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Q: How should I hold the harp?

A: From ” Re: Tone (cupping harp in hands)” 27 May 94 JE
>Am I correct in assuming that the more of your hands you have
>around and in front of your harp, the more you dampen the high
>frequency overtones? And that cupping the harp in your hands thus
>helps to create the “FAT” tone that Charlie refers to?

>Eliot C. Williams

This is probably true. I also know that if you are using a mic (say a Shure
SM58 or other cardioid type) and cupping harp and mic together – you may be
blocking the sides of the mic – which picks up less low frequency and more
highs. Depending on how you hold the mic – you may be directing the sound
into the “top” or straight into the mic; which will enhance the bass

So, I think this is just one more element of many which enter into how
someone’s total sound is produced. It’s not just the harmonica, mic,
embouchure, oral / nasal passages, PA / other gear, etc. it’s a combination
of things. I’ve had people ask me “What kind of harmonica do you play? it
has a nice tone.” I smile, say thank you, and show them whatever one I
have available, when in reality the harmonica has little to do with it.
(not bragging, but I can get halfway decent tone if I try.) If I really
tried to explain that it is such and such and such… they wouldn’t
understand and wouldn’t want to hear it anyway. — Re: Tone (cupping harp
in hands)” 27 May 94 JE

I wittered on about hands being important in making a loud sound a little
while back. This is difficult to describe because you all do it, but from
my experience you could be doing it (say this very quietly Tate) wrong.
There is one particular, very precise, hand position for a note which makes
that note very loud. Alright call it resonance, but what follows flies in
the face of that as a bald statement, that’s why I’m being careful. take
G hole 7 (G7) on a chromatic (could be any other harmonica but I can swear
to this one!) hold the hands so that you have a closed box, finger on button,
left fingers resting in the 2nd joint from the finger tips on the right
hand, thumbs lying in bed together underneath. Blow gently, NO NOT THAT
HARD, gently. Now gradually squeeze your hands open at the back. Take about
10 seconds to open about 1mm. Please don’t keel over, you are allowed to
breath occasionally (you sort out the damn spelling). At a certain point
the sound will suddenly increase dramatically without any increase in breath
pressure. No I will not quote decibels, or any other measurement, just say
that this is the way I play and it fills the hall. I doubt you will get
it first time but it works. I would like to ask my friend Steve Jennings
to put a word in about this sometime ‘cos he is trying to achieve Nirvana
this very pair of weeks.

When you have got it going on G7, try A7. Doesn’t work…Tuff, you have to
your hands for this note. NOW, acoustic theory, or what seems obvious, says,
close your hands a little, higher note, smaller cavity … Right? No it works
the other way, you need a couple more centimeters open for the A. You now have
to experiment up and down a bit but always go back to G7 to start with. After
you have done this for a couple of weeks your brain /subconscious/empty space
takes over and you never have to think of it again. Try it and let me know if
YOUR socks fall off when you get the sound. There is no mistaking it, the
neighbors move out and the cows give frothed milk — “Classical harmonica
and long lasting reeds” — “Classical harmonica and long lasting reeds” 24
Apr 95 DT

>What I’m looking for is different techniques when playing a *clean* harp
>a mic, such as how to hold the harp, how far to play from the mic, etc.
I am
>able to play with a decent _wah_ technique acoustically, but when I try
>use a mike, I am unable to pick up this sound effectively. I am trying
to >reproduce that SBWII sound.
>. . . For my practice setup, I have my SM58 on a stand . . .

Phil Wiggens does something I hadn’t seen before. His “closed” position is
with a complete, or nearly complete, hand-cup of the harp, with the vocal
mic pointed directly toward the place where he will open the cup. When he
does open it, he leans forward so the mic goes right into the cup up near
the harp. As you can imagine, it’s a very physical way of playing harp —
lots of body English. He did it sitting down, and leans forward a bit even
before he opens the cup. Phil doesn’t really get a SBWII sound, but the
technique was very effective due to the huge volume range he got that way.
He sang one song, and nobody changed the mic setting when he did. — “Re:
Acoustic mic techniques” 11 Jun 95 JT

>From “Re: Acoustic Playing with Mic” 11 Jun 95 SP:

I personally dislike the techie solution to acoustic harp with a
mic. I think the handheld mic sound has a distinct character whether
you’re holding an Astatic, a bullet, or an SM57 or SM58. I am unfamiliar
with Will Jennings’ mic, but that doesn’t answer the question about how to
get a good acoustic sound. Will Jennings does what you’re asking about,
but he didn’t really describe his way of holding the harp. I suspect that,
like me, Will spent a lot of time playing harp with no mic and learned to
project to be heard. There’s a lot to that.

You want to project your sound forward, and you want to be able
to conveniently cup the harp and un-cup it for wah-wah. The sound you
hear won’t be the same as the sound that comes out the end, but you’re
practicing with the speakers aimed so that you can hear what you are
doing. Butterfield used to play into a vocal mic (listen to his first
three records). He held the harp between thumb and forefinger along the
bottom and top of harp respectively, and kept his fingers together. Then
he’d cup by flipping his other hand over, putting thumb against thumb, palm
against palm and wah-wahing by opening and closing the clam shell. The
wrist of the hand holding the harp is horizontal. The wrist of the cupping
hand is vertical going straight up and down, elbow near your belly.

I can’t do that, I don’t like that.

I hold the harp in both hands. It is against my left hand at the
joint where my thumb attaches to hand, thumb pointed up. Right hand
where my middle finger joint attaches to my hand, fingers pointed up. I
cup my fingers together. I close it completely only rarely (but I do
close completely). Mostly I just open and close. I get a really mellow
tone by having the opening about the size of a half dollar (it isn’t
really round, but think of it that way) and getting about an inch from
the mic. Otherwise I’m between 2 and 10 inches from the mic. I’ve
become pretty good at not playing way louder than the other folks, I stay
back and only come in to either play very softly or to kill my audience and
alienate my band members.

The main thing to be aware of is projecting the sound forward.
You can do that without a mic by playing in a room toward a wall opposite
you and just listen. Playing acoustically requires a different feel for
the playing it’s extremely hard to describe, but you’ll feel your way
around it. In addition to Sonny Boy II, listen to Sonny Terry. — “Re:
Acoustic Playing with Mic” 11 Jun 95 SP

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