Planet Harmonica: When did you start playing?
Jason Ricci: At 15. I wanted to play harmonica because
I thought I wouldn't have to work hard to learn how to play
PH: How long did it take you to figure out differently?
JR: By the time I got my first lesson! I was almost
21 when I was finally getting on the stages.
PH: Where was this?
JR: In Boise, Idaho, in college. There was an open mic
that I wanted to play in but they would kick me out because
I was too young. But the guy who owned the club found out I
played harp and we were both big Canned Heat fans. The first
time he let me play, I played "On The Road Again"
note for note because I knew how to play like Al Wilson.
PH: Up to that point, though, you still hadn't really
explored the founding fathers of blues harp, right?
JR: Yeah. That club owner gave me the first Little Walter
record I ever had, and then Sonny Boy Williamson. At that point
I was ready to listen to the guys who influenced my heroes,
Butterfield and Alan Wilson. And I realized that those guys
PH: Later you ended up living in Memphis. How?
JR: I got sick of playing blues out in Boise, Idaho.
As I drove home to Maine, I stopped in Memphis. That was where
I heard Pat for the first time.
PH: Pat Ramsey?
JR: Yeah. I vowed I'd move back to Memphis to learn
from Pat. I saved up some money and when I arrived, Pat remembered
me and he couldn't believe I came back. I just decided to get
a job and just study Pat. He played every Wednesday and there
was another kid there, Billy Gibson, who was Pat's protege.
PH: What is it about Pat's playing that really caught
JR: Well it was fancy but it was really melodic. It
was affected but it never lost any soul. I was really close-minded
towards guys like Sugar Blue and John Popper but here came Pat
who was somewhere in between. And I was able to accept him.
PH: Another influence of yours, I know, is Adam Gussow.
He spoke highly of you in his magazine column.
JR: Yeah, I forgot to mention Adam! I met him in Maine
and he was the best damn harp player I ever saw after Pat. I
learned Pat's stuff, or pretty close to it, then I heard Adam.
In a jazzy way, Adam is more melodic than any harmonica player
I'd heard, including Lee Oskar. Satan and Adam, to me, were
the most unique thing that happened to the blues since Muddy
Waters. People don't realize that was probably the best thing
that happened to the blues in our lifetime.
PH: You've become pretty good friends with Adam.
JR: Yeah, well he was one of those guys who was real
hard on me, like real honest and didn't humor me. So I was trying
to win him over, playing his style and trying to assimilate
the things he told me were wrong with my style.
PH: After Memphis you moved on to rural Mississippi.
Tell me about that.
JR: One night in Memphis, I was playing on the street
for spare change because I couldn't pay the rent. R.L. Burnside's
kids - Jerry, Cedrick and Dwayne ? and Junior Kimbrough's sons,
David and Kenny, heard my playing on the street and they got
to likin' it. They had their own band and were looking for a
sax but though I might work out. The next day I moved to David
Kimbrough's house just south of Holly Springs, Miss. After that
I was playing with David and Junior Kimbrough at juke joints
everywhere, and I got paid too.
PH: So how long did you play with them?
JR: About a year. Those juke joints were a great education
and I was really happy. I had everything I needed, like food
and women and a house. I was really happy but I felt like I
was isolated from the whole world and like nobody had heard
PH: For a kid from Maine that's gotta be a hell of a
JR: I identified with a lot of stuff in Adam Gussow's
book about some of the situations that Adam got into. For a
little while I lost sight of who I was kinda, amidst all the
alcohol and drugs and the music and the juke joints.
[Note: Around this time, Jason spun down in a spiral of substance
abuse. His problems were written about admirably by Florida
journalist David Pulizzi. Read the story at http://www.nucklebusters.com/jcity.html]
PH: So, you went to Jackson, Miss., after that?
JR: Yeah. Billy Gibson recommended me to a band called
The Hounds. I got the job with them and moved to Jackson. It
was the first time I got to ride around in a van playing music
for a living. I was so happy because I was doing what I always
wanted to do, that I wasn't really interested in doing hard
drugs. But then that band broke up.
PH: Then what?
JR: I went home and I started my own band for the first
time. I met Enrico Crivellaro who is now playing guitar with
Etta James and we ended up touring Europe together.
PH: And you moved to Florida in '98?
JR: Yeah, in '98. I was smoking crack, taking heavy
pain killers ... I tried to get sober a couple of times and
then they sent me to the rehab down here.
PH: Now, here in South Florida, you cleaned up your
act and worked with the Nucklebusters Blues Band, pretty straight-up
Chicago blues. And you played with Keith B. Brown, who's since
moved over to Europe.
JR: Yeah. I put working with Keith right up there with
working with Junior Kimbrough. It was delta blues and country
and bluegrass. We recorded a CD, "Got To Keep Movin',"
and there's absolutely some of the best harmonica playing I
ever did. It's the first recording I did integrating overblows
in a way that was effective and melodic.
PH: Talk about overblows and the new-style players you're
JR: Well, Adam was the first one who taught me how to
do overblows. But I didn't put them into my playing until about
four years later when I went to rehab and did a lot of woodshedding.
Adam had told me that if I didn't learn it, I wouldn't be one
of the new generation. Anyway, then I heard Howard Levy and
Carlos De Junco and I was just getting into jazz and bebop and
some of that out-there stuff as well. For a time I wanted to
give up harmonica and take up an instrument that was easier
to play chromatically. But those guys allowed me to fall in
love with my instrument for the second time in my life. Those
guys are just as much a part of my life now as Little Walter
was back then. At first it took a lot of work to even roughly
imitate just one of their riffs. But I'm really glad I've been
putting in that work. It's so rewarding to be able to play whatever
is in the song.
PH: If you had to pick three artists or, better yet,
CDs from the old school, and three from the new school to recommend?
JR: Okay I would say Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man,"
Muddy Waters' "His Best: 1947 to 1955," and Little
Walter's "Hate to See You Go." Now two of those are
Little Walter but you asked for three and that's too hard. I
can name 15!
For the new albums, I'm going to give you four. First, "Mother
Mojo" by Satan and Adam. Carlos De Junco's "Big Boy"
is an unbelievable harmonica record. And, umm, Paul DeLay's
"Nice and Strong." And Pat Ramsey's "Its About
Time." Those are really good records.
If I could quickly mention: Mark Ford, Norton Buffalo, Dennis
Gruenling, those guys are great, those guys aren't doing overblows
or anything, but they're revolutionizing the instrument in their
PH: What about Sugar Blue and John Popper ? You mentioned
JR: I'm so grateful for them. My opinion has really
changed. Earlier I was slamming on them. Now I listen to both
of those guys, Popper AND Sugar Blue. If it wasn't for those
guys, the public at large wouldn't know about harmonica. I know
God put John Popper on the planet at this time for a reason
? he put him here because we needed someone to go off the board
with speed and fanciness and luster and shine and all that.
The general public needed to associate the harmonica with someone
other than Neil Young and Bob Dylan. He's like the Eddie Van
Halen of harmonica speed-wise, and Sugar Blue is too but in
a more bluesy fashion. I really admire Popper for doing his
own thing and I'm really proud of him for being so cool. I know
he comes from the same school as you and me come from, I know
he digs Little Walter and he's not just dissing those guys.
He just has the mindset that its a different time and he's a
different person and he can never be Little Walter and he knows
that. He is John Popper and the only one, and I love him for
PH: What about your CD that you just recorded?
JR: Yeah I really like it. It's called "Dedicated."
It's mostly instrumentals, there's three of four songs with
PH: Which covers do you do on that?
JR: I do "Prodigal Son" which is a traditional
and I do "Soul Serenade" by King Curtis. This is with
the guys from my band from Memphis.
PH: So you've got this album in the can, ready to go?
JR: Its done, everything's done, its ready to go, I
just need the money to get it mastered and printed and I can't
find the money.
PH: Talk about your gear. I know you're mainly blowing
Golden Melody harmonicas, right?
JR: Yeah, I'll play them for the rest of my life unless
they invent a harmonica just for me or something. I just like
the way they respond and my girlfriend ? who is a big Howard
Levy fan and she's a jazz singer ? said she thought they're
closer to the human voice than the others and they didn't sound
as raspy and the bends sound more accurate. That's true, to
me. I learned how to adjust them to better suit the way I play
and to make them overblow easier, so when they don't come out
of the box playing right I can fix that.
PH: What's your main gigging amp? Is it still the Fender
'59 Bassman re-issue?
JR: Pretty much everywhere, yeah. I love it. When I
played in Europe they provided a Victoria Bassman but I actually
like Fender's re-issue better for my sound. Other times I use
an assortment of my little tiny tube amps like a Kalamazoo Model
1 and a silverface Vibro Champ. They're a lot of fun but they're
PH: What about other gear?
JR: Well, I use a Shure SM-57 microphone. I don't want
any breakup happening from my mic before it gets to my amp,
I want all my sound to happen when it comes out of the speakers.
I like a distorted sound but I like it clean at the same time.
One of the guys I dig tonewise, more than anyone, is Lee Oskar.
PH: I know you've tried a dozen different mics and always
come back to the SM-57.
JR: I got turned on to the 57 by accident because all
my harp mics got stolen. I was playing with Big Al and the Heavyweights,
using a 57 but I couldn't get loud enough without feedback.
Al came up to my Bassman and turned the treble and bass and
all the knobs down and cranked the volume all the way up. And
all of a sudden I had all the tone I'd been trying to get by
fucking with those little knobs. I've been doing that ever since,
with a few little adjustments that have become a part of my
PH: Effects pedals?
JR: I use a Boss OC-2 octave pedal and I turn it all
the way up and I turn the octaves all the way down. So actually,
I'm using it as a compressor which lets me get a more overdriven
sound without having to turn my amplifier all the way up. I
also use an echo pedal. I've been thinking of switching to digital
delay instead of analogue echo.
JR: I don't want the fuzziness of the analog pedal.
Ultimately, I'd like to have both but I'm apprehensive. I still
have a little bit of traditionalist in me when it comes to gear.
I'm a little afraid to go into the MIDI processor situation
for harmonica. I want to maintain a little bit of integrity
of the instrument.
Interview conducted by Mark Nessmith, a writer and harp
player based in South Florida. Currently he is working with
the acoustic blues trio Heidi & the El Cats.