Updated: Dec 12, 2020
So you’ve hit a few blues jams and ruptured your ear drums by the guitar amp, then suffered a local 'overly-earnest' open mic - but what next?
Well there’s a bunch of beardy types who head down the road to The Pig and Sickle (English pub) every week with their instruments, so why not take your harmonica down and suck the hell out of the 4 hole draw?
This would make the locals mutter ‘bloody blues harp players’ under their breath and no one will speak to you, so why not follow this handy Harmonica players guide to folk sessions instead…..
Rule 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, also labelled ‘Old-Time’, that features mainly guitar songs in whatever key the singer decides. If you think sessions are a minefield you’re dead right.
Tip 1- Know your session
One way to negotiate this is to 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 the 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? Is it a friendly atmosphere that seems very open to newcomers or is it a small hardcore group of musicians around a table who seem to be treating it more like a gig?
Tip 2 - Know your host
In the session arena, the host is king, champion and supreme leader. Ignore him or her and the 'folk police' will be here faster than you can play an improvised out of time tambourine part.
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.
Rule 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 with 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 Guiness is flowing)
Some of the friendliest most welcoming sessions I’ve been to have been Irish but there’s also an infamous session in South-west London that highlights explicitly highlighted 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- Lots of 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.
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 wise grumpy folky type once said to me around a dying 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. I recommend listening to Seth Shumate and his band ‘The Ozark Highballers’ for an example of some great traditional Old-Time harp playing.
Minor tunes can suit other positions such as Third or Fifth. Paddy Richter could also be handy for fast tunes if you don't want the pain of bending the 3 draw a full step (for tips try this video)
Many similarities to Old-Time and confusingly, much of the same repertoire but played in a very different format. Often more songs than tunes or 50/50 mix. In bluegrass, musicians take breaks(solos) over the form as in Jazz and Blues. Everyone else in group supports the soloist religiously and often plays much more 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 Little Walter 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.
Second position rules the roost. ( Listen to Charlie McCoy and Buddy Greene) Twelfth position can work nicely too. 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. Bluegrass Harmonica Lesson
General advice- As with any most ensemble playing, Listening is paramount and particularly at a session where the pub 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…….