In 1991, while playing harmonica in the typically frantic style that earned him the nickname “Shakey Joe,” Joe Harless dropped and broke the microphone that he had been using to amplify his playing. Strapped for cash, he decided to rely on his experience as a draftsman to design and build a replacement on his own.
Armed with little more than $167 and the assurances of a distributor that his homemade microphone was a winning design, Shakey Joe and his wife, Dawn, converted their Chandler, Ariz., back porch into a workshop and started a company out of thin air: Shaker Microphones.
By 2019, the Harlesses had relocated to Alpena, just
south west of Harrison, and brought with them a starry customer-base that includes the likes of David Bowie, Huey Lewis and famed jazz harmonica player Peter “Madcat” Ruth.
When Harless and his wife decided to start Shaker Microphones out of their home, Harless was 39 years old, working as a landscaper. He had three young boys. Unable to quit his day job, Harless worked nights and weekends to develop and build a prototype of what he considered a vast improvement on the current state of harmonica microphones. Old-fashioned and bulky, microphones for harmonicas (or harps, as they are often called) hadn’t seen a lot of innovation since the 1940s. Harless wanted to build a microphone that worked more organically with the way a harmonica is actually played.
“I wanted something that fit in the hand and didn’t take a lot of effort to continue to hold,” Harless said. “So I went and got clay and I started actually doing clay models to fit in the hand — in my hands — and I had others try it out.” The result was an ergonomically designed microphone, made with a proprietary mixture of thermosetting resins that allowed the mic to weigh only 3.5 ounces, as opposed to others that weighed as much as 18 ounces.
Harless was also focused on sound, particularly on controlling and eliminating unwanted feedback, a persistent enemy of harp players everywhere. “I went to a couple of conventions where they sell hearing aids and discuss hearing technologies, and I took that information and came up with a technology we call GNS — that stands for Good Noise Sampling,” Harless explained. “The physics of the mic are actually different; our microphones don’t function like anybody else’s.”
That Harless’ innovations were much needed in the industry is evidenced by the rapid — and hard-earned — success the company had in its early days in Arizona. In 1992, about six months after developing his first prototypes, Harless was encouraged to attend the National Association of Music Merchants annual show in Anaheim, Calif., considered to be the largest trade-only music product and technology convention in the world.
Harless was told that no distributor would be likely to order any products in their first year of production out of a fear of the unknown. His microphones, however, drew the eye of some of the largest music distributors in the country, including C.F. Martin & Co., known most widely for its Martin guitars.
The GNS technology developed by Harless allows for a much more nuanced amplification of sound. “With the GNS technology, you can actually play the microphone also,” Harless said. “You get different effects, different tonalities … it’s a different animal.”
“[The C.F. Martin distributor] came to us, and he said, ‘I love it, play this,’ and I played it,” Harless said. “He looked at me and said, ‘You know, no one signs any company right away, but I’m gonna make an exception.’ ”
At Harless’ very first appearance at the NAMM show in 1992, C.F. Martin ordered 268 microphones to distribute nationally, a humongous order for an operation being run by a man, his wife and his three sons from the back porch of their home. Unable to secure a business loan — financial institutions tended to balk at the absence of a traditional engineering background — Shaker relied on the generosity of those in his community, with loans from his parents, his brother-in-law and his sister. Even an old girlfriend chipped in.
“It was hard man, it was really hard,” Harless said. “I think we had 21 days to fill those first 268 orders, and we had to work around the clock seven days a week until we got the first orders filled.”
From that point on, the quality of the microphone, the national distribution and Harless’ relentless and effective salesmanship snowballed into an increasingly successful operation. By 1996, Shaker Microphones had picked up additional distributors in the United States, Australia, Japan and across Europe. Over that period, Harless and his family had gone from four prototype microphones to an annual production of about 2,700 — all handmade with American materials found as close to home as possible.
“I had [my family] working with me at night,” Harless said. “My wife is very good on a drill press. It’s a big machine that you can drill through steel and stuff.”
About a year later, Harless stood at the end of a tunnel, backstage at an arena in Tempe, Ariz. At the other end of the hallway was Steven Tyler of Aerosmith fame. Tyler was such a fan of Shaker Microphones that he had not only bought three and used them for both recording and live shows, but had personally invited Harless to the arena so he could meet the man behind the microphones.
In the mid-aughts, on their way back to Arizona from a music distribution convention in Nashville, Tenn., the Harlesses took an impromptu detour, leaving Interstate 40 while passing through Arkansas to drive up National Scenic Byway 7, eventually settling in Harrison for the night. Harless, harmonicas in hand, went out to see some local sights and landed at the historic Hotel Seville, where a band of local teenagers was jamming.
As tends to happen when a man carries multiple harmonicas on his person, Harless ended up on stage alongside the band, lending an assist on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” “I went back home to the motel,” Harless said, “and I was stoked … this is a pretty cool town.” Three days later, after returning to their home in Arizona, Dawn Harless was calling a real estate agent in Harrison.
Just like that, the Harless family and Shaker Microphones moved to Alpena, a community of less than 400 people about 14 miles from Harrison. They bought a 10-acre farm and built a factory. While the couple was drawn to the state largely for its natural beauty and vibrant music scene, Harless had a more specific draw as well: the King Biscuit Blues Festival, held annually on the banks of the Mississippi River in Helena-West Helena.
“When you’re from the West Coast, it’s legendary,” Harless said. “Everybody in the world knows about the King Biscuit. One thing I always thought in my mind was, ‘I’m gonna play the King Biscuit.’ ” And play it he did. Harless even won the 2005 Arkansas Heritage Blues Award with his band Big Red and the Soul Benders, though he doesn’t think much of awards.
“I didn’t even know I was competing,” Harless said. “I don’t think music should be a competition, that’s just my own personal thing. … I think it’s an expression and it’s an art.”
Shaker Microphones may be manufactured in Alpena, a fact of which its founder is immensely proud, but they are used by some of the biggest names in music around the world. These microphones — with castings from Springfield, Mo., knobs from Texas, grills cast in Baton Rouge, La., and a great deal of Arkansas parts and labor — are used by legends like Peter “Madcat” Ruth, Van Morrison, Jimmy Buffett’s harmonica player (nicknamed, incredibly, “Fingers” Taylor), Norton Buffalo (apparently harp players are required to have memorable names) of the Steve Miller Band and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
Not long after the company started in 1991, Huey Lewis called Harless and asked for one of the microphones he’d been hearing about. Lewis eventually invited Harless to have dinner with him when his tour came through Arizona.
Harless’ most famous customer, however, might be David Bowie. While rehearsing for what would be his final tour, Bowie had a nightmare about someone stealing all of his Shaker microphones. When he woke up, he ordered more Shakers just to be safe. “We had to ship him three mics overnight,” Harless said, “and it was so cool, the guy takes the phone, he’s in the recording studio, and I got to listen to the [dress rehearsal for] the tour before anybody else did.”
Harless is approaching retirement age now, and the future of Shaker Microphones is somewhat cloudy, despite healthy production numbers and virtually endless customer demand.
While Harless initially wanted to keep the company in the family by having one of his sons take over, his sons are happily employed in Alaska and aren’t interested in taking on the business.
“Your life isn’t your kid’s life. … I actually think I will probably have to sell the company,” Harless said. “But it has to be to somebody cool.
“I have the greatest job in the world. I hang out with bands. I go to dinner. I play music. And I build something that I’m proud of.”