Charleston musician Tim Edgar talks harmonica with Willie Nelson's harp player, Mickey Raphael 

Comparing Notes

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Jack Spencer

This is the latest installment in our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. You can check out the whole series at charlestoncitypaper.com/unlikely.

My name is Tim Edgar and I've been playing harmonica and sitting in with many bands for the past 10 years. I used to go see this guy back home in Milwaukee called Brew City Junior who could blow a mean harp. We became friends and it might have been him that gave me my first real harmonica. Since then I have been looking to other harmonica players for inspiration and trying to hone my own technique. I was given the honor to interview probably the most prolific professional harmonica player around today. Mickey Raphael has been touring with Willie Nelson's band for over 45 years, made a solo album, and has performed and recorded with countless other bands including Sir Elton John, Paul Simon, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, and more than my allotted word count for this column would allow. I spoke with him on the phone.

Tim Edgar: Should I call you Mickey, Mr. Raphael?

Mickey Raphael: Of course, that's my name.

TE: I don't know if they told you but we do a little series in the paper where they ask a local muscian to interview a more famous musician, more famous than myself anyway. I've been playing harmonica for about 10 years now: jazz, blues, rock. So they picked me to ask you some questions. If you don't mind I'll just get started here.

MR: Good, OK.

TE: So you've been performing with Willie for over 40 years, what is something you've learned in that time you wish you could tell yourself 40 years ago?

MR: To play less. Yeah, less is more.

TE: Yeah sometimes you've got to sit back and listen, right?

MR: Yeah, all the time you've got to sit back and listen.

TE: You don't want to be stepping on people's toes.

So Willie Nelson's band is called a family. Do you find that is an accurate way to describe everyone's relationship in the band?

MR: Yeah, definitely, because first off it's literally a family because his sister plays the piano. And we've all been there, I mean we've been there longer than anybody's marriages have lasted. I've been there over 45 years.

TE: I was thinking the same thing. I know people that have been married less time than that.

MR: And it's unique that a band would stay together that long, too.

TE: Absolutely. There's got to be some times that are tough too, just like anybody's family.

I'm often asked how to learn to play the harmonica. I was never taught in any formal sense. What advice would you give to the aspiring harp blower?

MR: Just get a harmonica and just make up songs, just sound-out songs. It's all ear training. Plus there's all sorts of great stuff online. But I would just make up songs. You know, get a harmonica and play "Oh Susanna." Basically it's just training your ear where the notes fall. It's all just remembering. And just sound-out the songs. Just make up songs.

TE: Right it's almost more of a feeling.

MR: Totally, uh-huh. And when you get kind of comfortable with the harmonica, you can just hear a melody and try to play it. Or you're singing along, sometimes I sing a melody to myself when I play it. Anything more technical than that I'd suggest there's so many great lessons and information, you know, on YouTube. I would never teach just because there's some great teachers out there, great players.

click to enlarge BRANDON FISH
  • Brandon Fish

TE: Yeah I've seen some of that stuff. It's a fascinating age we live in — you can just look that stuff up now.

MR: Mmm hmm.

TE: What brand harmonicas do you play and what sort of gear do you bring with you on stage?

MR: I play Hohner harmonicas. Just different models that they have: the rocket, the crossover, the marine band. And I use a ribbon mic. This may be too tech for the readers but I use a Beyer M160 with and AEA mic pre. Basically, I'm just using a really nice high-end mic and playing directly into a P.A. I don't go through amps or anything.

TE: I feel that the harmonica is often overlooked as a serious instrument. Do you find that people are surprised when they find out what a small chunk of metal can do?

MR: I think so, if they come to a show, a Willie show or hear me on other people's records. I was on tour with Chris Stapleton too this year — you know, Willie and Chris are the only people using a harmonica player as a solo instrument. I mean, there's not too many of us out there. In that world, in the country world I mean. There's a lot of great blues players. But, you know, I'm not in a blues band. It's a pretty versatile instrument.

TE: It is, and sometimes I think that people would miss it if it weren't there. It adds so much. Sometimes just a little thing you could do adds so much to the song.

MR: Mmm hmm.

TE: Since you've been touring with Willie for so long and playing with so many other bands like Motley Crüe and Snoop Dogg — you must have some wild stories. What's the wildest thing that's happened to you.

MR: Willie and I were in Ireland and we were invited over to U2's studio while they were working on a record and to have dinner there. So they have a chef that was cooking and we're visiting with the guys and Bono told Willie he wrote this song for him that he always wanted him to record and Willie said, 'Well let's go.' So I'm thinking, 'Great, we get to record with U2.' So Willie and I went into the studio with him and we're starting to play and there was like a power surge and all the gear went down. And it was like, 'Oh well, sorry. Let's go back and have dinner.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh fuck, here's my chance to play with U2,' and it was just gone in a sec. Nobody really cared — we went back upstairs — except me, I'm freaking out, you know? But then they got everything fixed after dinner and we went back in and recorded with them. So that was kind of a near miss. Just to see that we were down there doing — you know, in the middle of a song and everything goes down and they're just very matter of factly, 'Oh well.'

TE: Right. You had come so far. I just have one little last question for you before I let you on your way. You know this happens to me every now and then, I get my mustache caught in my harmonica and it really hurts. You just got to go through with it. Has that ever happened to you?

MR: Yeah, but I keep it trimmed pretty close. I kind of had my harmonicas customized. It's either wood or a titanium comb, so there's not a lot of gap there. One of the Hohner harps, the cover plates are kind of loose so there's space. That's where you get caught.

TE: Yeah. I use the Special 20 all the time.

MR: You should try the Rockets. I mean Special 20s are great, but then the Rocket. They came out with this thing called the Rocket that's like an upgraded version of the Special 20.

TE: I'm going to have to check those out. I might have to special order that from the music shop here.

MR: Well they should be carrying them. I mean that's really the upgraded version and it's a nice harmonica. It plays really well and it's great in the studio.


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