Dave Harris in 2009, Victoria BC

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What is a One Man Band (for my book purposes)?

What is a ONE MAN BAND?

For my purposes a one man band (OMB) is anyone who plays enough instruments at the same time or creates enough sound to imply more than one musician. This is a very broad definition and opens the door to guitar/harp players (especially if they stomp their feet; John Hammond comes to mind), guitarist/foot drummers, accordion/drums or harp, piano/drums, and anything beyond. I've included simple guitar/foot stompers like John Lee Hooker, even a couple guitarists that play percussion on their guitars while playing. I've also included a few of the OMBs that use looping pedals to generate backing, which they then play to (KT Tunstall of "Black Horse and The Cherry Tree" is a good example). Their entries will be shorter, however, as will be entries on a few that use samples, MIDI, backing tracks and even one or two with drum machines (horrors!). The thrust of this book is towards the OMBs that physically (and manually) create all of their sounds live, simultaneously. I have been shocked at how many of these OMBs there are! I have well over 600 names now, with more turning up weekly. I know this isn't as comprehensive as I'd like and if you know of anyone, please let me know.

The "classic" European OMB plays drums on their back with ropes or wires attached to their shoes that operate the drum pedals as they walk. Most play guitar or banjo but some also play accordion. Harp in a rack with kazoo, whistles, duck calls etc are also common and most use battery amps. The European style is also used by a few in North America and Australia. Possibly the biggest name in this style is Don Partridge, a great singer/songwriter, most famous for his 2 Top 5 hits in Britain in the late 60's ("Rosie" and "Blue Eyes"). In recent years he's switched to the sit-down style favoured by N. Americans. Carrying the drums on your back has it's merits visually and for mobility but it takes its toll on your body! Other memorable stand-up style OMBs include Jimmy Jimmy, who lives in Australia but plays in Europe and used to play a lot in Japan (he's originally from the US!), Slippery Mike (an Englishman who lives in Germany), The Straniero (American in Italy, who is phenomenal!), Paolo Sgallini (he's on Facebook), Otto & Bernelli (famous in Italy), Bernard M Snyder (has onemanband.org and is very involved in festivals), Chucklefoot (fun goodtime Englishman), Bandaloni (from Canada), Professor Paddywhack (child oriented from USA) and too many to list.

The sit-down style is the popular modern style (very few modern OMBs play standing up), as played by the blues OMBs too. The usual set-up is a bass drum and high-hat but some use a snare drum as well (you can play two pedals at once) or sometimes homemade drums (suitcase, bucket, cans, you name it). Most play guitar and often rack harp and/or kazoo, sometimes banjo, accordion, piano, mandolin, ukulele or fiddle. Steel body guitars are common for added volume (for busking anyway). The classic blues OMBs include Jesse Fuller (see the next blog), Dr Ross (great harp), Joe Hill Louis (what a sound!), Juke Boy Bonner, Blind Joe Hill, Duster Bennett (from England), Wilbert Harrison (often on piano), Ray Stubbs (also English and still going), WC Spencer (USA), Richard Johnston (excellent Hill Country blues), Erik Fingers Ray, more. Other notable names have to include Hasil Adkins (father of the modern punk/garage rock OMBs), Abner Jay (interesting sound on electric banjo), Bob Log 111, Xavier Rudd (big name from Australia), Homer Henderson (great blues/rockabilly/roots), O Lendario Chucrobillyman (from Brazil), Becky Lee and Drunkfoot (one of few women), Lonesome Organist (has to be seen to be believed; he's really good), Patrick Hazell (piano OMB), Robert One Man Johnson, Gee Gee Kettel (from Germany, and another who switched from standing to sitting), Venus Fly Trap, BBQ and many, many more!

Some of the most interesting OMBs have designed foot operated instruments. Joe Barrick, the subject of a good piece by Hal Rammel (easily found online) made what he called a piatarbajo (pia-piano, tar-guitar, ba-bass and jo-banjo), a foot operated contraption that housed all of the mentioned instruments except the piano (that reference is to the foot operated keys that pushed bars down on strings to change pitches). Unfortunately there don't seem to be recordings of him readily available but I have a few minutes of video. Others with these types of set-ups include Eric Royer (bluegrass/old time music from Boston), Fate Norris (long dead), Phil Wickendon, Greeley Robertson (can be seen on Youtube and recommended!), Albert Bergerault (France) and Albert Nelson (who took the concept further than anyone in the 1910's!). If I can figure out how, I'll post a musical selection by Nelson, who used pneumatic pressure to operate up to 30 instruments at once!

Other notable OMBs with unique set-ups include Leonard Solomon and His Bellowphone (on Youtube), Christopher of the Wolves, Winko Ljizz, Charles Kelly, I'm sure I'm forgetting a few...

One Man Band gear of note. Most OMBs make their own rigs, especially the stand up types. However, a guy named Pete Farmer builds great portable foot drums. These have a kick drum (bass), snare, high-hat, shakers and tambourine (with a pedal operated stick to hit the high-hat). For sitting OMBs, I highly recommend them (easily found at farmerfootdrums.com). Recently he's been working on a back rig too and has talked of a foot bass. I use them, as do Molly Gene, Paolo Sgallini, Fabio Fedra and a few others.

Well, if you find this interesting, watch for my book! I hope to have it finished around Christmas but it may be next year, depending on editing, layout, printing and if I keep finding names! Please comment, if you have anything to share!

I've added a video bar to my site, which should get you to my channel DslimHarris, where there are many videos of me (and other buskers and performers I've filmed) and over 500 OMB clips in my favourites. Enjoy!


  1. Fascinating info Dave. Let me know when the book is available. I'd like to buy one.


  2. Very interesting thanks!!

    I’m a one-man band from London. Had no idea there were so many!