£4 doesn’t go very far these days. It can buy you 0.68 gallons of petrol. A pint and a quarter of slightly ropey real ale. Slightly less than 4 days motorcycle parking on a street in Westminster. Or two hours sitting in front of Paul Lamb for a guided tour of the blues.
If you were foolish enough not to be in Kentish Town on Tuesday night, here’s a little of Paul’s advice:-
1. Find your cradle blues
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers were the first step on Paul’s journey. But they weren’t his cradle blues. Paul worked backwards from the Bluesbreakers through Chicago and the Mississippi Delta back to the 1920s. He tried piano, guitar and drums, searching for the instrument that would let him express the feeling he heard in the music. It wasn’t until he played Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing that he found what he was looking for: “That just blew my head. I made my vocation in life to become a blues harmonica player. The cradle blues for me was Sonny Terry.”
2. Learn from a master
There were no Blues Harp for Dummies books around when Paul was trying to work out why playing in the key of the music didn’t work. He sat with a Dansette and a Sonny Terry record, breaking a piece down into sections and lifting the needle back again and again and again. “By the end of it the record was destroyed – fish frying tonight!” Steve Rye
gave Paul the missing piece, telling him that Sonny played cross harp. Paul now plays 1st position, cross harp and 3rd position and is comfortable that those give him the sound and the feeling that he wanted to achieve. But he still doesn’t recommend books. “Get a guy – get an album – sit down on your own.” It’s probably a lot easier to loop licks and sections from an mp3 than a 7-inch vinyl record. But it’s still not going to get from the record to your harp any easier…
3. Persevere – “everybody starts in the bedroom.”
Paul used to practice in his bedroom, and on the bus – though “secretly” (he didn’t want to get thrown off for being a nutter) – and in the bath. Yes, he conceded – it probably was an obsession. But it was never a chore. Eventually he started playing in the folk clubs of the North East as a “floor guest” – an acoustic act that filled in before the main act came on – and started to put his show together.
4. “Feel what you play, play what you feel”
“As Terry told me…” Yes, that would be Sonny Terry. Paul met his master, touring the UK with him in the mid 1970s, and they became good friends. He said they didn’t talk much about harp, they concentrated on everyday matters like a drink and a good dinner. Invited to try and sum up what it was about Sonny Terry, Paul came back to his theme of feeling being the key: “It’s spirit, you know. Feeling the note and not being too carried away with getting to the next note. Honing it.”
5. Develop a personal style
“This music is blues music – it’s an expression. It’s a feeling.” So stop stressing about amps and pedals and effects – “if you work on your sound you can play through any decent amp.” Take a chance with chord changes and melodies – “sometimes they work, sometimes they fall flat.” And be a complete player – “Terry was a whole band all on his own.” Backing, says Paul, is as important as lead. The key is to feel where the harp fits into the sound.
And it wasn’t just words – there was music too:-
- Sonny Terry – Whooping the Blues
- Sonny Terry – Jet Plane Blues
- Sonny Boy Williamson I – Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
- Noah Lewis – Viola Lee Blues
- Sonny Terry – Ida Mae (Note to the bloke in the Nine Below Zero t-shirt – talking over the last bars of this song was nearly the last thing you ever did).
- Big Walter – Easy
- Big Walter – Hard Hearted Woman
- Big Walter – La Cucaracha
- Sonny Boy Williamson I – Polly Put Your Kettle On
- See See Rider
- Sonny Boy Williamson II – Fattening Frogs for Snakes
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