[Harp-L] Ideal Trio and dancing women
I just signed up to this site and am enjoying the
correspondence--messaging back and forth. The topic about starting a
three piece band is interesting to me as it deals with something I've
thought about for many years. As primarily a diatonic (Marine Band) harp
player who has been the leader of a blues band from the late 1960s, and
a one-man-band performer since 1983, I've experienced a number of
different combinations of players.
At this point in my career, I'm willing to experiment on stage with
virtually any combination of instrumentalists--especially with people
using non-traditional instruments--for example, marimbas, steel drums,
tubas, accordions, hand percussion, horns (sax, trumpet, trombone)--you
name it. If the musicans can really play, the gig will happen and
people will dance regardless what instruments are used.
There is one instrument, though that I am extremely cautious about
adding to a group: electric bass. For one, the bass player, whether he
or she is aware of it or not, has almost total dominance over the
changes and direction of the music--if you have a mediocre bass player,
you'll have a mediocre band. Also, the way electric bass is commonly
played (especially by contemporary blues bass players), the sound of it
completely fills the bottom half of the sound spectrum and leaves no
room (or space) for the harp player to play delicate phrases. Therefore,
it's been my experience that I have to overplay the harp and forget
about any finese in melody or tone.
The key to playing amplified harp is to have the mic turned up very hot,
but be able to play the harp at a whisper. Put into the mix a typical
plodding electric bass player who overplays the tonic note of each chord
change ad nauseam with little sonic relief between each pluck of the
string, the harp player might as well forget about any senstive "inside"
This has been a problem for me when touring abroad with pick-up bands.
One time in Germany, I had to fire a bass player during a gig---though
his problem was an inability to understand simple blues changes and the
hear them within improvisations--he was simply not there with the proper
underpinning when the rest of us were changing chords. But, my point,
the rest of the band felt we couldn't continue with the show. "Bullshit"
I told them--we didn't need a bass player. There were two guitar players
and the drummer--we didn't need anyone else--and we didn't! The show
went on and we actually sounded better. For one, I was finally able to
get a good tone with my harp because the bassist wasn't there mucking up
the entire lower half of the sound spectrum.
For anyone inspired by Little Walter, his best recorded cuts came when
he didn't have a bass player.
However, what Walter did have was a great jazz drummer--Freddy Below.
Walter's best solos are intrically intertwined with Below's drumming.
Below was an obvious inspiration for Little Walter. I find the same
thing true with drummers I've play with. The worst kind of drummer is
the one who doesn't vary the beat and plods along steady ahead with no
interaction. I interact contantly with the drummer and if the drummer is
just playing a beat with no embellishment, then I tend to be uninspired.
It is important that the drummer play light and fast like a be-bop
drummer--good technique with brushes, light-handed with cymbols, and
great use of the snare and toms really helps.
So, back to the trio--I suggest harp with drums and guitar. However,
there has been no mention of piano---it takes a hell of a guitar player
to match the range of music that an average keyboard player can put out.
I am also on a crusade to get acoustic pianos back into the mix.
Acoustic piano with guitar and harp make for a strong line-up.
One more band line-up I recommend, harp with stand-up acoustic bass and
either acoustic piano (best) or electric guitar. Playing with the sound
of acoustic bass is far superior to that of the electric bass---day and
night difference. The acoustic sound doesn't muddy-up the sound
spectrum--it gives a space that allows the solo instruments to play with
finesse. Also, an acoustic bass can substitute for drums especially if
the bassist is good at "slapping" the strings. Anybody who has ever
heard Willie Dixon play would know what I'm talking about---drums're not
needed, and the dancers dance.
Speaking of dancers--all the tlak about women dancing in the
audience--of course! That IS one of the main reasons I got into music to
the extent that I did. Scoring the first night I played harp on stage
addicted me immediately! Women?!! Bunched in groups in front of the
stage, on stage in my lap, dancing with them in the crowd, and on and on.
Things have, indeed, changed. American audiences (where one can find one
these days) are now very sedate. If you are looking for an audience of
gorgeous dancing women, they generally go to clubs that don't have live
music. Also, with a few exceptions, young Americans could care less
about any music not immediately contemporary, and it's mainly on the
internet; older Americans aren't going out. So, the live music scene is
pretty much dead in the water outside of local cover bands playing
corner taverns for little or no money. Stict enforcement of liquor and
driving laws have done a lot to ruin the club circuit---afterall, it is
America and without a car, it is difficult to get around; and the advent
of AIDS in the 1990s helped get rid of a lot of those dancing girls at
Europe and South America are different: people do go out (not as car
dependent); young people will go hear music that isn't the latest
flash-in-the-pan; people pay attention and respond; and the respect for
musicians is generally much higher. At this point, I don't even seek
gigs here in the USA, though I still play the ones that I do enjoy. But,
in general, overseas venues are much more appealing and exciting.
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