Written by Guest Author – Ross Garren
In this series of articles, I’ll provide insights gleaned from my work as a studio harmonica player in Los Angeles, the recording capital of the world. For this first installment, I’ll share a few of my professional ideals and goals while also painting a picture of the recording work I had while writing this article.
“Do you have a bass harmonica?” Yes!
“Can you improvise over chord changes?” Definitely!
“Can you read music?” Absolutely!
“Can you make that sound more ‘cowboy’”? You got it, pardner!
The quintessential studio musician is versatile. When I first began pursuing studio work, I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with the great Tommy Morgan. His most memorable piece of advice was that when a client asks, the answer is always “yes”.
In other words, if you want full-time work, you must provide different musical services to stay busy. I’ve prioritized and cultivated versatility to the point where I contribute not just as a harmonicist, but also as keyboardist, programmer, composer, or arranger as the opportunities arise.
I want my clients to feel that in addition to handling their harmonica needs, they can count on me to bring something special to their projects, even if they don’t yet know what that will be. In other words, I’m working toward inimitability — I want them to call me because no one else can do exactly what I do. Not satisfied merely to be competent in a variety of settings, I’ve spent years seeking “the magic”, that amazing sound, emotion-drenched performance, insightful note choice, etc. that makes the music impactful and memorable. We each have our own tastes and experiences that lead us to a singular skill set and artistry if we follow the path for long enough. My versatility makes me effective in many musical situations, and my artistry brings uniqueness and personality into my musicianship.
“I’m out of town, but can you record something for me?” Yes!
“I need something tracked by the end of the day. Can you do that?” Yes!
“I don’t have the budget for a studio, but I can pay you to record.” Yes!
My home studio has increased my versatility, and it’s an investment that quickly paid for itself. My goal is to have my recording quality be comparable to that of a top studio. In the same way, I practice to improve my playing; I’m always building my studio setup and researching amps, mics, effects, recording gear, and harmonicas. Additionally, I’m constantly honing my engineering skills to achieve higher levels of quality, character, and artistry.
Reputations take years to build, but can be unmade in a matter of minutes. The people I’m working with must see I’m dependable and creative, a team player, I contribute to positive working environments, and I understand my roles in each project. Making music is a pleasure, and in the rare instances when it’s not, there’s always a silver lining or a chance for personal growth. If a client is frustrating to work with, there isn’t adequate time, my gear fails me, the music isn’t to my taste, or I’m asked to play in a way I dislike or is outside of my comfort zone, within that struggle there’s an opportunity to be a true professional. No matter what, I always strive to do the best I can with a positive attitude.
An Excerpt from the Studio Diary
During the same weekend I began writing this article, I got four calls to record for three different artists. And as luck would have it, I was out of town. The first was for noted Italian film composer Andrea Morricone (Cinema Paradiso). He needed chromatic harmonica recorded that weekend. We agreed that the moment I got off the plane Sunday, I’d head home and send him a track or two from my home studio. There was no written part and the only instruction I was given was for it to be “beautiful chromatic harmonica”. Using this basic instruction, I left the rest to my instincts. Session one: done.
The second call was from music editor, composer, and well-known smooth jazz artist Nils Jiptner (television’s Weeds). Given our schedules, we decided it would be best for me to track from home the following Saturday. Nils knew of me through my work with film composer Kathryn Bostic. For this session, he was looking for a similar approach to what I had taken on Kathryn’s recording. Kathryn’s piece had been entirely acoustic and Nils’ was totally electric, so I gave him a few different tracks to choose from using bass harp and various diatonics. Because his song was so different from Kathryn’s, I wanted to make sure he had enough material to choose from and I even included one amplified track in case it better fit the musical context. Session two: done.
The same day I recorded for Nils, Andrea Morricone’s producer, Adam Gust, invited me to Gigantor Studios to track diatonic, chromatic, and some keyboards on a number of pieces he was working on for Andrea. Adam didn’t have many preconceived harmonica parts in mind, so being in the same room was just the environment we needed in order to experiment and dialogue until we got what he needed. Session three: done.
The final call I received was to revise some sparse Americana-flavored diatonic and bass harp tracks I had recently recorded for professional baseball coach and singer-songwriter, Nate Trosky. Subsequently, Nate decided he wanted a more active and dramatic diatonic part. We agreed that I would track shortly after arriving in Montana (with my mobile recording setup in tow), where I would be playing harmonica in productions of the musicals Big River (Roger Miller) and Tommy (Pete Townshend). The revision was simple, as we already had the sound and style dialed in, and all we needed to do was adjust the shape and activity of the part. Session four: done.
As you can see, my work is quite varied and each job is unique. I rely on my ability to play in different styles, to record and engineer my own tracks, all while putting as much soul and style as I can muster into every take. It’s my hope that the positivity, love of music, and professional attitude I bring keeps the calls coming and the pursuit of a deeper artistry alive.
In my next article, I’ll share my experiences inside these sessions and the approaches I’ve found most effective to ensure a good result. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please visit www.RossGarren.com to hear examples of my work, and while you’re there, I hope you take the time to send me an email.
Ross Garren is a freelance harmonica player in Los Angeles, California and a Seydel and Lone Wolf Blues Company Artist. More information at www.RossGarren.com.