The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Tom Ball was born in Los Angeles and shares birthdays with his early harmonica hero Sonny Terry. Tom began playing guitar at the age of eleven and took up harmonica two years later. A teenage member of the Yerba Buena Blues Band in the mid-1960's, he played Love-Ins and Sunset Strip nightclubs before leaving the country for most of the '70s. In 1978 he came back to the U.S. and teamed up with guitarist Kenny Sultan - a partnership that still flourishes today and has resulted in eight duo CDs (most with Flying Fish/Rounder,) and literally thousands of concerts and festivals all over the world. In addition to working with Kenny, Tom has played on 250 CDs (including records by Kenny Loggins, Jimmy Buffett, and Jeff Bridges), countless film soundtracks, TV shows and commercials, recorded four solo guitar CDs, written five instructional books and authored a couple of novels. More at www.TomBall.us.
RG: Who are some of your inspirations and models as a studio harmonica player?
TB: Boy, there are so many and I guess it depends on what style of harmonica you’re discussing. Stevie Wonder playing on James Taylor, Brendan Power playing with John Williams (the guitarist not the film composer), and Norton Buffalo on Kate Wolf’s record "Close to You" has a wonderful warm tone that I aspire to. In the blues world, Big Walter playing on Johnny Shines' JOB sessions. That’s probably the greatest amplified Chicago tone I’ve ever heard---it can’t be surpassed and he never surpassed it either! Little Walter of course...the sideman work he did with Muddy (Waters) is even more impressive to me than the stuff he did under his own name. There’s so much great non-blues stuff to talk about too! Tommy Morgan on virtually everything. There are just so many who do it so well.
In my situation, I live in Santa Barbara and ever since Mitch Kashmar left town, I’m the only guy left here. So if they want harmonica, they’ve got to call me. Of course it’s a small niche because there aren’t that many studios here, but I'll take what I can get.
RG: Are there any things about those recordings or players that you found particularly instructive or inspiring?
TB: Well, when you’re playing as a sideman, I think it’s a whole different set of requirements than when you’re playing out front. You need to support the melody, you need to fill in the gaps, you need to play harmony to the melody or perhaps do a call and response thing, but you’re not supposed to play through the vocals or step on people. When I was first doing studio work, I tended to play too much. The main lessons I needed to learn were (1) how to play in support of what’s already there, and (2) how to anticipate what is going to be overdubbed later because the producer may have a bunch of other instruments in mind that he’ll bring in later. Nowadays, the process of recording has changed and a typical session for me may be to go in there and play a complete take of chunking rhythm background, a whole take of subtle background trills, a take of balls-to-the-wall playing without even worrying what you’re stepping on, and by the time you’re out of there you’ve given them about six tracks that they will slice and dice and possibly add effects to. By the time the record comes out, there is not only stuff on there that you didn’t play, but stuff you’d never have even thought of! So it’s become a producer’s medium rather than an artist’s medium. Sometimes they can make you look like a genius and sometimes they can make you look like a hack! But that’s the way it is now and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just have to go in there and give them what they want and then cash their check.
RG: Can you describe your approach to a recording session where your client doesn’t have any particular part in mind for you but knows they want harmonica?
TB: It’s trial and error at that point. Sometimes a producer knows exactly what they want---like a particular melody or harmony---and you can give them that. But in other cases they don’t really know what they want. I had one guy tell me that he wanted me to play a little “greener”. What the hell does that mean? I don’t know what “green” means to you! All you can do is try something different and keep giving them choices and finally they’ll say, “That’s it!” It also comes into play when an engineer doesn’t really know how to mic a harmonica. You have to be a psychologist, and you have to make suggestions that will make you sound better without alienating the engineer. You have to be discreet and a diplomat as you express how they can change the microphone placement, the type of microphone, or to try adding another ambient mic for example.
RG: Are there any skills you’ve found particularly important in your studio work?
TB: Well, I am not a sight-reader at all for harmonica. I can get through a classical guitar piece very painstakingly and convert it to tablature and I understand the process, but out of all of the sessions I’ve done I can’t think of one time that they had my harp part mapped out in standard notation. For better or worse I think they think diatonic harmonica players are musically illiterate. In my case, it’s true! And so they don’t bother to write it out and are generally kind enough to play whatever it is they want me to play two or three times until I can figure it out. Sometimes I’ll get chord charts, but that’s not a problem. I’ve just never had a session where I had to read traditional notation.
About half the sessions I get are simple folk, Americana, or bluegrass melodies where the chord changes are sort of self evident and you can anticipate in advance where they are going to go. I always request that if the song has a specific melody, or has key or mode changes and/or modulations, for them to send me an MP3 in advance so I can hear the tune. Otherwise I’m going to waste time in the studio having to hear it four or five times in a row and that’s their money. So it’s in their best interest to send it to me ahead of time. I’ve been in situations where there were twenty live musicians all playing at once including me and all of the other guys could sight read and I can’t, so all you can do is play what you think is right and hopefully they will give you another crack at it if you blow it. And if they’re not going to give you another crack at it, and you do blow it, chalk it up to, well... you’re not going to be working for that guy again. And that’s okay.
RG: Have you found any differences between session work for major artists and artists that are more on a local level?
TB: Well, I try to bring a certain level of professionalism whether it’s a major project or a local project. The difference may be in how the studio is equipped and how much time you have to record. Sometimes you may not have the opportunity to go through it eight or ten times and you have to be okay with what you get. And sometimes you get somebody who doesn’t particularly care if you’re playing your best, and you may have to ask for another pass. If it’s a big budget, major name, chances are they’re going to want something fairly specific and sometimes they get down to how you’re playing every single note.
RG: I know you’re known as a diatonic player, but you’ve also recorded on chromatic, bass, and polyphonia. Where do you think those instruments fit into the studio harmonica player’s arsenal?
TB: I’d like to be able a play those instruments a lot better than I can, and I’m something of a dilettante when it comes to really knowing how to play them. I’m not skilled on any of those instruments and it really helps to have the safety net of being able to go back and punch in to get the part right. Usually when they want me to play the bass harmonica, they’re not looking for a specific melody or bass line -- they're generally looking for odd tones and creepy background stuff, especially for film work. I can only think of a half dozen sessions I’ve done with the bass harp. The bass harp I have is an oddball prototype from the 1920’s before Hohner decided on what kind of tuning they wanted, and it actually goes from G to G instead of E to E like most bass harps.
For me, I’m not comfortable improvising on the chromatic, but if they ask for a specific melody line I’ll figure it out and play it from rote muscle memory in the studio.
RG: How about alternate tunings?
TB: Well low tunings for sure. I’ll use a low F or F#, or a high G, and country tuning if I need that major 7th in second position. Once I did a concert with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra and they wanted me to do Shenandoah, and you couldn’t do it in second position because the major 7th isn’t there. I could do it in first position, but then I couldn’t bend any notes. So then I realized a country-tuned harp would be perfect and I went out and got one. But I don’t really use them in live performance.
RG: How about custom intonation? I know some studio players will carry harps at 440, 441, 442, etc.
TB: No. In the early days, with my duo project, Kenny could just tune up to 443 and it’s not a problem. If you’re overdubbing with a piano or something that can’t be easily tuned, nowadays they have the ability to VSO you down into tune so it’s just not an issue. And when you think back on Muddy with Walter and Otis Spann, it sounds perfectly fine because I think Walter’s adjusting a bit. So I think some people make a little bit too much out of that. I can hear it, but it doesn’t bother me. I have a bigger problem trying to make sure all of the bent notes are properly intoned. When you take hole three draw, it’s tough to really nail all four of those notes perfectly without sliding into them, and chances are you’re going to be off by more than one cent!
RG: Any thoughts on the art of capturing a great harmonica sound?
TB: Well, I think it’s important to play softly because, even though it’s counterintuitive, when you play softly you get a bigger sound. When you play loudly or close to the microphone, you’re going to get a shrill sound that emphasizes the highs. The engineer can always EQ that out later, but then you’ll lose other aspects of your sound you might not want to lose. I think it’s important to play further from the mic and softly if you can. They can always bring you up. And that way, even though you’re playing softly you end up with a bigger sound that doesn’t emphasize the highs. You also get a more natural, room sound if you’re able to put some air (space) between you and the mic. About a foot or so.
With acoustic playing, I’ll usually ask for the best tube vocal mic that they have. A lot of times that’s a Neumann U47, 67, or 87. The AKG C12 is probably my all time favorite microphone to record with. On a high pitch session where maybe they want me to play on F harp, I’ll always ask them if they have a Royer 121; that’s a microphone that tends to de-emphasize the highs. That way you don’t have to EQ too much later. An F or F# harp can be extraordinarily shrill no matter what you do with your hands and I don’t like to have them have to EQ the ultra highs out. I also prefer, where you have the luxury, to have a room mic as well.
I don’t put any additional effects like delay, but reverb is absolutely necessary. I like a big plate reverb, not a springy, boingy kind of reverb. It’s mostly digital these days but I was in a few studios early on that had a big plate in the ceiling.
RG: How about electric playing?
TB: I don’t get a lot of calls for electric playing but when I do I have a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp and a whole array of bullet shaped mics like the JT30 and Shure 520. What I like to do a lot of times is to have one dry mic, like a Neumann, and next to that a bullet mic on a stand. Then I’ll play into both and we’ll run the bullet into an amp in another room. That way you have two tracks, one that’s dry and one that’s grungy. Then you can mix elements of both. Of course you’re never going to get that handheld sound that way, which I do sometimes with the JT30 and the Deluxe Reverb, but I’m not really a strong Butterfield-esque Chicago handheld mic player. There are certain techniques to that which I don’t really use, and my electric playing tends to sound a lot like my acoustic playing except that it’s amplified.
RG: Are there any areas of the harmonica you’re excited to hear people explore?
TB: At this point it’s all about tone. Of course, these days, you have all of these alternate tuned harps and overblowing and overdrawing, which incidentally I don’t know how to do, but for me I think the area I can grow the most is tone. There are certain warm kinds of tones coming out people that make me think, “God that’s so beautiful, how come I can’t do that?” It’s more about how they’re playing than what they’re playing. I love listening to guys who can shape those warm, bell-like tones. Like Norton on “Across the Great Divide” off Kate Wolf’s record. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about what he plays---I figured it out in five minutes---but I cannot match that tone... I can’t figure out what he’s doing!
RG: Do you have any advice for aspiring studio harmonica players?
TB: Never turn down a gig! Every session you do you’ll learn something -- something about microphone placement or your approach. And not only that, but the engineer you’re working with might call you up later for another session. Don’t make enemies with any engineers and take any session you can. It all builds by word of mouth, and if you get enough CDs out there maybe somebody will hear something they like and you'll get a phone call.
RG: Any closing thoughts?
TB: Well, of course I'd like to encourage people to come out and hear the Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan show when we swing through their towns. Aspiring guitarists will be knocked out by Kenny's picking! Also I would like to direct people to a project called "Silver Morning" that I did with my friend Alan Thornhill, who’s a singer-songwriter from Ojai. He writes beautiful songs and hired me to play diatonic, and it was one of those sessions I was very proud of. Plus I think people should know more about his songwriting and his extraordinary singing and guitar playing. So I would direct people to that if they want to hear some studio work that I’m particularly happy with.
But, of course, sometimes I play on stuff and record it and never listen to it again. By the time you spend all that time learning it, playing, fixing it and mixing it, you don’t want to hear it anymore... I’m ready to go on to the next project!
RG: You can find out more about Tom’s discography, solo and with Kenny Sultan, his overdubbed harmonica group version of Nagasaki Sails From Uranus and his tuition books on these web sites: