An Interview with the craftsman and musician Joe Filisko: Blues has certainly offered me a lifetime of study.

"I play because it soothes my soul and is the perfect outlet for what rages within me." 

Joe Filisko: The Thunderbird of Harmonica

Joe Filisko has been known as craftsman, performer, teacher and historian of the harmonica for quite some time. Joe gets a wide variety of sounds from his harmonica including soaring melodies and driving percussive rhythms. He can make his harp cry, flutter, sing or sound like a train from one moment to the next. He is known around the world both as a player, historian and as a customizer of this often misunderstood instrument. Filisko’s customized Marine Band harmonicas have been played by many world renowned artists including Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Billy Boy Arnold and Wade Schuman of Hazmat Modine. Joe is endorsed by the HOHNER harmonica company USA.


Joe is arguably the worlds’ foremost authority on nearly all aspects of the diatonic harmonica and he is one of its most respected players and teachers. He is the world’s most respected diatonic harp technician and customizer with his work directly affecting countless players and all harmonica manufacturers

His client list includes most of the players from the who’s who list of the harmonica elite. Among his customers are: Howard Levy, Kim Wilson, Gary Primich, Jerry Portnoy, Peter 'Madcat Ruth', Corky Siegel, Dennis Gruenling to name but a few. His harps are in the hands of notables from rock, film, and even a former President.

Joe has taught and performed on 5 continents. He was awarded the “Harmonica Player of the Year in 2001 by the SPAH organization. Joe performed at the 2006 Country Music Hall of Fame, Medallion Ceremony for the induction of DeFord Bailey. Documentaries that featured Mr. Filisko include: “Harmonica Summit,” Imagination is Limitless,”  “In the Reeds,” “Tin Sandwich” and Pocketful of Soul”.

Described as the Johnny Appleseed of the harmonica, Joe has had a tremendous influence on the culture of the harmonica world over the last 20 years.


Interview by Michael Limnios


Mr. Filisko, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?

I first was mesmerized by music and started playing the guitar when I was about 15.  I was only playing rock songs at the time.  I started studying music more formally in college and was taking guitar lessons where I become exposed to many of the fingerstyle guitar styles including ragtime, classical and blues.  It was while I was playing fingerstyle blues guitar that I really was hearing the harmonica.  A small article in a guitar magazine about blues harp in about 1989 sent me in the direction that I am still currently heading in.  I just can't seem to get enough of it.


What made you fall in love with the blues music, what does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

Two of the earliest memories that I have of being completely astonished with the sound of the blues were from the sound of Ry Cooders slide guitar and Sonny Terry's harmonica.  Blues has certainly offered me a lifetime of study.  Very hard to say what it means to me.  Every time I think that I have an answer I have to change my mind.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Some of the best moments include playing at the Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony for the induction of DeFord Bailey, playing a solo concert at the World Harmonica Festival in 2001.  I can't recall any "worst" moment.


Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

I would have to say that it is likely a team work from all three working together.  I certainly find that music from the "brain" is very uninteresting to me, BUT having a certain amount of technique and chops can really add a great touch.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and craftsman?

I am quite blessed in that I was born to be a craftsman.  It is in my blood on both sides of my family.  Having a great demand for my services in early years helped me to develop the discipline to learn how to do the work quickly in order to make money at it.  I seem to have always had a certain focus and discipline to go about learning things methodically and always with the assumption that NOTHING could be perfect.  Therefore I could and would go back and continually upgrade my playing to another higher level.


What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? When did you last laugh in a gig and why?

Eric Noden and I seem to always have fun when we travel together and play.  We had to perform at a festival in Australia without our baggage and his guitar. (stuff showed up a few days later) We just borrowed some stuff and had fun making the best out of it.  We did a festival in Eslov Sweden on our first tour where towards the end of our set the power went out.  We just stood up and finished off the set playing acoustic.  I think that the audience didn't even know about the power being out.  There just thought we were cool for playing acoustic.  We did another gig in Kayersberg France that we unfortunately arrived at the gig a few minutes before we were scheduled to play.  Eric had the guitar tuned and he strapped it on over his jacket and we played the first few songs straight acoustic in our coats before hooking into the PA.  The audience loved the honesty of what we did and responded with numerous demands for encores and purchased nearly 100 CD's from us.   The last gig that we did this past year on our European tour in Esslingen Germany ended with the audience singing along to the chorus of our song "No One Gets . . ."  After we ended the encore and left the stage, the audience spontaneously started singing the chorus again for another few minutes. Fantastic experiences to have had!



Where did you pick up your HARP style & in which songs can someone hear the best of your work?

I have really tried hard to NOT have a style and work on unlocking the secrets to the styles of the masters.  Unfortunately it is a constant battle to keep your style from creeping in.   I suspect that the songs "Gridlock Blues", "Too Much Whiskey", "Made Me Lonesome", "Jesus On the Mainline", "I Heard The Angels Singing" and "Stranded" have the best examples of what one might probably consider my style.


Why do you play HARP, what characterizes your sound & your progress?

I play because it soothes my soul and is the perfect outlet for what rages within me.  I am into featuring the sounds that the harmonica is naturally well suited to do.  I think that my progress is characterized by becoming a better groove player and playing less and less notes overall.


Why did you think that Joe Filisko continued to generate such a devoted following?

Very hard question to answer.  My approach to playing has always been to give acknowledgement to the masters of the past and to try and play to the built in strengths of the instrument as opposed to trying to play complicated licks.  It seems to me that many people are deeply moved by the simpler approach of the early more chordal and percussive blues styles.  My success as a teacher of these styles probably also should be figured in.  I have over the years developed the ability to quickly point out what an aspiring player must do or NOT do if they desire to sound like one of the past masters.  I have taught now on 5 different continents.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

The blues is the main influence on the many musical styles that the majority of the world loves and listens to.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I have to say that I have learned the most from persistent self study.  Just listening over and over and over again to the music that most everyone agrees is great.  I have been transcribing classic blues harp songs for well over 15 years which will give anyone a better ability to listen and comprehend.  I certainly do have the great privilege of being able to put in a call to countless great players and ask for their opinion or just bounce ideas off them.  I am addicted to learning.


Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

Too many for many different reasons.  I do have a particular attraction to a minimalistic approach to playing.  My favorite minimalists are Jim Liban, Jelly Roll Johnson and Rick Estrin.  As far as who I admire, it tends to be connected with humility.  Players who have had successful careers and can act just like regular people are the ones that I admire the most.



Is there any difference and similarity between the blues, rock, folk and country harmonica?

My opinion is that rock harp is mostly clean and melodic like Lee Oskar or Butterfield.  Blues should have more going on with sound, especially a big fat sound which you usually don't hear in rock unless you are listening to a "blues" player playing rock like Magic Dick or Kim Wilson.   The harp in country music during the 40's & 50's had a big emphasis on sound heard through the playing of Wayne Raney, Lonnie Glosson and Salty Holmes.  When Charlie McCoy became the rage in the 70's there was more of an emphasis on clean melodies even he did have a nice percussion chordal thing going on at times.  His imitators mostly captured the clean melodic things that he was doing.  Currently there is more of a blues vibe being heard in Country Music.  I'm not sure what would best represent folk harp to offer any comments.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

It is very difficult making money in music and only more difficult playing blues or harp.  Better make sure that you can't imagine yourself doing anything else.  Always be trying to have students and teach to some degree.  Be flexible and able to play solo, with a duo, trio, etc.  Be sure that you can sing!  I also suggest a wife with health insurance.  Here in the states we say, "How do you make a million dollars playing the blues?  You start out with two million!"


What made you get involved in the craftsmanship of a harmonica?

When I got out of college I actually had time and became fascinated with the inner workings of the harp.  This led me to doing repairs and unusual tunings.  I had also begun to custom fabricate covers and combs.  In the summer of 1992 the Associated Press ran an article on my custom harps that went international.  There was no looking back.


Have you ever come to contact with customers of yours that had weird tastes in terms of making a harmonicas?

Most harp players are a bit weird.  I suspect from too much inhaling!  Most just want a harp that will never go out of tune, last forever and still cost 50 cents.


Joe Filisko’s home





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