The following interview originally appeared in the National Harmonica League magazine as part of my regular column, Reeds for the Record...
Mark Hummel started playing harmonica in 1970 and has gone on to become one of the premier blues harmonica players of his generation. Thanks to over thirty recordings since 1985, including the Grammy nominated 2013 Blind Pig release "Remembering Little Walter", part of the Blues Harmonica Blowout CD series Hummel started in 1991. These events have featured every major legend (Mayall, Musselwhite, Cotton, etc.) on blues harp as well as almost every player of note on the instrument. In addition, Mark started his own band, the Blues Survivors, in 1977 with Mississippi Johnny Waters. By 1984 Hummel began a life of non- stop touring of the US, Canada and Europe, which he still continues at least 130-150 days out of each year. Hummel has toured or recorded with blues legends Charles Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Lowell Fulson, Billy Boy Arnold, Carey Bell, Lazy Lester, Brownie McGhee, Eddie Taylor, Luther Tucker and Jimmy Rogers. More at www.MarkHummel.com.
RG: When you think of sideman harmonica, what are the gold standards?
MH: My tendency is to go back to someone like Little Walter, Big Walter, Rice Miller, or John Lee Williamson, who all did some great backup things. James Cotton too. They all did great backup records. Someone like Rice Miller played behind Tampa Red, Baby Boy Warren, Elmore James, and a number of more obscure guys. Some of my favorite Big Walter is him backing up Jimmy Rogers and Johnny Shines. That’s some of the wickedest playing he ever did.
RG: Anything you find particularly instructive about those recordings?
MH: All the guys I’m mentioning did a lot of backing up other people. Take Little Walter, Little Walter played behind all kinds of people on Chess Records. He played behind John Brim, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Memphis Minnie...all kinds of people. What made these guys great is they played sympathetically but also excitingly, knowing when to dart in and out behind the vocal. And for me that’s the thing; knowing how to stay out of the way but do something exciting at the same time. Billy Boy Arnold is always talking about how it was Little Walter that sold the Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers records, and I believe him. He was so inspiring that people would go out to buy the record for Walter as much as the frontman.
RG: Can you describe the difference in your approach as a frontman and and as a sideman?
MH: My approach is different! When I moved to the Bay Area, it was pretty much a West Coast scene. It was not a Chicago Blues scene. People played like T-Bone Walker and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. They fit a West Coast mold, not a Chicago mold. So you had to stay out of the way and people didn’t like harmonica. I had to change my playing drastically to be accepted on stage. I couldn’t play like Little Walter; the saxophone players hated me! That was too much (playing) all the time. I learned to play more horn-like and be a part of section with the horn players. It was a rough experience, but I learned.
RG: How do you prepare for the studio and how has your approach changed over the years?
MH: My education was really trial and error. When I started, people baffled everything. It tended to be a close mic sound with no room sound. Rusty Zinn, when he was playing with me around 1991, really helped me with a lot of ideas about recording. Like leaving more space between the microphone and the amp. One thing I learned to do was use two or three mics; one close, one about three feet away, and one about five feet away with no baffling. I used to put my amp in a bathroom or hallway; somewhere with hard surfaces. I also experimented with everyone in the same room with no baffling. That was tough as the drums tended to overpower everything.
RG: After all these years, what’s your ideal studio setup these days?
MH: I usually record at Kid Anderson’s Greaseland Studios these days. He has it in his house and I’m usually in a wash room, which has hard surfaces. It’s small enough that we don’t really use more than one microphone.
RG: How about differences between recording and live playing?
MH: Those are two completely different worlds. One thing I used to always do is use a small amp, like a Princeton, in the studio. I probably used the Princeton for about the first eight years in the studio. I’ve used a lot of amps but eventually I started using the Bassman and on the most recent record, a 2x12 Silvertone, both bigger amps. I have a little 1x8 amp called the Hurricane, which I used on Back Porch Music, and sounded really good. On the Johnny Dyer record (Rolling Fork) I wired my Princeton and Bassman together. The thing people don’t realize is that bigger amps have much more bass response, so by wiring them together, you get both and it’s pretty killer. I thought it would be interesting to try, and I only used it on that one record, but it turned out great.
Things are going to sound different in different studios, so I just keep experimenting. So much of what I’ve learned is just trial and error!
When you put something on tape, it becomes permanent, that’s the nerve-racking part. If you’re live on a gig, other than someone YouTubing it, it’s gone. That’s where preparation really helps, and sometimes I go in more prepared than others. Like chromatic...sometimes I really mess up on chromatic; sometimes I don’t have my ideas quite as in focus.
A lot of times when I go into the studio and come up with things that I’ve never really performed before. It all depends! On the last album I went in with about half of it really prepared and half of it, my originals, I was totally finishing up by the time we got in. The weird thing about the studio is that you never know if the things that are super prepared will come off as well as things that you totally improvise on the spot. You kind of need a little of each. The studio is really like gambling!
When we recorded that Johnny Dyer Muddy Waters tribute record, Rolling Fork, that’s one of the records I’m most proud of. We were very prepared, and had a number of musicians on it, including two guys who had played with Muddy, Paul Oscher and Francis Clay, in addition to Charles Wheal, Rusty Zinn, Bob Welsh, Marty Dodson, and Steve Wolf. It was really a mix of musicians and I was producing it and I had to find the right spots for the guys. I was gassed with how it turned out. It really is like gambling, you just never know how it will turn out!
RG: Any advice on the technical aspect of recording harmonica?
MH: Anything analog is going to best. If you can put stuff on tape, that’s a way better way to go. There are some amazing aspects to ProTools, but in terms of sound, I’d have to say tape is best. I’ll play through whatever mic they put in front of me---you’d have to ask Kid Anderson, or someone like that, more on the specifics---but for acoustic playing, I pretty much just play into whatever mic I’m singing through. If it’s a small room, I will use one mic on an amp. And if it’s a bigger room, we’ll use more mics.
I don’t think compression is a good idea. You want to do stuff as real sounding as possible. The same as live; I don’t like compression on a vocal or anything. But I’d have to say the tape thing is big, even though I haven’t had access to tape on my recent records.
RG: Any closing thoughts or things you might share about your recent projects?
MH: I was real pleased with the last couple records I’ve done. The live Little Walter record (Remembering Little Walter) was a record I both played and produced on. That was a real hairy experience. We had one day and two sets to do it. And it turned out that the monitor guy unplugged the laptop that was recording and we lost the whole first set. Fortunately, the second set went well enough that we were able to get an entire album out of it. That was a really great album, was Grammy nominated and won two Blues Awards, and I was really proud of how everyone played on that.
The last album, The Hustle Is Really On, was recorded half in Chicago and half at Kid Anderson’s studio and I was really happy with how that turned out. And the new album, I’m really stoked about, because I think Anson Funderberburgh did a great job producing it and I was really happy with how the harmonica sound turned out with an all-original 2x12 1959 Silvertone rig.
RG: How about gear?
: I’ve always changed it up! I’ll play an amp three to five years and move on to something else. I still have a Sonny Jr. Cruncher, which I really love. I had a couple of different Meteors which I liked, but I have to say I really like the Cruncher for a newer amp. But vintage gear is always my preference. I have a 1961 Concert, an original Bassman I love to death, the Silvertone I love, a Magnatone with 4x8’s, and the Hurricane I still play on duo gigs with 1x8. And I switch it up all the time. I don’t like to have the same sound all the time.
I’m sponsored by Seydel and I generally have Rupert Oysler or Ben Bouman work on my harps. I have a chromatic guy, Steve Malerbi, who works on my chromatics. It used to be Dick Gardner, but he sent me to Steve when he started slowing down. I still mostly play Hohner chromatics, but I also play Hering Chromatics, the Suzuki chromatics are a trip, and the Seydel twelve holes are great. I have a set of Filisko harmonicas that I’ll use in the studio if I remember to. I find that I’m most comfortable on the Seydels at this point in time and they stay in tune a lot longer than any kind of Marine Band. But when they go, they go quickly! edit.