Blues Access Spring 2000
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Dear Dr. Harpo

Oh, to feel the proud thrum of oneís heart in oneís breast as a parade passes by. Or, better yet, to feel the thrum of that saucy little number on the float passing by. Miss Kefir, whatta dish! Surrounded by a coterie of nubiles decked out as various very friendly bacteriae, he can only dream that she, resplendent in a lamé Queen of the Single Cells motif, would thrust a comely pseudopod his way. But, alack, Harpo watches her ribosomes retreat to frantic acclaim as she tosses cubes of agar-agar to her adoring throng. He bleats plaintively, to her unheeding and ever-changing shape. Whatta gal! But, ho!

And ho again. His heart is stirred (not shaken) in the opposite direction by the adenoidal blast from twin klaghorns mounted on a four-door Henry J containing the forms of the paid political announcer ó prattling on like a tobacco auctioneer on his third box of No-Doz ó and the amorphous and ever-changing shape of this fallís heir-apparent to the nomination for County Seat. He is adorned with a padded seat around his neck like a horse collar, accessorized appropriately to create a crowd-pleasing effect. Quel ensemble, mumble the onlookers, but Harpo is smitten with the Sound, not the fury. That tone! What mid-range!

What a honk! What do you think theyíll take for that Henry J, and can I drive it on stage on my next gig? He hoists himself surreptitiously onto the jitneyís Continental kit, nestling down next to the spare. As the parade creeps along, so does our tale. He takes a left at his thrumming ventricles, and produces the latest accumulated distress missives that he had secreted in his inside breast pocket this forenoon. He opens, he reads, he crawls on his belly like a reptile Ö

Dear Dr. Harpo,

First of all, I love what you are doing in BLUES ACCESS magazine. I would just like to say this: Everybody now is so big on trying to sound like Little Walter using solid state amps with big speakers.

And they just love that JT 30 or the 520 D. But the funny thing is, Walter played through a dynamic mic and an amp with eight-inch speakers. I was always told by people like Cotton, Junior Wells and others that Walter used Shure 545s and a Danelectro Commando amp. Iím sure he used other stuff, but all the pictures I have gotten of him, thatís the mic he is using. Doc, what do you think about that? Do you know any different, or did I learn the right things over the past 25 years? Can you please respond? Thanks a lot.

Tom E. Harp

Dear Tom,

Glad that you enjoy the column ó itís a pleasure to do detective work on things harmonical, especially for avid players like yourself. Did Walter Jacobs used a dynamic mic, a Danelectro Commando amp, or both? I donít know for sure, as I was 15 when he died. Like you, I rely on the reports of his contemporaries and the theories of his scholars rather than first-hand personal knowledge. The reports are different, depending on whom you talk to. I have heard that Walter changed equipment frequently and used both crystal and dynamic mics. I have also heard of about a half-dozen or more players who swear that they have Little Walterís mic, which may be partly true. He was a pioneer regarding technology, so I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. He probably used every available amp and mic combination that he could lay his hands on.

Hell, we all do that, and he was at least as innovative as any player ever was.

In my own research, I traced down the little mic that he is holding in the cute picture of him with a harp in one hand and a small cylindrical mic in the other, looking coyly up at the photographer. That mic looks similar to the Shure 545 (most notably used by Paul Butterfield) but is a model 777. I found out that it was a lavaliere mic, meant to be attached to a lanyard and hung around your neck. It had a number of different cartridges that could be ordered, both crystal and dynamic elements being options. This may be the mic that you are thinking of. Actually, for a long time, various cartridges were available in the same Shure casing, like the Green/Brown/Silver Bullet mics that are also prized harp mics. Unfortunately, these mics are way out of production, but check with Tomís Mics for this and other antique mics.

As to amps, I have heard, just as you have, about the Danelectro amps, as well as National amps with lots of very small speakers (6s or 8s) being Walterís choice. Other reports suggest two Fender Concert/Bassman setups (type A, with 4x10s) hooked up with a split cord, one on either side of the stage. I even heard a story about him playing through a Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder. Unfortunately, I donít think that there is a definitive answer because of the amount of time thatís elapsed, the minimal records that were kept, and the subjectiveness of human memory. You have to go with probabilities on this question because, as far as I know, there is no absolutely right answer that can be verified. I would caution you to question anyone who offers to sell you the absolutely genuine stuff that Walter used as to whether they have a recipe for making gold from lead, or any $19.95 Rolex watches. Good luck!

Dear Dr. Harpo,

My name is Jon Millet and I think I play harp pretty well, but I have no idea how to get my name out, or even start or join a band. Could you give me any names of people who could help me, or suggest how I might get started in the business? I understand youíre a busy man and probably canít respond, but I thank you anyway.

Jon Millet

Dear Jon,

Your problem is very common, and peculiar to harp players. We are seen as a nice addition to bands, sort of like stuff that J.C. Whitney sells for cars. Sure, wide whitewalls are cool, and fender skirts look keen, but their practical addition to the overall performance has yet to be proven. Thatís what harp players have to do, on an individual basis. You have to make yourself attractive as a band member who will take the band farther than they are now. As Dear Abby might tell you, those who would be loved must become loveable.

How does a nice guy from wherever-it-is that youíre from get attractive to bands? Well, try to project yourself into the other playersí point of view.

They want someone who likes the same type of music that they do. They want someone who is going to be diplomatic in the choice of material to play and in the respect that he/she shows for other players and vocalists with regard to volume and knowing when to shut up ó someone who is thoughtful, courteous Ö well, you know, loveable. Not a pain in the ass to be around and play music with. More bands break up over personalities than ever, ever break up over the real issues, like music. There is only one Ozzy Osborne, and letís keep it that way.

In addition to enhancing the personnel of the band with your personal presence, there is the issue of how much your musical voice will add to a band. Harp players usually wind up only in blues bands, with rare exceptions like Blues Traveler, War and the J Geils Band. Those players had a unique take on playing harp, so they were more than a novelty item ó they were an important segment of the bandís overall sound.

Where did you say youíre from? If youíre from a city, there is already a music scene in your area, and probably a listing of bands looking for personnel in some alternative newspaper or other, like the Boston Phoenix, fírinstance.

For that matter, most cities have blues clubs, or, at least, venues for blues acts. There might be a bulletin board in that same club for musicians to hook up with each other. The city probably has jam sessions for electric instrument players, and every bunch of players can thrash out a basic I-IV-V progression for you to play over. The more visible you become, the greater your chances of finding a situation that works for you.

Check out the music stores, also. Musicians always need gear or repairs, so there is a constant stream of gossip about the local music scene to be had if you go where the musicians go when they are not on stage. No matter how big or small your community is, the musical community tends to be a tight-knit culture. If you can break into the scene by hanging around and sitting in as many times as you can manage, itís just a matter of time until you will be picking and choosing from a multitude of opportunities.

If you want to go professional, thatís a different challenge entirely from simply getting into a band. Any musician will tell you that music is either a very enjoyable and expensive hobby, or a very difficult way to try and eke out a living. Thatís a subject for another column, especially as regards playing harp. Let us know how it turns out, and good luck!I have been learning to play the harp for years. I have all kinds of instruction books and tapes. (The best is Bluesharp Breakdown by Norman Ives.) I can play "Walterís Boogie" and "Easy," but it is not the same as it would be with a band, and I donít intend to play in one. I would like to learn how to play country blues. Who would you recommend I listen to, and how do you practice? Do you always copy songs, or are there any exercises you could do to learn? Do you have any other recommendations? Just for the record, I have a Pignose amplifier and a JT 30 microphone. If I crank it up it sounds good.

Thanks for your time and any advice you can give me.

Dear Dr. Harpo,

I have been learning to play the harp for years. I have all kinds of instruction books and tapes. (The best is Bluesharp Breakdown by Norman Ives.) I can play "Walterís Boogie" and "Easy," but it is not the same as it would be with a band, and I donít intend to play in one. I would like to learn how to play country blues. Who would you recommend I listen to, and how do you practice? Do you always copy songs, or are there any exercises you could do to learn? Do you have any other recommendations? Just for the record, I have a Pignose amplifier and a JT 30 microphone. If I crank it up it sounds good.

Thanks for your time and any advice you can give me.


Dear Scott,

Lots of questions, and big ones, for such a short note! As to your question about country blues, there is none better than Sonny Terry, and he cut a hell of a lot of vinyl. Also, listen to John Hammond and Taj Mahal, two modern bluesmen who walk the line between country and amplified harp. Arguably the best acoustic harp player overall, in my opinion, is Rice Miller, also known as Sonny Boy Williamson. He played into a microphone but had an acoustic quality to his playing. He didnít cup the mic and overdrive it, like the other amplified players do. Also check out Jimmy Reed, for the same applies to him regarding playing "acoustically" through a mic.

As to practicing, I hate to practice. I love to play, so I am the wrong one to ask about doing exercises, studying scales and otherwise acting like a disciplined musician. What works for me is to find a song that I want to play and just hammer away at it until I can duplicate the same notes, rhythm, tone and mood of the recording. What works well for this type of "practice" is one of the nifty playback machines that you can use to slow down a recording while maintaining the same pitch an octave lower. There are now numerous ones on the market. Check out the ads in BA for sources. I figure if I learn something in the context of a song, Iíve learned it in an applied context, not as a dry academic exercise. Quick, do you remember the capitols of all of the states? If you do, learn to sight-read and check out the new books from Kevinís Harps for scales for harp players.

If you want to play a whole lot of acoustic music, look around for country and bluegrass groups that welcome sitters-in. That could be a real challenge for you, to get out of a strict blues idiom and learn how to back up players in major keys instead of the strict pentatonic scale-based music that a lot of blues musicians stick to. Just as long as you remember that your home is on the Delta. Enjoy, already!

So ends another day for our harmonical superhero, as he slips stealthily into the rear seat of that passing Henry J, hoping for heavy traffic so he can hear that horn honk one moí time. Hey, whatever gets you off. And if the driver will just slow down a bit, heíll get off right here.

Send your desperate dispatches to the dysfunctional Doc of the twisted tongue block via ethereal mail to But if, like Harpo himself, you find email too impersonal ó at least until they figure out a way to include small denomination unmarked bills with it ó you can kite an envelope to him:

Dr. Harpo
1455 Chestnut Place
Boulder, CO 80304



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