Harmonicas & More! (Gear part III)
Hey everybody! I hope everyone is happy and healthy out there in CBB land. Before I dive into the third installment of talking about the band's gear I just want to say thank you to all of you who keep coming to our shows and groovin' with us. We appreciate you all so much and all you do, whether its liking and sharing our facebook posts, telling your friends about us and helping to get the word out, sticking our stickers on your cars (and other places), and even just chatting with us at the bar. So thank you from all of us in the CBB and please, please keep it going.
With that said...
Today I'd like to talk about Michael "Icey" Baird's harmonica rig! If you're anything like me, you probably had a harmonica or two kicking around your house growing up (and it was always in the key of C, lol), whether it came in a Christmas stocking, maybe an Easter basket, or maybe you bought one yourself because it looked neat and came in a cool little box. But again, if you're anything like me, you probably couldn't play it at all. The harmonica, or the "Harp" as blues cats call it, tends to get grouped half in the toy category, much like its distant 2nd cousin twice removed, the kazoo, and half in the musical instrument category. The reality is though, that the harmonica is one of the most underestimated, vulnerable, and most difficult instruments out there that takes years to master. To play the harmonica one must learn to seal their lips around it and bend notes with their tongue, all while blowing and drawing breath through the metal reeds of the harp and having no visual reference point for where individual notes are, as one does on a piano or a guitar. One also incorporates the cupping of the hands around the back to shape the notes as well. So needless to say, it's not for the faint of heart.
If you've seen us live you've heard Icey Mike blowing his heart out night after night through his Hohner Special 20 harmonicas. Like any musician, as he ventures down the long road of developing his own style and voice, he draws influence from different places. The biggest of which, would probably be Little Walter. I won't get too far into Little Walter as this is about Icey and his gear, but Little Walter was a pioneer in amplified harmonica playing and if you like blues music, you owe it to yourself to check out his recordings on Chess Records from the 1950's. He was the first person to hold a microphone right up to the harp and cup his hands behind it, which caused a raw, distorted tone due to the way the air passed through and effected the pressure on the signal going to the amp. Prior to that, harp players played into microphones much like a singer or a horn player would, simply playing towards the mic and letting it pick up the sound for the PA or amplifier.
in the 1950's, gear was all over the place. Old blues players most often played through whatever was available for amplifiers which ranged from 1950's era Fender "Tweed" amps to lesser expensive models like Supro's or Silvertone's. Like most amps of the era though, they all had that distinct gritty, mid range tone to them which helped to shape the sound we've all come to know and love as "Blues Harp". One of the most well known amps of the time and one that is widely accepted as "THE" harmonica amp today, is the 1959 Fender Bassman.
The 1959 Fender Bassman was an amplifier made by Fender to be used as a bass amp, hence the name. However, it quickly gained popularity with guitar players though and its use as a bass amp never quite caught on like it did for guitar playing and ultimately, the harmonica. It pushes 40 watts through four 10" speakers and its laid the groundwork for what eventually became the Marshall amp. Jim Marshall in the UK wanted to start making guitar amps in the early 1960's (transitioning from being a drum shop owner) and to do so, he made an exact copy of the 1959 Fender Bassman. He did, however, have to change several components as they were not available in England at the time. This new amp was called the Marshall JTM 45 and it became the voice of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, early AC/DC, and so many more throughout Rock n Roll history.
But it all started with a re-purposed amp sitting in a studio when a harp player decided he needed to be louder.
But thats just amps. The other side of this coin is microphones.
By far, the most popular microphones with harp players is the bullet mic. Players from Little Walter to Jack White are known for using them for their warm, gritty, distorted tone, which lends itself perfectly to blues harp playing. It was, however, at the time not chosen for this reason. It was a microphone like anything else at the time and they just so happened to be easy to hold in ones hand when playing the harmonica. They were commonly used for loudspeakers and PA systems at sporting events, radio, etc., which is why on many of these old mics you'll see a large threaded hole meant for a desktop stand. You can see it on Icey's bullet mic except his has been modified and the hole was repurposed to hold a volume knob now rather than a stand. Like many things in musical gear "lore" today, the tone was a by product of necessity and convenience.
All gear aside, a talented player like Icey Mike will sound like himself no matter what he plays through. Any of you who caught our early shows heard him play through a cheap solid state (no tubes) amp and a cheap mic, but he always sounded as good to us and hopefully to you too. There are stories of Little Walter walking into a club with nothing but his harps in his pockets (and probably a pistol) and he'd get on stage with the PA system and whatever vocal mic they had on hand. Walter would play and he'd sound like any record you'd heard him on all due to his technique, mouth, and lungs.
After spending so much time with Icey and hearing him play, I know he could pick up any harmonica kicking around your house (or mine) and make you weep.