Introduction to Studio Harmonica Work, Part 2

In the first article in this series, I shared with you a few of the overarching ideals I strive for as a working studio musician. Here are my thoughts on how to be effective in the studio. The art and craft of recording is something I’m constantly honing and exploring, and these are a few of the most invaluable (and often obvious!) tips that have helped me succeed.

Prepare for Success

Be prepared. Will you need an amp? Effects pedals? Are your harps in proper working order? Are there any demos, specific recordings/players, or styles that can be referenced for the session? Occasionally, I’ll get requests to do something unusual, challenging, or requiring special practice. A little forewarning can be the difference between a successful or an embarrassing session.

Also, be aware that sometimes even experienced musicians may not know exactly what they want, and part of your job will be to help them clarify their musical vision. I’ve done numerous sessions where the client told me they wanted chromatic harmonica, but we ultimately used diatonic, or the client had never heard a bass harp before, but they ended up falling in love with it and featuring it prominently. I’ve even done sessions where they asked for acoustic harmonica, but ended up settling on a raucous amplified take. It can be hard to predict how the session will go and it’s best to be overprepared!

Check Your Ego at the Door

We all have different ideas about who we are as artists and what we consider meaningful music and exceptional playing. It’s easy to define a successful musical activity by whether you liked the music or the performance. However, when it comes to studio work, success isn’t defined by you, but by your ability to do the job asked of you. Often that’s “be yourself, and give it the best you’ve got,” but frequently, it’s not. If you play the most inspired solo of your life only to have the producer say, “that’s not working for me,” it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find something that will work. Enjoy the challenge and don’t get too attached to your last take.

Be Confident

For me, being a professional musician is a privilege and a lifelong dream—I don’t want to mess it up! It’s so easy to psyche yourself out: perhaps there are a few intimidating musicians on the session, perhaps it’s for a high profile project that many people will hear, perhaps it’s your first time working with a producer or artist you’d like to impress, or perhaps you haven’t had enough time to play recently and feel a bit rusty. Regardless, you can always take comfort knowing whoever hired you has already invested in you and knows you’ll do a good job. Somehow you earned their respect and it’s important to acknowledge this even when facing the array of unusual situations, requests, and adverse circumstances in the studio. When in doubt, do your thing!

 

Build a Foundation

In some situations, it can be hard to know where to start: perhaps the track has a lot happening already, the producer hasn’t given you any directions, or you’ve never heard harmonica played in the context you’re currently in. Trust your intuition and go with something simple, texturally consistent, and foundational. Maybe it’s long tones, a simple rhythm part, or fills between vocal phrases. Whatever you’re feeling, stick with that and create a foundation that you and the client can build on. Is it working? If so, how can it be improved? If not, try another approach until you find something that’s working and go from there. When trying to figure out an appropriate part, I avoid playing a little of everything in one take—playing too many different ideas can make it difficult to pinpoint what’s actually working and to generate a meaningful conversation on how to hone the part.

Trust Your Intuition

Your first instinct is often your best—the mystique of the first take is well founded. There’s a spontaneity and honesty that comes with intuitive reaction, before you think  about what you should be playing, what notes the producer has given you, and how many bars left before you get to that break you missed last take. If music can express things that words cannot, it’s worth letting it fly once or twice before getting tangled in words. Trust it. In some cases I’ve even been thankful I hadn’t received the material ahead of time, as I loved the opportunity to react without preconception. Even if your first take needs polish (and it probably will), your intuition can be your greatest guide in coming up with that part. Often, a client may be looking for a specific part to be played, but in other instances they may be looking for you to sprinkle a little magic on their recording. Sometimes the best way to find the magic is subconsciously! Trust your instinct and develop your intuition.

Faith in your musical sensibilities can also go a long way when you find yourself out of your element. Before panicking because you’re unsure what to play on a particular song or in an unusual style, allow yourself to find something that works. If this song is begging for Toots-style chromatic and you don’t have that in you, allow yourself to find something that will work with your skills, palate, and style. I’m constantly surprised at how one’s limitations can be great opportunities.

My approach to the studio is equal parts common sense, technique, and psychology. If I’ve had a bad session, it’s typically because I failed to stick to the guidelines I’ve laid out in this article. There’s always more to learn, and recording is a beautiful way to document your development at each stop on the path.

In the third and final article in this series, I’ll share some pointers on how you can improve your own recordings, whether you’re recording from home or working on your band’s record at a studio. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please visit www.RossGarren.com to hear some of my music and do drop me an email while you’re there!

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We’re Not Starving

I’ve heard it all a thousand times. You can’t make a living in music, or any art for that matter. I heard it when I went into school for music, and my wife heard it when she went into school for art. Fast forward a handful of years, and we’ve gotten married, bought a house, and led pretty comfortable lives. The best part? Every penny that our family makes comes from art. My wife is a graphic designer, and I’m an audio electronics tech and musician. It’s not an easy path, and it means you’ll probably never see a forty-hour work week again. At the end of the day, though, you’re making a living doing something you hopefully love. I’m not going to try to lay out a hard and fast path in this blog on how to pull it off (a lot of luck is needed), but I’ll do my best to share tips as to how to make it work.

Every household needs a budget. Whether you actually have a spreadsheet you fill out or just set very general limits. When it comes to budgeting, I’ve seen artists make the same mistake over and over again. Do not budget anything that isn’t steady. I play a lot of gigs every month. A handful with a regular group I play with (weddings and events), a couple fill-in gigs, and a jazz brunch every single Sunday morning. The ONLY gig that gets put into our budget as income is the brunch gig. The other two categories can vary wildly from month to month, but I can count on that brunch gig. It’s not that those other gigs don’t exist, but all of it is treated like lagniappe. Those gigs don’t pay bills. Those gigs pad our savings, so that, if for some reason we have a slow month or two, everything is all good. I’ve heard so many musicians say phrases like “I can count on at least 6 or 7 gigs a month.” They’re wrong. If it isn’t 100% steady, don’t count on it.

As I mentioned in the previous section I play with a regular group that plays weddings and events. Some musicians will scoff at the idea because it isn’t creative or innovative, but the pay is great. You can call me a “sell out” or a “part of the problem”, but I really don’t care. I’m getting paid to play music. By doing pay gigs, I’m allowed the financial freedom to do original music the right way. I’m not pressured to make money on creative projects, so I have the freedom to take my time, not rush things, and let it develop organically. The best way to keep a pay gig is to just do the simple things that a lot of burnouts don’t. Show up on time, know the music and be as kind and helpful as possible. It really isn’t much harder than that.

Never underestimate the power of networking. That’s how you get those odd hired gun gigs. Be sure to always give out your information to every musician you meet and be sure to get their info as well. You never know when you will need to book them for a gig. Take care to build your reputation as a solid player that can fill in. I’ve been able to pick up so many of these gigs by doing a few simple things…

1) This is not the time for creative statements. Play your part and play it well. Don’t do anything crazy, just get the job done.

2) Show up early. I mean like an hour early. This makes an impression on the band leader.

3) Don’t be uptight. No one likes a stick in the mud. Joke with the other musicians and be friendly. Be sure to exchange numbers with as many people in the group as possible.

4) On the other hand, don’t be too comfortable, and by that, I mean don’t get drunk. A drink or two to loosen up is fine, but keep it under control.

5) Always keep a calendar to keep your life straight. There is nothing more embarrassing than showing up to a gig on the wrong date.

The best part about following these simple rules is that, eventually, you’ll fill in for a gig that becomes regular. All of the regular gigs that I have are a result of me subbing for a gig, doing a good job, being professional, and ultimately becoming the first call bass player for the group. Even if you don’t find yourself in the first call slot, you will be called back to fill in for future gigs with the group. There is no shame in being the second call guy. If you can cobble enough of those gigs together, then you’ll be in business.
I hope this blog is in some manner helpful. Just because we’re artists, it doesn’t mean we have to starve.

My name is Nathan Heck, and I am the lead technician at Lone Wolf Blues Company, where I have worked since 2009. I studied bass at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I received a minor in music.  I also have been an actively gigging bass player in the New Orleans area for the last seven years.

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Interview with Konstantin Kolesnichenko

Konstantin Kolesnichenko is a blues harp player from the Ukraine. He recently came out with an album titled “If You Want to See This Blues.” For more information, check out Konstantin’s Facebook page here.

We thought it would be interesting to find out more about Konstantin and his country, and he graciously agreed.


1. How long have you been playing harmonica and who are your primary influences?

I’ve been playing harmonica almost 12 years. I’ve had ups and downs in love with harmonica. In 2009 year I started to play with the band and it was my main breakthrough.

I have a lot of influences in harmonica, so better I’ll try to name my favourite harmonica players: Little Walter, George Harmonica Smith, Norton Buffalo, Paul deLay, Charlie Musselwhite, Gary Primich, Mark Ford, Jim Liban, Gary Smith, Kim Wilson, William Clarke, Kirk Jelly Roll Johnson and P.T. Gazell.

2. Do you play any other instruments?

Currently I’m playing only harmonica, but for 7 years I was studying piano in music school when I was child and once when I was student I even tried to play xaphoon. But now and forever Harmonica is my one and only! 🙂

3. Tell us about the new tuning that you have discovered.

I love not only harmonica and blues music. I’m a big lover of jazz, soul, funk and all this good music from the past. So I wanted to play melodies and I’ve tried to learn how to overblow… and now I can do overblows but I’m pretty bad with them. So I dig into alternative tunings and I found diminished tuning. It was a hard to play on it after 10 years with Richter. But I like it and have some results(you can see them on my youtube channel). I’ve played on it for two years. I wanted easier access to chromaticism on diatonic so I connected Richter and diminished tunings and get my brand new “Easy Chromatic”. It’s on 70% almost like Richter but you can get all missed notes in every position.

4. Tell us about the blues scene in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

I don’t know much about Eastern Europe blues scene. There is a lot of bands in Russia (Moscow primarily), Belarus has a small blues scene. In Ukraine we have local bands and events (there were two harmonica festivals in Kiev, small blues festivals in Kiev and I’ve managed small blues fest even in my city – Dnepropetrovsk). Our blues scene is small but very friendly! And our blues players are all enthusiasts mainly. We have blues bands only in few cities: Kiev, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye. But some international musicians visited our country: Bob Margolin, John Nemeth, Guy Davis, Keith Dunn, Son Of Dave, Matyas Pribojszki, Howard Levy, Melvin Taylor, Lucky Peterson etc. I’ve even played with some of them! Guy Davis called me a brother! 🙂 Most of these events took place due to Max Tavrichesky – the main bluesman in our country. He is from Kiev.

5. In our lifetime we have witnessed Ukraine going from communist rule to a free country and now there are separatist who are supported by Russia attempting to bring the country back under communism, please tell us what this will mean to you and how it will affect your freedom to express yourself in music.

Thank you for this question. I hope all this will end soon. But now it takes my thoughts and feelings totally.

You know even when I was a child and lived in former USSR republic my parents grow me up with deep feeling and understanding of our Ukrainian background. So all these separatists and terrorists deeply hurts me. All this time they lived in our country, they ate our bread, they breath our air but they hate Ukraine without any reason for it. I can’t understand it. I don’t understand also for what reason russian mercenaries fight against our army. Where they took all their rage and hatred?! Before this big part of our people thought they were our brothers but now it have changed. I have a lot of friends in Russia and when all this begun… you don’t even realize what they wrote and said to me about my country (especially if take into account that our country does not infringe on their freedom and life). I broke a lots of relationships with some of them. I believe that there is a lot of good and honorable peoples in Russia but Kremlin propaganda turn a lot of them into kind of zombie.

Now we still live in free country and one of the songs from my album is dedicated to all people who fought and died for our freedom.

6. Where do you see yourself in the future? Do you wish to explore other genres of music? Do you wish to tour other countries?

I wish still to explore new ways to play harmonica, I wish still to collect music and have the chance to meet wonderful and talented people. I wish the blues music scene in my country will grow up and I will be there and will have possibility to play with greats.

I’ve already tried to play other genres of music, on my album there are jazz songs : “Sugar”, “Night train”, “In a sentimental mood”, one funkier song. I try to play everything that I like! Of course I wish some day to be at SPAH for example, I believe I can see some of my harmonica heroes when they still be in a good form and alive!

Thank you for questions Randy! Thank you for all you do for our small harmonica world!

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A New Way to Think

I feel like I occupy a unique position within the harp community. On one hand, I am completely immersed in harp culture. I spend my days building harp pedals, answering harp questions, and examining harp tone. On the other hand though, I am still an outsider. I can’t play a single lick on the instrument, and I’m largely ignorant on the actual mechanics. This unique position allows me, as a musician and a technician, to examine things within the harp community in a different light. I genuinely believe the community would greatly benefit from a change in the thought process that your string-playing friends (me being one of them) adopted decades ago. After countless hours of conversation with harp players discussing tone, I have noticed something that seemed alien to me at first, but now makes perfect sense. Most harp players don’t view their entire rig as their instrument. I believe this is due to the relative youth of the harp specific industry (harp specific amps, mics, and effects). There are a few trailblazers out there that, I believe, are making a major impact in how we hear and analyze harp tone.

The Amp:

Most harp players do understand the value of a great amp. The amplifier, after your individual technique, is the most important factor in your tone. I argue that your amplifier is actually more important than the instrument itself. A great amplifier doesn’t just do what its name implies, amplify your sound. A great amplifier adds depth, richness, grit, bottom, and everything in between. I have, however, noticed an issue within the harp community; everyone assumes there is only one acceptable tone from an amplifier. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t get a call or an email about getting the perfect “Chicago tone” from an amplifier. I do my best to answer the question (in fact, we could write an entire blog about what you need to do to achieve this tone), but I am often left confused. Why does everyone want to sound like someone else? We can all admit that Little Walter’s tone was fantastic, but can you ever really replicate it? I would suggest you try to sound like you. Go to music stores and try out tons of amps; don’t just narrow down your search to one particular make or model. If the 50 watt digital processing guitar amp sounds the best to your ears, go for it. If it’s the 15 watt harp specific amp (which you probably won’t find in a traditional store) that does it for you, go for that. The bottom line is that you should always strive to sound like you, and you can do this by trusting your own unique ears.

The Pedals:

I can admit it; I have a problem. In fact, I should probably go to a meeting for it. I’m totally a complete gear junkie, with pedals providing me with the bulk of my fixes. I currently have 7 pedals on my board (I’m a bass player, mind you), probably have 5 or so others floating around, and plan on getting at least 3 more. Not to mention, I work for a company that builds effect pedals, which is essentially the same as an alcoholic working at a liquor store. What this provides me with, though, is something worth more than all of my gear… my sound is unique. This is due to the fact that I treat my pedals as an extension of my instrument. Something that I have noticed in the harp community (the bass community is also notorious for this) is the notion that pedals are only for your tone. Meaning, if a pedal sounds good, it should be on all the time. The extension of that logic would be, if a pedal can’t be on all the time, it isn’t a good pedal. While I do believe that some pedals are “tone” pedals, meaning they should never turn off and are essential to your basic tone, a lot of pedals are perfect for that one time in your set. I can give you a perfect example. On my board, I have a modified version of the LWBC Harp Attack pedal. This pedal never turns off, and I consider it essential to my tone. I also have an envelope phaser and a two octave drop/fuzz pedal. I only use these two pedals one time in my band’s entire set, and I use them together. The sound generated by this pairing is insane and definitely not usable in almost any other application. So what’s the point? When you ask people what they remember about the bass in our set, they’ll probably point to that one moment. I get asked after shows all the time how I created that crazy, synth-esque sound. To me, this means, that those pedals are totally worth it. Without these effects, this entire section of the song wouldn’t sound right. We literally wrote the music around the effects. Effects are powerful tools that can make or break a song, and I believe that more harp players should adopt these ideas.

The Players:

Now I’m treading in dangerous waters. If I talk about Joe and not John, I’ll get some angry emails about how I’m neglecting the absolutely ground-breaking work John has been doing. So I’ll keep this section short, and I’ll only mention one player. This isn’t to slight anyone or to say that he’s the best player in the world. I just think his use of his rig as an extension of his instrument is fantastic. This player is pretty far out of left field, as far as his tone is concerned, and I feel like his playing could literally forever change the harp community. His name is Marko Balland. If you haven’t heard of him, you should definitely look him up. He produces sounds that I didn’t think were possible to achieve with a harp. Every time I listen to his playing, I am constantly hearing new layers. Here’s a link to a video of him. I hope to see more harp players using their rig in innovative ways in the future.

Happy Harping.


My name is Nathan Heck, and I am the lead technician at Lone Wolf Blues Company, where I have worked since 2009. I studied bass at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I received a minor in music.  I also have been an actively gigging bass player in the New Orleans area for the last seven years.

 

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An Introduction to Studio Harmonica Work, Part I

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.

Versatility

“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.

Artistry

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.

Remote Recording

“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.

Professionalism

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.

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