RANDY'S HARMONICA HISTORYMy first harmonica was a Hohner Blues Harp in the key of C, and I bought it in 1980 specifically to annoy my college roommate. I succeeded splendidly at this task, eventually chasing him out of my dorm room for good, and my musical hobby had begun.
(originally posted on the now-defunct tonepopes.com)
Over the next few years, I picked up a few more harps and ear-taught myself a handful of melodies. A harp was just a toy to be noodled with on occasion. Thanks to my skills in whistling, I found I could almost immediately play single notes and "bend" notes -- a key element of playing blues harmonica, although I didn't know it at the time.
The occasional noodling for fun continued until I moved to Little Rock in late 1984 to work for a local newspaper. On my second night in town, one of my co-workers took me to see a Nashville-based blues band called The Businessmen. I'd never seen a real blues band before -- my blues knowledge consisted of The Blues Brothers -- and this band had a hot, hot harp player. I fell in love with the music on the spot and was amazed that such a big sound could come out of such a tiny instrument. I went home and, to my surprise, found I could play some of the harp player's riffs right away.
A few of the reporters and editors at my paper, along with a few other folks, had a little informal band going on the side and I asked if I could come to a practice or two. These folks were mostly my age -- mid- to late 20s at the time -- and only a couple of them could actually play their instruments with any real skill.
This didn't stop us. The group evolved into Nun of the Above -- a punkabilly/blues/roots rock outfit that played in Little Rock throughout the rest of the 1980s. The band had anywhere from five to eight members of various states of weirdness and/or blood chemistry at any one time. Most of our music was original, and some of it was actually pretty good, or it would have been if we had more musicians who had any talent. For a while, we had three guitarists (one very good, one acceptable and one who needed a whole lot of practice) and a percussionist who would only perform with his back to the audience.
My harp skills evolved from the hideous to the merely annoying, and then to the almost-adequate. However, no one came to the gigs to see me play unless I was dating her. I still learned a lot of harp basics, as well as how to play to an audience, and I once was rewarded for my stage skills by having my shoelaces set on fire by an audience member at a gig.
My instrument of choice at the time was a Huang Silvertone, a cheap but surprisingly well-made Chinese harmonica that remains popular with many players. I bought 'em because I could afford 'em -- they cost half as much as the Hohner Marine Bands that were (and are) the blues harp standard.
We played at/in warehouses, house parties, bars and street fairs. I once had a set of my PA speakers stolen from a bar because the manager of the place had not settled his outstanding cocaine bill. I had a bizarre life -- newspaper editor during the day, dive bar musician at night. I'm still not sure which occupation attracted a larger number of shady characters.
I moved to Memphis in early 1990. I lived there only nine months, although I loved the city and liked working for the paper there, and I did three or four gigs with various pickup bands. Memphis at the time was crammed full of really talented musicians, all of whom were trying to play at a relatively small number of clubs. Many clubs took advantage of this in a time-honored fashion: They screwed the musicians with lowball offers, playing musicians off against each other in the best "Grapes of Wrath" fruitpicker fashion. I often was reminded how glad I was that I had a daytime profession I loved.
I got a dream job offer out of the blue in late 1990 and took off for Washington. I spent the better part of the next two years on the road, covering Bill Clinton's presidential campaign and noodling around with the small kit of harmonicas that I took everywhere. After Clinton won the presidency in late 1992 and I knew I'd be in Washington for a while, I ran an ad in the City Paper, saying I was looking for a band.
This got me a call from three people who were playing together in a basement. Unlike most groups of three people who play together in a basement, these people were good! The female keyboard player and the guitarist were dating each other, and the keyboard player was classically trained. She played all the bass lines herself with a pounding left hand that reminded me of Jerry Lee Lewis, but her right hand could drift off into Chopin riffs that could make you cry. The guitarist completely understood the music he played, had a great emotional voice and a ton of soul. And the drummer locked on to a beat and wouldn't let go, and was a great grinning goofball to boot.Best of all, they liked each other a lot and were genuinely good people. They understood volume and dynamics, practiced twice a week, had an irresistible jump blues thing going on, and really had no idea about how to get out of the basement. That, as it turned out, would be my job.
Thus were The Confabulators born. This was the band where I really learned how to become a harp player. The guitarist made up the name on the spot -- he thought "confabulate" was a make-believe word but it turned out to be real, and it meant "to chat" -- and I would play with them for the next three years. I was the weakest player in the band, but all of the woodshedding really paid off and my harp skills evolved quickly. This is where I learned that consistently playing with good musicians will improve your skills in a hurry. I also tossed the Huangs and moved on to Lee Oskar harps, then Hohner Golden Melodies and finally to the Hohner Special 20s that I still prefer today.
My real job with the band was getting gigs, and it's why the other people put up with me. I had some success on this front, although I allowed us to be woefully underpaid at times. The other three band members were so happy to have gigs that they didn't care too much, at least at first.
We settled into a twice-a-month gig at a bar on Capitol Hill for more than 18 months and played a circuit of other clubs as well, typically playing three or four gigs a month. We even played at a D.C. Blues Society event and a little outdoor blues festival. After our drummer moved away, we replaced him with somebody who played with more of an R&B/funky beat, and the band evolved in that direction a bit.
The Confabulators broke up in 1996 the way many bands do -- the piano player and guitarist stopped dating and eventually grew uncomfortable with each other in a restraining-order sort of way.
I could tell that The Confabulators were dying long before the end came, so I had already started looking for a new band. In 1996, I stumbled upon a web site for a band called The Tone Popes. The site was cool -- an attraction for me because I had started working as an editor in the online industry -- and the guys in the band obviously were cool as well. They were more versatile players than The Confabulators, and also understood volume and dynamics (this is much more rare than you might think, and it is hugely important to having a good sound).
The guitarist -- a mountain of a man at 6 feet, 6 inches tall and way north of 300 pounds -- was the single best guitarist with whom I had played up to that point. He also had wonderful emotional instincts for the music -- something that sometimes escapes talented guitarists who get tied up in fretboard gymnastics. The bass player and drummer counterbalanced him by being solid in-the-pocket types (really important for rootsy music), and there wasn't a psycho in the bunch.
They absolutely didn't need me, so of course I went about convincing them to ignore the facts.
That's how I started playing for The Tone Popes -- just a song or two at first on weeknight gigs, then at better-paying gigs where they could afford to add a fourth player, and eventually all of the time. We played together for a decade, and I still count these guys as among my best friends in the world.
Since then, I've mostly freelanced, scoring gigs regularly with various outfits. Among the units I've played with in my post-Tone-Popes days are the Joe Chiocca Band, the John D.C. All-Stars and B.G. and the Mojo Hands.
I've played harp for nearly 28 years now, and seriously for nearly 24, and I still learn new things all of the time. That's not bad for an instrument that typically only has 10 holes and costs about as much as a large deluxe pizza. You can learn to play a little tune on a harp in about 10 minutes, but like many deceptively simple folk instruments, it takes a lifetime to master.