville. There were some problems in Indy and I think if he will have it here, I might be able to piggy back a gig for him at Stevie Ray's or some other venue. If he has another, I urge all the local harp players at every level to attend. Guarantee you'll learn something.

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