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CD image - Rick Estrin – Rick Estrin Reveals! Secrets, Subtleties & Tricks of the Blues Harmonica

Rick Estrin – Rick Estrin Reveals! Secrets, Subtleties & Tricks of the Blues Harmonica

– artist-released (no label), 2008

Headin’ Out
Welcome to the review of Rick Estrin’s new harmonica players’ instructional DVD, “Rick Estrin Reveals! Secrets, Subtleties & Tricks of the Blues Harmonica”, produced and written by Rick. Right from the introduction to the video, where Rick comes across a man in an alley “abusing” a harp, then throwing said harp into a nearby dumpster, you know that you’re in for something a little different here – especially as far as music instruction videos are concerned.

Rick’s own spoken introduction makes it abundantly clear that he possess vast knowledge about playing harp, and that he takes playing the harp very seriously. That being said he also makes it clear that you’re going to have some fun learning from him (if you listen!) – and that you’re going to be treated to a few pretty young ladies along the way. There’s nothin’ wrong with that! Estrin also lives up to his vaunted sartorial reputation by donning several choice suits throughout the proceedings.

Rick makes it clear that this DVD was not put together with the beginning player in mind, or the player who is not yet tongue blocking. He directs players at these levels to several excellent sources of instruction. While I agree with the technical aspects of what Rick is doing being beyond elementary players, there is still much to gain for those players from viewing this DVD, especially the aspect of learning to listen – which Rick comes back to again and again. I know from my own blues journey that there are things I hear and enjoy now that 10 years ago I didn’t understand – in fact, I just couldn’t hear them yet.

With the help of his trusty side-kick George (Rusty Zinn), Estrin discusses his ideas, and then gives vivid and engaging examples of each. This includes examining the varying playing styles of several legendary players’ styles – to include Sonny Boy 1, Sonny Boy 2, Little Walter and Big Walter Horton. Rick manages to pack an enormous amount of information into an entertaining hour of instruction, with this instruction being broken down into the following seven chapters:

1) Hold That Groove
2) Ear for Detail: Listening for Subtleties
3) Phrasing and Soloing Strategies I
4) Phrasing and Soloing Strategies II
5) Learning “Note for Note”
6) Revealed for the First Time: Performance Tricks and Showbiz Devices
7) Outro: Back from the Alley

The Chapters:

1. Hold That Groove:
--This 1st chapter of the video concerns itself with developing a groove to your playing – how to feel that pocket. It’s an elemental piece to his instruction, one Rick will revisit often throughout the course of the DVD. Several topics are discussed and played (examples given), including the following:
• Holding your time – how it is not the same as groove.
• How to play around with “time” in order to achieve dramatic effect
• Why you need to move around while playing
• Players need to “feel the space in between the notes” – Estrin heavily stresses this point
• How relaxed, fluid playing leads to “interesting and conversational playing – casual intensity”
• When playing with other players – listen to what they are doing
• Do not force-fit pet licks – play to the music
• Breathe through the harp – chord support
• What you play needs to sound natural – don’t sound stiff!

2. Ear for Detail: Listening for Subtleties
--In this 2nd chapter, Rick expands upon the idea of developing your listening skills if you want to become a better player. He continues to emphasize and flesh-out each thought and idea with many playing examples. Some of Rick’s main thoughts in this chapter include:
• When listening to music… if it moves you, listen to it over and over again
• Subtleties of playing are in reality a “combination of musical devices designed to manipulate the emotions of the listener” – a musical sucker punch if you will (folks, pay special attention to Rick’s face when he delivers this line…)
• Develop and use different shapes (hand shaping) and tones for contrast
o Octaves, chords, warbles, octave warbles, flutters, tongue-slaps, partial chords, double-stops (intentional slop), swoops and slides, swells, vibratos, soaring (sharpening notes) and growls
• Listen for sounds textures and tones – including repetition; use to build dramatic effect
• The same note is available on different draw and blow holes – important for breathing and for The Groove.
• Pay special attention to the way “great musicians alternate the predictable with the unpredictable, and the tools they use to achieve this”
• Listen for small details and nuances
• “Listening isn’t passive – it’s an activity”
• “Turn your ear into an audio microscope; train yourself to be an more focused listener”

3. Phrasing and Soloing Strategies I
--The main point in this segment, which all the other information reinforces, is that “a technically limited player can sound cool as hell” if he is good at phrasing and can maintain The Groove. Much of Rick’s time in this section is spent on playing you actual examples of how to work phrasing, tonal changes and devices into the different types of verse structures. Main points of chapter 3 include:
• Phrasing is one of the most important difference makers between sounding great and sounding mediocre
• You want to tell a story with your playing – a lick is only meaningful in context
• Several types of verses are discussed
o Rhythmic
o Linear/Melodic
o Riff – think big band horn section
• One of the most effective tools you can have is contrast.

4. Phrasing and Soloing Strategies II
--Chapter 4 expands on Phasing and Soloing Strategies I, with Estrin using many more playing examples to show the listener exactly what he’s talking about. The vast number of playing examples contained in the DVD is what really makes this instructional method work so well. Rick isn’t just talking at you; he is actually showing you, too. Main points from chapter 4 include:
• Messing with the time: playing straight, a little ahead or a little behind
• Hit the listener with strategic surprises – leave holes
• Setting up a phase with a “pick-up”
• Contrast long phrases with short phrases
• Use hands in conjunction with bends to shape notes
• You should be looking for a more human, vocal-type quality to your playing

5. Learning “Note for Note”
--What exactly is the value of learning classic blues songs/styles note for note?
• It’s about learning the language of the blues, which was established a long time ago
• It’s about speaking the language and being able to communicate your own story through your harp (which is a combination of everything Rick has talked about up to this point)

6. Revealed for the First Time: Performance Tricks and Showbiz Devices
--This chapter is funny as hell, but serious, too. It deals with tricks used to capture and hold the attention of the listener. Rick makes the following disclaimer prior to disclosing his tricks: “you have to feel this stuff to make it work – visualize and internalize it first” – it’s a progression, a growing process. The tricks Rick describes include:
• “The Look”
• “Damn, this shit is deep”
• “The Rule of Three” – just messed up? Play it 3 times with confidence
• Look Ma, no hands – playing the harp without using your hands

7. Outro… Back from the Alley
--This last chapter acts as a fun conclusion to the DVD. Rick’s “pupil” might’ve taken to the lessons too well, as he got the girls this time around instead of Rick. Estrin leaves us with some parting words of wisdom about becoming a better harp player: “the real secret is… keep it in your mouth!”

The Verdict:

Honestly, I can’t say enough about how entertaining and enlightening this instructional DVD is. It was made with a lot of care, and the countless playing examples serve to illustrate the ideas, thoughts, tricks, etc… that Rick is trying to impart to the viewer. It’s a shame more instructional videos aren’t made along the lines of this one, because making learning fun makes it easier to learn. Also, you won’t be inundated with music theory here. The bulk of things discussed here go beyond theory, into the realm of “feel” – or The Groove. While most beginning players won’t be able to jump right in and make Rick’s ideas part of their arsenals, there are plenty of things they can take away that will help to improve their playing. Most important among those – LISTEN! Time to rate this project; I’m giving Rick Estrin’s “Rick Estrin Reveals! Secrets, Subtleties & Tricks of the Blues Harmonica” a 5.00 on the STLBluesometer. The video succeeds on many levels, and even if you don’t play harmonica I still recommend it for he fun you’ll have watching it. For anyone who is still unsure of the veracity of my review, I’ll leave you with two quotes found on the DVD notes, each from a noted harmonica master:

• “His twenty-five year of performing all over the world as the frontman for Little Charlie and The Nightcats – now Rick Estrin and The Nightcats – has given him a wealth of experience which he now shares with you. I guarantee that you’ll learn a lot, and as is always the case with Rick, be hugely entertained along the way.” - JERRY PORTNOY

• “Essential for all who seek blues harmonica enlightenment.” – JOE FILISKO

Lee Howland - aka "East Side Slim"

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