The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #152573   Message #3568719
Posted By: GUEST,Big Ballad Singer
21-Oct-13 - 09:36 PM
Thread Name: A tricky question for paid players
Subject: RE: A tricky question for paid players
The gigs are there because I am a singer and have assembled a band of touring veterans who have played with major professional acts. The clubs that are offering guarantees have heard me sing and play.

At that time, I played in the two keys I still had that were serviceable. I was singing in front of a pickup band at a jam session, so I only had a couple of tunes to perform anyway. The time when I was originally approached about these gigs was also over a year ago. I know the offer has lasted; the cheap harps have not.

How do I practice? On crappy jobs that are just this side of rubbish and completely out of tune.

What most players who play "straight" or "folk melody" style harmonica don't realize is that blues-style or "cross harp" style puts incredible strain on the reeds. Interestingly, most often, by the time my harps have gone permanently out of tune in cross harp, they were already WAY out of tune in first position.

FYI, for people who don't know from such things:

1st position is playing the harmonica in the key marked on the harmonica. The note you get when you exhale into the 3rd hole gives you the "Do" of the major scale in that particular key. Think of tunes like "Red River Valley", "Frere Jacques" and thousands more folk songs; they are played in first position.

2nd position is what most people think of when they hear "blues harp" or "blues harmonica". Suffice it for now to say that you use a harmonica that is a major fifth BELOW the key you are playing in. If you are playing a song in G major, the correct key harmonica for 2nd position is a C harmonica, and you begin the "blues scale" on the second hole by inhaling.

A few other thoughts:

1) The idea that I couldn't get a guitar for the price of those harmonicas is TOTAL rubbish. I can go to any one of TEN music stores near me and get a perfectly serviceable acoustic guitar for under 100 dollars, and I've done so over the last 25 years more times than I can count. There's an imported acoustic guitar at a store I can WALK to from my house that's only $89 used, and I'm sure if I offered cash I could get it for less.

I could go to a store and get a cheap electric guitar, a strap and even a cheap distortion pedal for less than what my harmonicas would cost. No, they wouldn't be the greatest-sounding things, but I could tweak them a little and, hey, they'd be for a rock gig, so it wouldn't much matter, would it? ;-)

There's a WORLD of difference between the average budget acoustic guitar and a comparably-cheap harmonica. I gigged for three years with Yamaha FG-series guitars and even cheaper ones. As long as the thing can be tuned fairly well and has decent action, it can serve to be played on a gig. On the other hand, the cheapest mass-produced Asian-made harmonicas might not last one gig. I blew one out of tune a while back after playing it ONCE. Not for one GIG; I mean literally playing it ONCE.

Replacing the reed plates on the used Lee Oskar harmonicas I still have left would cost a bit less than new harmonicas, but I don't have enough shells and I'd have to special-order the reed plates, and I don't have the scratch for that anyway.

Leadfingers, I can't "bite the bullet" and buy the harmonicas. I lost my job in July and have no cash to my name that isn't being scraped together to try and keep the bills paid for my wife and children. Right now, I stand to lose phone service, my car insurance AND my car within the next few days to couple of weeks. I don't even have the cash to spare for ONE decent harmonica, let alone enough to gig with. I was receiving unemployment, but that has ended for now; in my state, you can only claim for a certain length of time before you have to wait and then basically reapply. That amounted to about $200 weekly, hardly enough for gas for the car, let alone for everything else.

Believe me, if these were guitar gigs, I'd be there already. I have a decent acoustic guitar with a pickup and a preamp. I just don't play top-40 covers or for free in coffeehouses, so I don't get those gigs.

"Most guitar players don't get paid". I'm not sure what all the variables are in everyone else's case, but in my particular case, there's a circuit in my area of clubs and bars that cater to a blues-and-jazz-listening crowd. I'm playing music from a certain era, with a certain "image" that goes along with it. It's showmanship and "shtick" ALMOST as much as it is musical performance. In fact, the reason I have people offering me guaranteed money is because around me, the term "blues band" means a bunch of slobs in old sneakers and blue jeans and t-shirts playing the same tired rock/blues catalog that they all learned from Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Let me show you all a study in contrast:

I do not know these people and have never heard them play, but
here's A typical "blues band" photo from around my area. NOTE: I am not suggesting they are untalented; I am simply showing you what is par for the course. That picture could have been of anyone for any reason. There's no telling whether they're a band, a team of mechanics or the officers of your local Moose Lodge.

Here, on the other hand, are Grammy-nominated artists "Little Charlie and the Nightcats".

I'm not suggesting that everyone go out and spend $500 each on a new suit, but seriously! I look at the second picture and I see a professional music act. I look at the first picture and I see... some dudes standing there by a tree.

I digress...

When I was gigging years ago, I carried one major harmonica in every key. I had doubles for the four or five most common keys, especially for playing in the keys of G and A, which suit my voice best. I also carried a few minor-tuned harmonicas for non-blues songs that I played with other people. Then there were the couple of octave-down harps and one octave-up harp. They were useful, but more of a luxury that I could afford 20 years ago.

Figure that I had about 25 harmonicas in my case at any given time. I would be spending a MINIMUM of $500 to have all of those right now, and that figure is impossible because the special-tuned harps don't exist at a $20 price point.

Right now, I could make do with about $250 worth of harmonicas. There's a 5-pack of workhorse-quality Hohners in the keys of G, A, C, D and E. It sells for $170. I could add a couple more harps for around $75-80 and have one working set. If I BABIED them and NEVER drank anything but water on the gig or at practice**, they'd hold up for a year or so until I could sock away the cash from the gigs for some spares, one or two at a time.

(**NOTE: A friendly suggestion to anyone who wants to play the harmonica: ANYTHING you eat or drink on a gig or when you practice will wind up getting on the reeds of your harmonicas. Soda, booze, anything with sugar in it will gum up the reeds over time. Anything with dairy or mayonnaise in it will clog up the reeds and eventually just get nasty, and harmonicas don't have "spit valves" like brass horns do.)

Also, bear in mind that I don't need a separate amplifier nor special microphone if they are not things I can afford. I have played hundreds of gigs with just the mic that the house provided. I treat my role in the band like a horn player would; I can show up at a venue and as long as there's a place to play and a sound system that works, I can get the job done. The tone is mine, not the equipment's, provided there's an instrument worth a damn in my hands to begin with.

I don't need to have all the stuff that makes the "classic" (read: everyone does it) amplified harmonica sound that people associate with "da blooz".

I'm not trying to make it sound like everyone else in the world has it easy and I don't. I'm just stuck in a really pain-in-the-ass situation. If I could sell my guitar (which I can't; it was a gift from a friend), I'd do so and turn the money into a few harmonicas.

Thanks for all the input so far!