Q & A: Randy McQuay
You may have seen Randy McQuay on the bar circuit around Wilmington. Need a hint? He's the harmonica guy. During his solo performances and a handful of gigs with his trio, he plays modern Mayeresque blues, ancient almost-ragtime blues, reggae, samba, country. Aside from his range, what really sets him apart is that he plays a lot of originals and he plays a lot of harmonica.
He plays harmonica well enough that Lee Oskar calls him his nephew. Lee Oskar—the harmonica virtuoso who went from wailing with War (yes, that’s Lee playing on “Low Rider”) to designing and building professional-grade harmonicas full time—is “Uncle Lee” to Randy.
I sat down with Randy and we talked for over an hour just about harmonicas. And it gets pretty technical. So, before I show you a few highlights of our conversation, here’s an explanation of why I find harmonica so fascinating.
The earliest harmonicas were developed in Austria in the early 19th century. An early harmonica instruction manual from 1830 praises the instrument’s “exulting swells and dying cadences,” through which it resembles “the harp of the winds,” referring to the Aeolian harp, a 17th-century zither invented by a Jesuit priest, which could be kept outside and passively played by the wind, like chimes. Back then, harmonicas were often called Mund-Aeolina: Mouth Aeolians, implying that unlike other wind instruments which require more skill, one must simply blow into a harmonica. It's this ease of playing, as well as the compact, inexpensive nature of the instrument that made harmonicas so popular in America with blues, folk and old-time musicians. But there's one other important feature that made the harmonica such an important instrument. It produces different pitches depending on whether you inhale or exhale. The inhale sounds a dissonant, unresolved chord, which can be resolved by exhaling. Or, at least, that was the idea back in Europe in the 19th century, before America got involved.
The musicologist Peter van der Merwe calls blues harmonica “the most striking example in all music of a thoroughly idiomatic technique that flatly contradicts everything that the instrument was designed for.” To hear this idiom, listen to "Rain Crow Bill Blues," a solo harmonica piece recorded by Henry Whitter in 1923. He plays it on a harmonica tuned to the key of D. He even begins and ends the song in D. But for most of his solo at the song's center, he is drawing breath, and drawing, and drawing. And bending the notes, as well. The intrinsic dissonance of the inhaled chord, its restless, unresolved nature codifies itself in this recording as the nexus of blues tonality. The history of the blues, what came before and after this recording collapses in on a single moment, when you understand that he’s not playing in D. He’s playing in A. Many scholars point to this as one of the first recorded examples of second-position harmonica playing, or "cross harp.”
Randy plays some of the best cross harp I’ve ever heard, even if he’s quick to downplay his skill. So I wanted to pick his brain about the development and the future of the style.
DW: I'm interested in getting really deep about harmonica. It's frankly a little bizarre that I happen to live in the same small city as someone who is by all accounts one of the best harmonica players in the world.
RM: That's definitely not the case. It won't take you very long to find harmonica players that blow me out of the water. I don't want to sit here and list all the people that kick my ass. Starting with my uncle Lee, who is pretty much responsible for my whole career at this point. My niche is that I play with a harmonica holder. And I don't just do breathy chords, Bob-Dylan-esque stuff. And I actually think that Bob Dylan is a great harmonica player!
RM: A lot of people don't appreciate his singing either, but Sam Cooke said he was the best singer of all time! Music is so subjective. I used to totally discount his playing. But I didn't understand that he was just doing what was appropriate for the song.
DW: He's the Ringo of the harmonica.
RM: Yes. Although I think you mentioned that you were mostly interested in talking about second-position harmonica?
DW: Yes! Can you explain, in your own words, what second-position harmonica is?
RM: Second position, also called cross harp, is based on the draw. So, instead of the blowing the primary chord, breathing out, you draw it, breathing in. Which changes the key and the sound of the harmonica. So, if you have a harmonica in the key of C, you would use it on a song in the key of G. And that opens up all sorts of new techniques. Like a warble.
DW: What's a warble?
RM: It's when you play back and forth between two reeds. Some people move their neck to do it; some people move the harmonica. It's like... [Randy picks a harmonica up off his desk and warbles on it]
DW: Oh, I know that sound!
RM: Yeah and I had no idea it had a name when I started doing it. I didn't learn what it was called until I had to start teaching harmonica.
DW: It's like what people play in jail cells in movies.
RM: And I just did that with my hands but normally I'd do that with my neck.
DW: Because you play with a holder.
RM: Exactly. So, I can play guitar. And the harmonica feels like as much of an instrument as the guitar. And at this point they feel like one instrument. The guitar feels foreign without the harmonica and the harmonica feels foreign without the guitar. Which is something that me and uncle Lee agreed on when we first met.
DW: And who is uncle Lee? You've mentioned him before?
RM: Lee Oskar. [laughs] He's not my real uncle. But I'm one of the fortunate handful of people that work with him that he calls nephew. His whole mission was to prove that the harmonica wasn't a toy. He wanted to make a quality instrument that you can play chromatically on, that you can bend notes to its fullest extent. And he labels his harmonicas with two keys; one for first position, one for second.
DW: That's so cool! He's sort of legitimizing the misuse of the instrument. What inspired you to start playing harmonica?
RM: I was working on a song, "Wrong Again," which is on my first CD ever. And I heard harmonica in my head. So, I went out and bought a C harmonica because the song was in C and it was just not right. Then when I tried again with an F harmonica it just made sense to me. I had the blue note at my disposal. And the other great thing about it second-position is that it makes singing easier. Every time I play a harmonica line I'm also drawing in air to sing the next line. It's just efficient.
DW: Do you believe that cross harp is the key to understanding the history of blues tonality?
RM: Well, the true origin of blues tonality, I think, is in slaves' work songs. But the harmonica definitely brought that tradition forward into blues. Partly because it was so cheap. But I can guarantee that no one played a harmonica in second-position until it got to the fields of America. In Germany, when this instrument was created, no one played it like that. Then it came here, and for early musicians, it was the instrument at their disposal that came closest to the sounds they heard in their heads.
DW: So, the harmonica is an instrument that historically has been poorly constructed.
RM: People used to throw out harmonicas constantly because they were impossible to repair.
DW: And blues harmonica, as a style, is a way of creatively ignoring the intended use of that poorly constructed instrument.
RM: If you look at blues theoretically, it's just changing a few notes in the scale to simultaneously give it a laziness while also brightening it. And it's easy to change those few notes on a harmonica. All the great music came from misusing instruments. I learned guitar back before YouTube was around. I learned guitar from an old Mel Bay Guitar Method book, and I played gospel tunes like "Down in the Valley" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
DW: But there being no YouTube, you had to discover the misuse yourself, because all people were teaching you were the most traditional methods.
RM: Yeah. But I'm still glad I have those fundamentals.
DW: What attracts you to the harmonica?
RM: I like that it adds a third instrument—guitar, voice, harmonica—without having to deal with another musician. It's not like a selfish control issue. Actually, maybe it is a selfish control issue. But also, I like that it's a vocal instrument. And I like that I can take it anywhere. Harmonica is just a part of me.
DW: And it's part of the whole guitar-voice-harmonica system you've got going on.
RM: Yeah, I've shown up to gigs without my harmonicas and it just feels wrong. I felt bare, like I'm just one of the other singer-songwriter guys again. I didn't have the thing that set me apart.
DW: So, if you're not the best harmonica player in the world, what about the humblest neck-holder, altered-tuning harmonica player in the US who can read music.
RM: That's pretty specific. So yeah, I'll put myself in the top 500 there.
You can check out Randy’s upcoming gigs on his Facebook page and purchase recordings through his personal website. Or, if you’re interested in learning how to play harmonica, Randy filmed instructional videos for Lee Oskar’s Quick Guide to harmonica, which you can check out here.