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
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. Thats on the scale of Oscar Peterson
against Art Tatum. In terms of technique, each is a monster. Poppers
tone is lighter, Sugars more substantial. But each plays with
blinding velocity, executing runs that could keep pace with Charlie
Parkers and nearly match Birds grasp of playing through the
changes. While Popper enjoys high visibility through his bands
string of hit albums and road gigs, Sugar is more of a connoisseurs
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
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 Id tag on six beats"he doubles the length of
the line. "I hadnt 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
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. Id put
on, say, Straight, No Chaser, and Id 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, youve figured out a whole lot
"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, its beautiful. Usually a harp player who
goes up high sounds kind of lost, a little nervous, trying to land the
"Well, it amazed me that people wouldnt use the last four or
five notes of the instrument," Sugar smiles. "The harmonica is
only four or five inches long, and theres only twenty notes built
into it. So I figured, hell, youre already limited, so youd
better use every damn note you can find on this sucker! I realized I could
work the top range into second position
"Thats like when youre 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 itll 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
dont 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
"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 thats
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. Thats because you have a wider resonant
We veer into a discussion about mics. "Everybody used to tell me
Id 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
"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 thats 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
Sugar leans over and slaps hands. "Boogie! Alright! Thats
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 well finally get into that duel you wanted."
Ringside seats, anyone?
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