My friend Joe Filisko is in my opinion –still– far too unknown to music and especially harp lovers and students -although he’s massively known, influential and accredited by harmonica masters world-wide.
As I may embarrass him even in this next quite abbreviated paragraph, I’ll list just a few core bits of information about Joe and then go straight into interviewing him adding only a few online educational and yep, fun links at the end.
Joe Filisko is “a harmonica player’s harmonica player”, regularly cited as the most expert on post war (WWII) harp aces and their nuances in detail. He’s taken many trips to his birthplace (Germany) and elsewhere in deep study of his favored instrument. I often tell folks Joe has forgotten more than most of us will ever know about the “metal sandwich”. He and roots-music singer/songwriter/guitar-and-dobro partner Eric Noden have toured a large part of the world bringing music to often packed-houses. He has developed his own harmonica tuning system and more… the man is a harp genius, a humble and generous man and beyond all else he loves to teach harmonica steeped in history while citing blues technique -and does it with clarity, not easily accomplished with an instrument one cannot “see” as per say, a guitar.
GK- Joe, thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
JF- Definitely all my pleasure. I’m delighted when anyone is interested in my extremely eclectic interests, especially when that someone is as cool and passionate as YOU!
GK- I know when at home you’re a bit of a gourmet soup cook- where did that come from?
JF – Just outta necessity of wanting some of my favorite foods that are not available under lockdown. This kinda cooking is quite new to me but I sure have been having loads of fun recently.
GK- Can you recall when you first really noticed the harmonica, how old were you, who and what took your notice about the instrument?
JF- I always had some harmonicas around me but not much early exposure to music being played on it. I did hear it in the rock music I was listening to in high school, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I was listening to it in blues and becoming mesmerized by the magical sound of it. Even to this day I think that it is a VERY special instrument in blues and am amazed at how well it paints a clear picture of the mournful anguish of blues. Listening to the older styles really amazed me to how complicated some of the styles could be. Players like DeFord Bailey could have as may as 3 different things happening simultaneously. Being extremely visual, trying to imagine how these sounds were being made also contributed to my fascination.
GK- Who were your first one or two players who motivated you to get serious about technique?
JF – The very first two records that I purchased were by Big and Little Walter. Initially I was not able to comprehend all the layers and levels in their playing I was also initially in the first few years, quite influenced by the local players Howard Levy, Corky Siegel and Madcat Ruth.
GK- Why did and does pre-war blues specifically hold your interest as a fan and/or performer?
JF- Much bigger and more complex sound, and more levels to the playing. Most contemporary players are clean single note players with mainly only one layer. The Chicago Blues style is the biggest exception to this. I need them chords!
GK- Do you favor one or two particular keys (actual pitch of the harp/s) and if so why?
JF- The harp that I carry with me will tend to be a “G” harp. I really like ALL the keys and like them for different reasons. The lowest keys can be so fantastic for getting an accordion or fiddle flavored like accompaniment. The highest keys are the way to go if you are playing purely acoustically with a resonator guitar. 🙂
GK- We’ve recorded and also played some live shows together and it seems to me you mostly favor cross harp style -and I’ve rarely if ever noticed you using a chromatic harp. Thoughts?
JF- Not too much Chromatic harp for me. I like going portable! If I was going to pursue jazz or classical I would be using the chromatic. Most of what I play is 1st or 2nd position on the diatonic but have recorded songs in all of the 7 modal harp positions. I think that it would usually be fair to say that I favor the harp position that gives me the best chordal options.
GK- You do some specific breathing exercises prior to playing, are quite fluent regarding breath control and I wonder where you learned about that aspect of playing?
JF- Vocals requires the ability to control the flow of the air on the exhale only. It could be fair to say that solid harmonica playing requires control of both the exhale and the inhale. A BIG issue folks run into is “holding” onto too much air. The simple way of understanding 2nd position is playing in the same key of the inhaling dominant 7 chord. All them deep and dark bluesy sounds on the low end of the harp are obtained all by inhaling. Developing the skill of pushing and squeezing air out of your lungs before playing is generally not an intuitive skill players learn quickly but is really important to developing a heavy blues sound. It is much more intuitive to take a deep exhale breath before singing but you can imagine how much trouble a singer would have if they EXHALED immediately before singing. This is one of the fundamentals blues harp players struggle with, not releasing the air before playing.
GK- Besides consideration of the particular song, musician/s or band: do you have a personal, general preference for acoustic or electrified, amp-mic’ed harp playing and if so, why?
JF – Not really, as long as the music is good, has a worthwhile message, grooves, and is not too loud. There are cool advantages for both acoustic and electric.
GK- In your teaching and gig experience, what two or three newbie mistakes commonly pop up when folks begin trying to learn to play blues harp?
JF – Good one! The above mention of breathing is an essential fundamental. I refer to it as Active Blues Breathing. You have to learn to breathe differently if you really want to play. Another big one is not embracing the embouchure of Tongue Blocking. T-Blocking allows for the biggest and most sound out of the harmonica. With your tongue touching and covering holes, you can instantly, with a slight adjustment, go from a clean single note, to an octave split, to a chord or get the percussive crunching vamping/slapping sound. This is all undetectable to the eye. Players can be dismissive and conclude it’s difficult because they can’t actually see what’s happening. Sticking your tongue out is VERY easy. If you can stick it out and move it from one corner of your mouth to the other you will be mimicking advanced T-Blocking. Puckering up your lips to a single hole is the equivalent to a piano player using only one finger and the other clenched into a fist. The 3rd thing would be getting forceful with the bending technique which takes time and is not learned correctly by playing harder or more forcefully. I’m of the belief that skillful musical bending is an advanced technique and takes time and work to develop.
GK- There are a number of various vibrato techniques – is there one you personally favor and why? –
JF – Nope. I’ve used them all but prefer to use discretion with the vibrato. The throat tremolo is usually much more versatile. This is what you typically will hear from the Walters, Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy 1 and DeFord Bailey.
GK- Lastly, we’ve noticed you walking in or near the woods near your home playing for a few deer in the local herd. Are they eclectic in their appreciation of your harpin’ or do they have particular preferences as to songs or blues styling?
JF- Crazy how bold many of the deer here are. Growing up in this area we NEVER seen them and now they are everywhere. Lately I have been experimenting with inhale circular breathing and trying to mimic the didgeridoo and see how they respond to that. Keep in mind that I generally only post the ones that hang around and not the ones of them running for the hills! LOL
GK- Many thanks my friend, cyberhugs to you and Michelle 🙂 -Glenn.
JF – Many thanks to you for the love and shout out. My world is better with you in it. Cyberhugs back! Joe Filisko
You can find a lot of Joe Filisko video and music clips including lessons, performance as well as Joe and Eric Noden’s offerings via YouTube.Com
Please have a good look through Joe’s Website: https://www.filiskostore.com/
And to my readers here, as always, thanks for stopping by. -Glenn