Pass The Mic (The harp mic, that is)

It’s been quite while since my last post and dammit I’m sorry about that, gang but things have been kinda crazy in HarpCarp-Ville. Between the arrival of the “Mini-Carp” (Miles Daniel James Oblander now age 9 months!) and rehearsing for and completing another successful Five Horse Johnson Euro tour, I’ve been busier than a mosquito at a nudist colony. But now I’m back and ready as I’ll ever be! So, in todays episode I thought I’d talk a bit about harmonica microphones.

When I first started playing harmonica around 16-17 yrs ago (yikes!!) I resisted the idea of playing through a microphone. I thought it seemed like a blockage between my sweet playing and the peoples obviously hungry ears. It also seemed very complicated. Hell, I even heard that using a mic made players lazy! Finally, my dad of all people (He actually played harp in a blues band in the ’60’s. They even hung out with the Butterfield band! But I digress…) convinced me that I needed to give it a whirl. He loaned me a mic and a small amp and I never looked back.

Over the ensuing years I have used loads of different models, brands and styles of microphones. I kinda got addicted to finding out just what each one sounded like, and could really do. I kept buying mics and exploring the world of amplified harmonicating until I finally settled on some criteria that helped me hone in on what I need and like. In no particular order, here’s a list of a few of the top harp mics I’ve used over the years–why I like ‘em and what they do. Enjoy.

Green bullet harp micSURE 520 a.k.a “The Green Bullet” – Ahhh yes, THAT one! The classic. The Grandaddy of ‘em all. It’s the most easily recognizable microphone of the bunch, so I figured why not start at the top? Back in the early days, these mics were used for dispatching police cars/cabs and in-store announcements like: “CLEAN UP, ISLE THREE–CLEAN UP, ISLE THREE.” These microphones were quickly adopted by blues players as a cheap and REALLY awesome way to amplify their tones. Eventually, the Sure company got wise and began to market the “Green Bullet” to people who felt hinky about stealing them.

I really love this mic, and I use them quite often but there has been a a highly volatile relationship between us. As a singer/harp player I like to hang my mic around my neck when not in use–and quite frankly the Green Bullet HATES when I do that. I have pulled the hard-wired cord out of so many of those damned things that I lost count. But, I guess it’s the price you pay for all of that awesomeness. This mic gives me so many tones, all simply accessed by the amount of air pressure I let in with my hands. A tight grip can elicit some pretty gut-wrenching honks.

I don’t claim to know the inner workings of any of these mics, but I do know that the high impedance diode (the equivalent of a guitar pick-up) is particularly powerful in the Bullet, and that what makes it really hum. For a far better and more technical explanation check out this link.

PROS:

  • Velvety tone that is thick as molasses.
  • Fantastic bassy, low end tone.
  • Distinctive tone; one of a kind classic sound.
  • Makes even the crappiest of amplifiers sound great!
  • Volume knob
CONS:
  • Can be a handful in the feedback department.
  • Kind of a big learning curve tone wise.
  • Heavy. It’s a big chunk o’ metal.
  • THAT DAMNED HARDWIRED CABLE!! Very delicate and easily yanked out.
shaker MicrophoneSHAKER Crystal Microphone (In the interest of full disclosure I must confess that I am proudly endorsed by Shaker Microphones.) Shaker Microphones busted on the scene in the mid 1990’s and according to their website…It all began in the winter of 1991 when Shakey Joe’s bullet mic died. We had 3 boys, and the money was needed in about 10 different places. Being a crafty sort, Shakey actually decided to build one of his own designs. Even though he loved the old bullet mics, he thought he could improve in some significant ways. Being a draftsman, to the drawing table he went. The idea was to build a microphone that would greatly reduce feedback, fit the human hand, be much lighter, have a wider frequency range, and it needed to bounce.”

A few years ago I heard about these little gems and decided I needed to try one on for size. I couldn’t find a store locally that carried Shakers so I ventured all the way up to Herb David Guitars in Ann Arbor, Michigan and picked one up. And, buddy let me tell you I’m sure glad I did. These little bombs are a big sound in a tiny package. I can get lots of cool and different tones out of any one of the many styles of SM’s that I own. As a matter of fact the Shaker “Retro Rocket ” was used exclusively on all of the harp takes on the CLUTCHalbum “Heard it all before; Live in Australia” that I was lucky enough to be a part of.

PROS:

  • Light weight, easily held and carried
  • Very tough construction
  • Connects with 1/4 ” guitar cable jack (not hardwired)
  • Hot tone
  • Many different models to choose from
  • Built in, easy grip volume knob
CONS:
  • Some volume issues
  • I have sucked the diode out of them in the past :-/

Blues Blaster harmonica micHOHNER “Blues Blaster” – Hohner got into the microphone game a few years back, and I’m pretty sure they might already be out of the game. In the late 1990’s Hohner began to repackage the old bullet style Astatic microphones and started calling it the “HOHNER Blues Blaster”. Astatic was one of the first of the old P.A. style mics I talked about earlier. I first became aware of their hotness when I opened up my copy of the Red Devils album “King King”. As I was (and still am) into all things Lester Butler (RD’s harp player/singer) I couldn’t help but notice the mic he was depicted holding. So, naturally I bought one.

It was quite nice BUT EXPENSIVE, and soon I killed it. I bought ANOTHER one, and killed that one too. Later, I discovered that Hohner had issued one of their own at a much lower price so I started using those. I love the cable connector, again NOT hardwired but instead it had used a XLR connector. Also they have a really REALLY cool looking 50’s automobile design. Very cool! They have a nice tone, but I felt that they were a bit thin sounding. The real Astatic’s that I used earlier had a much nicer HONK. BUT they did fit the bill for many years of rough-house touring.

PROS:
  • Inexpensive alternative
  • Lester used ‘em (’nuff said)
  • Cool, modular XLR cable attachment
CONS:
  • Thinner tone than other mics
  • Kind of delicate (by my meathead standards)
So, those are my main weapons of choice throughout the years. I probably forgot a few. Got any questions or comments? Hit me up.
-E

HarpCarp Brushes With Greatness (part 1)…

In my last post I mentioned that my friend Monty and I had shared an elevator with Nick Swardsdon in Detroit over the summer, here are a few other HarpCarp brushes with (and near brushes with) greatness…

  • R.L. Burnside–Five Horse Johnson played a show with R.L. Burnside at Bells Brewery in Kalamazoo in 1998 or so. It was a great show, not only because that R.L. kicked ass as usual, but also because his amp blew up right before the show and he had to borrow our guitar player Brad’s amp–OHIO 67 license plate and all to do the gig. It was a proud moment indeed! After the show we chatted with R.L. (I had met him a few times before-but thats another story for another day) and told us of our set that we were “Hangin’ like a dirty shirt!” I’m still not sure if that is good or bad, but I think it was good, right?
  • Brian Setzer–Steve “Steve Smith” Smith, Brad and myself were walking down a busy NYC street one afternoon when I spotted Brian Setzer walking on the same sidewalk coming our way. I remember I was talking to Small Stone Recordings label chief Scott Hamilton on my cell at the time–Me: “OH SHIT,  Brian Setzer is coming our way!”  Scott: “DUDE! say something! Say hi to him!”– so as Setzer came closer I panicked and blurted out “HI, BRIAN!!” really loudly. I said it so assuredly that he looked at as if he MUST know us, but then continued on his way, a very confused Rockabilly legend.
  • James Cotton–In a magical turn of events a few years back, through a Blues Revue Magazine drawing, my Dad won an all expenses paid  trip for two to the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa and he kindly asked if I wanted to tag along. This was a killer prize that included all back stage access, a limo ride to and from the airport, and really nice hotels for us two clowns–it was pretty unbelievable.James Cotton and Buddy Guy were to the headliners of this particular festival. I was truly psyched because Cotton is one of my favorite harp players, and I would probably get a chance to meet him. James was suffering from severe throat cancer and did only minimal harp playing, leaving all of the singing duties to Buddy.Anyway…After the show I nervously walked up to JC and said “Mr. Cotton, it’s a pleasure to meet you. You are the reason I started playing harmonica and you are the King of the ‘crash and burn harp’.” With a gravely croak Cotton replied  “Man, lookit that blonde chick in the white mini-skirt, she fine.” and walked away. The End.
  • Roger Glover & Ian Pace of Deep Purple–In 2003 Five Horse Johnson was asked to fill an opening slot for Deep Purple and Lynyrd Skynyrd vacated by Ted “Sweaty Teddy” Nugent at the famed DTE Energy Theater (formerly and ALWAYS know to me as Pine Knob, dammit!) outside of Detroit, Mi. This was quite a coup that a pipsqueak level band like us would be let loose on the “big stage” to entertain the masses for 20 minutes or so (In actuality our soundcheck was far longer than our set). Also, this was a total thrill as both bands had more than a little bit to do with the formation of FHJ in the first place. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I was VERY nervous.Happily the show went off without a hitch, and we retired to our comfy, air conditioned backstage rooms. I went into the bathroom and took a shower, and when I came out of the bathroom I felt as if something odd was going on. Everybody was super quiet, and subdued. The first person I see is Steve, and he has this look on his face that said “OhShitOhShitOhShitOhShit!!”. I open the door farther, and I discover that Steve is knee-deep in a mano y mano conversation with Roger Glover! ROGER F#(&ING GLOVER IS STANDING IN OUR DRESSING ROOM! AND he’s chatting it up with Steve, Brad and our drummer Mike. RG looks at me and says “Great gig mate! I was just telling your bass player here that I watched most of the gig from right behind his Ampeg amp!” Uh…let me get this straight, while we played one of our watershed moment gigs–Roger Glover of Deep Purple peeped at us from behind Steve’s amp like a rad lecher, WTF? Right after that startling moment the door bust open and Ian Pace leaps in our room! He says: “GREAT SHOW MATE! I FELT IT IN ME BALLLLS!!”  and promptly grabs his crotch to re-enforce his point.
    Unbelievably awesome.

    After the gig there was the inevitable hollow backstage babble; the “We should totally do some more gigs, call my agent!” and “I would love to produce your next album!” et al–but I’ll never forget the day one of the best drummers in the history of Rock and Roll grabbed his junk at me!

Seriously folks, I got a million of em. Stay tuned.

2010 Wrap-Up For The HarpCarp

2010 comes to an end tonight, and I gotta say it’s been a pretty damned good year for the ol’ HarpCarp. Here’s some of this years highlights…

photo by Anna J

 

The Arrival of the  Mini-HarpCarp. At 1:33 am, on October 3rd 2010, our son Miles Daniel James Oblander was born,  thus rendering the rest of this list a tad bit trivial.

Summer Lovin’ with SORCEN. This summer I was fortunate enough to be asked to join the legendary hardcore band the Necros, and fill in on singing duties. Not only was this incredibly flattering, it also turned out to be one of the best reunions of  hilarious old pals of all time.  Cats flew in from all over the country to witness this epic moment. Seriously, it ended up turning into a Dean Martin roast!

I grew up loving the Necros and by the time I was fifteen I had crossed paths with the band and was regularly touring with them as a roadie. Eventually, the band broke up and Andy Wendler even joined my rock band/Necros wannabe group “Gone In Sixty Seconds”.

Flash forward twenty years. Tesco Vee, punk rock funnyman and  towering singer of the seminal hardcore band The Meatmen released a book version of his early ’80s ‘zine “Touch and Go” and summoned many of the big hitters from the golden years of Detroit area hardcore (Necros, Negative Approach ect) to celebrate this occasion with a beer soaked, weed clouded monsters-of-punk type of super gig in Detroit. The actual Necros singer, great friend and HarpCarp mentor Barry passed on the gig and suggested that I take the keys for the night. It was truly ridiculous occasion! And while the gigs were really great (we threw a Toledo show in as well)  it was the rehearsals that turned out to be the most fun.

(side note: We all stayed at the beautiful Book Cadillac hotel in downtown Detroit that night and my friend Mike “Monty” Montgomery and I sharred an elevator with Nick Swardson!)

The Brought Low affair. One of the perks of being the HarpCarp is that every once in a while I get to work with bands that I love–example: the Brought Low.

The Brought Low signed with the Detroit based indie label Small Stone Recordings (home of the rad-ass band Five Horse Johnson) a few years back. I have always been a big BL fan, and so when I was asked to lay down some harp on their new album I jumped at the chance!

To this day the harp solo on the Brought Low tune “Blow out yer candles” stands out  as one of the top choice moments in the HarpCarp canon.

The Staving Chain/Boogaloosa Prayer Throw-Down.  Boogaloosa Prayer are a kick-ass, Maumee, Ohio blooze-rock outfit. They arose from the ashes of the much beloved and VERY cool-guy band Henry & June, and haven’t looked down since. This also marked the second band in one year that I played with that included Necros drummer Todd Swalla. Is this love?

The Staving Chain, who also feature guitar ace and H&J founding member C.J. (aka Dooley Wilson), are an authentic acoustic Delta Blues trio who have it down pat.

Both bands asked me to fill in (are we seeing a pattern here?) on some harp duties this past fall, and I naturally said “Yup”. The show at the Toledo bar The Ottawa tavern was a total face-melter!

New Clutch Recordings. I flew out to Baltimore in late September to record the harps for the forthcoming Clutch album. It was a whirlwind trip that lasted all of about 18 hours, and came at a super crazy time. My extremely pregs wife was ready to drop Miles at any time, and I was unsure if I should go to Balmer or not.  My wife said “GO!”, so I did.

Loose Ends. Well, thats about it for 2010. But here’s a few odds n ends–

-My Grampa Karl turned 90 years old!

-I finally graduated Community College after 17 years of trying, dammit!

-Several other great gigs with; Local H, Clutch and Lionize

-my niece Anna singing in the Christmas choir ON TELEVISION!!

-We started writing the new FHJ album!

-FHJ tunes were used in loads of t.v. shows and movies this year! (Dog The Bounty Hunter, and The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia to name  just a few white trash examples!)

OK 2011, TOP THAT!!




Some rad players you may not have heard of.

There are loads of harp players that most people are familiar with. The harp is kind of a specialized instrument, so it does tend to stand out in a crowd. Names like Little Walter, John Popper, Sonny Boy Williamson, Rod Piazza and Junior Wells are tossed around like footballs at a tailgate bbq. Here’s a few cats I love that you may not be familiar with…

jd wilkes

Col. JD Wilkes

Col JD Wilkes–The Colonel is the singer and harpy for the Legendary Shack Shakers. If you know them, then you know why this cat rules. JD is a total flamethrower!

His tones are really sick and he can get down acoustic style like nobody’s business. My Dad turned me on to the album “Swampblood” by Shack Shakers a while ago and HOLY CRAP! I’ve played the title track probably about 700 times and have learned (or tried to learn) just about every lick.

(side note: I think that we played with the Legendary Shack Shakers in Holland at a blues festival many years ago. I remember this because I blew out all of my A harps, and the Colonel gladly gave me a fresh one, thus saving the day (and the FHJ set!) THANKS JD!

Jim Fitting

Jim Fitting

Jim Fitting- Jim is rad. He is one of the first “non blues” guys that I heard that made me want to pick up the harp. You would probably know him best as the harp man from the 90’s band Treat Her Right. You would know THR because it was Mark Sandman from Morphine’s first band. They had a hit song called “I think She likes me”.

I remember buying the cassette of the first album and playing it over and over. The second album “Tied to the tracks” is where this guy really destroys though (Check out the tune “Big Medicine” for proof) .

ANOTHER reason Jim rules is because he plays with the band The The. That’s him on the tune “Dogs of lust” which is one of the gnarliest harp tunes and tones ever–nuff said. Gentleman Jim Fitting even played on a record by the stoner rock band Scissorfight…HEY, thats getting into my territory Jim me lad!

(side note: In my early playing days, I was the harp player for the Detroit band Big Chief, and we did a huge outdoor festival in the D with the band Morphine. I only played one key so only had one harp and kept that in my pocket, Right before we went on I got a quarter stuck in said harp. It was like three minutes till showtime and I was really sweating. Suddenly out emerged Morphine singer and two string bassist Mark Sandman from out of the backstage shadowy deep! He whips out a tiny screwdriver, grabs my harp and instantly takes it apart like the one man pit crew on a tiny silver NASCAR! I’m standing there like a little kid with his uncle fixing a broken toy…he looks at me and says “Used to happen to Jim all the time. I’m keepin the quarter as a tip.” that was so awesome.)

Billy Branch

Billy Branch

Billy Branch–Billy is one of those dudes that is SO cool, and SO nice and SO socially responsible and most of all SO f*&ing good that it kinda makes me mad.

Not only does this guy kill on the harp but he also runs the “Blues in Schools Program”, a program that takes blues players to inner-city schools.

When I started playing I was pretty sure that any blues albums recorded after 1965 was shit, then I heard a handful of albums that changed my mind–Bllly’s “Mississippi Flashback” was one of them (along with albums by RL Burnside, Jr. Kimbro ect) because it really, truly rips all while keeping a legit old school blues vibe. His playing is cool because its wayyy meaner and dirtier than any other “blues” album that was released around that time and it still feels that way today.

More to come…

My Top Three Favorite Harps

hohner blues harp#1Hohner Blues harp. For me this is the gold standard of harmonicas. AND the reason to use wood bodied harps. Not only is the Blues Harp loud and durable but it’s the only harp I have come across that actually gets the job done in every occasion-electric or acoustic.

I’ve used many different mics paired with many different amps and the Blues Harp always fits the bill. It always screams loud and always responds the way a harp should; quickly and solidly. I found the BH during my early harpin’ days when it was important to me  to find these so-called “modular harps“. When I first began playing harp I would play so hard that I would routinely break a reed and suck it into my throat. The guys in the band would mock me because many times, during a solo, I would have to stop the tune and spit out the loose harp reed like a fishbone, effectively rendering a twenty to thirty dollar harp dead. Neither good nor cheap–but then along came “modular harps” like the Lee Oskar and the Hohner Blues Harp  to save us all!

With the promise of replaceable reeds Now it was possible to spend a few extra bucks per harmonica and  never buy a new harp again, just replace the reed plate and keep on suckin’ and blowin’ till the end of time. Lee Oskar harps became popular -in no small part- to the fact that they had replaceable reeds, which made them appear less expensive. If you blow out a reed, it was finally possible to replace the reed plate instead of the entire harp, sweet right?…you’d think so…

BUT here’s the trick–over time and tunes played I learned more about breath control and amplifier savvy, and with that came longer harp life. With Longer harp life came less of a need for “modular harps”  but by then I began to realize the true power of the Hohner Blues Harp.

bushman delta frost#2 Bushman Delta Frost. A few years ago, on a whim I tried a Bushman Delta Frost and was pleasantly shocked! I’m not a huge fan of plastic body harps–mostly because I think they kinda feel like toys and (at least for me) don’t have that particular cut that wood harps do.  Either electric or acoustic, a wood harp just has that sassy rasp that I can’t get with plastic, even the beloved Hohner Special 20 falls short for me. UNTIL…tah-dah…enter the Delta Frost.

Playing wise, the Delta Frost has a really, and I mean REALLY smooth fretboard, which equals fast action. The harmonica itself feels far more substantial that other  plastic body models. the seal between fretboard and faceplate is very tight, which gives the Delta Frost some really nice volume, balance and great draw. Bushman harps are competitively priced, and made in America, so go try one!

#3- Hohner Marine Band. It’s a classic, it’s been around for one hundred and fifty years and everybody has played one. The Marine Band is an icon in American music. It’s classic lines and small wood body are unmistakable, but beyond all of that is the play of the marine Band. Make no mistake–the MB is a rough ride. No fancy screws or deluxe seals here, instead this harp sports the classic tiny nails. Play a Marine Band enough and things will start to get a little sloppy, but that’s where the magic begins. A properly broken-in Hohner Marine Band has a specific and completely unique buzz all of its own. When playing a Marine Band one can’t help but conjure up thoughts of the classic bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter because that tone is timeless.

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