The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Tim Kobza is a performer, producer, composer, session-player, author, and educator in Los Angeles, California. His television and film credits include the hit shows The Office, Felicity, Desperate Housewives, The Real World and the major motion picture, The Lucky One. He is the author of Alfred Publications’ Blues Lessons Vol. 3 and has been on faculty at the University of Southern California since 1996.
I met Tim while recording with singer-songwriter Jack Kovacs (to hear an example of our collaboration on Tim's production of Jack’s single, Song of the Summer, click here). Since then, I've had the pleasure to work with him on many projects. I'm constantly impressed with his mastery of the studio, management of large and multifaceted projects, ability to guide artists and help them find their sound and voice, and his frequent use of the harmonica, often in unusual and interesting ways. I was thrilled when Tim agreed to do this interview and share his insight and perspective into the harmonica with us here at the NHL!
RG: When you think of harmonica, what comes to mind?
TK: My first exposure to harmonica was on Stevie Wonder records and Mike Post TV themes like “Rockford Files.” Harmonica is a very expressive instrument that ranges from the lonely campfire cliche to the dirty blues of Kim Wilson, Little Walter, and Howlin Wolf to the jazz side of Toots Theileman, who is someone I listened to a lot growing up. So I see the harmonica as a very wide palette as an instrument.
RG: What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument?
TK: I think the strengths are that it’s an evocative instrument and can be very moody and is a signature color that is only limited by the player….. and it’s really easy to carry to gigs!
RG: Why would you include harmonica on a project?
TK: I think the harmonica is a more misunderstood instrument which lends itself to the magic of the player. For example, people know of your playing on the harmonica because of what you do; they’re not just going to call any harmonica player, they’re going to call Ross Garren because of what you offer and it just so happens that you bring that to life on the harmonica. That’s a big part of it.
RG: In other words, on more common instruments you typically have specific parts in mind but with harmonica it’s more open ended and more about the musician themselves?
TK: Totally, it’s about what kind of textures are you hearing and can bring out. In the case of the material we’ve worked on, it’s about what can you contribute to the overall mood of the song we’re crafting. You bring stuff that I couldn’t necessarily write and that’s why it’s more about the musician blowing the air into it the instrument.
RG: If this were a project where you weren’t able to get the specific player you wanted, what would inspire you to go hunting for a harmonica player?
TK: Probably only if I was assigned to include harmonica. The fact that you’re a known quantity, I’ve heard you play a lot, and all the guys I work with love your playing has a lot to do with it—the artists themselves are often making that decision, not necessarily me. Sometimes you might hear somebody on some instrument play something and know that you need that sound.
RG: Let’s talk about some technical considerations—firstly, are there any things regarding microphone placement, microphone choice, EQ, etc. you might mention?
TK: Not a lot! I’ve added space with reverbs, but it’s a distinct timbre that has a unique frequency range that nothing else in the mix occupies. I honestly don’t know what else I’d do except try to make it sound cool with EQ, reverb, and maybe some compression if it were recorded acoustically and if we were recording an amp, I’d probably leave it as is because that’s the sound we were going for. I prefer that if I call Ross Garren for a session that I let Ross create the sound that I’m going to end up using via pedals, effects, or whatever rather than me taking a raw sound and putting on crazy delays and stuff. I’d rather that what you bring is what it is and sounds the way we want it as we’re recording.
RG: Any specific ways of using harmonicas you’ve found effective? I know we’ve done some layering and stereo panning of things and such…
TK: I think the percussive aspect of harmonica as a rhythm instrument is really cool. And the occasional happy accident, where you do a few passes with different approaches—that may allow you to find something that might be put deep in the mix as an added textural layers.
RG: What are some of the aspects of harmonica you find intriguing, underexplored, or exciting?
TK: I really like the range of the instrument and find that interesting, from the bass harmonica to some of the screaming higher range diatonic harmonicas. I like a lot of the improvising of harmonica. It seems to idiomatically lend itself to unique things. Like John Popper, his stuff would be really hard to play on guitar. And the appeal has always been how expressive it is and how much it connects you to the human voice. Speaking of that, I hear some possible blues harp influence in Jeff Beck’s early work. If I had the luxury to really explore the harmonica on a project, I’d explore the range and colors of the instruments, the percussive aspect, and the characteristics that make it unique.
RG: Any advice you’d give an aspiring studio harmonica player or even a professional player who’s not that experienced in the studio?
TK: Double on something! I think that harmonica is not in the mainstream and strictly from a practical standpoint it needs to be one part of your arsenal. If you’re going to be pursuing a career as a whistler, harmonica, or session accordion player, then you have know styles. You have to know how to play all of the clichés. You have to know how to play out of an amp. You need the right gear and all the licks and you need to know how to improvise over changes. You have to be able to mimic every style that has come before you that’s become a cliché on your instrument. Plus, I would really get your electronic processing together because that allows you to get a variety of tones like distortion, delays, wah-wahs, and add value to what you’re doing. I think you have to create your own value as an artist on that instrument; you have to put it out there in such a way that people hear it and say, “I’ve got to have that, that’s exactly what I’m hearing even though I didn’t know it”...It’s about what you do being so cool, not about the instrument.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article! Please feel free to write me an email through the CONTACT page at www.RossGarren.com with any feedback you may have.