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Harp Heavyweights John Popper & Sugar Blue: Blood On The Reeds
by Robert L. Doerschuk
Musician, National
Oct 1st, 1997


October 1997 - Musician
Harp Heavyweights John Popper & Sugar Blue: Blood On The Reeds
by Robert L. Doerschuk

John Popper's eyes light up as a door down the hall at A&M Records opens. "I think I see the man coming now," he says. And sure enough, there he is, Sugar Blue, fresh off a delayed plane from Chicago, clothed in icy blue from head to toe, with a handsome leather "gunbelt" packed with harmonicas strapped around his waist.

"Awright!" crows Popper. He rises from the chair, an imposing figure, crowned by a gambler's hat studded with Hohner harmonica logos. He and Sugar approach each other like quick-draw rivals in the dust of Dodge City. But no bullets fly, no blood spills. Instead, meeting for the first time, the two giants of blues harmonica embrace and begin talking shop.

Popper, the front man for Blues Traveler, speaks first. "You know, I saw you play when I was in high school at this bar in Trenton. I was sixteen years old and a really good harp player, but when you started playing, man, I started thinking, "Sugar is the sum total of all harmonica layers. Someday we're gonna have this huge duel. If he wins, I'm gonna sell all my clothes and become his apprentice. And if I win I'll take my rightful place as King of the Blues!"

John Popper vs. Sugar Blue. That’s on the scale of Oscar Peterson against Art Tatum. In terms of technique, each is a monster. Popper’s tone is lighter, Sugar’s more substantial. But each plays with blinding velocity, executing runs that could keep pace with Charlie Parker’s and nearly match Bird’s grasp of playing through the changes. While Popper enjoys high visibility through his band’s string of hit albums and road gigs, Sugar is more of a connoisseur’s delight. Blues fans were aware of his early work with Brownie McGhee, Roosevelt Sykes, and other major leaguers; those who follow more mainstream currents know his reed-busting solo on the Rolling Stones "Miss You."

How did they develop their chops? For Popper, it was a matter of old-fashioned drills. "I worked on rudiments, and I got the sextuplet thing down, where you speak in threes instead of one." He blows a three-note, up-and-down pattern, two inhalations and one exhalation. "Then I’d tag on six beats"—he doubles the length of the line. "I hadn’t heard anybody do that, except for this guy," he says, nodding at Sugar. "Once I got that down, I found I could use those six notes to play scales. I based my attack on the way bebop guys play triplets: da-da-da, da-da-da. When you start getting around comfortably, then you start to see how scales connect."

Sugar followed a different regimen. "This was back in the days of LPs, and I had a turntable that I could cut back to 16 rpm. I’d put on, say, ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ and I’d wear out the record until I figured out the head and the first two or three solos. After you get to the bottom of a tune like that, you’ve figured out a whole lot of music."

"You had ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ but I was working on 'Miss You'," says Popper. "That tag at the end is hip, but when you start going up on the melody, it’s beautiful. Usually a harp player who goes up high sounds kind of lost, a little nervous, trying to land the plane."

"Well, it amazed me that people wouldn’t use the last four or five notes of the instrument," Sugar smiles. "The harmonica is only four or five inches long, and there’s only twenty notes built into it. So I figured, hell, you’re already limited, so you’d better use every damn note you can find on this sucker! I realized I could work the top range into second position…"

"That’s like when you’re using a C harp to play in G, so you get the flatted seventh," Popper points out.

"So I started mixing modes," Sugar says. "When I could do that and not get lost, a whole new world opened up for me. To play the top end of the harp with timbre and tonality, you have to learn to strike each note with the same power and accuracy that you hit the bottom notes with. Otherwise it’ll sound weenie."

This is all very interesting, but what can we say to beginners, to guitar players in blues bands who want to learn enough harmonica to play a chorus or two in a song? How should they get started?

Popper shrugs. "Try everything. You can try things out on the harp because it gives you some gratification right out of the box. You don’t need an elaborate embouchure to make a sound; you get something just by breathing. The idea is not just to accept it there; you want to go further."

"Remember when you were a kid, how you would make airplane or car noises in your throat?" Sugar says. "Try that again, but take the sound out, put the harp in your mouth, and the air will give you those same kind of effects. A flute player taught me that, because that’s how he got his vibrato."

Another technique is what those in the trade call tongue-blocking. "You can set a chord against every note by tongue-blocking," Sugar points out. "You block out three holes on the left and blow your note through the hole on the right side. Then when you want the chord, you lift your tongue and play it back. That was totally alien to me, because I learned to do that by squinching up and widening my lips, but now I realize that if you keep your mouth open and use your tongue, you get a fuller tone. That’s because you have a wider resonant chamber."

We veer into a discussion about mics. "Everybody used to tell me I’d get this down-home sound with the Green Bullet," Popper says, "but I always thought that was just a great way for Shure to sell a bad microphone. I love the Shure 58, with its high overtones."

"Yeah?" says Sugar. "Well, since I love the shape of the Green Bullet, what I do now is I take the element out of the Shure 58 and put it into the Green Bullet. That way it fits my hand."

Popper laughs out loud: "Wham! Neat trick! Everybody used to say I had to use a Green Bullet because that’s what the blues guys used. With a Fender Bassman amp."

"I never liked the sound of Fender amps," Sugar grumbles.

"Me neither! Too weak, man. I blow through Mesa/Boogie stacks with a Goff Leslie."

Sugar leans over and slaps hands. "Boogie! Alright! That’s what’s up."

The Blues Traveler bus is racing its engine outside the building. Popper reluctantly lumbers to his feet.

Sugar stands too. They embrace one more time, and Sugar invites Popper to sit in with him on his next album. Popper eagerly accepts, but Sugar gives him a sly look.

"Maybe we’ll finally get into that duel you wanted." Ringside seats, anyone?

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