A Harmonica Player's guide to surviving the folk session
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
So you’ve hit a few blues jams rupturing your ear drums by the guitar amp, then suffered a local 'overly-earnest' open mic - but what next?
There’s a bunch of beardy types down the road in The Pig and Sickle (English pub) who meet once a week with their instruments, so why not take your harmonica down and suck the hell out of the four hole draw?
The audience will probably love you but the musicians may not, so perhaps better to follow this handy Harmonica players guide to folk sessions instead.
Tip 1- Know your session
Every session is an entity unto itself. Despite the fact that most sessions tend to be themed, they are still highly individual. For example there's an Old-Time session nearby that’s predominately tune-based where the musicians always play in one key to suit the fiddles and Banjo’s, until everyone agrees it’s time to change. They may play in G only for an hour and a half before they change!
In contrast there’s another session in town also labelled ‘Old-Time’, that features mainly guitar led songs in whatever key the singer decides. If you think sessions are unpredictable you’re dead right.
Why not take an exploratory trip to the session armed with a keen pair of eyes and ears, then whilst quaffing down a pint of warm ale at the bar, listen in to get a vibe of the session. Over your pint or three, you can gather some vital information.
Who’s leading the session? Does the host lead most of the songs/tunes or is it democratic with everyone sat in a circle and people being asked to play in turn? Does the event have a friendly atmosphere that seems open to newcomers or are they a small hardcore group of musicians around a table who seem to be treating the occasion more like a gig?
Tip 2 - Know your host
In the session arena, the host is king, champion and supreme leader. Ignore the host and the 'folk police' will be here faster than you can play a badly executed tambourine solo.
The host generally has the most influence on the session in terms of etiquette but also matters of style, acceptable instrumentation, song choice and the general vibe of the occasion.
If they are drunk, ignore this whole section and do what you like.
Tip 3 - Know the theme/style
There are many different themes and styles for a session but I'll focus on some of the most common and talk about typical formats.
Irish Trad- Mainly tunes, often 2 or 3 musicians leading, usually a fiddle/tenor banjo and guitar. Some songs too and if so, can often be solo unaccompanied (especially later in the night if the Guinness is flowing)
Some of the friendliest most welcoming sessions I’ve been to have been Irish but there used to be an infamous session in London that highlights explicitly on their web page ‘No Shaky Eggs Please’ ( they don't mention harmonicas though).
*Harp Tips- If you want to slot in, learn some tunes- Many in key of D (Google- Irish session Standards) They’ll be sets of tunes too that change key, usually groups of 3. If you’re lucky the host may shout the key changes. Rhythmic comping possible too (listen to the guitar) but always support the melody. Paddy Richter tuned harp could be your friend as the tunes get fast.
Also usually tune based but probably more fiddle players and Banjos all playing together and hopefully only one guitarist. The guitar in Old-time is like the bass and drums together and a solid guitarist can make or break the session. A wizened old folky type once said to me around a whiskey soaked camp fire "two guitarists at an Old-Time session is worse than having two drummers in a band".
*Harp Tips- Tunes, tunes, tunes. Mostly G, D and A. May be a few songs too but will often be slower than Bluegrass with more emphasis on playing the melody rather than improvisation. Lot’s of tunes are major tonality and sit well in first position, especially with Tongue block comping. For contemporary players, I recommend listening to Seth Shumate and his band ‘The Ozark Highballers’ for an example of some great traditional Old-Time harp playing. Other key player include Dave Rice and the highly individual Mark Graham.
Minor tunes can suit other positions such as Third or Fifth. Again, Paddy Richter could also be handy for fast tunes if you don't want the pain of bending the 3 draw full step bend although this will give you a less traditional style of course (for tips try this video).
Many similarities to Old-Time and confusingly, much of the same repertoire but performed in a different format. Often more songs than tunes and in Bluegrass, musicians take breaks(solos) over the form as in Jazz and Blues so taking a chordwise approach as well as melodic can be advantageous. When a Bluegrass musician solos, everyone in the group must support the soloist religiously and will generally play quietly and sparsely.
Singer is king and decides the key to suit their vocal range. Other musicians sing in harmony trying to avoid singing in unison. A three part bluegrass harmony in a random pub in South-London on a Wednesday evening can be a truly beautiful thing.
*Harp Tips- Slowly, slowly! A bluegrass session can be like a small family dinner party- be sensitive. Bluegrass music is highly stylised and it's perhaps wiser to underplay at first rather than go in blasting your favourite Blues licks (ok we've all done it!).
Some more traditional Bluegrass musicians don’t always appreciate the harmonica and wouldn't consider it an appropriate instrument for the genre.
How to fake a Bluegrass Session
Second position rules the roost. ( Listen to Charlie McCoy and Buddy Greene) Twelfth position can work nicely too if you know what you're doing.
Learn how to comp- Listen to the Mandolin and don’t play too loud over other’s solos. Generally speaking, if you want to take a break you make eye contact with the singer/leader. Bluegrass can be political and don’t be offended if you feel you haven’t been asked to take a break unless it happens continuously. Take a look here- Bluegrass Harmonica Lesson
General Session advice- As with any most ensemble playing, Listening is paramount and particularly at a session where the venue may be noisy. Seek out the friendly folk, introduce yourself to the host, and be cautious if you are taking a washboard on the first outing…….
Ed Hopwood grew up in The Midlands(UK) surrounded by folk music and sessions then found many more on moving to London.
He has co-hosted 'Old-Timeyoke' reported to be Europe's only Old-Time open Mic and started the hugely popular 'Brentford Session'.