• Gear of the Month by Todd Walker

    March 2018

    The G7th Ultralight Capo that I reported on in last month’s newsletter, as I mentioned, is inexpensive and very lightweight. What I did not realize is that it can affect your instrument’s sound quality quite differently than other capos. Many of the capos on the market will either enhance the low end, enhance the higher frequencies or dampen the sound slightly. The G7th Ultralight tends to be more transparent, allowing the guitar to sound more like itself. I hadn’t given it much thought, but after trying it again, I agree.

    Remember that the G7th Ultralight is inexpensive. Now let’s look at the G7th Heritage capo that my lovely wife Carol gave me for Christmas. As I mentioned last month, it is expensive ($139 + shipping). Ouch! It is definitely higher priced than the average Shubb, Keyser, or Planet Waves, but compare it with another popular yoke-style capo – the Elliott Elite at $160. Double ouch!

    Yoke-style capos seem to be popular with the bluegrass crowd. Many players, instead of removing the capo at the end of a song, will slide the yoke capo over the nut, or just behind it, giving it just enough tension to stay in position. Where your guitar goes, so does your capo. No more searching the guitar case storage compartment, the gig bag, pant pockets, or the floor. I have a black Paige capo stored on my ornate no-name custom dread. I like it on that guitar because the black capo jumps out in sharp contrast to the blonde wood of the guitar. What I don’t like about the Paige is that I must retune the guitar each time I move the capo.

    The reason I wanted to try a G7th Heritage is because I have discovered that my old trusty Shubb capo (I think I own five or six of them) doesn’t work on some guitars, because the radius of the fretboard and the radius of the capo pad don’t match up. Maybe that is why I see so many Shubb users snap their capos onto their guitar with a loud snap/clunk – very tight to overcome the radius problem. An overly tight capo pulls the strings sharp which necessitates tweaking the tuning and can potentially dent the guitar’s neck. I stopped using Keyser capos for the same reason – I found the Keyser capo spring put too much pressure on the strings, creating the same problem.

       So, what does $139 buy? Well, the Heritage is made from hand-polished stainless steel, it has silicone neck and side pads to protect the guitar from metal to wood contact, and it has a machined knurled tension adjuster that works smoothly (unlike the loosey-goosey wobble of my Paige capo). Since it is made from stainless steel, it has some weight to it. Not enough to cause problems with the body to neck balance of your guitar, but enough weight to let you know it’s a quality product.

    The beauty of the capo is that it has been designed using A.R.T. (Adaptive Radius Technology). What this means is the pad that contacts the strings shapes itself to the radius of the fretboard, so one capo can be used on any guitar. As I mentioned in an earlier paragraph, I use a Shubb capo for several of my guitars, my original G7th for other guitars, my Planet Waves for others, etc. The reason? Because each guitar has a different fretboard radius. Now I have a capo that will work on any of the guitars.

    G7th has a wonderful video that describes the theory, development, and advanced function of the Heritage (https://www.g7th.com/heritage).

    Does it work? Absolutely. It is easy to put on and take off the neck or slide to the nut. I find that the Heritage requires less tension to change the pitch of the strings, and most importantly causes less distortion of notes when in use. On several of my guitars I don’t have to tweak the tuning, on others, just a minor tweak by pulling on the strings and voila, on to the next song.

    I give it a hearty two-thumbs up! Do I recommend it to my guitar friends? Yes, with caution. At $139, hold on to it for dear life. It will last a lifetime, so keep it close to you and don’t lose it.

     

    Now go make some music!

  • Pull Up a Chair - The History of The Harmonica By Frederick Folklorist

    “Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe and playing my Hohner harmonica.” – Abraham Lincoln

    The story of the harmonica begins with the Chinese Emperor Nyn-Kwya, who in 3000 B.C. invented (or at least took credit for) a free reed instrument called a “sheng,” which is considered the forerunner of the modern harmonica. The sheng was then brought to Europe in the 18th century by travelers and tradesmen, where the idea of the free-reed principle was used in the creation of the reed organ, the accordion, the concertina, the saxophone, and the harmonica. The modern harmonica was invented in 1821 by a German clockmaker named Christian Bushman, who put fifteen pitch pipes together to create an odd little instrument. At first, harmonicas were produced by clockmakers as a sideline, but in 1857 Matthias Hohner decided to manufacture them on a large scale and went into production in Germany.

    Let me take a minute and talk a little about the Hohner company. Although his name is synonymous with the instrument, Matthias Hohner was not the first to manufacture harmonicas. He wasn’t even a good harmonica player himself. As is often the case, he was simply a great businessman in the right place at the right time. He started his business in 1857. He quickly bought out all his competitors and started exporting the first Hohner harmonicas to the US in 1862. By the turn of the century his company was producing over 4 million harmonicas each year and was employing over 1,000 workers. Hohner’s success made the harmonica much more popular and readily available to new audiences. In addition, Hohner made various improvements to the instrument which were crucial for the use of the harmonica in many musical genres. In 1896, he introduced the classic Marine Band harmonica. It became the “go to” instrument for playing blues and country music. In 1910, Hohner invented the chromatic harmonica with a button on the side you could press which enabled the player to perform music of all keys on one instrument.

    After Matthias Hohner mass produced his harmonicas, they spread all over Germany, and with the mass emigration of Germans in the late 1800s, all over the world. By the time of the American Civil War, the harmonica was well established in the U.S. and many soldiers on both sides played them. They were cheap, easy to learn how to play, and when you were in the field, they fit in your pocket much better than a guitar or piano. At first, the repertory in this country for harmonica consisted of folksongs, fiddle tunes, marches, hymns, and the like, but somewhere along the way, it was taken up by the black man, and its potential as a blues instrument came to light.

    The origins of blues harmonica (or harp) in the South remains unclear. W.C. Handy recalled hearing train whistle imitations played on the harmonica as early as the 1870s. The discovery that the notes could be lowered in pitch by changing the pressure exerted on the reeds was probably an accidental one. But, the “blue” notes of the African vocal scale and the moans and cries of the field hand hollering had been successfully reproduced on a new instrument. By the 1920s the “blues harp” was a common sound in the South.

    After WWII, there was a large shifting of the black population from the rural south to the urban north, especially Chicago. Starting from the late 1930s there were four giants of blues harmonica recording and playing in Chicago. There was Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton, Rice Miller, and maybe the best of the best, Little Water Jacobs. Together these men created the sound of the Chicago-style blues harmonica with its various moods and voices. They would range from eerie howls and yells, to whispers and sighs. It was a compelling sound that lured listeners in.

    The advent of rock and roll in the mid-fifties gave the blues themselves the blues. Sales of blues records dropped, and many performers had to seek other work. Even Muddy Waters, whose bands always featured a harmonica player, found that audiences were unreceptive to the slow blues in the nightclubs of Chicago. Meanwhile, the blues were being discovered in Europe, especially England, where young guitarists with names like Clapton, Beck, and Page were wearing holes in their records figuring out the riffs of B.B. King and other American black blues guitarists. The blues-based British rock invasion of the late 60’s re-popularized the blues. But now, the audiences were young whites rather than blacks, who, by then, had moved on to R&B, soul, and jazz. Unfortunately, the creators (blacks) of this style got none of the credit until 1964. That’s when The Rolling Stones appeared on the TV show Shindig along with blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. The Stones got Wolf on the show by refusing to play without him.

    Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and other famous musicians of the 60s all played the harmonica and helped make it not only a blues instrument, but also a rock and roll one as well. With the resurgence of interest in the blues, the fate of the blues harp playing now seemed secure. Throughout its history, most of the great harmonica players have come from the U.S. However, the internet is helping to introduce the harmonica to the world. The next generation of skillful players could come from anywhere...maybe even Frederick, Maryland!!

    Listen now to “Juke” by Little Walter. It’s been called the national anthem of blues harmonica. After this song came out, if a blues band didn’t feature a harp player, they couldn’t get a gig in Chicago. Furthermore, if the harp player couldn’t play “Juke,” he wasn’t considered a real harp player.