Exclusive Interview with Spider MacKenzie

Spider MacKenzie

How did you discover the bluesharp ?
~ Aged around 13 years old I went on a school holiday. On this trip, two memorable things happened. One was that a few kids, included me were horribly bullied. The second thing was that I heard another boy playing the harmonica. When I came back from my holiday my aunt wanted me to go for boxing lessons. The boxing lessons didn't happen however my grandmother took me into town to buy a harmonica. Before I got home, I was playing it at the back of the bus. I just loved the sound. I spent many hours in my bedroom finding the notes to play easy melody's and folk songs. Then one day I heard a radio DJ playing some Sonny Boy Williamson II. I think it was his song "Pontiac Blues". I went back to my local music store and asked if there was book to learn this music. I returned with Tony Little Son Glovers' book called Blues Harp. In it I heard of names such as Little Walter, Sonny Boy one and two, Sonny Terry etc. Records were bought and I was hooked. I even managed to bend a note. Woweeee. I loved the music.

If everything would be possible (waking the dead included), which bluesharp player would you invite for a jam session?
~ I'd want a few please. Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sonny Terry, Charlie McCoy, Stevie Wonder & Toots Thielmans. OK I know Toots was a chromatic player but he was wonderful and it would be cool to hear what he'd play. I'm sure Stevie Wonder would play some great blues either on diatonic or chromatic.

What is your favorite blues harp brand / type and tell us why?
~ If you looked in my case you'd see they are all made by Hohner. I really like Special 20's. I like the smooth comb and warm sound especially for "pretty" playing. I often accompany singer songwriters and it suits the music and my style. In recent years Hohner have come out with a few newer model's such as the Marine Band Deluxe & MB Crossover. I like these two models especially on the lower keys. Hohner Rockets are also great in keys such as Low F, E, Eb etc. Hohner make great harmonicas. In addition, their UK distributor gives me excellent support. That encourages me to stick with the brand. I'd like to shout out a big thank you to Steve at Sutherland Trading! Saying all that, I'd like a low Db + high A and as Hohner don't appear to make them I may purchase them from "the other side" whoever that may be...

What are the most important tips you can give to someone who wants to learn to play the bluesharp?
~ Learn to crawl before you can walk please. By that I mean please learn to play clean, un-hissy single notes in simple melodies before you grab a microphone & start blasting. Considering your tone & sound.
Players who sound great amplified sound great acoustically. It's not the amp or mic that makes you sound good it's your tone and technique. Record yourself and play it back.
With a band often less is more. Choose when to play. In a verbal conversation you don't speak non-stop. Leave space between phrases. Make your notes count. Use dynamics and accents. Don't step on other band members toes.
Try to speak to players you like at concerts. Politely ask if they might have 10mins spare to chat & share tips. With the advent of Facebook and other websites you might even be able arrange to contact a favourite player and meet up before or after a scheduled concert. Most player will be pleased to help. Oh, and if they are happy to, record the tips/lesson on your phone.
Skype lessons also work well. Again if the teacher is happy to, record it.
Keep learning. There is so much I still want to learn & improve.

Tongue blocking or lip pursing, what do you prefer and tell us why.
~ I mainly lip purse but I tongue block also. It's helpful, if not essential to be able to do both.

Give us the 3 most important albums every (beginning) blues harp player must buy.
~ There are too many, so anything by Sonny Terry, Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson II.

How do you clean your harps?
~ I'm not big on cleaning however if I have a sticky reed I run my harp under a warm tap. Then tap on my leg and blow/draw. I occasionally take reed plates off and clean gently with a sharp edge or remove a foreign object. I'm a "cheap date" and don't drink alcohol or sweet drinks. I usually drink soda water or water and that includes when I'm out gigging or practicing. I suspect that my harps last longer due to this.

What is the question interviewers never seem to ask you and...you wish they would? (Please provide your answer as well.)
~ Oh my, I don't know. Ok here goes. Aside from harmonica what are your two next most favourite musical instruments? My answer is. The human voice & piano.

Describe the ultimate recording studio (not the technique but the facilities)
~ I think it's incredible what can be done in a modern home studio. I dare say important than facilities are that it's comfortable and that the other musician's, the engineer, producer are all creatively supportive.

Are you still nervous before going on stage and if so, do you use any "rituals" to calm you nerves?
~ I rarely get very nervous. Well occasionally a bit, more nervous excitement. Sometimes when hired there can be one song which I have to play a tricky part. That can be in the back of my head as I really care about what I do. I might mediate, thinking the song through in my head. I will say a prayer since it's only by God's grace that I am able to be here and play this instrument.

What was the most memorable day in your musical career?
~ My, another head scratching question you have given me. There are many. Playing harmonica has been a real blast. Little did I know where it would take me and the wonderful moments that would happen. Along with the friendships I have made but back to your question. I just said that I rarely get nervous. Well I was at this one. I was asked by my pal to play an unaccompanied tune at her husband's funeral. He wasn't a Christian in fact was a devout atheist. So, playing the song "Amazing Grace" was out. The family asked me to not to play a slow tune but to "go for it" as that's what John would have liked. I won't ever forget that day. What an honour. Did I say I was nervous? Well I was.

Spider MacKenzie

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Answers given on August 7, 2018