Re: [Harp-L] Bluegrass

sheltraw@xxxxxxxxxxxx asks:
Great points David and Michelle

Do you have any pointers on how to get a good mando chop rhythm on the
harp? Mine sound unchoppy at this point.

Sure. I'd start simply.

I assume you know how to count the "off-beat" (aka, "up-beat;" when you tap your foot to the beat, the up-beat is when your foot reaches the top of the "up" swing). You don't want to hit the downbeat. Leave that to the bass player if you have one in the group. Keep your eyes glued to a mandolin player if you are unsure. [I find it to be good practice to clap on the upbeat in an audience full of people clapping on the downbeat. Practice tapping the upbeat whenever you listen to music. You need to cultivate the ability to hit those upbeats in a sea of distractions. Bluegrass is fast-paced so you need to be able to keep that upbeat at speed. Remember that when you take that role of playing rhythm, you become the heartbeat of the group and people rely on you to be keeping the time exactly right. I'd go so far as to say that what you play is less important than when you play it in this context.]

Once you know you can hit those upbeats spot on, practice making very short, percussive chords on your harps. Once you get used to the whole concept, you may choose to not use them, but tongue articulations can be very helpful. Try articulating an abrupt "tuck" sound through your harp with just your tongue, no breath. Then try it combined with rapidly opening your oral cavity. You may be surprised at how much sound you can get out of a harp without breathing through it. But tongue articulations aren't enough to get that real percussive beat or good tone. You need to coordinate your in- and out-breaths with the motion of your tongue, timed with the expansion or contraction of your oral cavity. Think of your tongue as a piston inside your mouth. You can make a percussive little beat without any breath by moving your tongue from the front of your mouth to the back while simultaneously opening the inside of your mouth (and vice-versa). Now couple that action inside your mouth with some very short and choppy in- and out-breaths (for the blow- and draw-chords). As always, opening up your oral cavities and airways helps your tone.

Another key factor in accentuating the staccato nature of those "chops" is your hand cupping. If you start with a tight cup and then abruptly open the cup in synchrony with your "tuck" articulation and choppy breath, you can make that "chop" even more accentuated (and pleasing to the ear). This will require some practice and maybe recording yourself or enlisting a volunteer listener, but the effect is well worth the effort. Just understand that the timing of opening and closing that cup can further accentuate that "piston" effect you are shooting for. Careful timing of opening and closing your cup with respect to the sounds you are making with the harmonica is key to a great acoustic sound. (If you don't know what I mean take a listen sometime to great acoustic players like Joe Filisko, Grant Dermody or Paul Davies.) The ability to employ hand effects is one of the great joys of playing acoustic harp. And, once again, you can use your hand cup to expand the tonal palette you have at your disposal. Many players don't realize that their acoustic hand cup can actually make their sound louder as well as muting it.

When you become comfortable with the simple "tuck" articulations on the off-beat, you can think about what to do the rest of the time. Here are a couple of my personal ideas. I like to softly mirror or echo single (down-beat) notes that complement whatever the instrument taking the break is playing -- in a supportive way, say echoing simple tones from the melody or hitting harmony notes. [This also gives me an opportunity to cheat a little particularly if I am not terribly familiar with the song of the moment (you can't know 'em ~all~ ). I can (softly) and subtly practice what I want to play when it comes time for me to take a break. By the time it's my turn for a break, I will have heard several versions by the other musicians. That, coupled with my subtle "practice" usually enables me to acquit myself fairly well when it's my break. Of course, it's always perfectly permissible to deny being handed a break with a subtle headshake or motion to send it to the next player.]

Another thing you can do is embellish the rhythms you play using more complicated tongue articulations. Try making the "tuck" you articulate on the off-beat the much more accentuated of several "tucka-tucka-tucka's" (timed with the string instruments) before the next off-beat. Sort of a "TUCKA-tucka-tucka-tucka. Also, try leaving a gap between your lips and the cover plates to vary your tone on either the louder off-beat "tuck" or the softer ones that follow until the next off-beat. As I'm sure you know there's lots of different sounds that can come from a well-played harmonica. That's part of what you can offer to a bluegrass circle. The whole idea is to blend in and enhance the overall sound of he group. Only the player taking the break or singing should stand out.

A few words about bluegrass jam circle etiquette. There are two ways of selecting which player will take a given break. One is to simply hand the break to the next player in the circle (usually clockwise). Also, many circles take turns going around the circle to determine who will call the next song. Then the person who chooses the tune plays the intro and head and then the break will either hand off to the next player in the circle or s/he can point at any random player to take a break. Then when that player is finished, the person calling the song selects another player for a break with a head nod or pointed finger. When the song caller reckons the song is over, instead of handing off another break, s/he will lift one of their legs up off the floor a bit to signify the song's end (really). When one song is finished, the next person in the circle calls the next tune. (When you are "up" is when you really do need to know a few popular tunes.)

That should help some.

Closing note: Of course, rigorous study of the popular bluegrass melodies can certainly open (or keep open) doors for any wannabe bluegrass musician. But I wanted to make the point that even if you aren't a fiddle tune virtuoso, as long as you understand the genre and appreciate the roles that the various instruments play within it, it's actually fairly easy to fit harmonica into a bluegrass jam circle. Like Dave Payne, some of the most fun I've had playing music has been in late-night jam circles at bluegrass events. I suggest you try it out even if you aren't a Tony Eyers. :-)


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