His skill and talent both playing and teaching harmonica make him a perfect candidate for the judging panel at the Hangtown Harmonica Championship at Cowboys + Cornbread.
We were able to speak to him about all things harmonica, and what he’ll be looking for when judging harmonica competitions.
Q: What got you interested in playing harmonica?
A: It happened at summer camp. I was 12 years old, and a guy got on stage during a camp talent show and played a cover of Whammer Jammer by the J Geils Band. He blew the crowd away – me included. I was drawn to the sound of this little instrument that had the power of a steam engine in it. I asked the guy to teach me the harmonica – turns out we went to the same church. He ended up giving me a harmonica, cassette tape, and a book. I practiced two hours every night for a few months, and quickly realized how difficult and challenging the harmonica really is. It’s deceiving, as many see it as a cousin to the kazoo, but you can make so many different sounds with it.
Q: What type of music do you like to play?
A: Rock, funk, and blues – I’ve been in a number of bands, including the Sutter Junkies and Two Track Mind, and performed hundreds of shows, so I’ve played a lot of different genres and songs over the years. My new thing is beatbox harmonica, where I use a loop station and other effects to emulate an entire band as a solo artist. I’ve just released an EP of beatbox harmonica songs with Radiant Soul Records.
I’m not currently in a band, but I do host the weekly open mic night at the Lockdown Brewery in Folsom. I’ve been doing that for the last four and a half years.
Q: What are you looking for when judging the harmonica competition?
A: The amazing thing about the harmonica is all the different sounds you can make. That’s what the judges are looking for. Personally, I gravitate towards a funk and rock performer who stands out from traditional blues players like the classic Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson types. I’ll be looking for an original sound. Things like tone, good cadence, and timing. Timing is pretty much half of musicianship. And tone is everything with the harmonica – it’s easy to sound like you just stepped on a duck, but having good tone and a good fat sound is important.
I was once asked how to make your harmonica performance your own. It’s about imitating then innovating. First, you find all of the players that you want to mimic, and you learn what they do. You stop and rewind and replay their songs, and once you’ve figured out how to play what they play, then you go to innovate your own sound. I’d like to hear someone at this competition has taken their sound and evolved it into something new that people can gravitate toward.
There are ten holes on the harmonica, but you can play a full chromatic scale – three full octaves of notes. You virtually have 40 some notes in it, and with that, I’d like to see someone who has correct intonation in hitting the notes that they want to hit, along with tone, and timing.
Q: Why should people come to the Hangtown Harmonica Championship?
A: A lot of people have the perception that the harmonica is just limited to Bob Dylan. At this event, you’ll see musicians who have spent time focusing on what this instrument is capable of. If you want to hear things you didn’t think you could hear on a harmonica, definitely plan on attending.
Harmonica is the only instrument where you draw in and blow out, which helps with the range of sounds you can create. It can sound like a Hammond organ, a saxophone, and a steaming 200-ton locomotive. This little tiny, unassuming ten-hole toy has carried itself through generations of American history.