Life of a Harmonica Sideplayer - Stuart Adams

Great review sent by a longtime harp player and recent Yonberg discoverer, Stuart Adams with video of Stuart

I’ll always be a sideplayer, and I’m good with that – Jason Ricci or Joe Filisko don’t have to lose any sleep over me; and Little Walter can rest easy. 

The main reason (aside from the fact that they’re incredible players) is that the harmonica is my only voice. I lost my singing voice one Canada Day (our national holiday) up north here in Edmonton, Alberta. It was outdoors and I was MCing a celebration when the PA failed. I screamed to be heard – now, my singing is limited to back-up vocals and the only wailing I do is with my harp. 

What it means to be a sideplayer

So, I’m a sideplayer, but I probably play more than a harp-playing vocalist who mostly sings and then takes a solo. My idea of a good performance is contributing accent riffs (think of the bagpipe opening of “Copperhead Road” with a harmonica), maybe augmenting the rhythm with some rhythmic ‘chucka-chuckas’ (a reggae version of “Summertime”, or back to “Copperhead Road” and morphing from the bagpipe into the mandolin chords – playing on the side, you can see people start to nod with the beat when you hit the pocket), and, of course, stepping up for a Blues solo, which is what started me on the harmonica.

I had to learn to be a sideplayer, where a big part of it is knowing when NOT to play. That can be a tough lesson, because when you start out, you’re the only instrument and you play all the time. As a sideplayer, I live by my ears. I don’t play over vocals, I’m always listening to where I can contribute to the song, and I pride myself that I don’t miss stops – even jamming with someone for the first time on an original song – if you’re listening, you can hear that stop arrive. 

Stumbling onto the Storm – ergonomics and economics

While surfing for the best deal on some brass replacement plates, I came across the Yonberg. The reviews and the videos mention the ‘feel’ of the Yonberg in your hand, and they’re right, but I also like the way the comb fits your mouth – that’s even more important, because knowing where to find that next note is all about ‘feel’. The only two instruments that I can think of that don’t have a ‘hand-to-eye’ component are the bugle and the harmonica. Sure, as you get to know your instrument you should be able to play it blindfolded, but when you’re learning it, there’s no such thing as looking at the keyboard, the strings, or the finger pads – along with your taste, it’s all in your mouth (they also call it a “mouth harp” for a reason). 

I started playing the Storm (it has my favourite colour combinations) and I like the sound a lot. Coupled with the Seydel stainless steel reeds, the Yonberg is the most responsive harp I’ve played. It has a clean and clear high end, and the bottom end doesn’t require a lot of wind or effort to generate subtle low notes. But, if you want to wail – the Yonberg delivers great volume. 

There’s no Yonberg retailer in Canada, but Alpine gets them to me in a week for about one-third more than my previous favourite harmonica. I also like the longevity of the steel reeds – five times longer than brass. And when you have to replace the brass reeds at $40 a pop, then the economics weigh heavily in favour of the Yonberg. 

You too, can become a harmonica geek…

So, way to go, Chris Conlogue (Alpine Harmonicas). You’ve turned me into a harmonica geek…I recently got a call from our singer and I was waxing about the Storm and I realized that I was sounding like all the guitar players I know.

I already notice that I like the Yonberg comb with the rectangular-shaped vertical holes with rounded caps. Checking some of my other harps – looking at a 10-hole and a 12-hole Marine Band, the holes are rather narrow, vertical rectangles; the Golden Melody is a slightly wider rectangle, while the Hohner Pro Harp and the Lee Oskar are square. I’m sure I’ll get into other aspects of the Yonberg as I play along and discuss with other harp players.

It all started on the railroad

Every harp player has a story about how they picked up the instrument. Mine may sound corny, but it’s a true story – I started while I was working on the railroad and cut my chops there. I was in my late teens and working a summer job on a railroad track gang in the same small Northern Alberta town in which my grandmother lived (yes, I swung a spiking hammer). 

The first harp I played was actually hers – a Marine Band on which she was pretty good at campfire songs. I was already a Blues fan, and I’d borrow her harmonica on my one day off a week. That Christmas, I asked for a Blues Harp and the next summer I really had an opportunity to play when I got a job as a trainman. I rode the engines with those big 12-cylinder diesels drowning out a lot of mistakes. I’d carry at least four keys in my grip and spent a good three years working the trains, putting myself through university, playing my harp all along the line.