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

Junior Wells

Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man BluesPhoto courtesy Price Grabber
Known as the “Godfather of the Blues,” Junior Wells was able to grab an audience by the ears and take them on a musical roller-coaster ride with his own unique spin on the classic Chicago blues sound. Often performing alongside guitarist Buddy Guy, Wells enjoyed a lengthy career that spanned 50 years, his staggering harp solos and vocal interplay defining the Chicago blues harp sound at a time when the music was still shedding its country roots, taking the music to new heights of critical acclaim and commercial acceptance.

“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.”

“Little Walter” Jacobs

Little Walter's His BestPhoto courtesy Geffen Records
More than any other harp-slinger, “Little Walter” Jacobs owned the Chicago blues scene from the moment of his arrival in 1946, and through the end of the 1950s. A dynamic soloist, Little Walter created new tones and bright new textures with the instrument.
An underrated vocalist with a gritty, soulful voice, Walter was also a skilled songwriter and natural-born bandleader. The dominant blues harp player of the post-war years, Walter’s influence can still be heard in the music of harpists like Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza, and Kim Wilson.
Some other comments on Little Walter:
Walter electrified the harmonica, transforming it from a back-up instrument to a solo voice, making it moan low or soar high into the stratosphere, like the greatest of instruments, making sounds the harmonica never made before.(Mac Walton)
“Any discussion of Muddy Waters and his harp players must start by focusing on the fiery young harp pioneer Little Walter Jacobs. After brief periods with Little Johnny Jones (better known as a pianist) and Jimmy Rogers (better known as a guitarist) on harp, Walter held the harp seat in Muddy’s regular performing band from around 1947 until 1952, and thereafter continued to appear on Muddy’s recording sessions whenever he was able until shortly before his death in 1968. Although in reality Walter and Muddy were not even part of the same generation of bluesmen – Muddy was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta region fifteen years before Walter, who was from Louisiana Creole country – they shared a musical telepathy that has seldom been equaled. Walter’s darting and swooping harmonica lines seamlessly intertwined with Muddy’s music, adding elements of melody, harmony, and notably, a sense of swing that had previously not been heard in the raw delta funk of Muddy and his peers. Some of the greatest moments in Chicago Blues occurred when these two titans joined forces, so it’s no wonder that both Muddy and Chess Records felt that the harmonica should continue to be a part of “the Muddy sound”

James Cotton


“James Cotton is one of the best-known blues harmonica musicians in the world, and certainly one of the best of the modern Chicago blues stylists, recognized for the power and precision of his playing.”

Charlie Musselwhite

Charlie MusselwhitePhoto courtesy The Rosebud Agency

Charlie Musselwhite

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!

Blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite rose out of the Chicago blues scene of the 1960s and, along with Paul Butterfield, helped bring blues music to a young white audience. His move to Northern California late in the decade brought the blues to the children of flower-power and, in the decades since, the artist has been an effective ambassador for blues music. More than anything, however, Musselwhite has helped expand the stylistic barriers of the blues, bringing elements of jazz, Tex-Mex, and even world music into his traditional mix of Delta and Chicago blues styles.
From one of his best and early albums ‘stand back’ – you must listen to Christo Redemptor….

Paul Butterfield


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.

Sonny Terry

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.”



Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Arthur Burnett)


“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.”

Big Walter Horton

“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.

Carey Bell

“One of Chicago’s defining harpists (though often overshadowed by legends like Junior Wells)… Born in Macon, Mississippi on November 14, 1936, Bell moved to Chicago in 1956 with his godfather, respected blues and country and western pianist Lovie Lee.
After having taught himself to play harmonica at eight years old, he started taking lessons from Little Walter, and met Honeyboy Edwards. He remains an eloquent harpist with a commanding voice.”
And where would you put Billy Boy Arnold and  George Smith ? Just add some more of your favourites and decide where they go in the top ten!
Adam Gussow, a great supporter of all those trying to learn and to improve their blues harmonica paying, suggests some criteria by which you should judge those who belong in the ‘top 10’:

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.


~ by Ray Harris on October 6, 2009.

19 Responses to “10 Blues Harp Masters (1) – learning the secrets of the blues harmonica”

  1. Thanks for providing these videos and text. It is great to see some of the artists that we’ve tried to emulate.

  2. For me, Sonny Terry is still The Man. No overdrive, distortion or mic to give his sound its punch; just harp and lungs.

    • Hi Scooter,
      Yes a very special player -so much heart and spirit in his playing -nothing else just pure Sonny Terry, with a particular and individual style.

  3. I just found this fantastic site about the great harmonica players! I have wanted to learn to play for 40 years and just never took the time. I grabbed my harmonica (that I bought years ago) when I deployed to Iraq and plan to finally take the time to learn. i will be here for 6 more months, so I sure have the time now.

  4. just found this great site. thanks

  5. I hope “Sarge” is – and remains – healthy over there; and that he’s doing well with his plan to work on his harp playing.

    Sarge: we wish you success and safety, and please let us know how you’re coming along!

  6. Un grand MERCI for ALL

  7. Thanks for taking the time to put together this great site! I’ve had a love a blues harp for many years. I just wish I could play better harp myself! I’m a photographer and I have a picture of Junior Wells playing at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago a few years before his death. Here’s a link to it at my website.


    You are more than welcome to use it if you like and I could send you a larger file if you wanted it.

    Again, thank you very much for your efforts!

  8. No mention of “dr. Ross, the Harmonica Boss?” A one-man-band virtuoso, to be sure. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2BDVjoq1nw


  9. Have you seen and heard this tune :
    Big Mama Thornton & friends – Downhall shakedown)

  10. The Harmonica Blues player is everthing about soul, and inside depth of how a individual feeles, when all he or she has is the blues, aquire a ten hole marine band harp, and even if you cant read music you surely can hear it, feel the sound find the key be the harp and the music you play, in time you will hear everthing you feel, and live thruogh the great soles that lived played and breathed the blues, them were the days that these poor working men and women lived every day in the Blues but created many blue skys for all us to follow, please do follow one of our newer greats Adam Gussow on a path to true pleasure of mastering this magnificent instrument we call the harp,,, and for some true Canadian inspiration check out our very own great that should be on any top ten list a true master of the Harp Blues and about, Mr Mike Stevens is a real virtuoso of the Harp, will take you to places you never thought the harp could take you, and is the founder of ArtsCan a non profit charity for youth, to show them there is a musical light at the end of each of oue tunnels, in far northern areas of the country, a truley great inspirational family, Mr Mike Stevens
    May you all be blessed in this great avenue of music.
    Ontario Canada
    The Care Bear

  11. We would like to thank Adam Gussow, and all the other great harmonica players who put in and give there time for people, so they can learn this great instrument, called the Harmonica, no matter what direction your Harp may take you , the Blues are just around the corner, feel them play them, and play from the Harp
    and lets all tip our hats to all the Great Blues woman and men who came before us, and there bands, and remember them and who they were and there names and there storys, may there souls never ever die, and may they always live in the hearts and souls of every person who feel the Blues, and the music that grew from it .
    innisfil , Ontario, Canada

  12. Very well said…and I would like to greatly and dearly thank Adam Gussow for giving so much of his love for music…Harp..and to care enough so othes can feel what he has for years..I put Adam Gussow as one of the greats for everthing he does for people and the music. ..he is up there with my number one humanitarian
    Mr Mike Stevens…if there ever was a great Harp player that can reach the far edges of the universe with his playing and mostly with his heart is this fine man..from Ontario, Canada. .
    I think Adam Gussow and
    Mike Stevens should both get together and do something great together for all..as I am sure they will go down in history in some great way…may we never forget all the musicans that are great and most of all great humanitarians….for the love of music and people. .

  13. Hi came across your site by accident, wow I was fascinated by the playing of these old musicians … I have recently been turned on to harmonica after hearing a guy called (I think?) Judd L… (not sure of surname!), he was invited on stage on stage at The Dublin Castle in London by a band (once again…can’t remember the name…my ex was dying to see them!), and wow could he play, tried to talk to him but sadly he had left before I had the chance.

    Just wondering if he has any recordings or is with a band? Googles giving me nothing for Judd L other than Judd Lambert!

    • Hi Julie
      The only reference I could find was to Judd Lander.
      To recap for a moment, Judd Lander is purported to have taken lessons from Sonny Boy II during his formative playing days in Liverpool. He subsequently relocated to London where he found studio session work and launched Charisma Records. His playing is not complex, relying as it does on cross harp blues sequences, but it is highly polished and instantly recognisable. Full of natural tone and excellent phrasing, Judd Lander gives his harp licks real ‘voice’ without resorting to digital trickery or overdriven tubes. (From Harp Surgery -http://www.harpsurgery.com/). Hope this helps and apologies for late reply.

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