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SPAH Blog – Part 4 – More Great Performances

Friday 16.8.13  SPAH Festival

Playing tasteful fills         Bass        Band in a box        Doo-wop/jazz        John Sebastian Jr on his famous fatherIrish Music        Chord workshop        Chromatic harmonica 101        Add variety to your act        Tone, Vibrato, BendingBasic diatonic        Can playing harmonica improve your health and athletic performance?       Classical harmonica        Rock harp        Why harmonica?       Reading music       Al and Judy Smith workshop

…are the seminars I missed today – I don’t quite remember why now, it’s all somewhat of a blur, but after my teaching session I went to a truly outstanding session with Buddy Greene and Charlie McCoy. Buddy is best known for his video that went viral.  Buddy’s solo performance, at Carnegie Hall I think, of the William Tell overture is worth a Google search if you would like to see an extraordinary performance.   Buddy and Charlie are old friends and started by telling jokes – it was quite a routine – and gradually it turned into an hilarious interview with jokes and music throughout. Boy, can they both play!  Steve Baker had a seminar followed by Deak Harp, which sadly I missed, and the movie ‘Pocket full of soul’ was shown and I managed to catch the end of that.

The Windy City Trio caught my attention in the evening shows and then the amazing Stan Harper who I must confess I hadn’t known about until SPAH. I loved his start; something like (and I’m paraphrasing here)…what an amazing festival, all these great people, I’ve enjoyed every minute…until now.   What an outstanding player, I’ll need to find out more about him.The youth cameo produced more great young players reassuring me the harmonica is being preserved and advanced all the time.  Koei Tanaka knocked everybody out with his beautiful lyrical playing on the chromatic. An exceptional jazz player who will surely become world-famous if he isn’t already. You won’t find many better players than him in my opinion.  After the break Filip Jers came on and played a wonderful set using diatonic and chromatic, sometimes with guitar. He is also a great front man interacting well with the audience.   His story about meeting Toots had great effect on the person who won a drawing of Toots in the raffle on the final day –  he kindly and fittingly gave it to a very proud Filip.  Madcat and Kane played a fantastic set after that. It’s hard to get used to such an amazing talent one after another, all the time!  Sandy Weltman finished the concert off with a dazzling performance of jazz, klezmer, latin and gypsy jazz; and once again the audience was blown away by the talents of Sandy and his band.

I seemed to run out of energy and didn’t really make it to the blues jam, the bluegrass jam, the country jam, all the jazz jam, all of which seemed to go on till very late every night. I guess I caught the jazz jam a few times as it was very close to the source of beer and the quality was very high each time I saw it (the music that is!)

Saturday 17.8.13

Early start with the ‘Presidents Breakfast’. I was able to meet all the other presidents and vice presidents of local harmonica clubs and tell people about the National Harmonica League ( so it was a great opportunity to network plus we got to meet the instrument manufacturers, most of whom I already knew, but it was a treat to meet the President of Hohner Inc. worldwide.

Unfortunately that meant I had to miss Buddy Greene’s bluegrass, Celtic and old-time seminar, the Sgro Bros, Joe Filisko’s country blues tradition, and Harmonica fun 101. Maybe each seminar needs to be videoed so people like me who are hungry for information can get to see everything?  Following that there was a gospel show, the legacy of Stevie Wonder, Breathe easy MD harmonicas in therapy, melodic approach to diatonic with Michel Herblin, patterns and arpeggios for improvisation with Sandy Weltman, Harmonikids with Gary Alegretto, jazz harmonica – chromatic, diatonic or both? With Filip Jers, breathing secrets – using your third lung, with James Conway and Richard Sleigh, rock effects for the harmonica with Marko Balland. I managed to get to quite a few of these but only a few minutes in each as I had the Filisko teach–in to attend between 12 and 2.  That was the first time I had taught at SPAH in Joe’s teach-in and I must say I enjoyed doing it and was able to give quite a lot of people some help.

The people I was competing with to get customers were Steve Baker, Madcat Ruth, Buddy Greene, Jerry Devillier, Brandan Bailey, Ronnie Shellist, David Barrett, Michael Peloquin, Buzz Krantz, Dennis Oellig, Will Scarlett, PT Gazell, Jellyroll Johnson, Lonnie Joe Howell, Cara Cook, Jimmy Gordon, James Conway, Michael Rubin, Adam Hamil. It was amazing that I managed to get anybody to sit on my table!  Later there were cocktails, the grand dinner, the award ceremony, and then the final concert was started by Robert Bonfiglio showing why he is regarded as one of the finest classical players of the chromatic harmonica. I recall him introducing one piece saying he had played it 440 times with different orchestras in pretty much all the classical venues in the world.  Another youth cameo came next with some more brilliant playing followed by harmonica express featuring Al and Judy Smith with Tom Stryker. Finally Charlie McCoy and a magnificent group of Nashville stalwarts finished the evening off with standing ovations throughout, and thinking about it, standing ovations have been a very common sight during every concert.  He even played the ‘stone fox chase’ as a special favour for the British contingent!   As I did not win anything in the raffle I don’t really want to talk about it.   I managed to get away from all of the wonderful jams going on at about 1:30 AM but had to get up at 4 AM for my flight out. You might think that at 4 AM on the last night of SPAH after spending five days immersed in the harmonica world people would want to take a break, but no, outside were six people standing in a circle playing crazy stuff to each other all jamming along and on a bench two guys were talking and playing as if the harmonica had just been released from prohibition. And that was my exit from SPAH 2013 leaving in the shuttle bus to the quietening sounds of the harmonica…

I forgot to mention the shops and stalls that were a constant source of interest. All the main manufacturers were present: Seydel, Hohner, Suzuki, the SPAH shop, Richard Sleigh, Harmonica Einstein, Blue Moon harmonicas, Brendan Power and his X-reed harmonicas, Martin Haeffner’s harmonica museum, PT Gazell and more (sorry I didn’t name everyone – there was too much going on).

The SPAH festival over I wnet on to Denver and after 2.5 hours sleep and a bit of driving found myself on a 4 mile hike in the Rockies with a 1,000 foot elevation change up and back. Denver is already a mile high so I had to stop every 100ft to get my breath back and settle the heartbeat. I also drank a gallon of water on the hike.  I don’t know if SPAH will be held in Denver anytime soon but as dry mouths and inability to breathe would be really tough for any low altitude folks, it might not be such a good idea!

That’s enough from me.  It’s an amazing festival which it would behove any harmonica player to attend, and even though I was overwhelmed by the talent, skills, numbers of great players, and the incredible opportunities – I’ll be back.

Thanks to Winslow, LJ, Deb, Elizabeth, Phil, JP, Paul, Tom and the convention staff, plus the performers, teachers and attendees for a wild time.

Ben Hewlett

Chairman NHL

Ben at SPAH – news from the States – 15.8.13

Ben at SPAH  —   latest from the harmonica festival    —  15.8.13

Up early to sample some American culture at a Waffle House – coffee, bacon and maple syrup with some no transfat white substance. An alternative to the $17 breakfast in the hotel.  This to make sure I got to Madcat Ruth’s seminar on acoustic tone at 08.30am and I was only a little late.  He is a great harmonica player and gave us a wonderful write up in one of our Sonny Terry books so I wanted to thank him and hang out a bit. We’ll try to get him to a UK festival some time.  He’s such a character;  you have to love him and I learned about a bunch of new things including his ‘loo-roll’ amplifier and his swanee whistle auto bending machine…!!

My own one and a half hour seminar teaching ‘How to play in 7 keys on a C harp without bending a note’ went down really well with a flurry of interest and a swarm of people came up wanting more at the end of it.  My workshop followed two hours of the Joe Filisko Teach-in.

There were so many seminars of great interest but I just couldn’t get to many.  These included:

Harmonica Collecting and History             Chicago Blues with Joe Filisko          Chromatic playing for diatonic players

Group playing by ear                      X-Reed harmonicas with Brendan Power              The craft of Country harp

Traditional Quebecois music                      Adding color to music                    Singing and harmony                 Better bending

Playing by ear                     How to be a frontman                 Breath control for blues harp

Just so much great stuff.    So much going on that you can really only catch 10% of what’s available.

Then in the evening there was a 4-hour concert with Winslow Yerxa, Pierre-Luc Dupuis, Paul Rishell, Annie Raines, John Sebastian, Hot Shots, Gateway Club followed by and blues jam, a jazz jam, a country jam, a bluegrass jam all very high quality especially the jazz.
I had to leave at 1.30am to get some rest but sat for a while listening to a little hallway jam with Madcat Ruth, Richard Sleigh, Steve Baker, Dennis Greunling and friends. Astonishing.
Crawled down for breakfast at 08.30 this morning to find the stage in the lobby bouncing to the sound of a chord/bass/chrom trio playing ‘When the saints’ to rapturous applause.
Harmonica festivals – what are they like!!

More from Ben at SPAH – 14.08.2013

Ben’s SPAH daily blog.

The first full day at SPAH.ORG has been interesting.  Being still a bit jetlagged I couldn’t make Michael Rubin’s beginners blues jam at 08.30 but did see him doing a workshop on 3rd position to a packed house.  There was a theory class ‘for scaredycats’ and a ‘harmonica for meditation and relaxation’ that was on at the same time at the 3rd position workshop.
Bob Kessler did an excellent seminar on composing using an ipad app ‘LooperHD’ where he showed how you can compose with multi layers on this simple app using multiple harmonicas – it looks so simple I might try it myself.  Later Roger Trobridge showed some of his harmonica movies but only extracts – he needed a 59 hour extension to cover the whole thing!
Jimmie Lee taught about ‘Every groove a bluesman needs to know’ explaining  how he’s categorized everything from a texas shuffle, the ‘flat tyre’, a Bo Diddley to a jazz swing. More on his site no doubt.  Jason Rosenblatt taught advanced diatonic theory using many klezmer scales which I enjoyed – especially ‘Freygish’ which is Phrygian mode with a natural 3. The klezmer guys turn some of the normal modes into eastern european hybrids it would seem. Cunning stuff and worth exploring.
If you go to any seminar you miss four others so ‘Chord Structures’, ‘Soulful Beats from the Heart’, ‘Rhythm Games’, ‘Basic Chrom’, ‘Nashville Numbering’, Jazz Impro’, and ‘Pulmonica’ were the ones I missed.
I also located the only place where you can’t hear any harmonicas – in the pool under the water. Must go for a dip.

SPAH is The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica and Ben is attended their 50th Anniversary bash.

Ben in the States at SPAH (The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica)


Tuesday 13th August.   Ben is heading for; the 50th anniversary. The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica is the main US harmonica organisation and this is their festival.  Leaving Heathrow midday and arriving later in St.Louis.

He’s hoping to learn lots of new things, try some new styles of music, meet some new people, meet some famous attendees like Charlie McCoy, John Sebastian, and Madcat Ruth.
He is presenting a seminar and doing three workshops on ‘going with the grain of the harmonica’

So St Louis via Chicago is the plan with a trip to Memphis afterwards to see Elvis if he’s in.

More later.

What Key Is This Tune In? Which key harmonica to use?

What Key Is This Tune In? Which key harmonica to use?

You’re listening to a tune or you get up to sit in with a band – what key is the tune in?
Most pieces of music have a centre, home or key-note. It’s the note that the piece gravitates to.  We hear “Blues in F”, “Key of A minor”, “Scale of C”, “Chords in Bb” etc.  All these phrases come from the fact that tunes are built from scales and chords are built from those scales i.e. the scale and chords relate to each other.
The most popular tunes in Western music are built on three different scales – major, minor and blues.  This is a simplification but harmonica players are most likely to meet these scale-types in tunes.
Whichever scale a tune is based on there will be a home or key note.  Many start on this note and most finish on this note.  A major tune like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ in G major could use G, C and D chords but the centre is G or the I chord built on 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G major scale. (Roman numerals are used to describe chords and their place in the scale.)
‘Summertime’ in A minor starts on an E note but the A minor chords and it’s relationship to the other chords especially E7 creates the key centre.
A blues song like ‘Sitting On Top of the World’ if played in G would use a G minor blues scale and work over G7, C7 and D7 as basic blues chords. Here the I chord is G7 with it’s characteristic blues sound.
Very often these differing tunes will end on the key or home note.  There is also a very strong ‘signpost’ chord that points to the home note. This chord is built on the 5th note of the scale (V) and is called the Dominant.  With the added 7th it becomes an even stronger draw to the centre of the scale. The Dominant 7th chord works the same way in Major, Minor or Blues tunes and invariably precedes and points to the I chord.
So, listen for the centre of a tune and try to hear where it’s going. Having some understanding of the common ‘maps’ that form songs will also help you hear where things are going.
To summarize: you need to find the home or key note.  Listen for the last note of the tune or the dominant(V) chord resolving to the I chord.  Try to sing this note and then play it on your harmonica – it will be hole 1 blow in 1st position.  For cross harp blues (2nd position) the keynote will be hole 2 draw or hole 3 blow.

Good luck and keep your ears open!

Paul Lennon 9.7.2013

Technique Corner : Top Tips on Tone!

Every harmonica player wants fat tone.  Unfortunately he’s out delivering pizzas!  But seriously, every harmonica player is searching for the holy grail in terms of tone quality whether acoustic or amplified.  Listen to William Clarke’s album Serious Intentions for great examples of acoustic and amplified tone.  In this video we will show you five ways to improve your tone.

Sonny Terry Blues Riffs Volume 1 – CD/Book Half Price Sale! – Ends August 1st 2013

Sonny Terry Blues Riffs Volume 1 – CD/Book Half Price Sale! – Ends August 1st 2013

Sent to you by post
Special offer this month – half price at £7.50 + p&p instead of £14.99 + p&p


In our first book of riffs devoted entirely to one harmonica star, harp players can learn to play traditional blues riffs like the great Sonny Terry with our easy-to-follow harmonica lessons. Ben explains more in our video.  Sonny Terry has been and continues to be a huge influence on generations of harp players – these Sonny-style riffs will introduce the developing harmonica player to the sound of the great man himself.
There are 60 riffs in the collection and you’ll need four keys for them – A, G, Bb and C. The riffs are performed at three different speeds and the notations and tabs give as much helpful information as possible. We end with four play along tracks, one in each of the harmonica keys, for you to try out the riffs.
On a special bonus track, the great Joe Filisko has kindly given us permission to include ‘Good Friend’, which is dedicated to Sonny Terry.