My theory on "blowing to hard"

The lowdown on the Mississippi Sax. Just for Google, this section is about harmonicas.

My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby watertore » Fri Apr 09, 2010 2:26 pm

Since I have gotten on the internet I have read a lot about this. The consensus is basically never blow your harp too loud. I am going to offer an different approach with the theory being based on my learning (in isolation from other harp players), blowing "too hard" with the greats, and some questions I would like to raise on the greats begining days of harp blowing. I will try to keep this real simple.


I began blowing the harp like a madman. I was way too hard. I was needing to do this because of all the stuff inside me found a way out. I was young, full of testostone, and troubled. To try and control it was not even in the thoughts. It felt good, so I did it.

Then I got to be around sonny terry. He made some huge sounds at low volumes. I was so confused by this. I would sit next to him while he played and physically felt this (no pa, amplification). When I would ask how to get there, he took my arm and said keep doing what I do and I will be there in about 35 years. I was blowing real hard trying to get the greats sounds. He never critized that. In fact one night, while my eyes were closed, he danced next to me while I wailed it to death (a friend told me he what he was doing). Well now I am getting to the point he told me about so it is time to share it.

As the years went on I began amplifying via amps and PA systems. I was still needing to blow hard to feel good and again, blowing soft never entered my mind. It came at times naturally and I loved it as much as blowing hard. Soon I was involved with the NYC and then the SF Bay area blues scenes. The harp players were almost always amped and played so controlled I was again confused. I would get up there and knock them out with sheer energy. Several asked me how I got certain sounds. I tried to explain them, but I never heard them play them back the same because they were so controlled. When I played with guys like Champion Jack Dupree, Louisiana Red, Lightning Hopkins, none said play easier.


Now I blow softly, in a different way, but will never put a limit on what I do to a harp. That kills the art of it. My harps last over a year and I play at least 30 hours a week and mainly in the key of A. People often comment that I really hit the reeds hard. I do, but have learned via not even knowing I was learning it, from blowing hard on the harp. It is about having a ton of air in the tank and funneling it out through the lips/shape of the mouth. Junior Wells did this wonderfully.

Todays beginning players in large are so controlled that I find no umph in most of their sounds. They are missing that because they never have messed with just letting the untamed youthful juice come out. I can hear this in their playing quite clearly. They tend to be paint by the numbers players.

Now, to the greats. We all have only listened to them in their zenith. They weren't recorded when they were kids starting out. Did they blow real hard to get this sonny terry thing I am referring to? We will never know because they are dead. So my theory is contradicting everyone elses. It is based on starting out as being a child, not a full grown adult. Play without fear. Jump high, fall, and scream. Laugh and cry. Forgive, forget, trust, try new things, have hope. It is all part of growing up and if we are living right, will stay with us through life. I see the learning of music and art the same way.

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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby ricochet » Fri Apr 09, 2010 3:40 pm

Walter, do you suppose that the advice about control and all is aimed at getting new folks to that experienced level of skill without going through the experience? I'm not sure you can jump by it. I'm hindered by thinking too much about playing, and have trouble being spontaneous as you do so well.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jeffl » Fri Apr 09, 2010 7:29 pm

An impressive soliloquoy (sp?) Walter me bucko. I've always told you that you play with expression and I never really equated that with excess force. I have a problem with our jam club 'cuz I play harp unamplified (unless we're giggin') and I'm tryin' to be heard in a mix with several acoustic guitars flailing away at Warp 9. It's buzz music and can lean to the heavy-handed side; as a result, I have to play with more force than I like. I'm still way easier on harps than I was 20 years ago. I think it's easier to play with more nuance using less force 'cuz you're "lighter on your feet", but it's also dependent on what kind of notes you're playin'...whether there's alotta notes or very few notes. I tend to the fewer notes side, but there are some tunes where more notes are called for. I think there's always been a tendency for people to try to become perfectionists on their instruments and to cut the heart right out of the music. In the heyday of the touring big club acts you could hear musicians every night who were technically flawless.. and fast... copycats, but they had nothing to say. As long as you've got a pretty competent grasp on your instrument and you're able to "connect" and communicate, that's all one needs.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby watertore » Sat Apr 10, 2010 1:42 am

ricochet: I don't know. that is a good question. I do know that it takes time to become a smooth player with flash and depth.

Bubba: you have a lot more patience than me. I wouldn't last a minute at a jam like that. Now when you play festivals they often expect you to jam with the patrons. I played the traditional acoustic blues festival a couple years ago and that was asked of us. I went to the jam and stood around for an hour. No one asked me up. The stage was full of drunk, 1/2 assed players that were having diariaha of the instruments. I was with mooreland and arbuckle. they never got asked up either. the 3 of us finally left and went to bed. I can't get with a wall of sound. I can't find anyplace to play anything. A few other festivals I have played had similar requests and I avoided them because it was the same scenario. I only stood around for a few minutes at those before I went to bed.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jbone1 » Sat Apr 10, 2010 4:59 am

your volume can be increased even acoustically once you master resonant playing. and overblows. so i hear. i may do some of this but i have no idea.

i use an amp or the p.a. most of the time. unless we're totally acoustic at say a farmers market, then there are no amps allowed so it's a total acoustic thing. but what i have learned is, i don't have to blow up a harp to be heard. people can come closer to hear.

it always drove me nuts to have a harp on stage, be playing, get real excited, and ruin the draw 4 or 5, which is the one i usually blew out. sometimes a harp would last one or 2 gigs only! these days it's not uncommon to have a harp last a year, sometimes less.

i have spent some time and effort to learn a lot of what a harp can do with applied focused air. there are a l0ot of timers i just freewheel, play whatever comes to me, but never with too much force, enough to get the job done and that's all. why play any harder than necessary is my position.

i had a '67 mustang coupe a few years ago. hot hot engine, a 302 smallblock, cammed, ported, polished, with a shift kit in the tranny so it would bang into gear. that car would just sir and smoke the tires in low, scream more rubber off going into second, and even squawk them hitting 3rd gear. BUT just because you can do these things, is it necessary? i found that if i didn't go totally to the floor when i was taking off the tires would grab better and i'd win a race more often. and the engine and tranny would not wear out so fast.

make sense?
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jeffl » Sat Apr 10, 2010 3:27 pm

I don't think I've ever heard the term "resonant playing"; what the heck is that..? Is that a fancy term for "finding your place in the music"...?
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jbone1 » Sun Apr 11, 2010 1:18 pm

resonance is where you access the depth of your air cavity in your torso. it's achieved with deep breathing exercises and breathing from your abdomen instead of your mid and upper chest like most people do. it's about opening the air column inside, from way deep up into your throat, relaxing muscles and letting a more relaxed air flow move through the harp.

it's kind of like this: pancho villa had a way of looking a man in the eye and then shooting him through the chest without aiming, his hand and arm knew what to do when he looked a certain way.

resonant playing makes overblows much more controllable. on another forum, ironman mike curtis- http://www.ironmancurtis.com - explains much better than i can. he is one of those guys who plays in every key on one C harp thanks to his resonance and his obvious musical talent.

the point of resonant playing is that you focus air so much better and move reeds in a harp more efficiently. less air means less blown up harps. i am still more or less in my infancy with resonance but i ruin a lot less harps than i used to. and i get better tone.

some guys, and this stretches back a long time, just played their butts off and when a harp died they got another one. and i mean some of the guys who laid the foundation so harp would be noticed and respected as a musical instrument. but somewhere along the way someone began studying how reeds work and how to get more out of a harp, and how to keep a harp alive for a longer time. in kim field's book "harmonicas, harps, and heavy breathing", some of the early vaudeville guys and harmonica orchestra guys would rework their chromatic harps this way. part of that was economics and part was a desire to get better performance out of a harp.

another guy who comes to mind re resonant playing is norton buffalo. we all know his work from countless tv theme songs and movie scores, and he played the harp part in bonnie raitt's cover of "runaway". give him a solid listen and think about how much of what he did that the "average" player wishes they could do, and tries to do but just can't get over the hump.

i think walter has the secret whether he knows it or not. part of it comes from realizing that a harp will do what it does only a certain way and not another way. it took me a lot of blown harps to come to the conclusion that there was a better way to play. i spent a long time looking for the indestructible harp when i really needed to find a better way to play. of course quality of the instrument does make a difference and i have never stopped looking for the quality i want in a harp, and these days there are many better options than even 10 years ago. the advent of customizers across the nation and planet has made a huge impact on some manufacturers for one thing. i can think of several major makers who have taken cues from what customizers do and added those features to production harps. along with that there are different levels of customizing from the bare minimum of tweaking reeds all the way to total customs with all the bells and whistles. but these days also the mass producers have begun to compete on some level, with opened up covers, wood/resin combs, rounded corners, screwed together reedplate/combs, etc etc, for much less cash that an actual individually customized harp. this has allowed a lot of players to benefit from something that only the pros and people with real money laying around could in the past.

used to be, a stock harp would come out of the box with one reed cocked a bit, or poor gapping, or other flaws, not huge but to the average player very difficult and unsavory to deal with. kind of like buying a new econo car from a dealer and finding things gravely wrong immediately, but having no recourse like a lemon law, to recover any cash r satisfaction. this flaw in manufacturing policy was a main reason i nearly gave up on harp several times. i was buying 1 or 2 a month at some points, not because i wanted to but because the harps i was getting were not lasting me any time at all. the reasons were somewhere between my hard playing style and poorly made harps that didn't perform as they should or could have. for a working guy it was maddening top get a new harp and have to replace it within sometimes a single gig. and i didn't know how to play softer and still be heard, so it seemed i was in a deep rut.

adam gussow did a clinic here in january, and i got a lot out of a short session. he plays stock harps, resonantly, which he tweaks himself, through very small vintage amps, and he has huge tone and volume capability. he does solo stuff, duo, and full band, and he is a true success. a great example of getting the volume one needs without killing a harp or 2 every gig.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby NEONMOONY » Sun Apr 11, 2010 1:51 pm

I'll have to be the heretic here because I'm not a harp newbie and I don't follow how playing with a deeper breath helps me play in all keys with a C harp.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jbone1 » Sun Apr 11, 2010 2:48 pm

that's a bit overly simple. i was referring to one guy who had educated himself way more than most of us harp players. the point i was making was that with deeper breathing technique, less air is needed to make a harp sound good. less air = longer life also. mike curtis happens to be an accomplished resonant player which is why i brought him up.

resonant playing make overblows more easily available which gives a player more notes to work with.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jeffl » Mon Apr 12, 2010 4:44 pm

jbone1 wrote:that's a bit overly simple. i was referring to one guy who had educated himself way more than most of us harp players. the point i was making was that with deeper breathing technique, less air is needed to make a harp sound good. less air = longer life also. mike curtis happens to be an accomplished resonant player which is why i brought him up.

resonant playing make overblows more easily available which gives a player more notes to work with.
I guess I never heard "proper breathing" referred to that way before. I feel fortunate inasfar as I got my initial training on wind control from the public school system, before I ever touched a harp; if you were in choir, or played a wind instrument in a school band, you should have received good fundamental training on proper use of one's diaphragm when singing or playing a wind instrument. I started out in choir, and playing trumpet. We always stood in choir. We had this little 4'11" battle axe who would whack you in the back with a yardstick if you slouched. If she couldn't see your gut moving when you breathed, she'd get about two inches from your face and scream at you! :) As an aside, if we don't protect music budgets in our lower grade schools, alotta kids will be deprived of basic music training.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby Bournio » Tue Apr 13, 2010 12:56 am

Walter, I'd love to have your control, I'm not great as a harp player, and it's hard to find someone round here who isn't into the Bob Dylan/folk chordal thing. It must have been amazing to be playing next to Sonny! He's pretty much my idol, but I can't get the whoops and hollers, I guess it's cos I'm a northern lad and at most my shouts are along the lines of "yer wot! yer Wot!"

It does seem odd that the harmonica players I know at uni are all impressed that I can bend.

I don't know if I blow too hard.... I guess it'd take someone in person who played to show me... Dunno if Maxx will browse over here but I'll drop him a message see who he knows!
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jbone1 » Tue Apr 13, 2010 11:03 am

bournio, if your harps aren't losing reeds ie flatting out to the point they're unplayable, you probably are doing fine.

jeffl made a great point and it's what i'm getting at- wind control. voice or wind instrument coaching and also some yoga exercises help access deeper breathing. result is better control of a harp.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jeffl » Tue Apr 13, 2010 3:49 pm

jbone1 wrote:bournio, if your harps aren't losing reeds ie flatting out to the point they're unplayable, you probably are doing fine.

jeffl made a great point and it's what i'm getting at- wind control. voice or wind instrument coaching and also some yoga exercises help access deeper breathing. result is better control of a harp.
jbone, it was a good idea to bring this topic up again. Those of us who have been around this forum for a number of years sometimes forget that the newer members haven't seen posts on some of these fundamental concepts. When BBQBob was more active here he used to preach on wind control and blowing with too much force all the time; I think he considered it to be the #1 issue for beginner, novice, AND sometimes intermediate harpers and vocalists. It's funny, 'cuz at our weekly jam (hosted at a guy's house, not a club btw) me and the bass player are the only two guys who habitually stand. The rest of 'em sit around in chairs. I have convinced one of the younger guys who sings alot to try standing more. I've always found it easier to play and sing standing up, from a breath support standpoint. I never even slouch in a church pew when I'm singin' :lol: . I jus' think that standing makes it all easier.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jbone1 » Thu Apr 15, 2010 11:14 am

i agree with that to an extent jeff. in the duo we always sit in chairs for health reasons, which works well for the sort of stealth laid-back style we do, but when i'm with a full band i always stand and try to remember that my "air column" is there and needs my chest and throat to be open and relaxed, and shape notes- vocal or harp- with that relaxed attitude. when i started singing lo those many years ago, i would be so tense and excited, i'd force the notes out, and blow out my voice in one or two sets, to the point i couldn't even talk the next day. by the same token during that early period, i had a night where 4 of my 7 harps blew out on me due to high air volume getting forced through them. the lesson i learned was that frantic excitement does not make up for work and practice in the right direction. but work and practice can lead to long lived harps and a voice that isn't strained nearly to death after one night's singing.
once i got the idea- and credit due to bbq bob partly, it was like a whole new level of control over what i could do with a harp just opened up for me. between that and good sound reinforcement i am ready these days to get on nearly any stage with nearly anyone and either do well or get some schooling.
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Re: My theory on "blowing to hard"

Postby jeffl » Fri Apr 16, 2010 1:21 pm

Yep, I'm not saying that one should always stand; I just prefer to. Frankly, for our style of play, having most people sit probably looks more natural. We tend to sit in a semi-circle on stage, except for me,the drummer, and bassist. Sometimes I wonder if "blow-outs" are more common to those who use the lip pursing method of playing, as opposed to tongue blocking. I almost always tongue block, except for certain bends and some passing notes.
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