Who the heck is Mickey Raphael?

I did a gig today where I played a lot of tremolo harmonica, a type of harp not often played by harmonica players. I also played a lot of background fills and chugs, since this particular gig called for a lot of acoustic stuff, and a few people came up to me today and asked me about my influences.

Most harmonica players will list the old-school guys — particularly Little Walter — as their top influences. But for me, it’s Mickey Raphael.

Raphael is Willie Nelson’s harp player, and he’s been with Willie for nearly 40 (!) years. When I first started playing around with harmonicas in the early 1980s, Nelson was at his “outlaw” peak and I was fascinated with the tone I heard from his harmonica player. “Stardust” and “Willie And Family Live” were in fairly constant rotation on my record player, and I particularly liked the weird accordion-like tones I’d occasional hear. Eventually, I figured out this was a tremolo harmonica, and that’s when I started learning about Raphael.

He has a round, warm tone — my tone will always be brighter, I’m afraid — and he is as punchy a player as anyone I’ve heard this side of James Cotton. Raphael also understands how to play in the background far better than most harp guys, and that above all else has been a tremendous influece on me. It’s kept me away from some of the bad habits that you hear from so many bar-band harp players who don’t know when to shut up and can’t do anything other than play leads (sometimes badly). Raphael’s influence has made me into a musician who values tone over style, and who values the band’s overall sound over how I personally sound at any given time.

So the next time you hear any Willie, open your ears and pay attention to the harmonica. You might be surprised at what is going on there.

Previously: 5 unmistakable signs of geekiness | Hokum home

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