I've been talking to my friend John about the lifespan of his harmonicas. John goes through harps pretty fast. He's got amazing tone - really amazing. He sounds like a trumpet; just brassy, in your face tone. Man, I really dig his tone. In fact, he can make a harmonica sound acoustically almost like it would sound through an amp - you know, when those singing, high notes just scream?

Most of his tone (and the fact that his harmonicas don't last so long), comes from the fact that he blows so hard. His cheeks stay real tight, small embouchure, just blowing the crap out of the reeds, really working those little suckers.

Well, I was working on a George "Harmonica" Smith song yesterday, "Telephone Blues". It's in A, 2nd position on a D harmonica. George starts it out with this killer little intro that's got that real brassy tone, and I was working on it yesterday in the living room (AKA 'woodshed'), trying to figure out his attack to get that sound. My living room has pretty cool acoustics, and I was standing in the sweet spot just playing with the way the harp sounded, looking for that brassy tone.

My #5 draw reed was TOAST within 10 minutes. It's the first harmonica I've killed like that in 3 or 4 years.

So here's what I think I've learned:
1. GS gets that hornlike sound from his amp.
2. Trying to play with that tone right from the reeds, the way that John can do, kills harps.

So: John, ease up, brother! When you try to get all that sound you want just from the reeds, you're making it do something it just can't do. It's like when you get up on stage and everybody's got a bigger amp than you, and you're all the way turned up, and you still can't be heard, so you're straining for volume. Technique goes right down the chute because you're straining so hard for more loudness.

If you're playing 'amplified', work the amplifier. Make your amp pull it's own weight, that the amp's job.

If you're playing acoustically, you get sound projection from "other" techniques, not from playing the reeds hard. Think of how vocalists get loud (they don't do it by screaming). I play with acoustic musicians often. You don't have to play hard to be loud, but you can't expect to sound like an amplified blues harp acoustically; you'll have to go for a different tone to get the loudness you want.

So, think of your tone and your loudness as two separate aspects of your technique.

Work on your tone (the way your harmonica sounds acoustically) at low volumes. Work your embouchure (head, chest, throat, belly) for your tone.

Work on your amplified sound with your amp at playing volumes (after crafting your tone), and don't let yourself be forced on the bandstand to strain for more volume. If you use a little amp, mic it, or get the other players to turn down.

Oh, and beware any situation where the drums are mic'd - that sucker's just gonna be too damn loud.