Hooked on Bluegrass

David Naiditch

I’ve enjoyed bluegrass as far back as the late 1960s, when I first saw the Kentucky Colonels play at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, but I wasn’t yet hooked. I tend to only get hooked on music that I can play. My main instrument was the harmonica, and I thought the harmonic sounded better for blues than bluegrass. Indeed, the harmonica is not a standard instrument for bluegrass as it is for blues. Bluegrass harmonica players use diatonic harmonicas (as do almost all blues players) that don’t have all the notes. The missing notes can sometimes be obtained by bending the reed (slurring the note), but this produces a raw, bluesy sound that doesn’t always fit the bluegrass style.

I played blues for many years, even taking lessons from the great Sonny Terry. But eventually, I wanted to play other types of music. The diatonic harmonica that had served me so well for blues seemed inadequate, so I switched to the chromatic harmonica. Unlike the diatonic harmonica, the chromatic contains every note. The trick is a push button on the side that, when pressed, provides all the sharps and flats. This allows me to use a single chromatic to play in every key. No need to keep switching harmonicas each time the key changes. The chromatic harmonica is so versatile it has even been accepted as a jazz and classical instrument.

One of the first types of music I tried on the chromatic harmonica was bluegrass. With the chromatic harmonica, I could now play all the notes I heard the other instruments play. In addition, I learned how to produce a rich, pure sound that I think works well with bluegrass.

As my playing improved, so did my love for bluegrass. I attended many bluegrass concerts, and as I gained confidence, joined jams with better and better players. I realize that bluegrass musicians often cringe when they see a harmonica player saunter over to their jam. They find them as annoying as the mosquitoes that come out to feast. Several tricks have been developed over the years to discourage the would-be participant, including selecting unusual keys, such as E, F, and Bb. Many diatonic harmonica players aren’t armed with harmonicas that can handle these keys. But in the unlikely event that they can, the ever-resourceful bluegrass musician can always select even more exotic keys, such as Eb and Db. As a last resort, the harmonicist can be frightened away by being handed sheet music.

I must admit that harmonica players who show up at bluegrass events often can’t play the melodies. They also tend to play too loud when others are taking their breaks. I’ve tried to avoid these problems by learning the leads to many bluegrass tunes and by playing softly, if at all, when it isn’t my turn to play. Once I’m given a chance to take a few breaks, even bluegrass purists often enjoy my playing.

Today, I’m still hooked on bluegrass (although I’ve also ventured out to gypsy jazz), and especially love to jam. I carefully listen to what other musicians are playing to get new ideas. I sponsor a monthly bluegrass jam in the concert room of The Coffee Gallery in Altadena (from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm on the second Sunday of every month), and attend numerous jams in the Los Angeles region. I also travel to bluegrass gatherings. Most recently, I attended Super Jam in Bakersfield, where I played into the wee hours of the morning with musicians such as Rick Cornish, John Cogdill, Bill Schneiderman, Stan Cadranel, Tim Edes, Dennis Jackson, Howard Goetz, Yosef Tucker, Tom and Ellen Naiman, Henry and Nancy Zuniga, Mary Cutin, and Dave Gooding.

If you want to hear a recording of my bluegrass harmonica, you’ll need to wait a few months. I’m currently producing a CD with bluegrass greats: banjoist Pat Cloud, guitarist Eric Uglum, fiddler Christian Ward, and bassist Austin Ward. In the meantime, you can hear a sample of my playing from years back at http://cdbaby.com/cd/naiditch. This home-brewed CD contains 36 tunes in many styles, including a few bluegrass tunes.

(posted 3/13/2008)

Copyright © 2002 - 2010 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email rickcornish7777@gmail.com