A Harp Player’s Take On Dennis Gruenling’s Technique

—by Richard Rosenblatt (Non harp-playing readers beware:  Turn back now, read no further, lest you catch a glimpse into the dark recesses of a harmonica player's brain.  It's not pretty, and you may turn to salt.)

 

ROCKIN' ALL DAY by DENNIS GRUENLING is, among other things, a very advanced Blues Harmonica Master Class.  Dennis is above all things MUSICAL, never letting his technical prowess override the feel of the song — nonetheless, his technique is nothing short of monstrous.  He favors third position, chromatics and low-tuned harmonicas (some VERY low), not using anything above a standard Bb diatonic harp on the entire album.  He kicks it off playing "Rockin' All Day" in the key of Bb - 3rd position on a G chromatic (button mostly IN.) He uses that same harp and position on "Saturday Night Fish Fry" and "The Rev", which starts in A (button mostly out) and modulates up to Bb.  For the Wynonie Harris classic "Bloodshot Eyes", Dennis blows 3rd position on a Bb chromatic. While Dennis totally nails the big, tongue-blocked chromatic tone pioneered by Little Walter and George Smith, he moves up and down the big harp with a supple, fluid feel that recalls the great Big Band horn players. Hohner has been custom-manufacturing low-tuned harps for Dennis Gruenling for some time.  Now that they're distributing them to the general public as “Thunderbird” harmonicas, Dennis's picture is on the boxes, and it's no surprise — he totally OWNS the lower octaves of this instrument.  It takes a special embouchure to control the harmonica's reeds once they go below a "standard" tuning, and Dennis hits every bend with precision, every note with clarity and punch.  "Roll Your Money Maker" begins with Dennis playing a Bb harp, 2nd position in the key of F, then halfway through the solo it drops a full octave as he switches to a LOW Bb harp.  I never even knew these things existed!  He plays a low D in "You Can Do No Wrong", a LOW low G on "Actin' Crazy", and a SUPER LOW F on "What's Wrong With Me."  When he picks up a regular Low F harp for a gorgeous 3rd position take on "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer", it seems positively midrange. Believe me, this is no novelty act.  Dennis works the lower registers with power and grace, but he also breathes significant new life into the "standard" harmonica tunings.  "She's So Pretty" has a classic Chicago attack, much like Walter or Cotton behind Muddy Waters;   "It Went Down Easy" is a cool, down-tempo swing played in 2nd position on an Ab harp; "2:22" gives a bit of a nod to Walter's "Sad Hours" (and it IS a couple hours past Quarter to Twelve…) with gigantic tone and tongue flutters; and "Hotso" is a rockin' 3rd position romp on a standard A harp.  Dennis blazes new ground with taste and substance, avoiding show-offy riffs for the perfect, swinging groove. As a harp player, listening to this album is a humbling experience…  but if your ego can take the blow, repeated listens will make you a better player, and a better MUSICIAN.