My Favorite Magic Harp

Uh, what’s a Magic Harp? Is that a harp that will magically make me an awesome player?

Not quite – though we can all wish! Back in 1993, two harmonica players from Massachusetts patented a system of harmonica note layouts (or tunings) that they called “Magic Harps.” All the note layouts have three things in common:

  • In every hole, the draw note is always higher in pitch than the blow note (unlike standard tuning on diatonic harmonicas where, starting in Hole 7, the blow note is higher than the draw note).
  • The tuning layout repeats, instead of changing every octave the way it does on a standard diatonic. In some Magic Harps, the layout repeats every octave. In the one I’m featuring in this post, it occurs only twice over a span of nearly four octave, but it does repeat. 
  • Every Magic Harp tuning gives a unique combination of chords, by design and not as an afterthought.

The inventors were Pierre Beauregard (founder of the Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra) and Richard Salwitz (aka Magic Dick of J. Geils and Whammer Jammer fame). They aimed to have the Magic Harps commercially produced, but that didn’t happen, and the few Magic Harps out there were built by custom harp builders.

In early November of 2018, I came into possession of five Magic Harps, all built for a single customer by customizer Jimmy Gordon. They had been offered for sale on eBay and were acquired by Jason Ricci. When I arrived at the Harmonica Collective teaching event in New Orleans a few days later, Jason handed them to me and said, “Here, figure out how these are tuned and let’s sell them.”

I figured the tunings out pretty quickly, and later, when I was back home in San Francisco, I sold four of the harps via Facebook Live posts where I played the harps and explained their note layouts. (At the bottom of this page I give links to the videos where I explain and demonstrate each tuning.)

But I kept the most unusual Magic Harp for myself. it as a nailed-together Marine Band with a wood comb that was musty from what seemed to be mildew, and one of the reeds was cracked, but that wasn’t why I kept it. I held on to it because I love the unusual chords it produces. (I’ve since replaced the comb with a linen Blue Moon comb that approximates the original appearance, and am working on replacing the bad reed, though it’s hard to match the reed size with the required pitch.)

Now, give an alternate-tuned harp to most harp players, and they’ll look for what notes bend, what scales it plays, and what cool licks they can play.

I go in the opposite direction, Sure, I check out all that stuff, but the first thing I do is check out what chords the harp will play. And sometimes, even though a harp is designed to give a particular set of individual notes, it ends up plays some really unusual and cool chords.

The chords that this harp produces include one major chord and one minor chord, but with extension notes above and below the chord notes that make for some unusual and beautiful sounds. I’ll go into details later, but first, why not simply experience what this harp sounds like via  two recordings I made with it?

Hearing this harp played in C major

The harp was built to play the scale of C major pentatonic (a five-note scale), and I composed and recorded the tune Soulagement to mainly use that scale, though I added some non-scale notes with bends and overblows.

Hearing this harp played in A minor

Later, I had a long phone conversation with Magic Harp designer Pierre Beauregard, who encouraged me to also try playing it in A minor pentatonic, which uses the same notes as C major pentatonic, but with A as the tonal center. Instead of a composed and arranged piece, this time I simply hit “record” and improvised this piece called Blue Quartz:

Why this note layout?

Here’s the note layout for this Magic Harp, with the draw notes on top in blue. (Why draw notes on top? Because they’re the high notes in each hole.) The blow notes, the low notes in each hole, are below in yellow.

The scale this harmonica plays is C D E G A – the C major pentatonic (five note) scale. Or it could be called the A minor pentatonic scale. The only difference is which note you use as the tonal center.

A C major chord consists of the notes C, E, and G, and you can find that chord (or fragments of it) in several places on the harmonica, as shown in the white cells here:

An A minor chord consists of the notes A, C, and E. This chord also occurs at several places in the note layout, as shown in the white cells here:

But in both cases, the chords have other notes both above and below that are not part of the basic chord. When you add those notes to the chord, they add new colors, sometimes sounding pretty, sometimes giving a floating feeling, and sometimes sounding dissonant. Why are the notes arranged that way? There are two answers.

The first answer lies in the fact that the pentatonic scale has an uneven number of notes – only five, not four or six, while blow-draw pairs of reeds create a structure based on even numbers. There are three ways to deal with this mismatch of even and uneven:

  • Duplicate one of the scale notes, such as C, to create an even number. Chromatic harmonicas do exactly that, and so do some of the Magic Harp layouts. But not this one.
  • Have two scale notes in a row in the same breath direction, like having both A and B as draw 6 and 7 on a standard C diatonic. But that would result in flipping the tuning over at that point, so that te following blow notes are higher instead of lower, like in Hole 7-10 on a standard diatonic. But that goes against the Magic Harp principle of always having the draw note in each hole higher than the blow note.
  • Simply let the notes flow, as this layout does. This creates two interesting characteristics, though: spiral tuning, and chords in fourths, which I’ll discuss further below.

The second answer lies in letting the notes flow. if you take the notes of the C Major pentatonic and arrange them so that each successive note is four notes higher in the scale (taking your starting note and then counting up 1, 2, 3, 4) then you arrive at this sequence:

E A D G C

And that’s the arrangement of the blow notes on this harp.

If you take the same sequence but start it on G:

G C E A D

You get the blow notes on this harp.

And together, they give you the full pentatonic scale, arranged to that the draw notes is always higher than the blow note.

Chords in stacked fourths

The chordal byproduct of this note layout is that you get chords of stacked fourths (notes four steps apart in the scale) instead of the thirds that are used to create basic chords such as C E G (the C major triad, or basic chord of three notes) and A C E (the basic A minor triad). Chords in fourths are a staple of jazz piano starting in the mid-1950s, but it’s very unusual for a harmonica to be tuned that way.

Chords voiced in fourths tend to always sound unsettled, because they don’t give you all the notes of a basic triad at the same time. This harp gives you both the triad if you want it, and the unsettled, shifting stack of fourths with its color notes and dissonances.

But hold on, what about spiral tuning?

Spiral tuning

A spiral harmonica note layout (or tuning) is one where any given note in the scale is, say, a blow note in the first octave, a draw note in the second, a blow note again in the third, and so on – every note in the scale keeps flipping breath direction in each octave. And yes, the mismatch between even-numbered blow-draw pairs and an uneven number of scale notes – whether the five notes of a pentatonic scale or the seven notes of a major or minor scale – will naturally produce a spiral tuning, unless you introduce either a duplicated note or two successive scale notes on the same breath direction.

Making things pretty weird overall

Does spiral tuning make this note layout kind of slippery? Sure it does. Do the chords in stacked fourths make it sound untethered? Yes again. But that’s why I love this harp. And I hope that the recorded results demonstrate the value of that.

Hearing the other Magic Harps

Here are the Facebook Live videos I made to demonstrate the other four Magic Harps and offer them for sale (and yes, all were sold).

Magic Harp No. 1:

Magic Harp No. 2:

Magic Harp No. 3:

Magic Harp No. 4:

Record Review: Going to the Sun by the Sheriffs of Schroedingham

schroedingham
Is this a harmonica record? Yes, and no.

If you’re looking for a record where harmonica is the front-and-center solo instrument, you may not notice (at least not right away) all the cool, yet not-always-obvious stuff the harmonica is doing on this album. However, if you’re willing to listen for imaginative, subtle ways to integrate the harmonica into a musical fabric, it will reward your listening time – and the music itself may delight you.

In the 12 tracks on this album, the second for this duo, there are dozens of harmonica parts, played on diatonic, single-reed and double-reed bass, chord, chromatic, and polyphonia (a specialty harmonica designed to play a chromatic scale in a single breath across neighboring holes). Yet harmonica dominates on only a few tracks and is completely absent from one or two. For most of the album, harmonica is just one element in a kaleidoscopic, ever-changing profusion of styles and instrumental combinations. It pays to listen on headphones to pick up on all the layered harmonica parts hidden in the picture.

So who are the Sheriffs of Schroedingham? Their nucleus is the duo of guitarist John Schroeder and pianist/harmonicist Ross Garren. They are augmented on this record by their own overdubs and also by guest musicians from their circle of talented young friends on the Los Angeles music scene.

I’ve known Ross since he came to me for a few harmonica lessons when he was 15 (nearly half his life ago!). Later he studied blues harmonica extensively with David Barrett before attending music school at USC and emerging as a film composer and pianist. In recent years he’s rekindled his love for the harmonica and brought his imagination and considerable technique to bear on a whole new repertoire.

And what a repertoire it is! I’m tempted to think of this album as a calling card for his versatility as a soundtrack composer. Every time I listen, I hear different styles and influences, and often a track will effortlessly move from one style to something completely different in a way that delights the ear. So what’s going on in the different tracks?

The opener, Whitefish, is all clean acoustic guitar that seems to echo the boy-scouts-hiking-in-a-national-park cover art.

The second, title track, Going to the Sun, starts with a cascading, funky acoustic blues guitar lick that is quickly joined by an electric band and third-position amplified blues harp. As with most of the tracks on this record, it’s hard to sum up stylistically. Country funk is about as close as I can come. Ross’ harmonica and John’s slide guitar trade solos. In addition to Ross’ out-front solo harmonica, note the subtle background harmonica parts – the itchy-rhythm backing part played in wide splits and the reverb-drenched drone harmonica behind the melody. Three layered harmonica parts just in the second track!

By the way, despite all the studio magic, these guys can deliver the same tune as a live duo, as in this performance:

However, you can also witness some the studio magic in this video of the making of Blues Bacharach, the third track, here:

Named for Burt Bacharach, one of the most famous and prolific hit songwriters and film composers of the 1960s and early ’70s, the tune captures the joyful yet sardonic tone so characteristic of that period. You may be surprised to see Ross using baritone polyphonia harmonica like a French horn along with the kazoo section, vocalist, and synth strings. Listen for chromatic played in octaves (doubled by polyphonia) along with occasional chromatic-scale glisses on the polyphonia at phrase ends, and little twittering trills on the chromatic. Many of these touches are not noticeable, even when listening with headphones, until you see them on the video. Once again, we experience multiple harmonica uses and roles in a single track that sounds as if it were played by a studio orchestra, yet it’s all created by three musicians (including guest vocalist Chelsea Williams laying down four-part harmonies and using a kazoo to fake a brass section; not sure she’d want that latter on her list of credits – the things you have to do to make a buck in this town!).

Crisco Sid starts out like an old-time acoustic guitar-harp duet but quickly acquires bass and chopping rhythm guitar behind the slide. Congas and other guitars quickly add layers – and where did the harmonica go? Steel drums (or a synth patch) – huh? How did we get so far away from back porch blues? We’re sort in Donald Fagen Nightfly territory. Or in a sort of rock/funk guitar jam, with occasional reminders that the harmonica’s still around with some bent chords welling up now and then.

The brief Flathead brings back the pure, simple acoustic sound of solo guitar, in a contemplative mood out in the woods somewhere, sounding pretty chords that are not usually associated with slide guitar.

Stonefly continues with acoustic guitar, but you know something else is coming. Pure-toned acoustic harmonica with reverb drops long, ringing notes over the guitar arpeggios, with electric guitar, bass, and subtle percussion filling in the sound. And soon things perk up with buzzy bass-string guitar (reminiscent of the Twin Peaks theme) taking the melody in a more muscular direction, underscored by insinuating bass harmonica, before the first theme returns more mysteriously than before.

Big Mountain Boogie takes us into the lap of blues harmonica master Big Walter Horton – sort of. That bass harmonica under the Walter-inspired melody is the first clue that things aren’t going to follow the usual template. And Ross plays against expectation, playing true to Walter’s style and then deliberately dropping in ideas from bebop without making them sound out of place. He even sneaks in a few discreet overblows. Late in the tune, see if you can pick out a ghost harmonica part behind the main melody.

Columbia Falls introduces stringed harp, violin, and banjo, along with piano and slide guitar that echoes the melody of the opening track, Whitefish. These periodic little springs of clear water seem to form a unifying refrain and palate cleanser in the midst of the musical smorgasbord.

Boogie Woogie Spaceship Stowaway starts out with little binking percussion noises that slowly coalesce into a mid-tempo boogie with some subtle chromatic harmonica chording that suddenly turns into something slide guitar-dominated that sounds like an outtake from Abbey Road, which in turn yields to some two-fisted boogie piano from guest artist Sasha Smith. Another twist and that piano sounds like it’s sending satellite signals before finally winking out.

The Sheriff of Shredded Ham puts three-part harmony on slide guitar over a sort of funk groove, interspersed with a lo-fi intro and interludes with what sound like cardboard drums, with a second-position diatonic feature. By the way this one can be heard (but not seen except for album cover graphics) on Youtube:

The Hidden Lake is a brief 29-second interlude that works off echoing various guitar and keyboard effects before yielding to the final cut, Stumptown Black and White, that delivers a 1930s-style sweet, romantic melody, first on baritone polyphonia and then chromatic harmonica, with chordal backing from both acoustic guitar and chord harmonica, with bass harmonica eventually joining in.

Album personnel:

Nigel Armstrong: Violin (8) 
Daria Saraf: Harp (1, 5, 8) 
Chelsea Williams: Vocals, Kazoo (3) 
Roland Garcia: Percussion (2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10) 
Sasha Smith: Ships Piano, Wurlitzer, Dolceola (9) 
Andre LaFosse: guitar loops (4) 
Nick Klingenberg: Upright Bass (3, 6) 
Keith Armstrong: Mix Consultant 
Justin Shturtz: Mastering
Helen Hummel: Album artwork
Willy Schroeder: Disc artwork
Kate Elizabeth: Graphic Design

Ross Garren: All other reeded and keyed instruments.
John Schroeder: All other stringed and struck instruments

You can find the Sheriffs and in a variety of projects on their YouTube channel, and visit their website and Facebook page where you can see more video and sample and purchase both Going to the Sun and their previous album, High Noon.

You can also find Ross and his other projects at his own website, with links to his film scoring work as part of another duo, Garren & Cohan, and his Taggart project and album, which includes harmonica but is more focused on atmospheric electronica.

My Moment with Muddy

As a teenager I became enthralled with the blues. First it was the bits of blues material I heard from British rock bands – the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and others. Then it was discovering young white American harp players such as Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield. Then the whole vista of modern blues opened up – Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, the King guitar triumvirate of B. B., Albert, and Freddie; Johnny Shines, Otis Spann, Little Milton, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed, and so many more!

When any of these guys actually came to town it was as if legendary beings had descended to Earth and graced us with their presence. In those days, touring performers often played weeklong club dates that gave them a deeper exposure to local audiences, and offered the true fanatics the chance to show up every night and develop familiarity both with the legends’ performing styles and with their (sometimes not-so-godlike) personalities.

One legend who lost no luster with exposure was Muddy Waters. As a young man, during my travels I’d meet harp players who would claim to have sat in with Muddy. I never doubted them, even the ones who were perfectly awful players. I believed them because of my own experience with Muddy.

Muddy had a great history of hatching new talent. Just look at the influential harp players whose careers were launched or furthered in his band – Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, George “Harmonica” Smith, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, Paul Oscher, Jerry Portnoy. Even the also-rans who for one reason or another didn’t make it into the band were illustrious, such as Paul deLay and Rod Piazza. It seemed like Muddy was a cultivator of developing talent and his band was the incubator.

So when Muddy started a weeklong engagement in my hometown, I approached him on the Monday night and asked to sit in. I’d made this request to other touring performers with names big and small and usually received the brush-off, sometimes gently and sometimes less so. Now, Muddy had no idea who I was or whether I knew which side of the harp was up (I did) or even if I could follow a 12-bar blues progression (I could). But without hesitation, he advised me, “Choose a Little Walter song, come back on the last night of the gig, and I’ll put you up.”

I showed up as directed, and before going on Muddy asked me what I’d chosen. I informed him that I wanted to play “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer.” He replied, “Oh that’s in the key of E natural.” Little Walter recorded it in the key of G, but I wasn’t about to gainsay the master, so I got an A-harp at the ready. Then he asked my name. When I said, “Winslow Yerxa,” his face flickered with a look of consternation (or maybe the look that some folks call “flustration”) and he remarked, “I can’t say that.” When the time came to announce my appearance, he simply referred to me as a young man but in a glowing tone of voice as if he knew and valued my playing.

I made it (a bit stiffly) through my slow-blues feature number, and suddenly Muddy launched into a mid-tempo shuffle, indicating for me to play along. I vamped along gamely for a few verses, when suddenly I realized what was going on – Muddy launched into the descending stop-time riff that comes in the middle of “Juke,” Little Walter’s most famous number! OK, now I knew what to do – why hadn’t I caught on before? We made it through to the end of the number and Muddy grabbed my arm, holding it up like he was announcing a victorious prizefighter and shouted, “Let’s hear it for a real harp player!”

Muddy Waters is one of the very greatest and most revered names in the blues, and behind that name is a man who was gracious and generous in encouraging talent. Some of lesser stature didn’t exhibit that spirit, and I sometimes wonder whether there’s a connection. Either way, it was certainly a thrill for me to receive such wonderful treatment from one of my heroes.

Into The Light

OK, my first actual blog post. I’m only now beginning to create a cohesive media presence after casually saturating the online world with my presence for a long time. The days are just starting to get longer, and at the beginning of any year, reflecting on change seems inevitable. Here are a few thoughts that float to the surface.

My nephew Matt cut out of the family Christmas party early for a big concert in the local mega-stadium. The odd part – for me at least – was that all the acts in the concert were DJs – not a live musician in sight. Between my generation and his, the idea of live music has shifted radically. Instead of performers generating the music by playing instruments, the performer assembles and processes existing recorded audio, choosing from a potentially vast repertoire of styles and periods to fashion an experience for the assembled crowd.

Is this bad or good? The audience still experiences creativity and personality in the way the DJ chooses and assembles material. They may even experience spontaneity and improvisation, depending on the working style of the DJ. But for musicians, the rise of the DJ has reduced opportunities to experience the joy of playing for audiences, while focusing their activities more heavily on recording. Audience contact recedes to the indirect venues of such online portals as YouTube, Spotify, and the various social media. Gone is that direct, real-time feedback loop – and the groove it can create – between the musicians and the audience of listeners and dancers. The DJ does get that audience experience, but the music he or she uses as source material may groove less as a result.

No, I’m not joining the eternal chorus of doomsayers muttering toothlessly through their long white beards. Human spirit is resilient and will express itself regardless of changes in media and culture. But as a player of a musical instrument (harmonica in my case) I have to wonder what the shifting landscape will do to my journey.

However, while live performing opportunities have dwindled, harmonica learning materials have blossomed. When I first started playing, teachers were pretty much non-existent, at least where I lived, and books were either old-fashioned works on how to play light classical tunes on chromatic harmonica, or Tony Glover’s Blues Harp, which was long on hip style and cultural information (who the great players were and how the music evolved) but short on playing technique and structure, at least compared to what’s out now.

These days, several full-time professional teachers are available on Skype, Facetime, and Google Video Chat (I’m one of them). Some great books are out there (including my Harmonica For Dummies and Blues Harmonica For Dummies). Harmonica teaching events are staged each year, including the Harmonica Collective (which I produce with Jason Ricci) and Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camp. Players can share information via multiple online forums such as harp-l, Modern Blues Harmonica, and Slidemeister, and a few content-rich teaching sites are available by paid subscription, including David Barrett’s bluesharmonica.com and the Howard Levy Harmonica School. In addition, harmonica organizations such as SPAH have helped enormously in bringing harmonica players together.

So, does the world have more harmonica players than before, and do they play any better than they did in the past? Those things are hard to gauge, because so much more information is available. Before the Internet connected everyone, you might know about the famous pros and whoever was big in the local community. Beyond that, it was hard to know who was out there, let alone how well they played. Nowadays, serious harmonica players and teachers from around the world post their performances and lessons on YouTube, seeking listeners and students wherever they can be found. Even rank beginners post their efforts to the world, looking for encouragement and feedback. Still, I’d say that harp players overall are more proficient at playing the instrument and a higher proportion of them are serious, well-informed musicians.

One thing I can say is that the quality of harmonica information has gone way up. To be sure, bad harmonica information echoes down the channels of social media along with all the news hoaxes (shocking! outrageous! How dare they?). Right at the transition point between the print age and the online age, I helped spur a new surge in good information, first with my magazine, HIP – the Harmonica Information Publication and later via SPAH, various teaching camps and online forums and social media. Now, I’m concentrating and intensifying the flow of good, useful harmonica information with this new website and an expanded online presence.

Welcome to my world 2.0. I hope you like what you find and come to visit often!

Winslow
December 2014