I have been well ministered by Steve Williams on the need to stay away from the vocal when playing harmonica, both in the band and in the recording studio. In recent times I have become increasingly discerning of harp players trying to play too many notes and play phrases that don’t appear to have any connection with the tune. Egos have to be left outside the recording studio – superimposing everything you know isn’t going to enhance the song.
Steve was well versed on staying away from the vocal as the saxophone and harmonica player in the John Farnham Band. If Steve or any other member transgressed onto John’s vocal his steely glare would be suffice to let them know they had ventured into restricted territory.
Steve’s sermon on harmonica playing consisted of catchphrases like keep it subtle, never overplay, keep out of the singer’s way and play less. The vocal is where the song’s story is told and it needs to be heard. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt (not learnings as there’s no such word – a bug bear of mine and particularly with my wife) and is an important armoury for my session work.
I had heard it stated that Charlie McCoy felt that his playing on George Jones big hit of 1980 He Stopped Loving Her Today was probably his best, but also his least. I also found it curious that his harmonica features only in the second verse. I contacted Charlie to procure an insight into this paradigm.
“When they were running the song down George was singing it and the producer, Billy Sherrill was playing piano for Pig Robbins (the blind piano player) to learn the song, every musician in the room sensed that this could be a huge record. The producer forgot that I was on the session. When he started to the control room to hear everyone play, he saw me and said, “Uh, get something on the second verse”. The second verse was short and there was very little space. A studio musician in Nashville learns very quickly that the song and the singer are the picture, and we are the frame. Our job is to make the picture better, not to distract from it. In Nashville, very few producers would tell you what to play, only where to play. They hired people they trusted to make the right decisions, Those who never figured it out, didn’t get much work.”
Charlie was extremely proud of his four little second verse fills and rightly so. Each one familiar, but slightly different and all with descending, sombre bends that respond perfectly to George’s dulcet tones. His last riff even works brilliantly with the upcoming key change. Here’s my take on the second verse. It certainly ain’t the original!
It had me pondering on a couple of Aussie songs that had minimal harmonica. The first, Ride Ride America by Paul O’Gorman which consisted of only three notes blown by Galapagos Duck trombone and harp player Greg Foster. Paul previously explained to HRR their reasoning for these few notes was that it had just felt right at that point to briefly change the colour of the song with an instrument that embodied the early spirit of America. Many punters had thought this tune was professing the superiority of the States, however it was promoting the virtues of Australia and that we could do alright on our own (thank you very much) without the need to ride on their coat tails.
The other song that comes to mind is Daddy Cool’s Zoop Bop Gold Cadillac where Ross Wilson does a few huff and puffs at one point deep into the tune. You don’t get much less than these examples. Sometimes sparse is class. Look for the space, that’s the place to lay your riffs.
Thanks Steve, thanks Charlie thank you ball boys.
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