Sonny Boy Williamson Apparently Covering the Outlet Slots on His Harmonica

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This topic contains 29 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Quetscher 10 months, 1 week ago.

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  • #8129

    Lowboy
    Participant

    We must admit that harmonicas are much more expressive than melodicas in part because harmonicas are smaller and the player has much more access (is closer) to the reeds on the inlet and outlet side of the harmonica. Hence, the harmonica player can more readily influence how the reeds behave. The range of expressiveness on the harmonica seems limitless. If only the melodica could be this expressive.

    One technique that harmonica players use for expressiveness is to use their hands to cup and uncup (seal and unseal) the outlet of their instrument to achieve dramatic and expressive results.

    I have talked about how I “cup” and “uncup” (seal and unseal) my melodica sound holes by holding them against my chest to achieve a wide range of expressiveness. (For those not familiar with my playing style, I play melodicas that have true sound holes on the backside of the instrument. Most melodicas, if they have them at all, have ventilation holes on the back side. The sound does not really project from these holes on the back.)

    But yesterday (having watched harmonica players for my entire life), I saw Sonny Boy Williamson do something I have never seen before. He appears to use the fingers on one hand to block specific areas at the outlet of the harmonica. When a harmonica player cups his harmonica, he normally cups the whole back of the harmonica. In this case, Sonny Boy Williamson was choosing which areas to block.

    This video shows the expressiveness that a great “acoustic style” player can extract from a harmonica by cupping and hand movement.

    Click to watch the video.

    How can we get melodicas to give us more influence over the sound as it leaves the instrument? In my mind, that is one important question melodica designers should be thinking about.

    Lowboy

    • This topic was modified 11 months ago by  Lowboy.
    • This topic was modified 11 months ago by  Lowboy.
    #8132

    Alan Brinton
    Participant

    Heck, he even does Look, Ma, no hands!

    Could there be some way of by design limiting the amount of sound that emanates up through the keyboard?

    #8133
    Daren Banarsë
    Daren Banarsë
    Keymaster

    Great observation Lowboy.

    I’m unclear though – is he blocking individual holes, to stop air coming through, and therefore silencing specific notes? Just as you might do from the other end, with your tongue?

    Or is he changing the tone of specific notes?

    #8135

    Lowboy
    Participant

    And I should add, if it was not clear in my original post, that in the posted video, you can see Sonny Boy Williamson use his fingers to block certain areas of the outlet of the harmonica. Lowboy

    #8136

    Lowboy
    Participant

    Hi Alan,

    It would be tough to do “no hands” with a melodica. Not sure it would fit in my mouth!

    I suppose you could use a sliding gate under the keyboard to limit or choke the sound coming from the top of a melodica, but I think having the holes on the back of the melodica allows for a much greater range of expression because there are scores of ways to hold, release, move the melodica against your chest. Really it is unlimited just like the harp player’s unlimited way of moving his hands to create his own style and modulations.

    The sound holes really need to be on the back. Or there could be on outlet at the end of the melodica such as on the the high end Suzuki. You could play that like a trumpet player plays the bell of his horn with mutes.

    Lowboy

    #8137

    Lowboy
    Participant

    Hi Daren,

    The back of most harmonicas have a long slot as a outlet for the two sets of reeds. One slot outlet for the draw reeds and one slot outlet for the blow reeds I do believe. There are no individual outlet holes, so he is not choking individual notes. However, one set of reed tongues (draw or blow, not sure which) are only a few millimeters away from the outlet slots. So by placing his fingers near the reeds or by covering most of the slot that is emanating sound, he can influence dramatically the air flow into the reed. That would be my observation based on limited knowledge of harmonicas.

    Regards,

    Lowboy

    #8138

    jazzman1945
    Participant

    SBW doesn’t block the selected sounds, he makes them sound more sharply.

    #8139

    Lowboy
    Participant

    Hi Jazzman1945,

    Are you saying he is raising the pitch or trying to get more attack on the note.

    Lowboy

    #8156

    Kevin
    Participant

    I had watched this video multiple times as it is one of my favorite performances.
    I too often wondered what he was doing there with his fingers.

    Really scrutinizing it after Lowboy has brought it to my attention, I’m going to step out on a limb here and say he’s not doing anything.

    It looks to me like he’s pressing on the wooden comb and not blocking certain notes. Maybe just some right hand support where he didn’t want to block the sound? I really notice when I listen to the audio without seeing the video I can’t pick out where he’s bringing his fingers around.

    Williams was known to be quite a character. It could be just some particular tic he used or maybe messing with the other players.
    I once heard a well known electric jazz guitarist tell how his pickups were straight wired to the output jack but that he would often tinker with the knobs and switches on his guitar during a song to baffle the guitarists in the audience.

    Interestingly in this alternative performance Williamson hardly brings his right hand to the instrument…until he decides to play through his nose.
    As I said known as quite a character! Dig that two-tone suit!

    #8187

    Lowboy
    Participant

    Well, I was playing my melodicas tonight and started to think about this thread. Then I remembered I have a Marine Band harp in the key of C. So I played some notes on the harp and ran my fingers in various ways over the outlet slots on the back, sometimes covering most of the slot. Wow, it produces a huge variation in tonality and harmonic content; much like I get by choking the back of my melodicas. And much like harp players get by cupping and uncupping their harps. Then I started looking around on YouTube to watch other harp players. I did not see one of them doing what Sonny Boy did, at least not yet anyway.

    So based on all of that, I would suggest Sonny Boy is manipulating the sound. You can’t really put the visual and sound manipulation together because the timbre and harmonics never stop changing as he plays so expressively. But, I would also suggest, as Kevin points out, he is probably using this unorthodox method of sound manipulation for “show.”

    I would speculate that this technique (direct blocking of the outlet slots) is not commonplace among harp players because they can get more variation in sound by cupping and uncupping the instrument. Cupping/uncupping basically produces the same changes in harmonic content and timbre as blocking the outlet slots. But cupping/uncupping provides more expressiveness.

    Lowboy

    #8189

    jazzman1945
    Participant

    High, Lowboy!
    Uninterrupted change of timbre certainly reproduces the effect of the speaker of the human voice, and not only by wah-wah. It is true that the harp is most suitable for this purpose; where you can even hear the words. In search of an example for sound of melodica, I stopped at American saxophonist Archie Shepp, who enjoys chewing movements of the mouth, thus edging closer the sound to the spoken. Unfortunately , on melodica sound modulation is small, probably also because of shape and size of mouthpiece (tap-hole) .

    Days of Wine And Roses

    #8190

    Lowboy
    Participant

    Nice playing Jazzman1945. Lowboy

    #8191

    jazzman1945
    Participant

    Thanks , Lowboy! Suddenly saw that here no link of Archie Shepp video .Archie Shepp 1994

    #8192

    Lowboy
    Participant

    What a great performance from Archie Shepp and his band. These guys are in a whole other universe when it comes to music performance. I can see I will have to experiment more with my mouth and tongue as well as my human air chamber (lungs, throat).

    Lowboy

    #8193

    Alan Brinton
    Participant

    Remarkable Archie Shepp! Very nice sound and improv on Days of Wine and Roses.

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