Richard Sleigh makes music in more ways than one.
An accomplished harmonica player and teacher who has performed alongside the likes of Bo Diddley, Sleigh also has a side gig designing and building the instruments.
He will perform live from noon-2 p.m. Sunday at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe in downtown State College.
Keep reading to learn more about the man behind the music.
Q: How old were you when you first picked up a harmonica?
A: I was around 12.
Q: Was it love at first sight?
A: I had a great uncle Bill who played harmonica — real old-school stuff — like steam train imitations, songs like the “Irish Washerwoman” — he used to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Sometimes he would draw a crowd on the street corner on summer nights in Philipsburg. He put the sound in my ear. I messed around with Dylan-type rack harmonica but when I went to Altoona campus in 1969 I started hearing the great blues harmonica players — Sonny Terry, Little Walter, John Lee Williamson, Rice Miller — and that is when I went all in to learn the harmonica.
Q: What’s more difficult — learning to play a harmonica or learning to build a harmonica?
A: They both require a lot of patience and sustained effort.
Q: Is there one piece of advice you might offer to somebody looking to take up the harmonica?
A: Learn to breathe through the instrument. Keep tweaking the way you place your lips on the harmonica so you don’t leak air around the edges. You create the tone the same basic way you do when you sing. Learn breath control and how to stay relaxed.
Q:What would you say is the most important quality a music teacher can possess?
A: The ability to figure out the next step a student needs to take, show that to them, and then quit.
Q: What performance has given you the biggest thrill over the years?
A: One of the biggest kicks I had was at Arts Fest, on Old Main lawn with Bo Diddley. I was part of a back up band, all local folks. He called me up front and then proceeded to build up the tension by letting the band vamp away on a groove and Bo kept staring at me and saying “not yet, not yet,” several times and then shouted “go!” I went nuts, and so did the audience.
Q: When people come and ask you to build a harmonica, what are they typically looking for? A certain look, design or sound?
A: They want something that responds easily to their breath. I take a stock harmonica and turn it into a high compression hot rod.
Q: What’s the most complicated or elaborate harmonica you’ve ever designed?
A: An experimental 10 hole 40 reed harmonica with 20 valves that was designed to let you bend all the notes like a saxophone. It was an idea that occurred to a few people during the ’60s and ’70s. I was writing a patent for it when I found out that someone else beat me to the patent office. I’m currently playing a variation of that idea designed by a couple of guys — Brendan Power, from New Zealand, and Zombor Kovacks, from Budapest. We collaborated and made about 50 of these things — they work great but are very difficult to make. I have three of them that I play all the time.
Q: How have your many years of experience as a musician shaped your approach to building harmonicas?
A: I have to be able to test harmonicas with the same techniques used by the best harmonica players out there. I also customize harmonicas for particular types of music.