Music News

ARIZONA'S MR. MICROPHONEBLUES HARPISTS ARE BLOWN AWAY BY JOE HARLESS' HARMONICA MIKE

Page 2 of 3

The first beef on the harpists' list was the awkward size of most mikes. The first mikes to be used with harmonicas were pirated from public address systems. These so-called "bullet" mikes were about the size of a baseball. Today that same design predominates among Hohner, Shure and Astatic, the three large companies that until now have split the harp-mike market.

To compete, Harless decided he needed to first understand how harp players grip the mike. "To figure out the ergonomics," he says, "I went and got some clay and squeezed it. Real high-tech, huh?"

Harless produced a design that was easy to hold and half the size of the old mikes. Made of poly resin instead of cast zinc like the old mikes, the Shaker weighs 3.25 ounces. The typical bullet mike exceeds a pound.

After he had a shell design, Harless embarked on a trial-and-error process with electronic components. Cannibalizing parts from old TVs and radios, Harless finally came up with a "guts" that he thinks is the right mix of clear sound and durability. The element in the Shaker "floats," meaning that dings and dents on the body of the mike won't transfer into the microphone. The Shaker also comes standard with a volume control, a feature that harp players have been routinely adding to older mikes for years.

"What I wanted was a mike that had an extended frequency range but would still retain the classic, thick and hot sound of Chicago blues," he says. "The older mikes lack the ability to reproduce all the things that the harp can do. Harmonicas drive dogs nuts because they can hear frequencies out of a harmonica that humans can't. That's why it's such an emotional instrument. Your brain is hearing things your ears aren't."
Just as everything was coming together, Joe Harless' road to success developed some bumps. Harless nearly lost his invention. The hoop of fire was lighted in January 1991, when Harless decided to take his invention to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Anaheim, California. Although he had seven prototypes built (only three of which actually worked), a Plexiglas pyramid display case and a local harp player to go with him to demonstrate the mikes, Harless needed nearly $5,000 to make the trip. He accepted what he thought was a generous offer from an investor.

When the NAMM show turned out to be a crashing success--Harless came back to the Valley with 260 orders--his investor offered to help Harless get started. The deal was simple: In exchange for the cash to manufacture and market his microphone, Harless would pay investors a 25 percent return on their money. He signed an initial agreement. But then, Harless says, the lead investor tried to force him to relinquish a percentage of the patent for the Shaker. Harless balked.

"If you sell any part of your patent, you lose control," he says. Harless hired a lawyer and fought. After a lot of legal saber rattling, Harless and the investor settled in May 1992. Harless had to repay the $5,000.

"Basically," Harless says, "the settlement said we forget you exist and you forget we exist."
Unfortunately, the legal tussle caused Harless to lose credibility with buyers, because he couldn't fill orders. He's also had problems sorting out the international patents for his microphone, a dilemma he's currently in the midst of solving. Preparing for the possibility that his mike might be copied, Harless has taken a page out of Harley-Davidson's marketing plan.

"Harley's basic idea is that you can buy a better motorcycle, but not the original Harley," Harless says, holding up a Shaker. "This is a little American Harley. A blues-harp mike made by a blues-harp player."
If you ask the customers, Shaker's success has been spectacular. In two years, Harless has managed, mostly by giving his mikes away, to convince most of the major blues-harp players to endorse his product. The list has all the right names: Junior Wells, Carey Bell, Charlie Musselwhite, James Harman, Snooky Pryor, among others. Although opinions on the Shaker's sound vary from "dirty" to "clean," depending upon which harp player you're talking to, everyone agrees that Harless has hit on something. He has succeeded in getting older players who have used the same mike for 20 years to try his invention.

"I like it very much," Junior Wells says in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. Best known for his mid-Sixties stint in Muddy Waters' band, Wells carries two Shakers in his harp bag. "This is the first new mike I've used in I don't know how many years. That guy's got something, though. It's tough and it's small. I've had more than one harp player look it over and want to know where I got it. I've even started carrying his [Harless] business cards with me on the road."
Local singer-songwriter and harmonica player Hans Olson, who was among the first players to use and critique the Shaker, attributes much of the microphone's success to the personality of its inventor.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Baird