Most frequently asked questions:

How long have you been playing harp?
I have been playing since October, 1985. I started playing right before I turned 16.
How did you get started?
At 15, I worked as a camp counselor. My boss, Eric Guthertz, had a harp he let me borrow. Instead of looking at it for a minute, I went to a corner and jammed for a half an hour. 6 months later I was with a friend, Robert Schmidt, at a bookstore. There was Jon Gindicks' Country and Blues Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless, a book that came with a tape and a harp for $14. My friend said, "There's something flaky you would do." I had the money, which at 15 years old was a minor miracle. "You'll never get anywhere with that," he said. The moment I played, I knew it was my thing. I was gigging a year later.

michael bass harmonica
Where are you from?
  • I was conceived in Memphis. I was born in Livingston, New Jersey on November 6th, 1969.
  • 0-8 years old West Orange, New Jersey
  • 8-12 years old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • 12-17 years old Larkspur, Marin County, California
  • 17-21 years old Rohnert Park, Sonoma County, California with summers in the Malibu mountains.
  • 21-22 years old New Orleans, Louisiana
  • 22-23 years old Santa Rosa, California and one half of a year busking in Europe
  • 23-28 years old Austin, Texas
  • 28-30 years old Houston, Texas, New Haven, Connecticut and New York, New York playing in the orchestra of a pre-Broadway and Broadway show, the Tony nominated "The Civil War"
  • 30-now years old South Austin, Texas
What was your musical training?
I listened to lots of recordings and live shows and played at jams and gigs. I've talked to most of the famous harp players and gotten advice, most notably from Rick Estrin, Gary Primich, Eugene Huggins and Andy J. Forest. I've gone to a bunch of harmonica conventions, most notably The Augusta Heritage Festival Blues Week, SPAH and the Kerrville Folk Festival. I took 3 jazz improv semesters in college, Sonoma State University, on chromatic. A couple of years back I took another semester's worth at Austin Community College playing one diatonic harmonica fully chromatically. In college I also took chorus and ear training. I've taken a couple of piano and electric bass lessons and a lot of vocal and mandolin lessons. I have taken one or two private harp lessons from Gary Primich, Sam Barry, Adam Gussow, Paul Oscher, Dennis Gruenling, and a few jazz chromatic lessons from Wim Dijkgraaf.
Why are you considered the theory guy?
I learned theory from playing in clubs, not from a textbook. Musicians would communicate with each other and after a while I learned what words meant by the sounds musicians played in response to the words. Let's call it club theory. Almost every working musician knows club theory, about as much as I do. Often singer-songwriters who lead the bands do not know it, but they pay the other musicians to know it well enough to follow them.

Quite often I would be one of many teachers at a seminar or be in the audience and would experience this:

Teacher: So when the flat third raises to the major third...

Student: What is a flat third?

Teacher: Oh, that's theory. You don't need theory. So, when the flat third raises to the major third...

It really made me mad. The teacher learned club theory because he had enough raw talent to get hired for gigs and started speaking the theory language by being immersed in it. Because he understands it, he assumes it is common knowledge, but it is not. Many people do not have the raw talent necessary to get good enough to start gigging right away, at least not without lessons. The student is left in the dust because the teacher hasn't learned to explain theory. So I decided to change all that.

I am starting a theory revolution.

I want everyone who wants to understand club theory to be able to do it. I am not talking about jazz or classical theory. I am talking about enough theory to communicate during a blues, rock, folk, punk, reggae or country gig.

My YouTube videos are all about theory. There are so many videos teaching how to play a single note it is ridiculous. No one was teaching how to choose good sounding notes. So that is my niche. I may not have as many hits as the teenage girl who teaches how to play harmonica while miming, but the information is good and if I help one person, it was worth it.

Let me be clear, I do not think music is all about theory. My private students learn physical techniques, jamming, songs, harmonica history and create a personal musical philosophy that will guide their sound and yes, theory.

Although other harmonica teachers explain theory, I believe I have a way of explaining that is easy to understand.
What instruments do you play?
The diatonic harp (10 hole blues harp) played fully chromatically, chromatic harp, bass harp, harmonetta, mandolin, vocals, electric bass, keyboards, melodica, kazoo, various other flutelike instruments and percussion.

michael mandolin
What does it mean to play the diatonic harmonica fully chromatically?
Diatonic means referring to one key. Chromatic means referring to all keys. When the diatonic harp was invented, it did not include many of the notes on the keyboard. It could be played in only a few keys and even then with limitations. Blues players discovered that you could lower pitches to another note. This is called bending. Bending occurs on the draw notes (inhale notes) from holes 1-6 and on the blow notes from holes 7-10. This added many notes but still many were missing. Then players discovered you could sharpen pitches to another note. This is called overblowing, which can be done on the blow notes from holes 1- 6 and the draw notes from holes 7-10. Do not be confused, if you are lowering pitches by blowing on holes 7-10 this is not overblowing, it is high note blow bending. With bending and overblowing it is possible to play all the notes a keyboard has, therefore allowing the player to play any style in any key.

Here is a sample:

In this YouTube clip, I play chromatically in all 12 keys on a single Bb Hohner Special 20 diatonic harp...

What do you like better, the diatonic or the chromatic?
I love both, but the diatonic feels like home to me. However I will rarely play a show without bringing out the big harp. It's beautiful, like a songbird.
What diatonics do you play?
I use stock Hohner Special 20's and I own a few Joe Spiers Stage 3 Special 20's. I like the action I get and the compromised just tuning. Compromised just tuned harps have some notes tuned a little flat in pitch and some notes tuned a little sharp in pitch in comparison to what is considered standard pitch. That creates that crunchy harmonica sound when playing chords and double stops (two notes played at once). Unlike compromised just tuning, equal tuning sets all the notes at close to the same level of flat or sharp in comparison to what is considered standard pitch. It makes very pretty single note melodies but the chords and double stops do not sound as nice as compromised just tuning, in my opinion. I do not like equal tuning. Examples would be the Lee Oskar or the Hohner Golden Melody. I see equal tuning's value when playing in unusual positions (positions refer to playing in multiple keys on one harmonica). For example, on a compromised just tuned C harp, hole 5 draw is a slightly flat F note. In a blues song in the key of G that F note sounds fine. It does not sound so good in the key of Eb. That is when I would choose an equal tuning harmonica like the Golden Melody.

I set up the low harps, G's through C's for overblows on the Special 20's. I rarely overblow on a harp higher than a C.

I own a couple of Special 20 Country tuned harps and Lee Oskar minor tuned, just to check them out. The Country tuned harp has grown on me. I play some low tuned harps, they are tuned one octave lower and I have some high tuned G harps, which I do perform with. I fool with a Seydel F# diminished harp and think the layout is genius but have not worked hard to enough to play it musically. Check out Alfred Hirsch for someone who can play it (Alfred's MySpace). I own a Suzuki Sub 30 and a Seydel PT Gazell Method Half Valved, both of which are set up to bend all blow and draw notes. Personally I prefer the Sub30 but believe Suzuki should have created an harmonica with better quality and charged more, instead of advising after purchasing that it would help if you spent another $100 on customizing. I have yet to customize mine, I may love it. I own a circular tuned harp and do not like it. I had James Conway build me a Low D Bagpipe harp. That is fun (James on YouTube).

I invented a harmonica layout that I call the Git Pickin' Harp. Have you ever heard a guitarist play a bass line and a melody line at the same time? I asked myself why can't a harp do that and came up with a way it could. See the following videos:

What chromatics do you play?
I use the Hohner Super Chromonica 270 in the key of C. I own a CBH Professional 2016 in C. I own a Tenor CX 12, but never perform with it. I bought a B chromatic since it was only one half step lower. It has come in handy when certain melodies that involved lots of button work suddenly used very little button work in another position. I now have an F chromatic. However, I play in all 12 keys on the C harp, so except for the tone and chords and double stops, I do not need the others.
Do you perform and record with the bass harmonica?
Yes. I use the Hohner Chromatica number 265, which is two octaves. I am the only bass instrument in the band The Susquehanna Hat Company. I use it regularly in the Kalu James band and have a great track on Alexa Woodward's CD Speck as well as other recordings and performance situations. I even had Richard Smith's Harmonix company build me a special pickup so I could plug it into an amplifier. I use the Gallien Kreuger MS 150 E-III bass amplifier. I also had Steve Watne, a great harmonica machinist, make the bass harp play easier. Although we only had one performance, I ran a harmonica band with Brad Trainham on chord harp. We played a harmonica band song with Norton Buffalo on Chromatic, Rob Roy Parnell and the Kerrville Harmonica Workshop students on diatonic. That was a lot of fun.

What is the harmonetta?
A harmonetta is a combination of an accordion and harmonica. You blow and draw to activate the reeds but push buttons with your fingers to choose what notes to play. It allows for a great rhythm instrument for jazz music, which uses complex multi note chords because you can play any combination of notes as long as you have enough fingers. I was tutored at SPAH by the great Bob Herndon and practiced a lot in order to backup the jazz guys at SPAH. (SPAH is the biggest harmonica convention in North America).

Do you tongue block, pucker or u-block?
I do all three. I bastardize U-blocking doing the same thing but I do not curl my tongue. I put the tip of my tongue under the hole I want and blow over the center. I do this for my main embouchure on the chromatic and on the diatonic's high notes, including overdraws on holes 9 and 10. I occasionally pucker on chromatic. I tongue block the chromatic for separated double stops such as octaves and slapping single notes or separated double stops. Puckering is one of my main embouchures on diatonic, especially when overblowing holes 1 through 7 and playing fast. If you hear slaps and separated double stops, I am tongue blocking. I will play single note runs without slaps in the tongue blocked style. I can bend while tongue blocking but often will quickly switch to a pucker, especially if the bend is on a different hole. I also tongue switch, so if you hear quick jumps from high to low, I'm tongue blocking. At the time of this rewrite, I am currently obsessed with tongue blocking 100% of the time as long as I am not overblowing or bending the high notes.
What's your gear?
I use a boom stand, 57 or 58 vocal mic and PA system (you or the club provide the PA system) for my acoustic sound. I use the Shure Green Bullet mic with no volume control but me and a '59 Reissue Fender Bassman for my electric sound. I never got obsessed with gear. I like it functional.
What kind of music do you play?
I play all kinds. I like to play with friends mostly. Luckily I have lots of friends who are professional musicians. I will play any style of music with anyone who is respectful. I have done gigs just for money or recognition or artistic value alone and I probably would do it again, but it is always a little weird if friendship and/or respect is missing.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to all kinds of music, but I lean towards blues, jazz, folk and garage rock. I prefer high feeling and low production values.
Who are your favorite harp players?
I love Paul Butterfield, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), James Cotton and William Clarke. If a player has worked hard enough that I have heard of him, I really respect that. Getting heard in the harp world is not easy.
Do you write songs?
Yeah and I sing too. I'm a showman. I put on the occasional Michael Rubin Band gig and plan to put a CD out of my tunes one of these lifetimes.
michael concert poster
Do you do sideman work?
Yes, I enjoy being a sideman to all types of singers. I play harp well, they sing well. It's a good combination.
Where can we hear your work?
Besides live performances, check out my CD "Call of my Harp" which is a collection of live and studio cuts of me backing up 15 of Austin's best players. To find out where I'm playing this week, email me at
How would you describe your style?
It's a bit of Jekkyl and Hyde. I can play the most appropriate music for backing up a song or a singer, be it pretty, bluesy, rocking or whatever. But I also have a mad scientist side where I am exploring techniques and styles unique to my vision. When playing with bands where the focus is on technical or musical innovation, I can show off that side of me. Even when keeping my music appropriate to the song, I will often play something in a way not normally associated with harmonica. I like to keep 'em guessing.
How can I get involved with harmonica on a worldwide basis?
I heartily recommend The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of The Harmonica at
What else do you like to do?
I like to read classic literature, see all types of movies, do ecstatic dance, travel, go to the Kerrville Folk Festival, eat pasta and shrimp and some other things, drink coffee, agonize about theology, and be with my friends, family and my wife, Carey and daughter Zoe.