Hey Negrita’s harmonica player teaches our Apprentice a lesson about tasteful playing
Some time back I got my hands on this acoustic single, “Burn The Whole Place Down” by the British country blues band Hey Negrita, which features my friend Will “Captain Bliss” Greener on harmonica. I’ve mentioned Captain Bliss once or twice here, as his approach to harmonica has taught me a great deal – without really showing me too many riffs and licks, if you catch my meaning.
Perhaps you already see why I thought it was worth consideration. First of all, it’s just a damned catchy song. But I believe there also are (at least) two lessons to be learned in their approach to this performance, and in Will’s contribution to it.
Lesson 1: Simplicity is beautiful
Will told me they recorded this album in a few hours, much in the manner you see in the video: six guys sitting in a room together, looking longingly into one another’s eyes, trading musical gestures. There’s a reason why six guys can record an album in an afternoon. (Instead of, say, a decade – I’m looking at you, Axl Rose.) Aside from learning the songs beforehand (something many bandmates forget to do), they kept the process simple and hassle free. No faffing about in laying down track after track in bits and pieces: everyone records together, and the musical relationships that exist within the band become the single most important technical tool available to them.
Granted, this is pretty common in recording studios, but it’s very helpful to keep in mind when planning gigs and performances: the Negrita philosophy (at least, the Will “Captain Bliss” Greener philosophy) is to keep things as simple as possible and not get enslaved to technology. If you have a PA mic, a good soundman and musicians you can trust, amps and mics and tubes and all that stuff is sometimes less important than you’d think.
Lesson 2: You only need to play as much as you need to play
I couldn’t believe it when I first visited Captain Bliss’s Myspace page. There was no harmonica on it! “But that doesn’t make any sense,” I thought: “H-h-he’s a harmonica player, for God’s sake!”
Well, yes. But as you’ll see from this song, he only adds as much harmonica as the song really needs. He could have easily chugged along through the whole track, adding little fills and frills between the vocals. I mean, Lord knows I certainly would’ve. Instead, he just keeps his harp by his side for almost the entire song, playing three short solos that account for about 12 bars of the song, as far as I can tell. As he himself pointed out to me, “the busy-ness of Matt’s guitar tends to remain constant; much of the time, the “fill” space tends to belong to him.”
Instead of just taking up all the available space in the song, he gives it air to breathe and the solos he does take are all the more attention-grabbing for it. (Also notice that he switches between a low harp and a high harp to keep things intereresting.) Knowing when not to play: that’s something I have yet to learn, unfortunately.
So what does a harmonica player do when he’s not playing harmonica? Well apparently he just acts like a musician: joining in on the chorus, dancing like a bit of a ninny, and just enjoying the damned song. I’ve seen more than a few harp players who, when they’re waiting for their solo, look more like they’re waiting for a bus that’s five minutes late.
Without further ado, please enjoy Hey Negrita’s “Burn the Whole Place Down”. You can buy it for a pittance at Amazon.