On The Road Again – Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson [..with tab]

Well I’m so tired of crying, but I’m out on the road again

Midway through the harp solo in Canned Heat’s On The Road Again, Al Wilson plays a G in the middle range of his A harmonica. ‘How did he do that?’ asked then student, now performing UK harp ace, Clive ‘Jive’ Langhorn… Over to Pat Missin for the definitive…

A harp in the key of A has a G#, but no G and it is not possible to bend the G# in this octave, so how did he do it?

Several suggestions have been put forward. Perhaps he played an overblow? That is possible as other players around that time were starting to discover overblows and the hole 6 overblow on an A harp would give you a G. However, the slide down from this note includes a very quick slur over the D (5 draw) and the B (4 draw). If he had to switch between overblowing and drawing, there would be a slight hiccup in this phrase.

Several people who know Al Wilson said that he would sometimes weight the tip of the 7 draw reed to lower its pitch by a semitone, however if this were the case, then that slide down would include an F# (6 draw) and listening to it at slow speed indicates there is no F# present. Another explanation has been given that he added a valve to the outside of the 7 blow reed, enabling him to bend the 7 draw down to a G – this would also mean that a slide down from this note would include an F#.

The explanation is that he retuned the 6 draw reed, raising it by a semitone to give him the G. This is consistent with the notes of the slide down from that note. He was playing a Marine Band type harp in traditional ‘Just’ Intonation, where the 5 draw is slightly lower than in Equal Temperament and the G that he plays is similarly slightly flatter than a tempered G (this note would be called a subminor third in JI terminology) suggesting that he tuned the 6 draw so that it was a perfect fourth above the 5 draw. In fact, he used a similar tuning on other tunes, such as “TV Mama” and “Nine Below Zero”.

So, one of the biggest pop hits to feature blues harp, is also one of the first recorded examples of a custom-tuned diatonic.

Thanks and full credit to Pat Missin for the above information. Please visit his sight for more about this and plenty of other amazing research.

So how did he do it?

Grab yourself an A major diatonic with the necessary alteration on draw 6 as explained above. We’re playing cross harp in the key of E. Be aware that Al Wilson uses quite a delicate touch. There are many ‘implied’ or ‘passing’ notes created by the breathing pattern he is using to underpin the whole exercise. You will need to push and pull from your diaphragm and ensure that note control comes from the back of your vocal tract rather than the tip of your tongue. Good use of the tongue blocking technique throughout will give some of the nuances you hear in the recording. Above all else, this is a mesmeric number. You have to get with the groove and lose yourself in it all.

I am referencing the version on the Very Best Of Canned Heat album. Note that during the verses, between the riffs outlined below, Al is vamping the beat on the 2 draw beneath the vocals, duh duh-duh-duh duh-duh-duh duh-duh-duh and so on. There may be other nuances, however it is difficult to distinguish from the mix.

Prelude

2D 2D 2D 2D

2D 2D” 2D’ 2D” 1D 1B 1D (the 2 draw bends are played rapidly as one ‘wobble’)

2D (2D) 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

2D 2D 2D 2D

2D 2D” 2D’ 2D” 1D 1B 1D (the 2 draw bends are played rapidly as one ‘wobble’)

2D (2D) 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

4D 3D 2D (played as a run or gliss.)

4D 3D 2D (played as a run or gliss.)…..1D 1D’

2D (2D) 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

Verse 1

Alan reinforces the end of each vocal section …road again with

3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

He plays the same riff in the gap after the vocal ….special friend

3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

Verse 2

Alan reinforces the end of the first vocal section …rain and snow with

3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

At the end of the second vocal section he adds a gliss. at the start of the riff …rain and snow with

(gliss. down from 4D) 2D 2D 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D

He plays a regular riff with an extra two low notes in the gap after the vocal ….not even no place to go

3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D 2D” 1D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

Verse 3

Alan reinforces the end of the vocal sections …was quite young adding the same two extra low notes

3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D 2D” 1D (note that the 3D’ is not the full half note bend)

After the first vocal phrase …she said Lord have mercy he drops in a rapid 2D..2D”

Alan reinforces the end of the vocal section …my wicked son with the ‘two gliss.’ riff and a drop to the 1D

(gliss. down from 4D) 2D 2D 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D 2D 1D 1D

That famous break

3D’…wavering

4B 4D 5D 6B 6D’..6D..6D’ 5D 4D (the emboldened tab is where the harp will have been retuned)

3D’…wavering

4B 4D 5D 6B 6D..6D’ 6B 5D 4D 4B 3D’ 2D 2D” 1D 1D’ 1D (see above regarding emboldened notes)

2D” 2D’ 2D” 1D (the 2 draw bends are played rapidly as one ‘wobble’)

2D” 2D’ 2D” 1D (the 2 draw bends are played rapidly as one ‘wobble’)

2D” 2D’ 2D” 1D (the 2 draw bends are played rapidly as one ‘wobble’)

2D” 2D’ 2D” 1D (the 2 draw bends are played rapidly as one ‘wobble’)

2D” 2D’ 2D” 1D (the 2 draw bends are played rapidly as one ‘wobble’)

1B 1D 2D” 2D 2D

Verse 4

Alan reinforces the end of the vocal sections …don’t you cry no more

2D 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D

Alan reinforces the end of the vocal section …down the road I’m going

2D 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D

Alan reinforces the end of the first vocal section …all by myself

2D 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D

Alan reinforces the end of the second vocal section …all by myself

(gliss. down from 4D) 2D 2D 3D’ 4B (gliss. down from 4D)…2D

After …carry somebody else he breaks from the regular riff and inserts

2D 2D 2D” 1D 2D 2D 2D” 1D

And the long outro

2D 2D 2D 3D’ 4B

4D’ 3D’ 4B 4D’ 3D’ 4B 4D’ 3D 2D 2D…

2D” 1D 1D’ (rapidly)

2D 2D 2D 3D’ 4B 4D’ 4D’ 3D 4D’ 3D 4D’ 3D 2D

2D” 1D 1D’ (rapidly)

3D’..3D 3D’..3D……………(sustain for 12 to 13 bars, adding vibrato half way)

3D’ 2D 2B 1D 2D 2D 2D 2D” 1D

2D 2D 2D” 1D

2D 2D 2B 2D

3D’ 3D’ 2D 2B 2D 2D 2D 2D” 1D 1D”

3D’ 3D” 3D’ 3D”

3B 4B 4B 4D’ 3D 2D 2D (vibrato)

4D..4D’ 4D’ 3D

4D’ 3D 4D’ 3D 4D’ 3D 4D’ 3D 2D (vibrato)

1D 1D’ (rapidly)

4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 3D

4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 4D..4D’ 3D 1D 1D’ (rapidly)

2D” 1D 2D” 1D 2D” 1D 1B 1D

2D” 1D 2D” 1D 2D” 1D 1B 1D

2D” 1D 2D” 1D 2D” 1D 1B 1D

2D” 1D 2D” 1D 2D” 1D 1B 1D

2D” 1D 1B 1D 2D” 1D 1B 1D 2D” 1D 1B 1D 2D” 2D 2D” 1D

2D 2D” 3D’..3D 3D’..3D 3D’..3D……..3D”

3D’ 3D” 2D 3D’ 3D” 2D 3D’ 3D” 2D 3D’ 3D” 2D

3D’…….. 3D”..3D’ 3D”..3D’ 3D”..3D’ 3D”..3D’

3D’ 3D” 2D 2B 2D 3D” 2D 2D….2D” 1D 1D’

3D’ …… fade

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14 Responses to On The Road Again – Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson [..with tab]

  1. Wilson’s retuning of his diatonic harmonicas has been well documented. More information on this and his many other musical innovations can be found in his upcoming biography, “Blind Owl Blues”. For details you can visit the site:
    http://blindowlbio.com

  2. Wilf says:

    Hi Rebecca!
    Thanks for this information. Has the biography been published?

    Wilf

  3. Carl Sutterby says:

    Wilf hello from Somerset my friend, hope you are well. The article, as with all of your features is so well set out and informative. I bought the Canned Heat album you mention on your recommendation and followed your previous post about retuning. As a novice when working on harps, I retuned my Hering Free Blues, because it is a great cheap and highly playable harp. I would suggest for first time retuners, an old or cheap harp is best incase you get it wrong. I used a ‘clip on’ guitar tuner and very gentle use of a file and the job took half an hour. Its good to learn to do this stuff as it gives you a closer understanding of your instrument. Thanks for the tab ;-)

  4. mike says:

    He told me he took his harmonica apart and trimmed the reed with a razor blade, presume that’s what you mean be “tuning” the reed.

  5. Tim Schirmer says:

    Where can you buy a special tuned reed plate or harmonica to allow for the accurate playing of either nine below zero or On the Road again.

  6. Wilf says:

    Hi Tim. I’m assuming you want to play On The Road Again – either the Canned Heat original or 9 Below cover version. If you don’t want to tackle retuning the essential 6 draw reed up from F# to G natural, I suggest contacting Seydel Soehne and asking them to quote you a price. There’s a link at the side of this page.

  7. Carl says:

    Tim, its not as scary as you think to re tune the harp and for these songs you have to re tune one note only. I bought a cheap set of Hering Free Blues because I was nervous of messing up one of my favorite harps. I took it very slowly and bought the reed into tune and I love it…I did that myself. Working on your harp also gets you closer to understanding how the instrument work, and its cheaper than buying a special tuning. Having said that I use Seydels and they are great harps available in many different tunings including special tunings.

  8. Personally I like to have two sets of harmonicas in commonly used keys: one to retune for these kinds of songs, and one to keep in standard tuning for regular blues items. There are a few songs in other keys (I think one is in F with a B-flat harp, if I recall correctly) where Alan can be heard using a retuned harmonica.

    I found that it was relatively simple to retune the Lee Oskar diatonic using their tool kit. Seems like it would have been a little more difficult in Alan’s day, what with the wood combs that were standard back then; those harmonicas were not really made to be worked on and customized as the Lee Oskars are. But you can retune any harp with a little effort.

    Wilf, yes the biography has been published since 2007, and can be found at http://blindowlbio.com. There’s a Google Books excerpt available for perusal there along with ordering information. You’ll find a lot of other interesting information in the book regarding Alan’s harmonica work; one of his more bizarre experiments involved stuffing his nose with tissue paper in an effort to get more airflow through his mouth.

    I’d also recommend a visit to the site at AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com, a family tribute site where I have been honored to make a few contributions.

    Thanks for this excellent analysis. I often use it as a reference for those who are new to Wilson’s music. And if it’s okay with you, I’d like to add a link directly from BlindOwlBio.com as part of my References page.

    Don’t forget to boogie!

  9. Wilf says:

    Hi Rebecca – thanks for stopping by the Surgery. A great update and more intriguing snippets about Mr Wilson. Please add that link. Big hugs from over here. Now buy the book people!

  10. James Varley says:

    Congratulations on your superb web site. Thanks to your tab (with the quote from Pat Missin and his amazing analysis), plus You Tube videos by Hakan Ehn (which demonstrate filing of reeds), I have modified a Lee Oskar in A and can almost play On the Road Again, or at least bits of it. According to Hakan Ehn, the harp (by John Sebastian) on the Doors’ Roadhouse Blues is also modified, with raised 6 draw and lowered 3 draw. I would be interested in your thoughts on that.

  11. Wilf says:

    Hi James. Great feedback. Thanks. Not heard about Roadhouse Blues. Which bit do you think demonstrates a special tuning? Doc

  12. James Varley says:

    Thank you for the response, apologies for the delayed reply. I am having trouble nailing the harp on Roadhouse Blues, even though, on initial hearing, it sounds relatively straightforward. I suppose what I am really looking for is one of your excellent “tabs”, where you do all the hard work of finding out whats going on. You seem to be very good at that.
    I came across an instructional video for Roadhouse Blues on You Tube by Hakan Ehn who suggests that you first need to retune your harmonica, raise 6 draw and lower 3 draw, by filing the reeds. I wonder if John Sebastian did that.

  13. Harpman74 says:

    This is terrific -thanks for tabbing this out. And what a great site! Keep up the good work.

  14. Wilf says:

    Comments like this make it all worth while. Thanks for visiting Harpman74.

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