Irish Harmonica

An Interview With Mick Kinsella
by Paul Farmer

Thanks to his performing in "RIVERDANCE" the playing of New Zealander Brendan Power has done much to increase the popularity of the harmonica in folk music circles around the world. At the same time Ireland's Mick Kinsella has been leaving his own mark.

Paul Farmer- What's your story as far as playing the harmonica goes?

Mick Kinsella - I'd say I've been playing about 15 years. I've always loved the harmonica but I was a drummer for years. I played in show bands and rock bands and stuff and drums was my first instrument. The local barber in Tullow, County Carlow, sometimes when you went into the shop and he wasn't that busy he was playing, and I remember just listening. He was a traditional player like, and he vamped as well, he'd use tongue-blocking.

P- Chromatic or diatonic?

M- Tremolo, a two-sided tremolo, 'cause I can always remember noticing that it had holes on the other side. And I'd like the sound of it, listening to him, but he'd stop when we came in. I always had one eye on the harmonica and the other on the haircut! I never heard him play outside the shop or at sessions, there were no sessions at that time. Traditional music was played at home I suppose, it wasn't as commercial at that time. But the first players that I would have heard would have been Don Baker, and Rick Epping believe it or not! He lived in Ireland at the time, and I remember when I was in Dublin I'd go to see bands at the Baggot Inn just to hear drummers and stuff like that. One night I heard this band called Pumpkin Head. They were four Americans living over here playing folk music and traditional music, writing their own songs and stuff. A brilliant band! And they had one record out, it's not on CD, I don't know if you can even get it now, but Rick plays a slow aire on it, Shae Mavoor or something like that, and he plays two reels after it that are incredible on the diatonic. It's really passionate playing, really good technique, a fantastic player. And nice combinations on the album of harmonica and jaw harp. When I heard him first I thought he had a big mellow sound. 'Cause I used to blow a little on it like, but I didn't know anything about bending notes. The first year that I played I used to put my tongue into the hole: that's how I thought you played, that you curled up your tongue and stuck it in. But I did have to change and practice the whistle embouchure, doing my arpeggios and stuff. But I think whatever way you can make it sound good is the best way to play in the end, as long as harp players are careful about what they're playing and don't put the instrument back into the middle ages again where people don't actually like it. You know, the way some people heap everything in as a harmonica, you know 'Oh, he plays the mouth organ", they don't distinguish between a tremolo and an octave and a chromatic and a diatonic and a chord, you know. But you have to be a harmonica freak to understand all the different harps and styles.
Then I heard Don Baker. He was on a traditional program one night and he was doing a traditional 'stone fox' thing, you know, with the hounds. I couldn't believe the way he made the harmonica scream and cry, and that blew me away as well. Then I met this banjo player who played a bit of bluegrass, then I started buying Charlie McCoy tapes trying to learn his runs, and I went around playing his runs for years trying to get them as good as him. Later on I discovered Howard Levy. I mean, it's a gradual discovery, the harmonica, isn't it.
I met Eddie Clarke, he's a brilliant player and really worth mentioning, a phenomenal player in his day, it's a pity that more recordings weren't made of him in his heyday. It's a pity that someone like the Hohner company didn't hear about him and didn't have someone come over and sus him out because he was such a good player, he should have had a constant supply of harmonicas. He's very hard on harmonicas, a very strong player. And he's one of the only one's I've heard, chromatic players, that's got almost like a vamp going when he's playing, and I don't know how he does it. I think it might have something to do with having the slide in when he plays. But he has this constant rhythm like an accordion going all the time on particular tunes. I would probably play a tune exactly three times in a row, same tune, very little variation. But Eddie, when he played the second time round he would vary the tune. A great listener.

P- You were saying about the types of tunings you like. You say you like the Golden Melody...

M- I like the GM for single note playing, you know, playing melodies or solos, but my favorite harp- diatonic harp - would have to be the Pro Harp, the original, the hand-made ones. I know a lot of people think they're a bit mellow and stuff like that, but I liked the feel of them most when I started playing, and I find it easy to overblow on them. I find them easy to set up and they're still strong when you hit the notes, you know, that they don't mute on you.

P-Do you use any altered tunings on your diatonics?

M- The only one I would use probably would be the raised 5th note, the normal 7th, the natural 7th, for certain waltzes and stuff like that. Normally I'd just use it on a G harp for playing in D to play something slow where an overblow would be too hard to hold onto. I have once or twice for old-timey tunes tuned up the 3rd (blow) on an A harp to make it F# so I don't have to bend it. I know a lot of players use that, and some players use the tuned 3rd blow AND the tuned 5th draw. It's a question of the tune and how easy it makes it to play.

Normal Diatonic Note Layout: Key of G
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Blow G B D G B D G B D G
Draw A D F# A C E F# A C E

Mick's Altered 5 draw Tuning: Key of G
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Blow G B D G B D G B D G
Draw A D F# A C# E F# A C E

Normal Diatonic Note Layout: Key of A
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Blow A C# E A C# E A C# E A
Draw B E G# B D F# G# B D F#

Mick's Altered Blow 3 Tuning: Key of A
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Blow A C# F# A C# E A C# E A
Draw B E G# B D F# G# B D F#

Folk musicians have traditionally used a diatonic harmonica tuned to the key that the music is in (ie using a "C" harmonica for playing in the key of C) , referred to as playing in 1st position. Today it is a common practice for experienced players to play a diatonic in what is called 2nd, or "cross" position. Put VERY simply, the key the harmonica is being played in using 2nd position is determined by the draw note on hole 2 (ie playing in the key of E on an A diatonic). This allows for a greater ease in using bent notes to create the "missing" notes often required for a tune"s legitimate rendition, and for greater chord options. The modifications that Mick uses increases the instrument"s potential in 2nd and other positions even further.

P- Like Howard Levy's approach. He doesn't object to alternative tunings. I believe that his own personal choice is to still just use the Richter tuning and play in the appropriate position. Has he influenced your playing at all?

M- He has. I saw him on a program called "The Lonesome Pine Special" and he was playing with Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. When I switched it on they were doing Caravan and he was in the middle of this beautiful solo. He was standing at least a foot and a half from the mike and he had his hands cupped with his thumb out to the side and I thought he had a chromatic. Then he opened up his hands and I saw he had a diatonic and I said "how is he doing this?". I love the overblows. But there's a million players out there... Rory McLeod , one of my favorite players for dance harmonica and total feel.

P- One of the numbers I heard you play last night sounded like a number that he does.

M- Well it's actually one that I've recorded and I call it "Rory's Tune". The head is taken from a song of his called 'Take Me Home' and it's my own arrangement from then on. On the recording I use an Irish harp, a guitar player, and I do the percussion on it myself, congas and stuff like that. Another tune we played last night, we played a tune called The Leipzig Waltz. That belongs to a lady here in Dublin called Dee Armstrong in a band called Kila, a beautiful piece that really suits the harmonica. It would be nice as a 3 harmonica thing, harmony and melody.

P- Is that going to be on your cd?

M- I phoned her up recently, I asked her and she said she'd be delighted if I recorded it.

P- So what are you going to have on your cd?

M- Hopefully it'll be an eclectic album. I'll have about 6 traditional tracks: I'll have a hornpipe, 2 sets of jigs, one is my own, a couple of sets of reels. I have a slow aire just done completely with harmonicas; intervals on the 64 and the melody played on blues harp, other intervals played higher up on the 64, so I blend them all together on different tracks and try and get an uillean pipes sound.

P- Like Donald Black, the traditional player from Glasgow?

M- Yeah

P- It would be great to play a chromatic with the sound of a tremolo.

M- I was thinking what would be beautiful would be the octave sound but with a single embouchure. I've heard a recording of Rick Epping, I think the make-up was like an autovalve harmonica on a chromatic harmonica body. Like, his tuning's so perfect it's unbelievable! He plays it in a rack, which I think is really hard to get, but he gets a beautiful tone. He plays concertina at the same time, sometimes mandolin at the same time, and plays the Irish stuff with a lot of passion, and really nice. He has a couple of techniques that are very hard to work out where he does a kind of double breathing on a hole to get an ornamentation. But he's really good, like the Murphy's.... that head movement ornamentation , rolling from one hole to the next , maybe alternating breaths between the blow, the draw, and the next draw. They're very clever at things like that. I use the button a lot in traditional music on the chromatic.

P- Is the album predominantly chromatic or diatonic?

M- It's bits of everything. There'd be one piece, it's called Canyon Moonrise, that I play on the 64, and it's just a slow, moody piece written by the guitar player that played on the "Feast Of Fiddles" album with Kevin Burke. It's a really beautiful piece and it could be a beautiful piece on the chromatic if I play it right! I have a piece of my own, it's called 'Lip My Reeds'. I think it could be challenging on the blues harp, there's lots of overblowing in it, and it has quite a big head to the tune where it changes key 3 times. There's a really good accordion player from Dublin, Peter Brown, and he plays button accordion, it's push and pull like the harmonica, he's phenomenal! And I have banjo on it as well. Normal tenor banjo, but the guy is called Donald Siggins, a great cross picker. So that should be a good track if I can get it recorded properly. The swing is good on it so far with what we've put down. It just needs a bit of stitching here and there.

P- Have you got a title for the album?

M- I was going to call it 'One Eye On The Business' or 'One Eye On The Music', I don't know, I haven't thought about it seriously. (Mick lost his left eye in an accident)

P- So what's your approach to playing Irish music?

M- I don't actually play so much on the diatonic. Jigs I find better on the diatonic. Reels I think suffer a little from people having to triple-note a single note. It sounds quite poppy to me, you know, tiddle-a tiddle-a instead of rolling from a note to a note, be it a semitone or a tone above to a tone below. So I think that the feel is different on a diatonic playing reels. But there are definitely players like Brendan Power and Rick Epping who are exceptions and can make reels work on the diatonic. Most of what I would like to hear as far as reels are concerned would be played on a chromatic, with the slide reversed as I use. I use a B chromatic harmonica and I reverse the slide so when I roll it goes down a semitone instead of up a semitone. It's really a style that I picked up from Eddie Clarke, and he said that he picked it up from a guy called Paddy Bawn. The only chromatic that was really available at the time he started playing was the C chromatic. Eddie used to go round to matches, football matches and hurling matches. They'd be a long time in the car coming back and he was friends with this great fiddle player called Joe Ryan, and the two of them would practice in the back. Joe, being from Clare, sometimes played in Eb and Ab, so the natural thing for Eddie was to hold in the slide. That meant that if he was playing in the normal G position he'd be playing in Ab, and he learned literally to play it 'upside down'. But it worked out as the perfect position, because in the Ab scale you end up with 3 notes of the scale on 1 hole; you end up with the G note on blow 3 if you let the slide out, if you push the slide in you've got Ab, and then draw the same hole and you've got the Bb. That's within Ab. But if you get a B horn, what I do, instead of holding the slide in like Eddie would and let it out for the rolls, but what I did was I got a B and reversed the slide and that would put me in the normal key for playing at sessions because, you know, not many sessions are in Eb and Ab, although they do have them in Clare, it just lifts everything slightly because they're a semitone up and it's brighter, it gets over the crowd noise and stuff.

Normal Layout : Key of B Chromatic Harmonica
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Blow B Eb Gb B B Eb Gb B B Eb Gb B
Blow (Button In) C E G C C E G C C E G C
Draw Db E Ab Bb Db E Ab Bb Db E Ab Bb
Draw (Button In) D F A B D F A B D F A Db

Whenever the slide is pushed in the pitch of any given note raises by a semitone.
Mick's Layout: Key of B Chromatic Harmonica (slide reversed)
Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Blow C E G C C E G C C E G C
Blow (Button In) B Eb Gb B B Eb Gb B B Eb Gb B
Draw D F A B D F A B D F A Db
Draw (Button In) Db E Ab Bb Db E Ab Bb Db E Ab Bb

By turning the slide "upside down" the B chromatic will have the higher pitched of its 2 reedplates, the "C" plate, as its "open" plate, with a coresponding tone a semitone lower activated whenever the slide is pushed in. For Mick"s style of playing this makes the "B" chromatic become his "C" instrument

P- So with a set-up like that do you just play in what you might call 1st position on the chromatic?

M- No. Usually most of the time I play what would be like G on a C, or I play D minor quite easy, Am isn't bad. Some D tunes are o.k. and what's actually nice as well is G minor.

P- So this is all on a B chromatic with the slide turned upside down?

M- Yeah. When I heard Brendan Power first he was playing G on a G, and D on a D, and he pointed out to me that some of the tunes are quite easy to play, instead of trying to play cross position on a chromatic why not try the 1st position and you end up with a better flow sometimes. And he was dead right, so I actually took a G and I tuned it down. I tuned the semitone plate up, and the G plate down to F#, so I ended up with a G in the normal position and when you push the button in you're in F#. I like the F# to G, I find it a very comfortable harp to play and I can get a lot of speed on it. I find that with traditional music you definitely have to learn to play in different keys on each instrument, there's no way out of it.

P- Even though Brendan takes the approach of using a different chromatic for whatever key he wants to play in....

M- But he can also play in different positions. He does use the tone up tunings, when you use the slide the G will go up to an A instead of an Ab. Some players play that way because sometimes a fiddle player when they roll a note, like when they do a triplet on a G, then they go G-A-G, and the A is up, and so what Brendan did was tune his harps up like that so that when he rolled he sounded like a fiddle player. Whereas when I do a roll on a G it goes G to F# and back up to G. A lot of box players use that, they would roll a semitone down. Brendan does play different positions, he would use his G, but he would also play Am on that. I'm not sure if he plays a lot of cross harp, like D on a G, but I find that I can get around comfortably on G on a G harp or D on a G harp. I listen to a lot of box players, accordion players, it's very similar, the approach to ornamentation is very similar.

P- We're talking about with the slide upside down?

M- Yeah, the F# to G.

P- Tell me about the tour that came up with Brendan.

M- It was through Brendan and Rick meeting in Trossingen where they played really well together. They both started communicating with each other and they came up with the idea of doing a tour, and Brendan rang me up and asked if I'd be interested in a 3 harmonica tour. He wanted to call it the 'Triple Harp Bypass'. I wanted to call it 'The Mouth Almighty Tour'. Then we exchanged tapes and ideas to see what we could come up with so that we weren't all playing in unison, that we would play bass notes, or an octave higher, or chords behind each other.

P-What's your approach to tuning your instruments?

M- On single note melodies you have to be very careful if you're playing with people that are stuck rigidly in '440', you have to be particularly careful, especially on long slow notes to stay in tune with them, and I find myself constantly tuning in the studio to compensate for the instruments that are playing the same run. There's a piece I play called 'The Spiral', a beautiful slow piece written by the guitar player I played with from a group called 'The Blooming Heathers'. He's written this lovely piece with cello and violin, etc. It's a very slow piece with vibrato. I found the first take I did, great! But when the cello came in it added a slightly different color to it and I found that the tuning was a little bit out even though the cello was in, but my tuning with the long notes was a little bit out, so I had to re-do the track. I had to retune the harps a little, I know myself when the tuning's out and it irritates me. I'm happier about the track now.
I find that the tuning really is a constant battle from accordion to accordion, and I play with several accordion players. I was playing with a box player the other day at a wedding and I got her to play an A note second octave and it was actually flat from zero but still sounded in tune, but it was flat with my A because my A was above. I've seen Brendan working in the studio and he's so quick to tune. I'm getting better at it using the Farrell kit knocking out the reeds and using an engraver for retuning, and attaching replaced reeds with screws and nuts.

P- What about the state of harmonica playing in Ireland?

M- Well there's a pretty good blues harmonica scene here. Most of the players I know of seem to have concentrated here in Dublin. There's a couple of good bands like 'Parchment Farm'. They have a harmonica player called Tony Poland who plays kind of Chicago style. There's a band called 'Fattening Frogs For Snakes' with a harmonica player that plays saxophone, great saxophone player that plays lovely harp called Eamon Murray. There's of course Don Baker who doesn't play harmonica all that much any more, he sings and plays guitar, he's kind of a ragtime picker. There's Brian Pan who plays with the Mary Stokes Band, he's an American player living over here. And there's myself, I do the odd blues gig up here myself as well. To learn harmonica in Dublin there's a school called Waltons, they're a big music shop enterprise over here. They have a school here I used to teach at myself but a teacher called Michael Mackinerney took over, He plays chromatic and blues harp. He loves Toots Thielemans, he learns all his solos exactly like Toots and can teach you everything you want to know, maintenance and stuff like that. There are a few blues players around the country. Traditional harmonica is pretty lively here. They have a competition every year, the Fleadh Ceoil it's called, and you have 4 provinces; Leinster, Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. You have to win your county competition first, then move on to your province competition, then you go on to the All-Ireland. You can enter from anywhere, you can enter from New York, Australia, it doesn't matter as long as you're playing Irish music. Unfortunately they don't allow the chromatic into the harmonica section, it has to go into miscellaneous because they reckon it has an advantage over diatonics, octaves, and tremolos. It's mostly only ever tremolos played at these events.

P- I wonder what they'd think of overblowing with the diatonic?

M- It's funny 'cause I have a hornpipe, 'The Wind In The Rhubarb' and I use overblows in it. But I'm wondering 'what would they think?'. I've never gone into competitions like that. I've only gone to see the kids section and stuff, they're so professional putting vaseline on their harmonicas so their mouths don't stick, they're very competitive. Tremolo is probably the most popular instrument now with the Tombo ones. They've got a full scale from the top to the bottom of the harmonica. They've got them in A and Bb and stuff and do other keys and the relative minor. There's a lot of tunes now being written in Gm so they play the Bb and play in the Am position which in this case is Gm. But there's a few very good players. Both former All-Ireland champions Rory O'Leorachain, a young guy from Atlone, and his teacher Austin Berry, they both play tremolos, the Tombo tremolos, and they're very good and they do gigs in unison. They're really lovely players, very stylistic like the Murphy's. Another really good player called Noel Battle is a really great tremolo player as well, very good rhythm. The Murphy's of course from Wexford, Pip and John. John has a pub now and he has bands coming through all the time, and they have a festival every year called the Phil Murphy Memorial Weekend. It's for their father who used to play in the band with them. Almost everywhere you go you'll come across a tremolo player. Not always great players, not up to the standard of the Murphy's, Austin Berry, and those. Very few chromatic players playing traditional, I haven't come across a lot. The only important one really for me for years was Eddie Clarke who doesn't play any more. And for me his style, the reverse slide and stuff like that, opened up traditional music for me, and it's just a pity he isn't playing. There's Tom Clancy, he's about 80, but he writes lovely tunes. He's a tremolo player, and two of the tunes, one of them was called 'Tom Clancy's ' and was written for tremolo but is really nice to play on any instrument. Traditional music on the harmonica's pretty healthy here. If you got to the fleadh you'd see some of the best players in the country. Not a lot of people making albums on the harmonica but you'll hear the odd track with it on.

P- Would you say that you've had any particular influences in your music?

M- It's just what I've heard over the years except for Eddie Clarke. There are two guys that have influenced my playing in a big way. There's Steve Larkin the fiddle player, and Johnny 'Box' Connolly who lives in America. I learned the tunes I have now from the two of them. They're only young guys but they started off when they were tots.

P- Is Johnny Connolly an accordion player?

M- He's an accordion player, that's what they call a box over here. So they would have been an influence on my style because I learned to play like them, 'cause I came to it late. It's in the last five years I've been playing traditional. It's mainly with these two players and persistence I've learned the tunes. I did a lot of practice in the last five years, sometimes four or five hours a day and trying to learn the overblows and stuff. I immersed myself completely in it. Not as much now because I'm gigging a lot.

P- As a professional player what opportunities are there for playing here?

M- There aren't many players who cross over into traditional styles here, they choose jazz or they choose blues, or they choose traditional, and I like every music. Any instrument playing something I like I emulate it on the harmonica so I cross into different types of playing. So I get a fair bit of studio work, I get a lot of albums, some film work: I've worked on 'The General' and 'The Ballad Of The Sad Caf', 'Hobo', 'Blinder', lots of films. I've done a few ads for t.v., that type of thing. Last year I got to go to Portland, Oregon for three weeks with Johnny 'Box' Connolly and the guitar player. We had a lot of gigs lined up in Seattle and Portland. And Three years ago I went to Australia to the Port Fairy Folk Festival with 'The Slightly Bewildered String Band', it was brilliant. When I get the cd out and if it's successful I can use it to get festivals and travel some more.

P- Do you go to England at all?

M- No, I played in Austria in January with a folk guitar player called Liam Merriman. We did Five nights in Innsbruck in an Irish pub there.

P- When you were in Portland did you come across any good players?

M- I came across a great traditional player in Seattle called Joel Bernstein. A magnificent player, great feel for the music. He plays very similar to my style because we both listened to Eddie Clarke a lot. He travelled over here in the 70's with Randal Bays, the guitar player, he plays fiddle as well. Joel also plays concertina and is a really good claw-hammer banjo player, and plays blues harp as well. Joel is one of these guys, he's like a session player here, he would have hundreds of tunes, and he's a good composer. Great attitude to it, could play at a session all night. Joel came over and recorded a lot of sessions here and has tapes of Eddie Clarke with a group here called The De Danann who were a big group here. They still are, but they were really big in the 70's and Eddie sometimes played with them in the 70's taking the place of the box part. Joel has a new album out, 'Ways Of The World'. It's not a trad' album, it's kind of old timey. He plays claw-hammer and a variety of styles with a fiddle and a guitar player. He's playing diatonic in an old-time style, and does a few jigs as well on it. He's also recorded 'Pigtown Fling' and 'The Rashers' with Randal.

P- And you met Mark Graham?

M- I met him over here actually. I did support for him and Kevin Burke's 'Open House' when they were over here. We didn't play much but had a great chat about positions and stuff like where he uses first a lot for playing old timey, but he uses the reverse slide. Great positioning, he's probably the best I've seen for being in the right spot at the right time on the harmonica. There's a great life to his playing. I find with a lot of American old-time players they just have a lot of life.

Notes 1A diatonic harmonica only has the notes of the key that the instrument is made in. A chromatic harmonica is essentially 2 diatonic harmonicas, one on top of the other, with the bottom one being tuned a semitone higher than the top. A slide mechanism determines which of the 2 reedplates (top or bottom)is activated, and allows the one chromatic harmonica to be played in any key.

2A tremelo harmonica is a diatonic instrument consisting of 2 identical reedplates with one being tuned sharper than the other. Designed to have both reedplates played together, the variation in tuning creates a tremelo effect.

3Irish harmonica player, primarily blues oriented.

4Master repairman and designer for Hohner,Inc.(the world"s major harmonica manufacturer) in its U.S. division.

5 A pioneer in the art of playing a 10-hole diatonic instrument chromatically, Howard"s playing is featured on numerous recordings by both mainstream and folk musicians. Check his website at

6Eddie"s playing is featured on 2 recordings : "Crossroads" and "Sailing Into Walpole"s Marsh", both available on the Green Linnet label. Check their website at

7A model of diatonic harmonica made by Hohner.

8 A model of diatonic harmonica made by Hohner

9 Most professional diatonic players are able to maximise the potential of their instruments by using playing techniques to produce notes that don"t occur by design on the instrument. One technique is called "bending" whereby increased pressure on a given reed can cause its pitch to drop enough to produce a note a semitone or more below the reeds" actual pitch. Conversely the technique of overblowing causes the pitch of a reed to increase in pitch. In effect this allows a full chromatic scale to be played over 3 octaves on a

10-hole diatonic harmonica.

10 A very fine player of traditional Scottish music, Don has an excellent cd titled "Westwinds" on the Greentrax label. Visit his website at HYPERLINK ""

11An autovalve harmonica is similar in design to a tremelo but has the reedplates tuned an octave apart and uses valves to enhance the volume and response of the reeds.

12Joel"s recordings are on the Foxglove label.

13A brilliant exponent of the art of playing old-time and celtic music on both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, his playing is predominantly featured in the recordings of the group Open House on the Green Linnet label.

Copyright: Paul Farmer, January 1999


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