My My Hey Hey: Using Harmonica as a Vocoder Device

You don’t have to have awesome cutting-edge gear to make interesting sounds. Nor do you have to settle with calling up some preset from a tone bank or soundcard. Sometimes common everyday acoustic instruments can help you approximate a sound/texture that you’re after; and for many musicians, soundmakers and writers, coming up with stuff is half of the fun.

Back when I was making the transition from recording-only, sound collage maker guy to futurist space-folk performer, I was looking for a way to maximize the sounds I could make with the smallest ammount of extra gear to lug along to coffeehouses. In addition to the core elements of guitar, slide and voice, I settled on two items: my two-second Digitech delay/looper and a harmonica.

I tracked down some Hohners and one of those neckholder contraptions at the big music store downtown at Mass Ave and Newbury St, and set about the task of learning to play them while strumming the guitar. I’d messed around with kazoos and wooden flutes and harmonicas before in my recording exploits, but usually just as non-melodic sonic ephemera put through guitar effects units, and never while trying to simultaneously play the guitar.

After I got the hang of it, I started incorporating my noisemaking era’s techniques of vowel-shaping, talking and adding undertones by humming notes through the harp that were different from the notes I was playing on it. The harmonica was transformed into a kind of poorman’s acoustic vocoder/talkbox and it immediately got used in one of my sci-fi folk numbers called ‘Visited A Farm’, opening and closing the retro-future tale like a robot narrator trying to speak.

Of course, I didn’t just get the harmonicas to use as a ‘gimmick’ noise. It’s primary purpose was to play melodies and leads over my guitar playing, so I spent a lot of time getting comfortable with it and learning how to phrase and bend notes while wearing it mounted in one of those neck-holder things.

The true masters of the ‘harp’ were obviously the blues greats like Little Walter, but that level of playing was not my aim and was totally out of my league. It was also an entirely different ballgame; holding the harp and a special mic together in both hands and sometimes going thru amps to get that classic warm overdriven sound. They weren’t playing guitar and pushing against a neck-holder while sending the sound through a coffeehouse microphone.

So while I listened to the blues guys for enjoyment and inspiration, I was going to have to turn elsewhere for learning other people’s harmonica songs. And so I inevitably ended up immersing myself in the catalogues of the two biggest veteran solo performers; woodshedding a ton of Bob Dylan and Neil Young harmonica songs to learn how the ‘folkie’ pros did it.

After I felt that my harmonica playing was up to basic performance standards (read: adequate for 2-3 songs’ worth of accompaniment per set), I taped ten of my songs from which I was going to cull a demo tape so I could start playing at places around Boston like the Nameless Coffeehouse, Iron Horse Cafe and the Naked City Coffeehouse.

Before I turned the tapedeck off, I got the idea to use the ‘vocoder’ harp technique from “Visited A Farm” and incorporate it into a cover tune; Neil’s “My My Hey Hey”. It seemed like an appropriate fit which gelled with Neil’s futuristic (and vocoder) exploits on his Trans tour from a few years prior, specifically his remake of one of his earliest numbers, “Mr. Soul”. So I gave it a go, put it on tape and basically forgot all about it for 25 years.

After local audiophile Nat Z donated a double speed 4-track cassette recorder to the cause last year, I finally got a chance to start going through all of my old 4-track tapes this past winter (after not having a compatible 4-track tape deck for twelve+ years) and re-discovered the song, tacked on to the end of that 4-track demo session tape. So here it is, in all its ‘ragged glory’, a tribute to Neil’s classic songwriting and occasional forays into futurism, plus a reminder of how sometimes you can coax out different or unique sounds for your projects from the simplest of gear.

      My My Hey Hey (harp vocoder)