American Harmonica News Letter
Fred Coffin
Published July, 2000


Being a Bee - an Interview with Brantt Hamilton
Q: How long have you been playing?

I have been playing professionally since I was 19, so if Iím doing my math right, thatís about 14 years. I have been actually playing harp since I was a small child. I used to carry a harp around to school and get in trouble for playing at inappropriate times, such as during assemblies. The beauty of harmonica as an instrument is that it is low-tech, inexpensive, and highly portable. Try sticking a tuba in your pocket.

Q:What attracted you to the harmonica and how did you get started (did someone show you some things, self-taught etc.)

I have always loved the harp...itís just such a distinctive, soulful sound; thereís nothing else like it. I guess I first decided I really wanted to play when I first heard "Whammer Jammer" by Magic Dick with the J.Geils Band. When he leads the band on that song, you just have to move your feet, and I just had to be able to do that. When I decided to start learning seriously, I searched for some instructional books and the best that I found are the ones by Jon Gindick. He describes the principles of playing cross harp (accenting the draw notes to give you the ability to bend notes and kick out that bluesy sound as well as other styles and positions as well. With the knowledge I gained from that, I proceeded to teach myself by listening to and studying other harp players, and guitar and sax players as well.

Q:Who were/are your influences and what have you learned from these influences?

Well, as youíll read in any blues harp article or book, it all started with Sonny Boy Williamson I and II, Little Walter Jacobs, and Big Walter "Shakey" Horton. These are the guys that innovated the style known as cross harp, and were the first to record with the harp as a major lead instrument, so without question, they are an influence on anybody that plays the instrument, whether they know it or not. Little Walter and SonnyBoy II (Rice Miller are especially favorites of mine. As far as modern players, the afore-mentioned Magic Dick was the first real influence on my playing, but there are others too numerous to mention: Paul Butterfield with his incredible wailing solo style, John Mayall with his chording techniques on songs such as "Room to Move"...I like Norton Buffalo alot as an all-around playeróhis style involves a little folk and a little rock and some smokiní playing. Billy Branch is definitely one of the hottest players around nowóhe learned from the masters (James Cotton and Junior Wells and takes their style a few steps farther. William Clarke was another favorite of mine; it was sad that he passed away so young.

Q:What embouchure do you use (tongue blocking - lip pursing - combination) and why or to what advantage?

I donít use alot of tongue blocking, per se, but I do alot of tonguing just for breaking up the notes and "funking it up" a little. I enjoy playing chords in the "chickaóchicka" John Mayall style alot. You can have alot of fun with that style. Lip pursing ("The Big Pucker") is a mustóyou have to be able to play clean single notes in order to solo. Some overblowing on the high end of the harp Jimmy Reed-style can put alot of punch into a solo, too, as well as perking up the ears of every animal in the vicinity.

Q:Do you play another instruments, is "harp" your primary instrument?

No. Harp is my only instrument, besides singing. Iíve always wished that I had learned the piano or guitar, but never took the time. I did take some music theory classes in college, so I learned some of the basics of music theory. I frequently try to mimic guitar and sax solos on harp, so the more I know about how they operate, the easier it is. You canít throw a rock in any direction without hitting a guitar player, but hot harp players are pretty hard to find.

Q:Tell us about your live harp right amp/mic/what type of harps why you choose these particular pieces of equipment?

Iím still searching for the perfect sound for me. Iím partial to the "Crystal Balls" mic available through Kevinís Harps, but Iím still hunting for the right amp. I used an extinct old Valco 12 watt amp on the CD, which despite the low wattage produced a wide variety of tones from clean to vicious. They donít make that amp anymore, but any good tube amp should provide the warmth and distortion for covering a wide range of blues styles. I play directly through our PA most of the time with a touch of reverb and the mids cranked to max. This has worked for me for alot of years, but is not very forgiving of mistakes, and doesnít provide the flexibility of an amp setup. I will probably purchase an old Fender amp in the near future and make that my main rig. There are a number of custom-made amps just for harp players popping up all over the place, but theyíre a bit on the expensive side. Iíll probably investigate those too.

Q:Tell us about your recording experiences, in particular your new CD (Title as well as harp & recording techniques)

The CD is simply titled The King Bees Blues Band as it is our first major recording. I already mentioned the amp I used. On some of the cleaner songs such as "My Baby Waits for Me" I played through a Sennheiser studio mic so that my hands were free to create some "wah-wah" sounds, which is a bit difficult when youíre cupping your hands around a mic. We tried to make the CD as "live" as possible, so we purposely minimized the overdubs. On the next CD, I would like to experiment with multiple harp tracks, each with a different tone, for a "Harp Attack" sort of effect.

Q:Would any cut be your favorite or best represent your particular playing style? Why/how?

I really like "Down Boy Down" because it takes me back to being in my twenties, and I had alot of fun with the solo on that one. I love doing old swing blues tuned like that and bringing them up to date with a modern sound. I like to think that thatís the way Louis Jordan would be playing the song now, if he were still around to do it. I also really like the guitar and harp trade-offs and double solos on "Crossroads". Mike and I have been throwing those kind of things together for a long time, and that recording catches it particularly well, I think. We trade off a few riffs, and then blast into a harmonized solo that sounds just great on the recording. Iím really happy with everything on it so itís difficult to choose a favorite.

Q:Do you have any tips, tricks or secret techniques (for live, recording or practice) that you would like to pass along?

For a total beginner, I would learn alot of campfire singalong songs like Camptown Races and Old Grey Mare, to learn to form single notes. That is the most important element in dynamic harp playing. Once you get that down, study some Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter and the old-time harp guys like that to get a feel for how they played. Kevinís Harps (www.kharps.com) has a huge number of instructional items available...many more than when I was learning, as well as reference materials for more advanced players. That is a great place to check for anything harp-related. There really are no "secrets" to pass along...just study the masters, and develop your own style from there. Thereís no secret ingredient but desire. You just have to get into it and do it.

Q:Do you belong to any harmonica clubs, blues societies, teach or any organization that you would like to promote (including the KingBees) and if so tell us about them.

The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH)has alot of workshops and seminars that they do for beginners to advanced players, as well as being an invaluable and enormous source of reference information. There are local clubs for some areas and Blues Societies everywhere. SPAH is my favorite; they do so much to promote the instrument and to develop interest in it. Itís really great. I recently did a workshop at my wifeís school (she is a teacher) for a bunch of third-graders and their parents where I spoke about the history of the instrument (for example: Did you know the modern harmonica was invented by a German clockmaker?) and the various styles of playing, which I demonstrated by along with my CD. I have often been asked to teach and have considered doing that at a local music store here in Cleveland. The kids were very interested and excited and that made it alot of fun. I hope to do more like that in the future, perhaps at local blues festivals.

-Fred Coffin