Blues Access Winter 2000
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Dear Dr. Harpo

Stubbing out his Marlboro Menthol that he had soaked in Compound W, Harpo pitches a fit. He was low and outside, so the batter walks. You should too, if you have the neural equipment to keep your ears from crashing into each other like knee cymbals on a one-man band. He can get weird when wired on this doctor-proven combination of ingredients with his own special blend of herbs and spices.

He is playing with every combination that he can pour, scrape or puncture, looking for the potion that turned Jerry Lewis into Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor. The Oral Fixator is in a fit of pique because this latest assemblage caused his voice to assume the timbre of a Whoopie Cushion. An attempt to call 911 would have been mildly amusing had it not been that the dispatcher, analyzing the call to be a plea for help from a patron of the Ipecac Cafe whose Heimlich Maneuver went so, so wrong, sent the paramedics to the address on caller ID.

After attempts to perform CPR resulted in a very rude version of the Anvil Chorus, they siphoned a brace of Goodyís Powders down his craw, chased by a healthy draught of seltzer. A final blast of 6.3 magnitude as recorded on seismographs in La Jolla ensued, and the waves in the sea of confusion that is the Man Who Scuffs in Harpoís Slippers settled to a mirror sheen.

Rummaging about in the Crosley for edible morsels to fill his rejuvenated gullet, he spies a handful of epistles from yet more lost souls and heels. We peer over his well-rounded shoulders. Hey, you gonna eat that?

Dear Dr. Harpo,

I have a technical problem that concerns me. I have collected various pieces of antique equipment for the band Iím in to use. We have all tube-driven stuff, even our P.A. amp. Hereís the problem: When I am holding my harp mic in my hand, if I get too close to the vocal mic, I get one hell of a shock! Not all of the time, mind you, but often enough to concern me. I feel like a geek, jumping around like a madman every time I have this happen. Any suggestions?

Angelo "Dritto" Avanti
Cleveland, OH

After attaching curb feelers to his muk-luks, the Van De Graaff Degenerator scuffs to the keyboard, honking quietly in a minor key. We should pull over and let him pass Ö

Dear Dritto,

Do us both a favor and donít play outside with this setup if itís raining. The lights will dim all over your neighborhood like an old Cagney prison flick, and your remains will have a ído like Sally Struthers. You are not grounded, in more ways than one. Has it occurred to you that in addition to being uncomfortable for your dental work, your present state of electrical disrepair could bring joy to the beneficiaries of your life insurance? DO NOT use this set-up again in its present state, unless you are tired of your present state. Danger, Will Robinson!

You are providing a handy shortcut for the electrical charge that is powering your various pieces of equipment. Older equipment had those two-pronged plugs, maybe even the kind that arenít different sizes on each blade, so you can plug them in any which way, upside down, whatever chances to happen. Ever notice that some plugs have three pieces on them? Probably not, if youíve taken enough jolts. The third prong gives the current that drives the equipment another route to take besides through you. The pathway is shorter (yes, as in short-circuit, but this is different), and electricity is plenty peppy but very efficient as to how far it wants to travel. If you have a ground, the electricity opts for the shorter circuit and heads into the wall (and thus harmlessly away from you) after doing its work in your mic, amp, P.A. vocal mic and whatever else is hooked up to the juice.

All of the stuff that you plug in has to be grounded. Obviously, some or all of your gear is not. This same problem was remedied differently in the old two-prong days. Some players would string a ground wire festively around from mike-stand to mike-stand on stage, which works okay but is not too secure ó itís easy to trip over and disconnect accidentally.

Older amps sometimes had "ground" switches to reverse the polarity of the current, which was supposed to solve the problem. But the next problem was, you might have to take a jolt to know that you need to switch the polarity. Another trick was to turn the plug over in the socket, which also switched the polarity. While all of these are effective to some degree, they all kind of suck, so ignore everything you just read unless youíre already doing some of these rudimentary maneuvers. If youíre doing those mischievous make-shift patch-up solutions, wise up and fix it, please.

Let me tell you a story. There was a band I knew back in the í60s that had this problem come up all the time. One night they were playing at a frat party and a kegophilic brother lumbered up toward the band, wanting to sing "Louie, Louie." He knew itís best sung by drunks, so that it sounds like the original. However, this character hip-checked the mike-stand of the bass player, dislodging the ring around-the-sound-system jerry-rigged ground that they were using. The bass player saunters up to sing "Hot Nuts," their show-stopper, and kisses the microphone while touching his bass strings. He bolts back from the offending mic, swinging his Precision bass like Conan, and whacks the rhythm guitarist right in the mouth with the tuning head, knocking out his front teeth. They still laugh about that one. Now he can spit with his mouth closed. Did you ever hear of Keith Relf?

The fix for this is easy. Get a competent electrician to change all of the cords and plugs on your equipment to three-prong setups. It isnít difficult or expensive ó a lot cheaper than a partial plate cost our friend above. Then, all of the folderol that you used to have to go through to keep from getting fried will be unnecessary. Still shouldnít play in the rain, though. Soaking your harps shortens their lifespan.

Dear Dr. Harpo,

I found a cool old (I mean serious antique!) mic, in a box with a bunch of old funky electronic stuff at a flea market. It has a great tone, really stinky, just what I was looking for. I am having a problem with playing out with it, though, and maybe you can help me. I canít get the volume that I expect out of it, especially when I use my 20-foot cord on stage. I do that to counter feedback, but I canít get loud enough to feed back with this rig. What gives?

Artie Bolens,
Toronto, Canada

In a failed attempt to regain his usual pear-like vocal tones, Harpo sprays numerous clouds of Paul Mitchell Volumizer into his air intake, but to no avail. He stops to admire his appreciably larger uvula with a hand mirror, but then steels himself to the task of throwing a rope of hope to poor muffled Bolens. Wait, itís easier to type than it is to heft a lanyard, so he types his way out of this one Ö

Dear Artie,

I would wager a couple of loonies that you grabbed a box containing a low-impedance microphone. It would explain why you lose oomph with a long cord. The impedance refers to the amount of signal that the mic produces; a low-impedance mic gives a smaller signal than a high-impedance one does. Add to that the decay of that wimpy signal over the length of a long cord, especially if it has crummy connectors or is not really well-shielded, and you have the sound of a wax-paper and comb instead of Big Walter Horton coming out of your amp. What to do, what to do?

Some mics are switchable from low to high impedance. Check with your local electro-genius at a music store. If not, there are converters that plug into the mic cords to switch their impedance, but they cost a bit ó around 20 bucks. Also, examine the cords that youíre using. Poor-quality cords or connections, or old and beat-up ones that have some frayed connections, canít hold the juice like they should. Get up off of some of your allowance and spring for some good cords, and check the connectors on the plugs. You might even want to go for the gold connectors, if youíre flush. Best conductor in the world, but pricey. Last, check that the connections inside your antique mic are good and solid, as well as the connection to the micís jack for the plug to your cord to your amp to your audience. Could you please turn it down???

Harpo fades like a cheap suit in bleach. Roll credits, bring up the lights. Till next time, either behave or take clear pictures and good notes.

Amazing, isnít it, how such a tiny instrument can cause such perplexing problems. If your Marine Band is making you mental or your chromatic is creating a crack in your cranium, mail a missive to the master of mouthharp maunderings and heíll make a response on his next pass through the known universe.

Dr. Harpo
1455 Chestnut Place
Boulder, CO 80304



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