Q&A: PT Gazell on Becoming a Better Melodic Harmonica Player (and the Upsides of Lip Pursing)

By Justin Norton

Written by Justin Norton on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Harmonica Players

In the harmonica world, PT Gazell is perhaps best known for inventing a “half-valved” system for the diatonic harmonica that allows players to access every note in the chromatic scale via bending but not overblowing. While much attention has been paid to the technology and techniques of half-valved harmonicas, there’s been little discussion of why Gazell sought new options in the first place: to play a diatonic harmonica more melodically, particularly in genres like jazz and show tunes. We talked to our onetime harmonica player of the month about the big picture: how diatonic players can become more melodic, whether they are learning to play on half-valved harps, using overblows or simply relying on a few standard bends.

How did you fall in love with the instrument?

Milwaukee harmonica player Jim Liban

I grew up just outside of Milwaukee and the city was on the blues circuit. James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite and all these blues players would come into town on a regular basis. I also grew up listening to Jim Liban. Blues was just very popular. If you went out on Friday or Saturday, chances are it was a blues band and someone had a harmonica. Everybody seemed to have a harmonica. I was always amazed when someone who was very proficient (on the instrument) could do all these things. It was sort of like a magic trick because you couldn’t see what they were doing. When I first got one, I could make music on it right away. You can’t say that about a lot of instruments but with a harmonica you can make music right away.

In addition to half-valved harmonicas you are known for your melodic playing. Did those styles appeal to you from the get-go?

Even though most of my initial exposure was to blues harmonica, I never really did it. I fell into doing bluegrass, folk, country and then jazz, and was always thinking melodically when I thought of those genres – not blues riffs, I always was thinking of the instrument more like a trumpet or a clarinet.

Paul Butterfield is known for his melodic ideas in addition to his aggressive playing and he started as a flute player.

I didn’t know that. That explains a lot. He’s thinking melodically and about line improvisation more than other approaches.

In the blues, you learn a lot of rhythmic playing and licks from the old masters, things like a shuffle groove and chording under the music. I would argue that the idiom of blues harmonica is a rhythmic idiom. What in your personality and interests drove you elsewhere?

It’s probably some of my DNA makeup and the fact that I was blessed with a good ear and can pick up melodies and lines very easily. I think it’s also due to the fact that the music my parents listened to was melodically driven. My father listened to Benny Goodman and a lot of melodic bands and my mother listened to a lot of American songbook stuff. That music is melodically driven and it must have sunk in.

I think I heard Stevie Wonder playing a chromatic on the radio long before I heard any of the things that inspired me to pick up the instrument.

That’s an important point. In about 1972 or 1973 I was already proficient on the instrument just playing in first position, not even playing in second. I was trying to play faster and cleaner and nail these melodies. In the back of my head, I noticed blues harmonica players sounded different. I didn’t connect the dots. One day in the times of push button radio, I hit a country station and heard someone playing a harmonica melody and it was totally different than what I was playing. It was so great. It turned out to be Charlie McCoy. Another player in town told me he was playing cross harp and then I was off and running. Charlie made a career out of being able to accurately hit all the semitone bends on holes 2 and 3.

Let’s say you are someone who wants to develop big ears and become a “sweeter” and more melodic player. Where do you start?

The first thing you need to do is change what you’re listening to (laughs). I’m serious. When I first started with half-valved harmonicas, I was trying to do country and blues licks I accumulated over the years. Once I figured I needed to listen to the genres I was trying to play, my thinking got different. I started to think differently about improvising and even a step further: what songs would work with half-valving. 

Step one is to immerse yourself in the genre you are trying to figure out. Blues music is not really friendly to playing sweeter and more melodic. We need to find something else. For me that was songbook and swing and jazz standards. You soon start to figure out new patterns and phrasing. Once you get the hang of it can be like blues in that you anticipate where you should go. But step one is to change your outlook and immerse yourself in new things and get inside how they are done.

Those differences could be as simple as having the awareness to use a major pentatonic scale instead of the traditional blues scale. If you look at, say, pop music, those flat thirds and flat fifths don’t show up as much.

The five draw (in second position) is the perfect example. In the blues genre, if you don’t have that your sound would not be genre-specific. Get outside of the genre and into songbook standards and you won’t find melody lines that include that note. There will be some areas where it’s used in neutral places but, at the same time, it’s not a note I use a lot in my improvisation.

In blues, you hear the whole “play from the heart” argument. When you’re trying to become a better melodic player how important is theory and an awareness of how music works?

I’m actually an ear player. What I do is learn a melody line so well and internalize it so much that I know where I am in the progression. If I concentrate on anything else, it’s what the bass player is doing to make sure what I am doing is accurate against his playing.

Now that you’ve mentioned going outside of the box to become a better melodic player… let’s say you’ve had a steady diet listening to the classic harmonica players and want to develop a good ear. Where do you start?

That’s a little difficult because, to be quite honest, I only listen to a handful of harmonica players and about half of them are blues guys who nail the idiom so well I enjoy listening. The others are players like McCoy and Buddy Greene who actually learn a melody line and give it due diligence. For me, it’s not about harmonica playing or players – it’s more like Sweets Edison or Nat King Cole and how they play and improvise on a melody. Louis Jordan, for all of his showmanship, was a heck of a musician. Wes Montgomery was always very melodic.

When we are talking about “melodic”, it’s not just the melody line but also how you create a song within a song when you solo. A lot of times I do that by just nailing a jumping-off point or finding a slight variation off the melody line and then connect it to different places.

The American songbook is a great place to find melodies.

There are a lot of technical things you need when you play blues, like tongue slapping and vibrato and octaves. Are there any technical considerations for melodic playing?

I think a lot of people who play sweeter and more melodic are lip pursing. I don’t want to get into the whole debate about bigger tone, and don’t think you could say Charlie McCoy has thin tone. Tongue blocking definitely gives you a different and great sound. It’s totally cool. But I think when you hear something sweet and melodic, people are pursing rather than doing so much with their tongue. When you listen to Jason Ricci or Howard Levy or my playing and wonder how they do incredibly fast runs, it’s usually because they are pursing.

When you invented the half-valve system, did you not like the overblowing technique?

In 1988, I quit playing music. I walked away from the instrument and decided I would never play again because I wasn’t able to play the notes I wanted. Howard (Levy)’s  name was just surfacing as someone who could play missing notes.

In 2003, I made a decision through an odd series of events to play again. The first thing that happened was my buddy Jelly Roll Johnson told me I needed to go to SPAH. So I went and I was absolutely blown away by how the instrument had grown up. Paul Messinger and some other players heard of me and they started talking to me. They gapped the reed on hole six and I immediately hit an overblow. I said that’s great but it’s the wrong note. They asked what I wanted and I said I wanted to flat it and they said I couldn’t. I came home and this great player from Australia said,  “We should put some valves in and you can do that.” It was an epiphany.

Did you ever consider just becoming a chromatic player?

I never considered it because so many people kept saying it to me (laughs).  Listen to the diatonic and see what I do with it. It just doesn’t sound the same, so the easy answer is no. I chose half-valving over overblowing because it gives me access to all the notes that I need. It also follows the same logic that I grew up with playing the harmonica, which is when I bend a note I flat it. Even when I do a valved bend, I am flatting that note. I could never get my head around popping a pitch up a half step with an overblow. If I was just starting out now instead of decades ago I might be able to rewire.

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