Harmonica of Wonder

Little Stevie Wonder - playing harmonicaMel Melton still remembers the first time he ever saw Stevie Wonder play, 40-some years ago. Melton was 14, just a bit older than Wonder himself, who was one of the opening acts on a bill headlined by James Brown -- and the kid pretty much stole the show.

"Here comes this kid in a white tuxedo and a red shirt, playing 'Fingertips' on a chromatic harmonica," says Melton, who leads the area blues group Wicked Mojos. "I'd been playing for fun, just a regular harmonica. But seeing Stevie inspired me to get a chromatic harmonica.


"Of course, I couldn't play it for a long time -- let alone sound anything like he did."

In that regard, Melton has lots of company. There is much to admire about Wonder. One of the past century's all-time great musical masterminds, Wonder is a virtuoso singer, player and songwriter responsible for dozens of classic songs, covered by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Durham jazz singer Nnenna Freelon.

But most of all, Wonder has a signature harmonica style that might be the most recognizable sound in all of popular music. If you could hear a smile, you'd hear Wonder's wailing harmonica.

All it takes is a few notes and you know it's him -- an exuberant sound as bright as a cloudless spring day, joy personified. Remarkably, Wonder had a fully realized style worked out by the age of 12, when he recorded the chart-topping "Fingertips -- Pt 2" for the aptly titled album "The 12-Year-Old Genius."

Wonder's harmonica has also graced hits by Chaka Khan, Elton John, Eurythmics and Sting, among others. But if you were to try to duplicate that sound yourself, good luck.

For one thing, Wonder's primary harmonica is a chromatic rather than the diatonic harmonica typically heard in blues (although he occasionally plays diatonic, such as on 1974's "Boogie on Reggae Woman"). Chromatic has up to 16 holes compared to the 10 holes on diatonic harmonica, so it offers a wider ranger of sounds. But chromatic harmonica is also significantly harder to play.

0 "Chromatic has a scale set up like a piano keyboard, where regular harmonica is on a diatonic scale," Melton says. "So chromatic is a totally different monster, a lot harder to play. It takes a lot more oxygen. You really have to learn circular breathing."

Circular breathing involves breathing in through the nose and storing air in the cheeks to blow through the mouth. Once you have that down, you can start working on the particulars of the Wonder sound -- which owes more to jazz than blues and is almost impossible for mere mortals to duplicate. But it helps to know a few tricks.

Harmonica master Randy Singer says one key is in how you manipulate the chromatic harmonica's slide, which raises each hole's pitch by a half-step.

"One of Stevie's big characteristics is to jab the slide forcibly," Singer says by phone from his home in Florida. "He's also basically singing, but using a harmonica to sing with, putting vibrato on it. And if you do that and bend the note at the same time, you get a shifting effect. I think the last thing is he gets a sort of fluttering effect with his tongue. Combine all that and you get this, a Steve thing."

0 Singer puts down the phone and demonstrates a more-than-decent approximation of Wonder's solo on the 1968 hit "For Once in My Life."

"Using the slide with a jab, that's the secret," Singer concludes.

But, of course, you can diligently practice all that and you probably still won't sound anything like the master because ... well, he's Stevie Wonder and you're not.

"It sounds stupid to say he's a genius because it's so obvious," says Rick Estrin, who plays harmonica in the California blues band Little Charlie & the Nightcats. "He changed all of music probably as much as anyone other than James Brown, and his harmonica sound is very original. Nobody sounded like him before. He's an original. Unequivocally, without Stevie Wonder, music today would be unrecognizable." This article by David Menconi appeared in the News & Observer News Media on November 23 2007.
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The following are interesting responses to Stevie Wonder's Harmonica playing.
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0 Everyone recognizes his playing and I think I attribute that to the keys he plays in most of the time. You see, most chromatic players use the slide to add sharps and flats. They embellish starting with the slide relaxed. Stevie Wonder plays many songs with the slide pushed in as "home" and he releases it to embellish the notes. that makes his "sound" quite different from the crowd.

I watched him sit down at the piano on some reality show last week and sure enough his hands went right for the black notes on the piano as soon as he touched it. It would make it easier to feel the keys.


-- Mark Panfil

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0 Stevie's sound on the chromatic harmonica is unique. Even when he plays a single note, his way of approaching or leaving it with a slide in pitch, similar to his singing approach, his vibrato and his tonal coloring make him both instantly identifiable and widely imitated by other players.

His melodic vocabulary is also tuneful, relatively simple and therefore easily recognized, as is often the case with famous instrumental soloists whatever instrument they may play. Details of how he uses the mechanics of the instrument, such as the ornaments he adds with the chromatic slide, add to his highly personal and easily identified style.


-- Winslow Yerxa
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0 My introduction to Stevie's harmonica playing was "For Once In My Life," and it's still my favorite example. The solo in this song is mind-boggling; he is bending into and/or out of every note, at lightning speed but with plenty of long and soulful notes too. He isn't playing the melody but rather creates a new melody that is just as interesting as the vocal one. His harmonica is reminiscent of the human voice, but it does things and reaches pitches that even Stevie's amazing voice cannot achieve. Like the best guitar solos, you can almost sing along with this harmonica solo, and even though it gets away from you at some point, you will come back into it when you can because it's irrestistible. You can experience this same phenomenon in "Alfie" from the "Eivets Rednow" album, which is my second-favorite Stevie harmonica piece.

-- Jonathan Metts

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0 Stevie has recorded memorable solos in D ("Fingertips"), E ("Isn't She Lovely"), F ("Creepin'"), G ("Please Don't Go"), F# ("For Once In My Life"), C ("Got to Spend A Little More Time with You," from James Taylor's "Hourglass," incidentally a wonderful recording from start to finish), and even Eb using an Ab diatonic harp ("Boogie On Reggae Woman"). On the list above, only the key of F# is played on the chromatic mostly with the slide in. This is by no means a complete list, and even this short list shows that Wonder is instantly recognizable in any key, even on the diatonic harp, which has no slide at all. So I think we can safely say that it's not the keys he plays in that make him distinctive.

It's true that Stevie uses the slide in a distinctive way, but that's not about the key he's playing in. It's also true that many harmonica players have imitated Stevie's slide work, which is pretty easy to imitate, without being able to sound like Stevie for more than a few bars (which is enough for most studio work, of course, but not enough to fool an audience for long). And like I said above, the slide thing doesn't explain why "Boogie On" is so distinctively Stevie.

There are a few things that make Stevie so unique:
1) His harmonic sense. Stevie always seems to choose notes that bring out the highlights in the chord changes he plays over. His harmonic sense comes through even more strongly on his compositions, where the chord changes tell amazing stories.
2) His tone. Like Toots Thieleman, Stevie has a very personal tone (though nothing like Toots's, of course). A personal sound is something that great players achieve, regardless of their instrument. Eric Clapton has a personal sound; Lester Young had one; Stevie's got his. Asking "How does a player get that personal sound?" is like asking how the player got to be the person he or she is. In other words, it's easier to appreciate it than to explain it.
3) His attack and release. Stevie tends to play his notes marcato, meaning slightly separated, and he often ends his notes with a trailing vibrato that's very emotional.
4) The way he constructs a solo. Stevie goes for a big finish on his solos. "For Once In My Life" is an obvious example -- it ends on a screaming A# at the top end of the harp, after a series of phrases that go higher and higher.

I could go on, but those are some of the highlights.
Summary: Stevie is so distinctive because he has a unique, remarkable musical conception. His harp playing is one of the things that he uses to express that conception, along with his singing, his compositions, and his orchestrations in general. Let's not forget that in the 1970s and 1980s Stevie also practically defined the sound of synthesizers in pop music. In those decades, there was hardly a musician in the world that wasn't listening closely to Stevie Wonder. I still laugh when I think about Paul Simon accepting the Grammy for "There Goes Rhymin' Simon"; his first words to the audience were "I'd like to thank Stevie Wonder for not making a record this year."


-- Richard Hunter
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0 Stevie feels the music in his own wonderful and unique way.

The way he plays and the technique he uses is important, sure, but what he feels and express through the notes is simply unbelievable and really unique.

The solos have a structure and a progression very different yet very similar. Think of “Stay Gold”, “I guess that’s Why they call it the blues (Elton John)” and many more: they start calm and then change and then with fast fraseggio go higher and higher where only Stevie seems to go with no problem...

When it comes to melodic songs i.e. Give me time (Minnie Riperton) he has a feeling and a way to express those feelings which has no equal. You could do that with sax or piano or guitar... And it could be he same effect BUT THE DIFFERENCE is that Stevie conceives, embellishes and plays, that solo from deep within.


-- Bruno Striano
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