For those wanting to learn to play the blues harp – you don’t even have to own a harp.
To start, just listen and learn.
There are many recordings of harp players from the last 100 years and these days compilations can be picked up for just a few dollars/pounds/euros/yen.
Listen to the different styles,see if you can differentiate between when a player is blowing or drawing a note. What about timing and rhythm? What about the relationship between singing and playing the breaks or fill ins? Some great advice on Adam Gussow’s video lessons – as many already know.
For now – just sample some more from the following players:
Jimmy Reed (Mathis James Reed)
BORN: September 6, 1925, Dunleith, MS
DIED: August 29, 1976, Oakland, CA
There’s simply no sound in the blues as easily digestible, accessible, instantly recognizable and as easy to play and sing as the music of Jimmy Reed. His best-known songs — “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Honest I Do,” “You Don’t Have to Go,” “Going to New York,” “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” and “Big Boss Man” — have become such an integral part of the standard blues repertoire, it’s almost as if they have existed forever. Because his style was simple and easily imitated, his songs were accessible to just about everyone from high school garage bands having a go at it to Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Lou Rawls, Hank Williams, Jr., and the Rolling Stones, making him a most influential bluesman . His bottom string boogie rhythm guitar patterns (all furnished by boyhood friend and longtime musical partner Eddie Taylor), simple two-string turnarounds, countryish harmonica solos (all played in a neck rack attachment hung around his neck) and mush mouthed vocals were probably the first exposure most White folks had of the blues. And his music — lazy, loping and insistent and constantly built and reconstructed single after single on the same sturdy frame — was a formula that proved to be enormously successful and influential, both with middle-aged Blacks and young White audiences for a good dozen years. Jimmy Reed records hit the charts with amazing frequency and crossed over onto the pop charts on many occasions, a rare feat for an ‘unreconstructed’ bluesman.This is all the more amazing simply because Reed’s music was nothing special on the surface; he possessed absolutely no technical expertise on either of his chosen instruments and his vocals certainly lacked the fierce declamatory intensity of a Howlin’ Wolf or a Muddy Waters. But it was exactly that lack of in-your-face musical confrontation that made Jimmy Reed a welcome addition to everybody’s record collection back in the ’50s and ’60s. And for those aspiring musicians who wanted to give the blues a try, either vocally or instrumentally (no matter what skin color you were born with), perhaps Billy Vera said it best in his liner notes to a Reed greatest hits anthology: “Yes, anybody with a range of more than six notes could sing Jimmy’s tunes and play them the first day Mom and Dad brought home that first guitar from Sears & Roebuck.”
“Although Marion Jacobs, Aleck Miller, and Walter Horton are widely regarded as the chief architects of post-war blues harmonica, any list would be remiss without George “Harmonica” Smith. Like his contemporaries, Smith was a master of the instrument and left behind a legacy that still echoes in the playing of several harmonica players of the west-coast school; a school built in large part by the man himself.”
George Smith was born on April 22, 1924 in Helena, AR, but was raised in Cairo, IL. At age four, Smith was already taking harp lessons from his mother, a guitar player and a somewhat stern taskmaster — it was a case of get-it-right-or-else. In his early teens, he started hoboing around the towns in the South and later joined Early Woods, a country band with Early Woods on fiddle and Curtis Gould on spoons. He also worked with a gospel group in Mississippi called the Jackson Jubilee Singers.
Smith moved to Rock Island, IL, in 1941 and played with a group that included Francis Clay on drums. There is evidence that he was one of the first to amplify his harp. While working at the Dixie Theater, he took an old 16mm cinema projector, extracted the amplifier/speaker, and began using this on the streets.
His influences include Larry Adler and later Little Walter. Smith would sometimes bill himself as Little Walter Jr. or Big Walter. He played in a number of bands including one with a young guitarist named Otis Rush and later went on the road with the Muddy Waters Band, after replacing Henry Strong.
In 1954, he was offered a permanent job at the Orchid Room in Kansas City where, early in 1955, Joe Bihari of Modern Records (on a scouting trip), heard Smith, and signed him to Modern. These recording sessions were released under the name Little George Smith, and included “Telephone Blues” and “Blues in the Dark.” The records were a success.
James Moore was born on January 11, 1924 in Lobdell, LA.
“Probably the leading practitioner of “swamp blues”. His songs are typically slow, loping blues with a very soulful feeling. His harp playing was simple but very effective. He wrote most of his own material, and his songs have been covered frequently by everyone from the Rolling Stones (I’m a King Bee) to the Fabulous Thunderbirds (Rainin’ in my heart and others).”
In the large stable of blues talent that Crowley, LA producer Jay Miller recorded for the Nashville-based Excello label, no one enjoyed more mainstream success than Slim Harpo. Just a shade behind Lightnin’ Slim in local popularity, Harpo played both guitar and neck-rack harmonica in a more down-home approximation of Jimmy Reed, with a few discernible, and distinctive, differences. Slim’smusic was certainly more laid-back than Reed’s, if such a notion was possible. But the rhythm was insistent and overall, Harpo was more adaptable than Reed or most other bluesmen. His material not only made the national charts, but also proved to be quite adaptable for white artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks, Dave Edmunds with Love Sculpture, Van Morrison with Them, Sun rockabilly Warren Smith,Hank Williams, Jr. and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Several of his best tunes were co-written with his wife Lovelle and show a fine hand for song construction, appearing to have arrived at the studio pretty well-formed. His harmonica playing was driving and straightforward, full of surprising melodicism, while his vocals were perhaps best described by writer Peter Guralnick as “if a black country and western singer or a white rhythm and blues singer were attempting to impersonate a member of the opposite genre.” And here perhaps was Harpo’s true genius, and what has allowed his music to have a wider currency. By the time his first single became a Southern jukebox favorite, his songs being were adapted and played by White musicians left and right. Nothing resembling the emotional investment of a Howlin’ Wolf or a Muddy Waters was required; it all came natural and easy, and its influence has stood the test of time.
DIED: January 31, 1970, Baton Rouge, LA
Billy Boy Arnold
Born in Chicago, he began playing harmonica as a child, and in 1948 received informal lessons from his near neighbour John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, shortly before his death. Arnold made his recording debut in 1952 with “Hello Stranger” on the small Cool label, the record company giving him the nickname “Billy Boy”.
Arnold signed a solo recording contract with Vee-Jay Records, recording the originals of “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You“. Both were later covered by The Yardbirds,] and “I Wish You Would” was also recorded by David Bowie on his 1973 album, Pin Ups. “I Wish You Would” was also covered by Hot Tuna, on the 1976 album Hoppkorv.
Billy Branch has followed a very non-traditional path to the blues. Unlike many blues artists, he isn’t from the South. Billy was born in Chicago in 1951 and was raised in Los Angeles. He first picked up a harmonica at the age of ten and immediately began to play simple tunes.
Billy returned to Chicago in the summer of ’69 and graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in political science. It was during these years that he was introduced to the Blues. He soon became immersed in the local blues scene. He spent a great deal of time at legendary blues clubs such as: Queen Bee and Theresa’s Lounge; he learned from such stalwart harmonica players like: Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell.
His big break came in 1975 during a harmonica battle when he beat Chicago legend, Little Mac Simmons at the Green Bunny Club. He made his first recording for Barrelhouse Records and began to work as an apprentice harp player in Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars. He eventually replaced Carey Bell and worked with Willie Dixon for six years.
During this time, Billy formed the Sons Of Blues (S.O.B.s) featuring musicians who where the sons of famous blues artists. The original S.O.B.s consisted of Billy, Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon and Garland Whiteside. They toured Europe and played at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Shortly afterward, they recorded for Alligator Record’s Grammy-nominated Living Chicago Blues sessions, and Billy has been a regular studio player appearing on over fifty albums.
Billy has recorded and/or performed with an incredible list of Blues legends including: Muddy Waters, Big Walter Horton, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, and Albert King. In 1990, he appeared with three harp legends:Carey Bell, Junior Wells, and James Cotton on W.C Handy Award winner, Harp Attack! His most recent recordings for the Polygram label are entitled The Blues Keep Following Me Around and Satisfy Me.
Billy is also passing on the blues tradition to a new generation through his Blues In The Schools program. He is a dedicated blues educator and has taught in the Chicago school system for over twenty years as part of the Urban Gateways Project. In 1996, some of his finest students opened the Main Stage at the Chicago Blues Festival which was broadcast throughout the U.S. on National Public Radio.
Snooky Pryor (September 15, 1921 – October 18, 2006) was an American blues harp player. He claimed to have pioneered the now-common method of playing amplified harmonica by cupping a small microphone in his hands along with the harmonica, although on his earliest records in the late 1940s he did not utilize this method.
While serving in the U.S. Army he would blow bugle calls through the powerful PA system, which led him to experiment with playing the harmonica that way. Upon discharge from the Army in 1945, he obtained his own amplifier, and began playing harmonica at the outdoor Maxwell Street market, becoming a regular in the Chicago blues scene.
Pryor recorded some of the first postwar Chicago blues records in 1948, including “Telephone Blues” and “Snooky & Moody’s Boogie” with guitarist Moody Jones, and “Stockyard Blues” and “Keep What You Got” with singer/guitarist Floyd Jones. “Snooky & Moody’s Boogie” is of considerable historical significance: Pryor claimed that harmonica ace Little Walter directly copied the signature riff of Prior’s song into the opening eight bars of his own blues harmonica instrumental, “Juke,” an R&B hit in 1952. In 1967, Prior moved south to Ullin, Illinois. He quit music for carpentry in the late 1960s but was persuaded to make a comeback. After he dropped out of sight, Pryor was later re-discovered and resumed periodic recording until his death in nearby Cape Girardeau, Missouri at the age of 85.
“I needed a nickname… all the good ones were taken! You know ‘Muddy Waters’,’Blind Lemon’,’Sonny Boy’…until one night friend and I were leaving a concert – a Doc Watson concert – when somebody threw out of the window a box full of old 78s: I picked one up and it said “Sugar Blues” by Sidney Bechet…That’s it! I thought it was perfect…so here I am…
Born James Whiting – he was raised in Harlem, New York, where his mother was a singer and dancer at the fabled Apollo Theatre. He spent his childhood among the musicians and show people who knew his mother, including the great Billie Holiday, and decided that he wanted to be a performer. Blue received his first harmonica from his aunt, and proceeded to hone his chops by wailing along with Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder songs on the radio, he was soon to be influenced by the jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Lester Young.
Sugar Blue has used this background to his advantage, though, creating an ultra-modern blues style and sound that is instantly recognizable as his own.
Blue began his career as a street musician and made his first recordings in 1975 with legendary blues figures Brownie McGhee and Roosevelt Sykes . The following year, he contributed to recordings by Victoria Spivey and Johnny Shines before pulling up stakes and moving to Paris on the advice of pioneer blues pianist Memphis Slim .
While in France, Blue hooked up with members of the Rolling Stones , who instantly fell in love with his sound. The Stones invited Blue to join them in the studio. Besides his work on the Some Girls album, he can be heard on Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You . He appeared live with the group on numerous occasions and was offered the session spot indefinitely, but he turned it down, opting instead to return to the States and put his own band together rather than became a full-time sideman. Before returning to the U.S. in 1982, Blue cut a pair of albums, Crossroads and From Paris to Chicago.
Blue’s decision to return home, despite his growing renown as a session player, was spurred by his desire to work with and learn from the masters of blues harmonica. Thus he came to Chicago and proceeded to sit in with the likes of Big Walter Horton , Carey Bell , James Cotton and Junior Wells . Blue went on to spend two years touring with his friend and mentor Willie Dixon as part of the Chicago Blues All Stars before putting his own band together in 1983. With his own band, Blue’s star continued to rise. He received the 1985 Grammy Award for his work on the Atlantic album, Blues Explosion, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Jerry Portnoy (born 1943 in Chicago, Illinois) is a harmonica musician who has toured with Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton. Jerry grew up in Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street neighborhood where his family owned a store. His exposure to the blues began there with Little Walter and other Chicago Blues masters.
He made a special guest appearance on Bo Diddley‘s 1996 album A Man Amongst Men, playing harmonica on the track “I Can’t Stand It”.
Rod Piazza (born December 18, 1947 in Riverside, California) is an American blues harmonica player and singer. He’s been playing with his band The Mighty Flyers since 1980 which he formed with his pianist wife Honey Piazza. Their boogie sound combines the styles of jump blues, West Coast blues and Chicago blues.
In the mid 1960s, Piazza formed his first band The House of DBS, which later changed its name to the Dirty Blues Band. The band signed with ABC-Bluesway Records and released two albums in 1967 and 1968 respectively. The band broke up in 1968, and Piazza formed Bacon Fat that year. Piazza’s idol and mentor, George “Harmonica” Smith joined the band and they had a “dual harp” sound. Bacon Fat released two albums the following two years. Piazza left and worked in other bands before going solo in 1974.
“Born Aaron Willis in Greensboro, Alabama, “Sonny” (His mom’s nickname for him) had been playing harmonica since he was a child. Seeing Sonny Boy Williamson preform in a Detroit bar in 1953, Willis saw his destiny as a musician.”
When Little Sonny wasn’t working local haunts with John Lee Hooker, Eddie Burns, Eddie Kirkland, Baby Boy Warren, or Washboard Willie (who gave him his first paying gig), he was snapping photos of the patrons for half a buck a snap.
Although not the greatest harp player, and technically there are many better British harp players, Mayall’s ability to bring on young musicians, particularly guitarists (no need to mention them) and gain a wide audience for the blues meant that his playing inspired many a young hopeful by introducing them to the blues.
Listen and enjoy Parchman Farm:
Although John Mayall is often called the ‘father of British blues’ but the honour probably should go to a lesser known musician Cyril Davis who along with Alexis Korner really ‘fathered’ the blues in Britain in the early 50’s.