Born in Germany, where he lived briefly, Joe Filisko’s family settled in Joliet, Illinois, about 45 miles southwest of Chicago. While his parents weren’t particularly musical, he still got some encouragement from one of them.
“My mother has always had a deep fondness for the harmonica. That meant that there were always harmonicas around me when I was growing up. Once in awhile I would pick one up and try to play it for a few days. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when I was in my early twenties, that I developed my strong interest in blues music, and started to take the harmonica seriously as an instrument. That’s when I understood that to play blues on the harp, there is a handful of do’s and don’t’s that you need to be familiar with to make it work.
“I was very excited about the expressiveness that was possible to get with it. So I started to investigate, looking for information on how the harmonica functions, and how to play it better. I was amazed at what I thought was an extreme deficit of good information that was out there. Of course, this was pre-Internet days. I hate to be cruel, but most of the people who had written books at that point on how to play blues harmonica were not very accomplished players. They were enthusiasts.
“All of the guys that really knew how to play were way too busy trying to keep their careers going to bother with writing a book or instruction method. That had me more intrigued, wondering how is it that an instrument that is still popular in America, and such a really big part of the blues sound, could be so poorly documented. Wanting to know how to operate the machine really fueled my curiosity.”
Filisko has been mostly self-employed since his college days, earning an Associate degree in Machine Tool Technology, a fancy way of saying “machinist”. He found work doing guitar repairs, setting up the bridge or straightening the neck, and miscellaneous metal work that has always been a part of who he is.
“My interest in working on harmonicas spun right out of that. It was a way to satisfy my curiosity on how to play it better, how it functioned, and to make a little bit of money. In 1990, I put together my first brochure, a pamphlet on how to do harmonica repairs. I happened to be at the right time and place because a few years later, the bottom fell out. The companies that produced harmonicas at that point were turning out a really, really lousy product.
“There were many professional players were coming to me, asking if there was anything I could do to make their harmonicas play better. That put my career as a guy who works on and upgrades harmonicas in the fast lane. I was as busy as you could possibly imagine doing that work until about five years ago, when things started slowing down a little bit.”
The average blues fan may wonder what you can do to upgrade a diatonic harmonica, given that it seems like a simple instrument with no visible moving parts. Listen to Filisko describe some of the magic that he works and you will quickly be thinking about buying one of his customized harps for yourself.
“The heart and soul of the harmonica are the reeds, with 20 reeds in every ten hole diatonic harp. The biggest ones are the size of a paper match from a book of matches. When you inhale or exhale through the harmonica, it causes the reeds to vibrate, creating sound. Being able to adjust the way the reeds are sitting inside the harmonica can make a big difference in the amount of air it takes to get the reeds to vibrate, or not. That has become my specialty, knowing how to adjust the reeds so that you get the maximum amount of sound with a minimal amount of wind.
“I think I have also dialed in the ideal way to tune the harmonica so that you have the ideal balance between the tuning for clean single notes, and the tuning of the chords. In traditional blues, the chords are extremely important, needing to sound smooth and in tune. I use the reeds that come factory-installed. That is necessary to keep the price down and make my work affordable for the real musicians that are out there playing and touring.”
Many of the world’s finest harmonica players have taken advantage of Filisko’s talents for fine-tuning the instrument. Master players from Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, to Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson), and Howard Levy, a master who plays music in multiple styles and genres from around the globe, are just a few of his notable clients.
“Someone like Howard, with his jazz and world music approach to playing, will need the harmonica to be responsive as well as high performance on all ten holes as much as possible. When you consider Kim Wilson, the blues style he plays demands maximum performance out of holes 2,3, and 4, then moderate performance out of holes 1,5 and 6, with minimum performance out of the 7, 8, 9, and 10 holes. Setting it up that way makes the harmonica affordable because I am not putting time into something that is not used or needed.
“Because I have studied so many historical styles, I generally understand what the player needs much better than they do. It is easy for me at this point to figure out what a player needs, what I can do to make them happy, and give them the performance that they want.”
His current list of clients provides the craftsman with more than enough work. It is a benefit that he has come to appreciate in recent years.
“I am very pleased with the level of customizing I am doing now. This is the first time in my life where I don’t have constant anxiety, always feeling like I need to get up & run somewhere, do something. I am enjoying the hell out of it. For those interested, Hohner Harmonica Company has a program of affiliated customizers that I have given the thumbs up and approved their work. Anyone who is interested in having one of the best playing harmonicas in the world, I encourage them to check out the customizers on the Hohner website. There are three or four people working on this continent.”
Another aspect of Filisko’s career is his role as a teacher and instructor of playing blues harmonica. His website has plenty of tips, downloads, study songs, and other valuable information, some of which is free. His material reflects the decades of dedicated research that he has conducted, filtered through 27 years as a teacher at a famous school in Chicago.
“I have been in the Joliet area since 1970. The proximity to Chicago has made it a perfect hub for me, being a musician and doing the things I have done in partnership with Eric Noden. It also allowed me to connect with the Old Town School of Folk Music. That has enabled me to develop my craft as a teacher, and as a blues harmonica historian, to as high a level as I want.
“I was trying to get some students, so one day I decided to go to the school, running on pure ambition. I asked them to hire me because I wanted to teach, and this school is the best place for me to do that in the whole Chicagoland area. And they hired me! I was doing individual instruction as well as group classes. Since the Covid lock-down hit, I have only been teaching group classes.
“I had always sworn that I would never teach on-line. I had no interested in doing it. After the school was shut down, a week went by where nothing was going on. Then my boss contacted me with the news that the school needed to go on-line, and gave me the options. I did not like that plan at all!”
For the first couple of weeks, Filisko admits that he had a pretty bad attitude. But it didn’t take long for him to discover that all was not as he envisioned it.
“After just a couple of weeks, I realized that there are some fabulous benefits to teaching exclusively on-line. It some ways it has made me a better teacher. It has allowed me to hold my students more accountable. While I have grown to like it, some days I am sitting in front the computer for ten hours doing Old Town School stuff. So I am really whipped at the end of those days. But it is a very rewarding experience.
“From my perspective, it is a situation where I can do my thing while the Old Town staff handles the business end of things. I am able to put 100% of energy into being the best teacher I can possibly be without being distracted by scheduling lessons, handling paperwork, or collecting payments. That kind of environment really allows me to excel without the politics and other nonsense. It has been an indescribable blessing for me.”
Asked about the basic philosophy of his teaching methods, Filisko makes it clear that his focus is laser-sharp on one goal.
“My goal as a teacher has not been to teach people to play like me. The focus is on teaching people and help them understand what made the masters as great as they were. I find that type of attitude is rare, especially with the harmonica. On guitar or piano, you can sit in front of the student and they can see what your hands are doing. They get a much better idea of how to operate the instrument.
“That type of learning is not possible with the harmonica, because you totally lack that visual component, making it much more challenging to teach. When I started at Old Town, I put together a course description entitled “How to use Tongue-blocking when playing Blues. No one had ever explained the ins and outs of that technique to me, so I had to develop the discipline to sit down and transcribe those great recordings that everyone regards as bible of great blues harmonica playing. The discipline of transcribing allowed me to hone my ear to a razor sharp edge when listening.”
Tongue-blocking is one method of playing the harmonica. The other is often referred to as lip-pursing. There is no doubt as to what Filisko’s preference has been.
“The clearest visualization that I have been able to come up with is that tongue-blocking allows you the quickest access to playing chords, to playing octave intervals, to playing clean single notes, and giving you the percussive, vamping, slapping technique.
“If your default as a harmonica player is scrunching up and puckering your lips, it is similar to a piano player sitting down, making a fist with one hand, sticking out one finger, and playing the piano with one finger while the rest are clenched in a fist. When you play with the tongue-blocking style, it is like opening up all of your fingers, keeping them above the piano keys, and dropping the finger you need.
“You can drop three fingers for a chord. You drop two out-stretched fingers to play an octave or an interval, or you can play clean single notes. Tongue-blocking gives you the quickest access to all of the sounds the harmonica can make. The puckering technique kind of paints you into a corner. Chicago blues is much, much more than playing single notes. A good definition is that it is the blues style that tastefully, and musically, uses the maximum amount of chords. It is much easier to just lift the tongue to form a chord than it is to open and close your mouth while playing.”
His familiarity with guitar also comes in handy while he is teaching his students.
“My specialty, as a guitar player who has never taken a solo, is that I can lay down pretty darn solid rhythmic groove. That makes me valuable as an instructor, because I can accompany my students as we work on things. They could play by themselves, but then they often don’t pay attention to any kind of rhythm. When I am teaching internationally, I request that they have an acoustic guitar available. Eric and I have talked about doing a song where I play guitar and he plays harp, but we have never gotten around to it.”
(For lessons, learning guides, tablature, and a tongue block trainer, go to: www.filiskostore.com)
In the early years of his deep dive into all things harmonica-related, Filisko became aware of an organization that once existed called the Windy City Harmonica Club, which met weekly for years in Elmhurst, Illinois. It was a group of predominantly retired gentlemen who grew up loving the instrument.
“They would play harmonica band arrangements of songs, particularly stuff from their heroes, the Harmonicats, a trio that made “Peg O’ My Heart” famous in the 1947. So I went to a meeting to find that I was very charmed by these gentlemen that were my grandfather’s age. Later on I heard them talking about a upcoming SPAH event. That stands for The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica.
“At that time, SPAH was held annually in Detroit. I decided to check it out. So I went for one day 1n 1990 and was completely overwhelmed at the level of enthusiasm, as well as how much I learned in a short period of time. It was such an exciting experience for me that I vowed to attend every year. Now I volunteer to try to help keep the event fun, organize jam sessions so people are playing as much music as possible, and teaching workshops so that other educators know quite a bit about the harmonica.”
In 2001, Filisko was named “Harmonica Player of the Year” at the annual SPAH event, recognizing all of his efforts on behalf of the instrument and those who play it.
Another important facet of Filisko’s career for the last 18 years is the acoustic duo he formed with guitarist Eric Noden. Once again, the Old Town School played a key role.
“Eric & I met when he moved to Chicago to get a job at the Old Town School in 1994, moving from Ohio. But it wasn’t until 2003 that we realized that both of us were at a place in our lives where it made sense to put a project together. We have an identical interest in music that isn’t about trying to create our own sound as much as preserve and promote the styles of all of the players we learned from. We got inspiration from artists like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods.
“We feel those artists were highly unique, so we try to keep their styles alive and floating in the air. Our partnership has continued to grow since 2003 into a bigger and better thing. We know how to communicate well with each other, and have a fantastic time when we are together. If there is one thing that I miss during the lock-down, it is not being able to be with Eric as much as usual.”
The two musicians have been offering frequent live streams on social media platforms. Most are the duo playing and singing for their fans, adding special guests to spice things up from time to time.
“We are very pleased with the shows, particularly since the technology is not totally associated with people from our generation. But we have adapted to it, and keep moving forward. I am very, very happy about that. It is an exciting thing, and these days, it is the only thing!”
The roots duo has recorded five albums together, including their 2018 release, Destination Unknown. Filisko also was featured on the Eric Noden Band project Solid Ground from 2015 that also had Kenny Smith on drums and E.G. McDaniel on bass guitar. “Destination Unknown is probably my favorite,” says Filisko. “I was very pleased with how that came out, considering that we recorded the entire record with one stereo microphone, done live with no overdubs.
(You can learn more about Filisko & Noden at:www.rootsduo.com )
In recent years, the harp master has also been flexing his vocal chords, giving the duo some additional firepower in addition to giving listeners some variety in vocal textures.
“It has always been obvious to me that the singer is really the focal point, the boss. In a band, the most important member is probably the singer. And the least important person is probably the harmonica player! So it seemed pretty damn wise to have some vocal abilities.
“When Eric and I first started working together, the one condition I had was that I would be singing. I also told Eric that if he didn’t like my singing, he could either help me to become a better vocalist, or he could bill us as Eric Noden, with special guest Joe Filisko. That way I would do whatever he wanted me to do. But if we are a duo, then I will sing.
Once the lock-down was enacted, the harp player once again saw opportunity knocking.
“Having more time on my hands, I decided to up my game and take my singing more seriously. That lead me to start weekly vocal lessons, and I have learned so much. I had no idea what you could do with a voice if you understand how to correctly make it resonate. It is in some ways similar to playing the harmonica. When you play the harp, the sound that comes out of it is never impressive. The key to playing it well is getting the sound out of the harmonica and into your mouth, head, and throat.
“What I am now understanding about singing is that the key is to get the sound out of your throat, to get the sound to resonate in your head, inside your sinus cavities. I had no idea I would be so fascinated by it. As much as I love playing the harmonica, I always tell people that nothing is more important than the voice, singing, and having a good song.”
As to the styles of the first blues harmonica players, Filisko is considered to be perhaps the foremost authority on the subject. He has been gathering information in meticulous fashion almost from the start.
“One of the first records that I got was on the Yazoo label entitled Harmonica Blues: Great Performances of the 1920s and ’30s. It is definitely true that most of the time I am trying to teach students to play the Chicago style of Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, both Sonny Boy Williamson’s, James Cotton, Jimmy Reed. For me, the playing of people like DeFord Bailey or Sonny Terry has always been deeply intriguing. When I am on my own, my interest has been on players from that era, primarily because their styles are so incredibly unique.
“Most likely they weren’t influenced by anybody they heard on record or on the radio. Many of them grew up before those existed. And that all fits nicely with what Eric and I do in the style of those early pre-war players. While I am into modern styles like Howard Levy, I am very uncomfortable in a world where he is ranked above a pioneer like Deford Bailey. People can not be dismissive of a player like Bailey.
“When the Ken Burns documentary series on Country music came out last year, I literally had tears in my eyes because of how well DeFord Bailey was featured on it. He wasn’t just given a two minute acknowledgment. He kept coming up in a number of episodes. I now refer to Mr. Bailey as the “Chet Atkins” of the diatonic harmonica. It was a real honor and thrill to play at his 2006 induction ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Vince Gill opened up for me! I don’t think I have ever been that nervous on stage.”