David "Deej" May, lead singer and harmonica player for up-and-coming area blues rock band Roy G. Blues, grew up in Canada. Needless to say, there wasn't much of a blues community. His first exposure to blues was the '80s "Crossroads" movie with Ralph Macchio.
"I grew up on the northern lakeshore of Ontario, so I wasn't really introduced to the blues till I saw that movie," May said. "I loved it. I bought a lot of best of blues mixes and the Jimi Hendrix blues album - that was huge for me too. I've always loved the sound of a harmonica. I actually got a cheap Hero harmonica as a gift when I was 5 but I never played it. I kept it though. Last summer I picked it up and started messing around with it. It was kind of fun, so the next day, I bought a Hohner Bluesband. I was at the point where I'd always wanted to play harmonica - why not do it?"
The standard diatonic harmonica or "blues harp" that May plays is designed to allow the performer to play chords and melody in a single key. Blues are essentially based around five of the 10 holes on the harmonica - 32 notes. Each harmonica is tuned to a different key.
"With blues, they play cross harp or second position," May said. "This means your scale actually starts on the second hole, so if you're playing a harp tuned to E and you're playing cross harp, you go up five notes from there - so E, F, G, A, B. If you're playing a blues song in B on an E harmonica, you're playing cross harp."
"Certain holes have more than one note," May said. "For example, the three hole. Blowing in on the three is a note [and] drawing your breath out is another note. Then you have a quarter bend, a half bend and a full bend, so as you're changing the cavity of your mouth, you can change the note you're playing on a single hole. To bend a note on a harmonica - if you have a full open cavity - you'll be pulling a straight, even note but if you shrink your cavity, slide your tongue up and make it smaller, it adds a sliding sound to the note, an up-and-down sound, like a string bend on a guitar."
A lot of what May does is based on feel, finding the spot within the song to add a harmonica run or series of riffs. "One of the great things about blues is that it's very structured," May said. "Most blues are in a I, IV, V chord structure - 'the blues progression' - so what happens is it's built perfectly to allow improvisation in the middle of those chord changes. Just like a guitar player will wait for that space in progression where the lead comes, you do the same as a harmonica player."
The great harmonica players like Little Walter or George 'Harmonica' Smith, not to mention some of spectacular local players like Dave Thompson, Charlie (Moore) and Nate Myers - a guy I really look to for inspiration," May said. "They do a great job of not just adding harp fills to the music. Those guys are creating and leading the song. The other instruments follow the harmonica lead."
Before embarking on his new journey with guitarist David Mark, bassist Tim Reinhard and drummer Mark Peterson, May, as frontman for Roy G. Blues, owned one harmonica. Now, he estimates that he has 25 to 30 harps in his growing collection. He has a preference for instruments and amplification that create vintage sounds full of grit and resonance.
"Older harmonicas were made with wood and metal," May said. "Wood ones are gorgeous but so hard to maintain. Bamboo and especially Rosewood gives you a warmer tone. The problem, though, [is] the harder you play, you can blow those wooden reeds out. They'll bend and not come back and become flat sounding. Unfortunately, you can't replace the reed; you have to replace the harp."
"The best thing to do is leave the harmonica alone, as far as care of them," May said. "Leave them alone unless you absolutely have to rinse them out and then you do, but you take them apart after running them under warm water and lay them out to air dry, so they don't rust."
May has a couple of mics he uses. The one he sings through is a Shure 55. "Its '50s-style design separates it from every other microphone you'll see," May said. "It's not overly bright sounding, so I love the resonate tone it gives me. I named it Lucille. I always have it with me - plus the harmonica sounds great through it. I also have this great, dirty sounding Astatic NC127 ceramic element mic I use to amplify my harps."
Recently, Roy G. Blues was picked to be one of the contestants in the Billtown Blues Challenge this year.
"Every year, the Billtown Blues Association has this Billtown Blues Challenge where they select a band and solo performer to head to Memphis and represent us," May said. "So, March 25, we compete and hopefully take it to Memphis to play in the International Blues Championships."
May sees himself as more than a frontman who plays harp. He sees his instrument as having its own voice. "What's really important to me as a musician, I want to become a really good harmonica player," said May. "Right now, I can carry my own weight but I'm not great. I don't want to be singer who plays OK harmonica. I want to be a good player, not just blues but all around. I want to play jazz, country and pick it up anytime and play sitting in the same circle with some of the guys I really admire and feel comfortable. I want to develop into that musician."
For more information about Roy G. Blues, visit www.roygblues.com or like the group on Facebook.