If you want to take your harmonica playing outside of the traditional blues, rock and country paths, there are plenty of examples to follow. Simply visit one of the popular Facebook forums and listen to a wealth of brilliant jazz and classical harmonica playing, not to mention other unexpected genres.
This was not always the case. Richard Hunter, along with trailblazer Howard Levy, was one of the players responsible for changing the perception of the instrument in the 1970s and 80s by pursuing challenging music, learning and innovating when it was difficult to even get someone to teach you how to achieve a 2 draw bend.
In the following exclusive interview, Richard spoke with us about what he learned by taking the road less traveled, and how you can create your own authentic journey on the instrument.
How did you discover the harmonica?
It was 1967 and I was 15. I was playing the keyboard in a high school rock band but wanted something to get me out from behind the keys. We already had two guitarists. I went to a music store one town over and I looked at the instruments. There was a saxophone and it was beautiful. I asked the guy how much it was and he said “$600 bucks.” In 1967, that was quite a bit of money. Then I looked down and saw a case of harmonicas. I’d heard Paul Butterfield and thought he was amazing.
So I asked (the clerk) how much a harmonica was and he said “$2.40.” I took one and started playing it everywhere. After six months I just couldn’t get a handle on it at all. Then I read Tony Glover’s book Blues Harp and figured out what I was doing wrong and got started.
Today you’re known as someone who recognizes the importance of music theory. When you were young did you have any musical training?
I had jazz and classical lessons on the piano and I could compare what was done on the harmonica to the layout of the piano. But I didn’t understand theory per se until after a few years of college when I finally understood chord structures and other essentials. It did not come easy. Coming out of a rock background, getting into that music was not easy. It took a few years just to get my head around it.
So many people discover the instrument because it’s a gateway to blues. They want to replicate a certain sound. It sounds like you were one of the outliers.
Well, Butterfield’s sound on the harmonica was a direction I wanted to go in. I don’t think white America had ever really heard that hot amplified tone, so Butterfield was a revelation. Music in that era was overtly emotional. Butterfield had a lot of throat vibrato and bending and was emotional. That inspired me and then I got records by Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Stevie Wonder. When I heard Charlie Musselwhite that totally blew my mind.
What was it about Charlie? The high end work? How he presented his ideas?
The emotion (especially on) the song on Christo Redemptor. He’d already recorded a version on Stand Back! but the version on Tennessee Woman was just totally emotional. It was the first time I heard third position, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was almost a different universe when it came to tonality. Everything was just so blue. It totally hooked me on the harmonica.
I grew up and learned in a different time but I was also blown away by that song. I also didn’t know it was in third position although I had the tab. I learned the song by following the tab and knew something was different and couldn’t initially put my finger on what it was.
Yeah, I’d say up until about 1974 I was devouring Charlie’s records.
When did you decide you were going to follow a different path with the instrument? Now there are benchmarks if you want to take directions outside of blues and incredible players from around the world. When you decided to blaze a trail, those things weren’t there. Did it feel overwhelming?
Actually, it felt exciting! It occurred to me recently that very early in my adventures with the harmonica I tried to put the instrument into things that aren’t traditional. Simply latching on to Charlie as a remote mentor rather than Little Walter was different than what others were doing. When I hit Boston in the fall of 1970, everyone was like Little Walter. I was studying Charlie and trying to play jazz. (Doors keyboardist) Ray Manzarek said that when he was coming up playing organ Jimmy Smith was the acknowledged master. He said there was no way he was going to try to cop that style. So, he developed his own style which is now very well known. I was the same – I didn’t want to play like everyone else. I wanted to play like a horn player and was listening to a lot of Miles Davis. I was playing jazz tunes. It was the early years of jazz rock and a lot of funky jazz tunes were out there. I wanted to go beyond the blues. When I was in Boston, there were lots of opportunities to play lots of music. So, I tried to play lots of music.
How did the other musicians react to a diatonic harmonica?
People outside of the harmonica world helped my journey. I was treated with respect after I learned how to behave. When you are meeting musicians and interacting with them in various ways you need to understand the protocol. Don’t be too pushy and don’t interfere. That took me a while. I would do things like walk into blues jams in Boston or Cambridge and sit in on piano. I was serious about it then and played about four hours a day. I did some things then that did not go over well at blues jams. After I left, a friend said: “Sometimes it’s good to play the style of music they are playing.” By the time the early 80s rolled around, I’d mastered certain aspects of being on the scene and was easy to get along with. And more people knew me and I had a certain cachet.
What advice would you pass along to players that want to chart their own path or even players who just want to stick in the blues idiom?
It’s good to have what is called a “growth mindset.” You need to view anyone who knows something you don’t as a potential teacher. I asked lots and lots of questions. That’s something I still have today. I listen to players on YouTube — players like Roly Platt, who is a great player. I find it all very inspiring to hear things I don’t do. I hope I inspire them when I do things they don’t do.
I was always a fan of Joe Filisko’s style. Now that my main gig is playing in a roots and blues duo I’ve been consciously revisiting all of his stuff because that sound works so well.
It’s certainly inspiring to hear other players and even other musicians who don’t play harmonica, like Jimi Hendrix.
When did you decide to organize all of what you’d learned into the book Jazz Harp, which is still in print decades later?
I was working with Chris Turner for a few years. We were playing all kinds of polyrhythmic polytonal music. It was quite unusual music.
At a certain point, I decided I should be talking about what I know. I wrote this very dense academic book called Harmonica For Musicians that was over 200 pages long. I made an appointment to see the same publisher that put out the book Blues Harp. I got to New York City and it was a holiday and all the businesses were closed. I made another appointment and went down to see the editor with my wife. He said: “I don’t think we want to publish your book but I do think you can write a book we want to publish.” I was about to say bullshit and my wife said: “Oh Richard, isn’t that wonderful.” We took Harmonica For Musicians, stripped a lot of stuff out and made it friendlier. The previous tone was stern. The editors steered the book back to simpler things when I was doing things like 96 bars of a Charlie Parker solo. While some of the stuff seems conceptually simple, it’s not all simple.
The vocabulary for the people who want to take the instrument to new places still isn’t that deep. Sandy Weltman is doing jazz and gospel and Irish music but there is not a well-worn path like there is for blues.
I’d like to see the harmonica playing a lot of different roles in the band and I think there could be a lot more done with it. I think that’s the area where the harmonicas can go places, especially with the chromatic options now available on a diatonic. It would be great to see people using the instrument to play a much wider range of harmonies. Most people do not think of the harmonica as a harmony instrument but as a lead instrument. That’s because, in Chicago blues with the bullet mic and the tube amp, all you hear is a blur. In the Chicago sound, they really take advantage of that. If you think of amplification differently it opens you to playing very interesting harmonies. That’s just one example of using different roles. If you stay in the same role all the time – there’s a place for it, but it’s nice to think about changing things up.
What about the harmonica still inspires you?
So many players now are playing it so well. When I was a kid, you couldn’t even find things out about the instrument. And it’s inspiring that the instrument continues to develop with new tunings.