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August 12, 2016 [LINK / comment]

Rock star? Playing guitar in public

Inspired in part by friends from church who often play at parties or music festivals (see the photo below), I have been starting to play guitar in public over the last few months. "You're never to old to start!" Every Wednesday, Queen City Brewing hosts Open Mic Night, cosponsored by the Staunton Music Guild, which I "joined" a few years ago. (The SMG is very informal as an organization, but they do sponsor young musicians and hold occasional public events.) Fritz Horisk is the master of ceremonies, and plays guitar as well. I played there once in March, twice last month, and last Wednesday.

Harvest Band, Peace Day 2014

The "Harvest Band"* performs for Peace Day 2014, September 21, at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton. We were playing Bob Dylan's "Blowing In the Wind," a popular protest song from the 1960s. It was the first time I played harmonica in public. On the left is Randy Hamblett (banjo), in back is Colin Hester (bass), and on the right is Matthew Poteat (mandolin). Thanks to Jacqueline for taking the photo.

* The "Harvest Band" is what we folk musicians call ourselves whenever we perform at Emmanuel Episcopal Church services. It's been over a year since the last time we did that, however.

My first Open Mic Night was back in March, during spring break. Otherwise, my class schedule conflicted with Wednesday nights. My first time didn't go so well, as my brain somehow froze and I forgot chords on two of the songs ("Colorado Song" and "Bitter Creek"), despite the fact that I knew those very well. I guess that's what they call stage fright. I also had a hard time changing the tuning on two of the strings after the first song. Part of the reason for being flustered was that I forgot to bring my harmonicas, forcing me to change my set list at the last minute. I at least managed a decent job on "Tequila Sunrise."

I planned to resume playing in late May or June, but I didn't do a second appearance until July 13. This time I had my harmonicas with me, and was accompanied by my loyal and supportive wife Jacqueline. There weren't many people there, however, probably just 10-12, including the musical performers. The second and third songs ("Standing On the Rock" and "Follow You Down") went pretty well, but I had problems with the other two, hitting the right harmonica notes on "Country Girl" and having a hard time reaching high notes singing on "Doolin' Dalton."

My third appearance was on July 20, and Jacqueline was there along with a friend and another guy. A whole entourage! There was a big crowd there that night, and we had good food from one of the mobile kitchen startup businesses that are becoming popular nowadays. Plus the great-tasting beer and ale brewed on the premises by the Queen City folks. I just about nailed all three songs, although I didn't quite get all the harmonica notes on "Long Train Running." (That one sounds awesome, if I do say so myself.)

My [fourth]* appearance was on August 10, two nights ago, and Jacqueline was there once again. The harmonica on "Ring of Fire" takes the place of the brass quartet which Johnny Cash used on the original recording, and it yields a pretty good effect. (I have learned to play harmonica instead of the "original" instruments on many other songs, some of which might surprise you.) Sad to say, I missed a few notes on "Harvest Moon," which is a shame, since it's a beautiful song. But the last two songs by one of my favorite groups came across pretty well, even though they were not familiar to folks in the audience.

I look forward to playing at Open Mic Night in the weeks to come, time permitting, and perhaps at some other public venues. From that Nickelback song: "Hey, hey, I wanna be a rock star!" smile

* Corrected on August 27; originally I wrote "third."

Learning to play the harmonica

About three years ago I started learning how to play the harmonica, and I'm gradually getting better at it. Given the fact that I have been a big fan of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils since the very beginning (I saw them in concert in Vermillion, South Dakota in the fall of 1974), it is odd that it took me so long, since the harmonica is one of their "signature" instruments. So, I finally bought myself a harmonica, a cheapo Hohner model in the key of C. Many songs I play have a harmonica part in them, including ones by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, and it sounds much better playing the guitar simultaneously with a harmonica. Within a few months, I was ready for better-quality models, which cost about $15 to $18. Within a year, I was proficient enough to play in public. (See photo above.) Now I am sufficiently particular to want high-quality harmonicas, which cost about $40. I already have two Hohner Marine Band models ("D" and "E"), and two Lee Oscar models ("A" and "G"). I need to get a high-quality "C" harmonica, and eventually a "Bb" and "F" as well.

One big step forward for me was getting a suitable harmonica case, enabling me to switch between different harmonicas quickly when needed. Since I couldn't find one that was suitable for my needs (a full set of seven harmonicas plus the holder), I decided to "do it myself":

Harmonica case open

The custom-designed harmonica case which I built in March 2014, using a cigar box purchased at an antique store, plus materials purchased from Michaels craft store in Waynesboro and the Tru Valu hardware store in downtown Staunton.

Almost all harmonicas are in a major scale, and here are the common keys:

Cross-harp / second position keys (where the root note of the scale is drawn rather than blown) are in parentheses, and corresponding minor keys are in brackets.

Standard harmonicas have ten holes, each of which plays a different note when drawn rather than blown. When blowing, the major triad of the chord occur in succession. For example, in a "C" harmonica, the blow notes are C - E - G repeated three times at successively higher octaves, plus a high C. Since each adjacent pair of notes is by definition part of the same chord, you can slide up and down while blowing, and it will sound OK.

Drawing notes is a different matter, however. Because there needs to be at least one complete octave scale in order to play most songs, there are some irregularities and "gaps" between some of the holes. As the table below shows, most adjacent note pairs are part of a chordal harmony, with one big exception: #6 and #7! They are only one note apart (A and B, in a "C" key harmonica), and there are no chords with adjacent notes, other than 7th chords and other chords with a fourth note. Usually, it doesn't matter if you are trying to play a particular note but also get an adjacent note, since they are generally in harmony. You have to learn to avoid drawing on #6 and #7 simultaneously, because it will sound terrible!

Notes in a "C" harmonica
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
DIFF. +1 +1.5 +2 +1 +.5 +1 -.5 -1 -1 -1.5

The bottom line shows the difference between blown notes vs. drawn notes. ("1" = a full note, or two half steps on a fretboard.) As you will notice, the six holes on the left (#1 - #6) produce higher notes when drawn (compared to when blown), while the four holes on the right (#7 - #10) produce lower notes when drawn.

I knew I was making progress when I learned how to "bend" notes. That's the effect where the note drops down a half step or so and then returns, and it's achieved by carefully adjusting the pressure while you are drawing. Your tongue and lips need to be pursed, and it's tricky at first, but eventually it becomes easy. The opening harmonica part in "Follow You Down" is a perfect example. Other songs among my set lists above that feature "bent" notes are "Country Girl" and "Doolin' Dalton." (Bending while blowing is too hard to do without great skill, I have learned.)

Blues Travelers concert

A further inspiration for my harmonica playing was seeing the Blues Travelers postgame concert at Nationals Park on June 8, 2014. The group's leader, John Popper, is a phenomenal harmonica player. I'd love to learn how to play some of that group's songs (such as "The Runaround"), but the problem is that he changes notes much more quickly than I can.

Blues Travelers - John Popper

John Popper, leader of the Blues Travelers at Nationals Park, June 8, 2014.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 27 Aug 2016, 12: 41 AM

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