Andy Smith

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Andy Smith @ The Finnieston Crane, Glasgow

Harmonica

Influences

Slim Harpo, Little Walter, Lightnin’ Hopkins

Interview

Andy:  My earliest musical memory as a kid was listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll on the radio.  Before I was 10 years old I was listening to Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis.  The first record I bought was called “Juke Box Jive – 40 All Time Rock ‘N’ Roll Greats”.  I always loved those vintage sounds.  By the age of 12 I was a Rolling Stones fan too, so the Blues started coming through from that music.  I remember Dr Feelgood doing “Milk & Alcohol” when I was at school and thinking that it was great that this stuff had made it to the “Charts”.  I think I started listening to the Blues more when I was about 15 and I’d discovered the Alexis Korner Show on the radio every Sunday night.  I found Nine Below Zero and a load of R&B type blues on that show.  At about the same time, about 1981 I fell into Rockabilly via the Stray Cats and throughout my teens and twenties I went to these Rock ‘n’ Roll clubs and they always played a selection of what I knew as “Electric Blues” or “Jump Blues”.  So, you would get Muddy Waters doing “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, Elmore James doing “Shake Your Moneymaker” and that kind of thing, great Slim Harpo, Little Walter and Dr Ross harmonica numbers, and they fitted really well into that Rock ‘n’ Roll scene.  Some of these clubs would have rooms set aside for different kinds of music.  They would have one room for rockabilly and then maybe a little basement with some Jump Blues going on.  It was fantastic!  You’d get people turning up in vintage US Navy and Army gear with the girls dressing accordingly as well.

It was never really the slow Blues that caught my attention, it was the upbeat R&B and it’s still the same now.  We’ve got a couple of slow numbers in our set but I don’t feel like I can sell a Slow Blues with that kind of adversity and gut-wrenching heartbreak and all of that.  I don’t think I could sell that yet.  I do understand appreciating pretty girls and dancing all night and I can sell that stuff. But I do love hearing some slow blues, guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins.  I was listening to “California Mudslide” the other day, which is quite relevant just now due to the current situation in California.  That’s the real heartache stuff and he does it so brilliantly, and on the other side of the coin he does the up-tempo stuff great as well.

So this all led me to harmonica.  I started playing the guitar when I was about 18 and I just messed about with garage bands.  I was just rehearsing with people and never really getting anywhere.  I was in a psychobilly band and we practised for two years, we had one gig and then the other two guys fell out and that was that.  So, I continued to play guitar, badly, for 30 years during which time I had about three attempts at playing the harmonica.  The harp was the thread through a lot of the music that I liked but it wasn’t easy.  It can be a bit of a mystery getting started in the 2nd Position playing in Blues.  That was the days before YouTube so if you hadn’t got books or any reference material, and when you had no clue whatsoever, it was quite difficult to get into.  So, I had a go.  I bought a couple of harps, did nothing with them and then lost them.  A few years later I had another go and it didn’t take.  I think I’d just turned 45 and I thought, I’ll have one more crack at this harmonica business, because I had always loved the sound of it and I thought that with the help of YouTube it might be easier.  But, having said that, you learn more just from listening.  So, I got a couple of pointers from videos and got a couple of licks that helped me find my way into playing.  You know, just to get you into the rudiments of playing.

Actually, to go back a step, there was one book back in the 70’s and 80’s that everyone had and it was called “Blues Harmonica by Tony Little Sun Glover”.   Everyone had that book.  I got that book and I found that I still couldn’t do it because I find it difficult to equate marks on paper to the sounds I’m hearing in my ears.  It’s the same with guitar tabs.DSC_2387Yeah, so anyway, the third time around it seemed to take!  I finally found that it was all kind of working.  And, one of my bug-bears was that I could never sing and play guitar at the same time but obviously, singing and playing the harmonica is done in a serial fashion so it was fine.  You do a bit of one then a bit of the other.

So, I did that for a couple of years, just messing about at home and I didn’t have much of a musical life going on down where I was.  I was down in Aylesbury and it was just a bit too far to get into London and there was nothing going on locally.  But when I came up here with my job I saw a video with Robert Ryan, who was in Harmonica Lewinski so I got in touch and asked if there was anything going on in the local Blues scene and I ended up going over to his house and he told me all about it.  He took me to the first gig I went to in Glasgow, which was Rev Doc & The Congregation.  Here was me worried about if the Blues scene was any good up here and the first gig I saw, I thought, “Bloody Hell! That’s fantastic!”  That was October 2012 and then they did another gig in the same place, The Big Joint, a few months later.

So, a little while after that, Robert put me in touch with Ian Burnside from “Used Blues” and they had just lost a singing saxophone player and a bass player so they were auditioning for two spots and I went along and I think that Mick, the bass player, and I, were the first ones along to audition and we both got in.  We spent a few months rehearsing and then started gigging as regularly as the local scene would allow.

Kirk:  Tell me a little about the other side of your involvement with music.  You run “Honeyboy Amps” (www.honeyboyamps.com).  I’ve seen quite a few of your product line up close and they are stunning pieces of kit.  Beautiful Vintage tone and stunning to look at as well.

Andy: It started off as a hobby.  I bought an American Harp amp.  It cost a lot of money and then it cost even more money on import tax.  I paid something like £1,100 for this thing and it was a great amp but I thought, why aren’t there a lot of great harmonica amps here in the UK?  So, I built a little clone of a Fender Champ.  Up until then I used to play through transistor amps so the first valve amp I owned was the one I made and it just sounded absolutely great!  Technically they have a tube distortion which produces a sweeter even-harmonic than the transistor models.  I touted it around my friends and one of them said “I’ll have one of those” and I made one for his wife who plays Appalachian Dulcimer.  I then did another one that was fashioned in Snakeskin vinyl.  People were seeing these and saying that I could do this for a living but at that time I couldn’t contemplate it.  People started saying it more as time went on and at that point I was really disillusioned with the job and I thought that I would quite like to make and sell these for a living. At the age of 50 I thought, it’s now or never so that’s when I started up in business and that was January 2016.  It’s been a long two years of hard work.

Kirk:  Have you started exporting?

Andy:  I’ve done one to The States, one to Germany, one to Denmark and there have been a couple more U.S. enquiries that have just come in this week.

Kirk:  Is electronics something you have had an interest in for some time?

Andy: No.  I read books and watched videos and I sought some advice from a good guy in Glasgow.  He’s a well-known amp guy and he just said to me “Read everything you can”.  He said that he had come by his knowledge the hard way and that I would have to do the same.  I read and read, and I knew that I couldn’t sell anything commercially until I knew exactly how everything worked because if anything went wrong I knew that I had to maintain it afterwards.  When I was comfortable that I knew everything I needed to know I got the testing done to comply with regulations on electronics safety, electromagnetic interference and substances hazardous to health. I got all the compliance in place then started to sell them.

Kirk:  They are beautiful pieces of work.  I’ve never seen anything like them.

Andy:  My take is…I’ve brought nothing new to it electronically as we are using classic designs from the 50’s, although they are fantastically great sounding amps with a sublime purity and richness of tone.  So, we changed nothing there but what we can do is to put in some effort on the visuals and go for a vintage 50’s look.  It was a flash era, so I thought that we would go with that.  I knew I didn’t want to make another black amp and I didn’t want to make another tweed amp.  We are thinking about going for even fancier designs and bringing out a very limited edition.  We also bring a nice clarity of tone with our hand-made oak cabs. I didn’t like woodwork at school but I love it now.

Kirk:  Ok so back to the band.  Have you got any gigs coming up?

Andy:  Yeah, we start again next week.   We’ve got Avante Garde coming up and then we’ve got about 1 a month after that.  They tend to build up as the year progresses.  We did the Colne Great British Rhythm & Blues Festival last year and would love to do it again this year but apparently you can’t do 2 years in a row.  One of the pubs there was absolutely rammed!  That’s the kind of gigs we like.  We love it when the people are in your face!  We do “Staffs Fest” every year and that seem to be getting better all the time.  We’d like more bars in Glasgow but it seems to be getting harder to get decent gigs.  There seems to be quite a high turnover of venues changing hands.  Perhaps a lot of people are struggling to make the bars work.  A lot of places seem to be bars trying to be music venues instead of starting off as a music venue.  We like places that set out to be music venues first, with no-one asking you to turn it down at 11 o’clock.

Kirk:  Have you got any other projects on the go now?

Andy:  Yes, another thing we (Used Blues) are doing at the moment is that we are putting together a set of Chess label material so that we have a particular offering for some venues.  We have most of the set done already but are adding more as we go on and we hope to launch this at a series of ticketed gigs.

Kirk:  Why did you choose the Finnieston Crane as a location for the photo?

Andy:  When I started the amp business I was keen to have a local connection.  From our house, over in Old Kilpatrick you can see the cranes and I am quite interested in the ship-building history of the Clyde.  In my business, I am “making something” and one thing Glasgow is famous for is ship-building.  I wouldn’t steal the phrase “Clyde built” in my business but the reference I have made is a tagline on the website and on the little tickets attached to the amps when they go out which says, “Built Beside the Clyde”.

Kirk:  Have you considered endorsing people on the Pro circuit to promote your amps?

Andy:  Yeah, I’m just branching out now and the business has got me some good contacts so I have two professional musicians on board now.  Giles Robson on harmonica and Chris Corcoran, a great Jump Blues Guitar player.  They’ve both got amps of mine and they’re actively gigging them.  They are doing a project which will start in mid to late February.  They are recording an album called “Honeyboy Amps Presents – The Instrumental Hits of Little Walter”.  We’ve checked out the royalties and we can do a limited run. They’ll be selling the CDs at their gigs and I’ll be selling them at guitar shows that I go to.

I’m also doing something with Chris Corcoran and Al Brown which is not yet announced but that’s another thing to look forward to.

Kirk:  Thanks Andy.  Looking forward to seeing you and your amps around in the very near future.

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Date: 20/01/2018

Location

Finnieston Crane, River Clyde, Glasgow

Camera info

Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.4
Focal length: 50mm
Exposure: 1/800 sec at f/1.4
ISO: 100
Time of day: 2:09pm
Conditions: Natural light

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