10 Blues Harp Masters (1) – learning the secrets of the blues harmonica
Being an amateur blues harp player it is great to have the opportunity to do a little research and share some thoughts about the greats.
A good starting point is to get a couple of Muddy Waters CDs and trawl through the different harp players that Muddy recruited and provided the space for them to grow, such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Junior Wells , Walter Horton, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Oscher, Carey Bell and Jerry Portnoy just to mention a few. They don’t all get into the top ten, but of course this is all subjective.
Just to make the link check out this great vid with Muddy and Sonny Boy Williamson:
Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Rice Miller) was, in many ways, the ultimate blues legend. By the time of his death in 1965, he had been around long enough to have played with Robert Johnson at the start of his career and Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Robbie Robertson at the end of it.
What is known is that by the mid ’30s, he was traveling the Delta working under the alias of Little Boy Blue. With blues legends like Robert Johnson, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Elmore James as interchangeable playing partners, he worked the juke joints, fish fries, country suppers, and ball games of the era.
Check out Sonnyboy.com for more on his life and recordings
“If the harmonica is to blues what the saxaphone is to jazz, then Junior Wells is a post-bebop legend and one of the better players of the blues. He was along with James Cotton the last of a generation that grew out of Chicago in the late 40’s and early 50’s, when the blues scene featured such notables as John Lee Williamson and Rice Miller, Little Walter and Walter Horton.”
Musselwhite masters the old Chicago tradition and at the same time experiments like no one else does. Understanding what position he plays on certain tunes is an interesting challenge!
Paul Butterfield changed from playing the flute to playing blues harp and teamed up with Elvin Bishop and toured clubs where they met and played with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells.
“In the 1960’s in the blues clubs on Chicago’s south side, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was setting off the first depth charges of what would come to be a worldwide blues explosion.
Butterfield played and endorsed (as noted in the liner notes for his first album) Hohner harmonicas, in particular the diatonic ten-hole ‘Marine Band’ model. He played using an unconventional technique, holding the harmonica upside-down (with the low notes to the right hand side). His primary playing style was in the second position, also known as cross-harp, but he also was adept in the third position, notably on the track ‘East-West’ from the album of the same name, and the track ‘Highway 28’ from the “Better Days” album.
Seldom venturing higher than the sixth hole on the harmonica, Butterfield nevertheless managed to create a variety of original sounds and melodic runs. His live tonal stylings were accomplished using a Shure 545 Unidyne III hand-held microphone connected to one or more Fender amplifiers, often then additionally boosted through the venue’s public address (PA) system. This allowed Butterfield to achieve the same extremes of volume as the various notable sidemen in his band.
Butterfield also at times played a mixture of acoustic and amplified style by playing into a microphone mounted on a stand, allowing him to perform on the harmonica using both hands to get a muted, Wah-wah effect, as well as various vibratos. This was usually done on a quieter, slower tune.
Probably sitting more with the generation before the ‘electric’ harp players based in Chicago, Sonny Terry represents the last of the acoustic harp players.
“Whooping and wailing like a man possessed, Sonny Terry drew listeners into a sultry musical world populated with hot headed women and worried men. Though he often employed an ethereal falsetto voice, he was also capable of unleashing hair-raising hollers. His harmonica style was similarly compelling.
The North Carolina-born legend would vocalize through his harp, thus intensifying the plaintive moan of the instrument.”
“The Wolf began playing “folk blues” acoustic music when he got his first guitar in 1928. Influences include Charlie Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). Although he began in an acoustic style, he is best known for his loud and boisterous electric blues.”
“Walter Horton was considered by peers and fans alike to be a genius of the blues harmonica. He created a unique, fluid style that fused blues feeling with an uplifting jazzlike tone. The beauty that he created through his music was in striking contrast to the troubled life he lived.”
As for harmonicas, he used Hohner’s Marine Band. He was just as comfortable playing first position (A harp in the key of A) as with the more standard cross harp (D harp in the key of A). He did not do much with chromatic harmonicas. Although Big Walter could play in the style of other harp players (and was often asked to do so), he has no credible imitators. He is one of a kind.
ORIGINALITY. I call this the three-second test. If you turned on the radio and heard this player, could you tell within three seconds that it was them–assuming you knew their music to begin with? Lurking within what harp players call “tone” is the absolutely individuated voice, if you’re lucky enough to develop one.
INFLUENCE. Are the players in question central to the tradition of blues harmonica as it has emerged over the past 100+ years? Are they foundational in some way? Do they help modernize, consolidate, or conserve the tradition? Have they spawned imitators, including very good players who never escape their orbit? If you leave them off the list, has an injustice plainly been done? (John Lee Williamson changed the way everybody who came after him played harp. Billy Branch and Sugar Blue are, in very different ways, both the inheritors and modernizers of the Chicago blues harmonica tradition.)
TECHNICAL MASTERY. Does this player make music at a speed or with a complexity that sets him or her above the rest? (Little Walter in “Back Track” and “Roller Coaster,” James Cotton in “Creeper Creeps Again,” and Paul Butterfield in “Goin’ to Main Street” set a standard here, and Sonny Terry wins admission on the basis of pretty much any thing he’s every recorded. Sugar Blue raises the bar yet again. And please don’t forget DeFord Bailey.) Or, alternately, does this player have an extraordinary ability to hit the deep blues pitches, especially the so-called “blue third” that I discuss in many of my videos? (Junior Wells exhibits this sort of mastery.)
SOULFULNESS. In some ways, this criterion should lead things off. We’re talking about blues harmonica, after all, not basket weaving. We’re talking about an extraordinarily expressive instrument. The thing it seeks to express is a range of passions and moods, many of them very powerful and a few of them downright ugy. Does this player attack his or her instrument with ferocity that makes you shiver, or jump? Or with a late-night hoodoo-spookiness that makes you feel your own loneliness? Or with some magical combination of all those things that make you cry? (Howlin’ Wolf makes the Top-10 list for obvious reasons; so does Rice Miller, a.k.a. “Sonny Boy Williamson II.” Rev. Dan Smith, who may be less familiar to you, is the definition of soulful)
RECORDED EVIDENCE. In order to earn a spot on one of the top 10 lists , a player (or the partisans of a player) must be able to convince with the help of recorded evidence. Buddy Bolden was the greatest trumpet player ever to come out of New Orleans, many say, but he never made a recording. Obviously the best and most influential players can’t be fully summarized by 10 minutes’ worth of vinylized or digitized performances, and some players–John Lee Williamson in particular–don’t benefit from this exercise. Still, it has its virtues as a teaching tool and a way of guiding the conversation.
And if you want to learn blues harp playing then a good place to start is with Adam’s lessons on you tube and on his web site.
Try these lessons just to get you in the mood
and blues scale playing….
So listen to all blues harp players from the last 100 years (plenty of remasters around), as well as practising whenever you have a quiet moment -easy instrument to carry around so no excuses. And remember what Adam says -listen to a wide variety of music to understand rhythm and improvisation.