Re: [Harp-L] Rhythm Harp

As to finding the holes in a rhythm track, I prefer to leave some holes (or silences) in the groove. If every available hole is filled with sound, the groove can start to sound too dense.

I didn't mean to imply that one should fill up every hole. In fact I said nothing of the sort, and in fact suggested that one develop one's part in each ensemble rhythm figure within the holes, not just fill every hole, which I agree, is not often very good practice. But developing a facility to hear the holes, especially as the rhythm section is working up the groove so you can be part of the team doing the workup, is a great sneaky skill to have.

It's worth studying a great rhythm recording every day (Stax, The Meters, Motown, Stuff just to name a few), just to find the holes and tap on the table, or try to play stacatto harp hits, in the holes. The better and faster you get at hearing them the more equipped you are to find your part somewhere in the holes.

What I didn't mention was that the holes aren't the only place to look. In fact, it's fun to find places where you can hit a harp note or two in harmony with some other part, often a guitar. It's also fun to find short windows where the harp DOES stick out for a beat or two before retreating back into the ensemble. In fact, it is a rare thing indeed to hear a great rhythm section where the players AREN'T moving between holes and harmonies. That's why it's always surprising to see a Steve Cropper part written out. Sometimes you hear him, as is intended, but sometimes he's playing in the same figure as the horns or the piano. The more he blends in in those moments the better.

Great keyboardists and rhythm guitarists blend in so effortlessly when blending is what they want to do, because they seem to always know the perfect chord voicing to use. It's amazing. We have fewer voicing choices as harp players, but there are always chord notes that help you be part of the blend and chord notes that'll let you stick out hear and there. Listen for them.

There was this moment in recording history when suddenly there were 16 or more tracks to mix, but no automation or computers to help. (Back then we simply called it 'The 70's'.) In those days I used to love to hang out after a session (I rarely had to get to another one immediately) and learn about mixing. One was often welcome to be there because they needed more than two pairs of hands to move the faders up and down during mixdown. The thing that always knocked me out was hearing a track by a guy like Grady Martin. There was always some beautiful guitar right out front for some bars, and you'd almost think that was all he did. But it turned out he played in every bar of every recording he was on that I got to hear - mostly just participating in the rhythm ensemble or adding incredibly cool sneaky fills that the engineer didn't bump up loud enough so that you were conscious of it, but the minute he muted it something was missing. Further, there were always bits of Grady Martin's parts that WERE ducked out. He gave you more than you needed, and you got to choose.

What's really huge in all this is that very, very few harp players do this kind of stuff. Unlike people who train as rhythm guitarists, who are trained to think in these very terms, harp players are rarely taught how to think in these terms at all. There's alot of new music to be made by harp players in bands that work on this stuff.

Luckily, these days there are tons of incredibly good rhythm guitar tutorials out there (the Truefire series is just amazing) and not only can a harp player learn how to think like a rhythm guitarist, but if that harp player plays guitar too he/she will become a more valuable hire if they can play great harp solos and great rhythm guitar if the band does music in which harp is not always appropriate.


>Besides soloing at times, it's great to play some rhythm harp (such as
>repeating a phrase being sung, or performing some "harp" percussion,
>syncopation, accompliment, and basically adding more to the music.
>Does anyone know of great sources of information to become proficient at
>this? (various YouTubes, training, books, DVDs, etc.)

Hi Jeffrey,
Rhythm harp is a great subject, not often treated here.  I don't know
Madcat's instructional materials, but I have to believe they're
great.  He's a fabulous musician.

I have found myself playing rhythm harp at least as much as leads and
solos.  I learned alot from listening to rhythm guitarists, especially
Steve Cropper on the Stax recordings.  Also by studying how the three
guitarists split the rhythm chores on Motown records.

The real job is learning how to play a rhythm that helps drive the piece
But Does Not Stick Out all the time.  That's a big deal.  Harp sticks out
if you don't consciously make sure that you aren't in front 100% of the
time.  You can just stop playing, but if you want to be part of the rhythm
section you have to find other ways to not stick out.

I still make an exercise of studying a really good rhythm track and finding
the holes, the places where nobody else in the rhythm section is
playing.  I then try to find an engaging set of figures to play within
those holes - that is I try to find which bits to leave out so that what
stays in is musically valid on its own, but is really "locked" as part of
the ensemble.

Always try to find ways to not stick out - harp sticks out without any
trouble when you want it to, and even when you don't if you're not aware
that much of the time you should be felt and not heard.

I'm always telling players to work with a metronome daily.  Among the many
advantages this will give you is the ability to hear when to play ahead of
the beat, when to play behind it, and when to sit right on top of it.  This
goes for soloing too, but you can make a tremendous contribution to the
excitement of a band performance by hearing when you should be in front of
the beat.

Most blues players on most instruments learn how to play behind the
beat.  When I used to see blues in the clubs I could always tell when the
players weren't fully developed because nobody ever played ahead of the
beat, at least not on purpose.
Playing ahead of the beat, when done right, is often the secret to
excitement in performance.

I used to sit in with a good band, 40 years ago, that would start to lag
about halfway through.  They would call me up and I would get everybody
dancing just based on pushing the beat while everyone else was sitting
comfortably behind.  I played both rhythm harp and solos when I sat
in.  One morning after such a gig their manager called to offer to put a
band together for me - he saw how I could excite an audience. I guarantee
you it wasn't because of my looks. Aside from the fact that I was a good
harmonica player I could really control an audience with that little secret
of knowing when to push ahead of the beat.  (Idiot that I was I turned the
guy down.  He went on to open the Bottom Line.)

The greatest exponent of playing ahead of the beat in American dance band
music was King Curtis.  His bands were always full of studio cats who could
play around a beat in their sleep.  And so often you hear Curtis, or the or
the bass or the drums, or something, pushing the beat.  They're so good
that it never sounds rushed, but the excitement on his records is
wonderfully unbearable.

It's of course really important to learn the kinds of rhythm techniques
that Madcat can show you, but learning how to use these techniques in the
ensemble will make you a valuable band member.


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