William “Billy Boy” Arnold (born September 16, 1935, Chicago, Illinois) is an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter.
Seemingly under rated, but still a considerable influence.
I ain’t got you
I wish you would
The Yardbirds, with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, revived both “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You” in 1964, testifying to Arnold’s influence on the British blues explosion. “It really gave me a boost all the way around,” says Billy. “It was a great compliment.”
Sweet on you Baby
Every day,every night
Love me baby
Keep listening and learning -here is a lesson from Liam Ward
and that version by the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton:
While visiting Nigel, in Southern France recently, we listened to a whole CD of Willie Dixon. Although a prolific song writer, we realised we knew many of his songs but in fact we did not know him well as lead singer and band leader. We knew his songs through the many artists, from Muddy Waters onwards who recorded his songs.
Let’s start exploring the life and works of this great Blues giant ( and of course , physically as an ex-boxer, he was quite a giant!).
William James “Willie” Dixon (July 1, 1915 – January 29, 1992) was an American blues musician, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and record producer. A Grammy Award winner who was proficient on both the upright bass and the guitar and as a vocalist, Dixon is perhaps best known as one of the most prolific songwriters of his time.
He is recognized as one of the founders of the Chicago blues sound. Dixon’s songs have been recorded by countless musicians in many genres as well as by various ensembles in which he participated. A short list of the man’s most famous compositions includes “Little Red Rooster”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Evil”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man”, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “My Babe”, “Wang Dang Doodle”, “You Shook Me”, and “Bring It On Home”. These tunes were written during the peak of Chess Records, 1950–1965, and performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, influencing a worldwide generation of musicians.
Lets start with I am the Blues
One of the great exponents of Willie’s songs and band leader,Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield):
Hoochie Coochie Man:
and those who were greatly influenced -Eric Clapton, with the just as great, Buddy Guy
Then Spoonful :
and to illustrate who he influenced-
Ten Years After :
an interview with Willie Dixon -with a focus on Muddy Water’s harp players:
Willie Dixon wrote many songs which Howling Wolf recorded, such as EVIL
and those who were influenced such as Captain Beefheart :
and Little Red Rooster by the Wolf:
and those who were influenced such as the Grateful Dead:
Back Door Man – Willie Dixon live:
and those he influenced -the Doors -Back Door Man
i just wanna make love to you -Willie Dixon
and those he influenced – such as Etta James
I ain’t superstitious -Willie Dixon
and those he influenced such as Jeff Beck
Another great Willie Dixon song -beautifully crafted by Little Walter (and no covers)
Wang Dang Doodle with Koko Taylor and Little Walter
and those he influenced like Savoy Brown:
You shook me -Willie Dixon
and Jeff Beck’s version
And Willy Dixon’s ‘Bring it on home’ – played by Sonny Boy Williamson (who else could do this one?)
Willie Dixon certainly liked harp players -here’s Little Walter again with ‘Mellow Down Easy”
and a great Paul Butterfield version:
If you think that is quite a portfolio of songs -go to this link and see the real list of songs and their cover artists:
Apart from bending notes ,wah wah must be the next key ‘effect’ that belongs in the blues harp player’s basic toolbox. Many players can produce a wah wah effect but do not have the control to provide the variety of sounds that more advanced players can achieve. Adam Gussow, once again, provides those specific hints to give any learner the power to produce a really professional sound, with practice.
Just sit back and listen to the lesson. Following the lesson we can sample those players who have mastered the different wah wah effects , such as Sonny Boy Williamson II , Big Walter Horton and Sonny Terry . Lastly, pick up your harp, go back to Adam’s lesson and practice.
One of the best exponents of the wah wah effect on harp was Sonny Boy Williamson – particularly the first type illustrated by Adam:
With Sonny Boy II and ‘Your funeral and my trial’ have a look at his hand positions whn making his different wah wah sounds
Check out Big Walter Horton in the next video s he shows you many ways of holding the harp and what difference it makes to the sound , particularly wah wah.
This is Sonny Terry’s Hooting the blues -check out the variety of sounds he gets with his hand movements (see type three in Adam’s classification)
Sonny Terry helped Paul Lamb get started -takee a look at how the student progressed:
Some great wah wah in the middle and a little more teaching from Paul Lamb….
lYou might like to look at how other teachers approach the wah wah sound (but not as good as Adam for me)
Watch and listen to another teacher -Ronnie Shellist
Listen to others,watch others and just practice so that you develop ‘muscle memory’ and eventually you can get your own sound.
As well as a general description of some of the “top 10′ blues harp players I thought I would explore in some more detail, some of the real greats. I have started with Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson) and Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Rice Miller) and now we have Marion ‘Little Walter’ Jacobs. One of the best ways to learn blues harp is to first listen to as many great players as you can exploring the wide variety of sounds that can be produced by this humble instrument.
Little Walter (born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, LA, and raised in Alexandria, LA) (May 1, 1930 – February 15, 1968) was a blues singer, harmonica player, and guitarist.
Jacobs is generally included among blues music greats—his revolutionary harmonica technique has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix in its impact. There were great musicians before and after, but Jacobs’ virtuosity and musical innovations reached heights of expression never previously imagined, and fundamentally altered many listeners’ expectations of what was possible on blues harmonica. . Little Walter’s body of work earned him a spot in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the sideman category on March 10, 2008, making him the only artist ever to be inducted specifically for his work as a harmonica player.
One version of the life of Little Walter:
Arriving in Chicago in 1945, he occasionally found work as a guitarist but garnered more attention for his already highly developed harmonica work. (According to fellow Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones, Little Walter’s first recording was an unreleased demo on which Walter played guitar backing Jones.) Jacobs grew frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists, and adopted a simple, but previously little-used method: He cupped a small microphone in his hands along with his harmonica, and plugged the microphone into a guitar or public address amplifier. He could thus compete with any guitarist’s volume. Unlike other contemporary blues harp players, such as the original Sonny Boy Williamson and Snooky Pryor, who had been using this method only for added volume, Little Walter utilized amplification to explore radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that “He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion.”
Early Little Walter recordings, like many blues harp recordings of the era, owed a strong stylistic debt to pioneering blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson.) Little Walter joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1948, and by 1950 he was playing on Muddy’s recordings for Chess Records; for years after his departure from Muddy’s band in 1952, Little Walter continued to be brought in to play on his recording sessions, and as a result his harmonica is featured on most of Muddy’s classic recordings from the 1950s.
Jacobs’ own career took off when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess’ subsidiary label Checker Records on 12 May 1952; the first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session was a massive hit, spending eight weeks in the #1 position on the Billboard magazine R&B charts – the song was “Juke”, and it was the only harmonica instrumental ever to become a #1 hit on the R&B charts. (Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter also reached the Billboard R&B top 10: “Off the Wall” reached #8, “Roller Coaster” achieved #6, and “Sad Hours” reached the #2 position while Juke was still on the charts.) “Juke” was the biggest hit to date for Chess and its affiliated labels, and secured Walter’s position on the Chess artist roster for the next decade. Little Walter scored fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including two #1 hits (the second being “My Babe” in 1955), a feat never achieved by his former boss Waters, nor by his fellow Chess blues artists Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Following the pattern of “Juke”, most of Little Walter’s single releases in the 1950s featured a vocal on one side, and an instrumental on the other. Many of Walter’s numbers were originals which he or Chess A&R man Willie Dixon wrote or adapted and updated from earlier blues themes. In general his sound was more modern and uptempo than the popular Chicago blues of the day, with a jazzier conception than other contemporary blues harmonica players.
and many people’s favourite…My Babe
Key to the highway
and an early recording of Moonshine Blues (Little Walter Trio)
His legacy has been enormous: he is widely credited by blues historians as the artist primarily responsible for establishing the standard vocabulary for modern blues and blues rock harmonica players. – His influence can be heard in varying degrees in virtually every modern blues harp player who came along in his wake, from blues greats such as Junior Wells, James Cotton, George “Harmonica” Smith, Carey Bell, and Big Walter Horton, through modern-day masters Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and Charlie Musselwhite, in addition to blues-rock crossover artists such as Paul Butterfield and John Popper of Blues Traveler.
Blues with a feeling:
His 1952 instrumental ‘Juke’ was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and on 19 December 2007, was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame as an “example of recorded musical masterpieces that have significantly impacted our musical history”
Little Walter was also a much in demand session player and played with a number of great artists, here he is playing with Hound Dog Taylor.
The subject of how Little Walter got “his sound” has been an area of great interest among blues harp players over the last 50-plus years, and has spawned much speculation and debate concerning the exact types of amplifiers and microphones he used. Unfortunately – and amazingly, considering his huge popularity during his heyday – there are no known photographs of Little Walter performing with his own band in the 1950s that show his amplifier, either on a live gig or in the studio. Many of the people who were present on his gigs and studio sessions have been queried over the years – musicians Jimmy Rogers, Dave Myers, Louis Myers, and Jimmie Lee Robinson, among many others – but none of them were paying enough attention to Little Walter’s equipment at the time (let alone their own) to remember any of the specifics of Little Walter’s set-up when they were asked about it later.
There’s also the issue of defining “The Little Walter sound”. It’s more-or-less generally accepted these days that Little Walter’s signature harmonica sound was the harsh, heavily distorted sound of a cheap mic and an old tube amp pushed to its limits. But if one takes the time to listen to the recordings of Little Walter’s amplified harp playing in chronological order, it becomes obvious that his sound changed noticeably and sometimes dramatically from session to session, from the almost-acoustic sound of “Juke” and “Can’t Hold On Much Longer”, to the broken-kazoo rasp of “Rocker”, and everything in between. In fact, close examination reveals that there were a lot more recordings made with a light-to-moderately amplified harmonica sound than there were with the over-driven, harshly distorted sound that so many latter-day harp players think of as ‘the LW sound’. So although we may not know specifically what he was playing through on any given session, based on the ever-changing nature of his amplified harp sound on records, it does seem pretty clear that he went through a wide array of different amplifiers, and that there was no single microphone & amplifier combination that he settled on, or considered essential to achieving his desired results.
When Little Walter himself was asked about it, he was unable to even remember the brand name of his favorite amplifier, let alone the model, and offered a somewhat confusing description of what it looked like. So unless a pile of Little Walter performance photos that has been buried in someone’s closet for last half century suddenly comes to light, it appears that the precise identity of any of the many different amplifiers Little Walter undoubtedly used during his prime years will remain in the realm of educated guesses and wild speculation. It simply is not known with any certainty, and it would be wise to question the motives of anyone who claims otherwise – they’re probably trying to sell you something.
Some diligent detective work has turned up a few possible candidates in the amplifier category though. According to several of the musicians who played in his bands, in the early ’50s Walter had a portable P.A. system which he took on the road and used for both vocals and harp, which makes sense – guitar amps were for guitars, and P.A. systems were for microphones. As a singer/harp player, Little Walter needed something not just for harp, but also for his vocals, so a P.A. system would have been the logical choice for the job. Guitarist Jimmie Lee Robinson, who played in LW’s band from 1955 to 1959, said LW never even brought an amp to his local gigs in Chicago – he always played through the house P.A. system in local clubs. But it’s important to consider that Little Walter’s choice of a P.A. system (as opposed to a guitar amp) for his harmonica probably wasn’t based on any special ‘mojo’ factor afforded by the P.A. amp vs. a guitar amp. More likely, it was simply because that’s what ALL singers used; it’s what was available at the time, and if you were a singing harp player in the ’50s, you played your harp into the same mic you sang into. In other words, one wouldn’t have one mic/amp combination for the harp, and a separate mic plugged into a P.A. system for the vocals, as so many do today – according the guitarists Jimmie Lee Robinson and Dave Myers, Walter always used the same mic for both harp and vocals on club gigs. It was just a happy accident that the relatively low quality of vocal mic / P.A. set-ups available at the time was well suited for the amplified harp sound.
There are a number of photos taken in Chicago blues clubs during that era that show house P.A. systems consisting of the same type of portable systems referred to above, so it’s entirely likely that he would have a similar set up of his own for road gigs. Guitarist Dave Myers, who played in LW’s band from 1952 until 1955, said that he thought that LW had a “Macon” amplifier at one point; since there doesn’t appear to be such a brand available at the time, he probably confused the name with “Masco”, a brand of portable P.A. systems which were common then. At that time, the standard portable P.A. systems consisted of two separate speaker cabinets and a small stand-alone tube amp that could be attached together into a single, suitcase-like unit for portability. Among the companies that manufactured these systems were Stromberg-Carlson, Masco, Knight, Bell, Bogan and others, and each of these companies made various models, but many with the same basic two-speaker-cabinets-and-an-amp configuration. It’s likely that Little Walter used at least one of these brands at some point.
See the site for more details and an interview with Little Walter.
The “Juke” session. A 7″ reel, not in the original tape box, but a photocopy of the original session log is with the tape. There’s no ‘take one’ on this reel, but it is a full reel, suggesting that T1 was not removed from the reel, but that the tape was rewound immediately after T1 (probably a breakdown), and it was recorded over. The first thing at the beginning of this tape is T2, which is the issued master take of “Juke”, separated from the rest of the tape by white leader tape on both sides. Immediately before T3:
Jimmy Rogers: I’ll give you that boogie…
The take begins, with what sounds exactly like the issued alternate take, but instead of launching into the song after the repeated ‘stabbing’ intro, everyone just keeps on stabbing, apparently not knowing where to do the ‘stop’ where LW will then launch into the body of the song. They eventually falter, and everyone stops.
Elga: (Apologetically) I was off. [I assume this is Elga – it’s definitely not Muddy, Jimmy or LW.]
LW: (calmly) Ya see, if he’d a kicked it off right…we coulda made it, and I could given you the ‘bop bop bop bop bop ba BOP’ (describing the final hits before he launches into the body of the song.)
Muddy: When you give me the ‘bop bop bop BOP’…
Elga: Well, I’m watching your foot, when you start. Well, I’m gonna start with you this time, when YOU start.
[Walter seems to be in a good mood, speaking without any trace of irritation in his voice.]
The engineer (Putnam) calls Take 4 in the middle of the above discussion, and LW starts playing almost immediately, while Elga is still speaking, with no count in.
[My impression is that the first complete take, T2, must have been the best worked-out version – the one they were doing on the band stand – and that afterwards they decided to try and spice it up a little bit by adding in the new intro. It may have been felt that the new arrangement wasn’t tight enough or something, after trying it out a few times in the studio. At any rate, there are no further attempts at this after T4.]
After the take ends, a few seconds later you can hear what was on this reel before it was re-used for this Chess session – a commercial for “Lava” hand soap. A 1950s-style radio announcer can be heard for a few seconds saying “Lava soap gets out grease, grit from under the nails, and every other…” The next thing heard on the tape is the continuation of the LW session. Immediately before T1:
Len: (giving LW direction on how to do the song)…’Crazy About You Baby’, then WHAM!…
T1 starts with LW’s harp, heavily amplified sound, then is stopped from the control booth during the intro.
Len: You squeak on your intro on the harp, I don’t know why…
Putnam: Turn the volume down a little, I’ll pull it up in here.
Len: Turn your volume down.
LW (quietly): It’s turned down, Leonard.
Putnam: Take 2…
…and LW starts immediately, with no count in. T2 is the issued alt. – the harp is less amplified than T1.
The tape is stopped, then once again an old time radio commercial is heard bleeding through for a few seconds, this time for a live broadcast from Chicago’s Hotel Sherman on local radio station WMAQ.
When the tape starts again, LW can be heard snorting loudly, clearing his sinuses. Someone in the studio says something unintelligible in the background.
LW: Yeah! (laughing nervously…) Heh heh heh heh…
Putnam: Walter, you’re too loud…
Evans: It’s too loud, the amp.
Putnam: Take 4
LW starts again, this time playing strictly acoustic style – no amp at all, and noticeably faster than the earlier takes. Putnam almost immediately breaks in and stops the take.
Putnam: Use the hand mic…
LW: (Agreeably) No, you said it was too low, I mean, it’s… (tape stops)
Tape starts again.
Putnam: Take 5
LW starts again. It sounds exactly like the issued master take, but Putnam stops them again.
Putnam: I didn’t have a good balance…(pauses)…Take 6.
This take is leadered on the tape, and is the issued master, and the last thing on the tape.
The next reel up was a 10” reel. There were no session log sheets with it, but attached to the box was a sheet of paper that had these words written on it:
Only 19 – M. Waters 8979
Close To You – M. Waters 8980
Walkin’ Thru The Park – Muddy Waters 9140
Key To The Highway – vocal – Little Walter 8981
Inst. – Juke – In two Inst. 8982
“ “ 9141
(pulled 12/10/76 to Walter Vol. 2)
The tape starts with the leadered master to 19 Years Old – no count in. No other takes or talking. This is followed by…
Engineer (doesn’t sound like Putnam): OK, we’re rolling on take 2.
LW: Say man, take it [or “dig it”], why don’t you play with your brushes, get a better sound…
? (musician, to LW): Why don’t you let him drive it?
Muddy: Let him drive it…
LW: I want ‘em to hear me…
Muddy: Let’s make it.
Muddy then counts the song in, and they play “Close To You”, with the drummer (Clay?) using sticks instead of brushes. This is the only take on the tape, and has leader tape after it separating it from the next song.
[LW was apparently complaining that the drummer was playing too loud and was drowning him out.]
Next cut begins with LW in the middle of describing the rhythm of his intro to “Walkin’ Thru The Park” to the band.
LW: (snapping fingers on accents): Bamp, Bam de Bamp!
Len: Alright, take two, watch it.
LW: (into harp mic) Alright…(then continues demonstrating his intro to the band, blowing it on harp, but off mic.)
? (probably Clay): That’s a Latin American intro…I don’t know…(pause)…one, two, one two three…
(band begins and plays complete master take)
After the leader tape at the end of this take, the next thing heard is…
Len: Take two to Key To The Highway, is that what you’re playing?
LW (loudly, emphatically into harp mic): Yeah! We’re takin’ it to it!
? (Spann or Clay?): One, two, one two three…
(band begins and plays complete master take)
After the leader tape at the end, we hear:
Len (with irritation in his voice): Awright, take 10 on the instrumental…don’t fuck with the mic, man, let’s go!
LW (into heavily reverbed harp mic): OK Len.
And the band then plays the master take of “Rock Bottom”. This take has a pretty bad edit/splice near the end, which isn’t in the issued master, so it must have broken at some later date. After the leader tape:
Len (sounding agitated, almost yelling): Let’s go! Take 9! Walter!
(LW, Muddy, and others in studio are all talking at once, unintelligible through the HEAVY echo.)
Muddy: Do that…
LW: Yeah. Aw…No. I mean, when you do THAT, I’m back around with…(verbalizes a harp lick)…
?: (laughing, apparently at LW)
Muddy: I mean, when you do THAT, I’ll be HERE (plays guitar lick)
LW (sounding irritated): (Unintelligible) is back over there, and I lay in the hole…
Len (clearly impatient): Walter, let’s go, take 9!
LW: OK…count it off, (unintelligible – sounds like “Matty”, or maybe “Smitty”)
Drummer taps off the count, and the band plays the take that was issued as the Alt. Version, which is faded out in the studio as they continue to play.
After this take, there is a fragment of some pre-take harp and guitar noodling from an earlier attempt at “Rock Bottom”, followed by a fragment of the middle of an earlier take of it, followed by a few seconds of Muddy and Walter working out their guitar and harp parts between takes, during which we hear:
Len: Hold it, hold it, hold it, hold it. Walter, you wanna (unintelligible, maybe “get…???”, or “break for supper”), or are you ready to go?
Then another fragment of another take in progress. Then a count in to yet another un-numbered take, during which someone in the studio cautions LW:
? (musician): Don’t say shit!
LW: (cracks up laughing)
The drummer then taps out the time to begin another take, but at the end of his tapping, apparently distracted by LW’s laughing, no one plays a note. After a pause…
LW: (Blows a lick on a HEAVILY reverbed harp mic)…all right man…let me know when you’re ready. (Sounds relaxed and in a good mood.)
Len: Take seven.
LW (snapping fingers in time): One, two, one two three…
The band starts a slower, lazier sounding version of “Rock Bottom”. Before the first twelve bars are through, Leonard breaks in.
Len: Pick the tempo up a little bit.
LW: Pick up on it?
Before the take number can be announced, someone in the band counts off a faster version, and the band launches into it. About one verse in, this take is cut off, apparently recorded over beginning at that point. A few seconds later we hear a little bit of unintelligible off mic discussion, and noodling on harp and guitar, followed by Walter apparently answering someone who can’t be heard on tape…
LW: Yes, I already know.
Another un-slated take is then tapped in by the drummer, but it’s followed by leader tape, then the tape ends.
A few months after returning from his second European tour, he was involved in a fight while taking a break from a performance at a nightclub on the South Side of Chicago. The relatively minor injuries sustained in this altercation aggravated and compounded damage he had suffered in previous violent encounters, and he died in his sleep at the apartment of a girlfriend at 209 E. 54th St. in Chicago early the following morning.The official cause of death indicated on his death certificate was “coronary thrombosis” (a blood clot in the heart); evidence of external injuries was so insignificant that police reported that his death was of “unknown or natural causes; no external injuries were noted on the death certificate. His body was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park, IL on February 22, 1968
Aleck “Rice” Miller (died May 25, 1965) blues harp player, singer and songwriter. He was also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat and Footsie.
"These (young English) boys wanna play the blues so bad; and they play it -- so bad." -
Sonny Boy Williamson II
Yes he was a bit forthright and sometimes abrasive -but his playing can still inspire.
Those learning and also those experienced blues harp players can learn much from one of the greats of blues harp playing – Aleck Rice Miller.
Take some time to re-run some of the videos below and enjoy his phrasing, his economy on his note playing and his timing.
Your funeral – my trial
Nine below zero
Keep it to your self
I’m a lonely man
What’s gonna happen to you
It’s raining outdoors baby
And a particular favourite of mine and Sonny Boy’s European tour ‘theme tune’
Bye Bye Bird
And a little analysis:
Rice Miller is thought to have played entirely in tongue blocking
Bye Bye Bird starts on a low C diatonic (Hohner #364 or 365), switches to a
C-10 hole diatonic, and then switches back to the low C.
and from harmonica for dummies
he’s playing a low C harp – pitched one octave lower than a regular C harp. The Hohner Marine Band No. 364 is a 12-hole harp that comes in C, D, and G. The keys of C and D are pitched an octave lower, and that’s what you’re hearing. On the Chess recording of this tune, he switches briefly to a regular C after the vocal, then goes back to the low C to finish the tune.
And what better mixture than two greats playing together-
Got my mojo working -with Muddy Waters
Just listen to the dramatic start of this one:
Sonny Boy is playing in the Key of F using B-flat harp.(jt30.com)http://www.jt30.com/jt30page/helpme/
Let’s start right from the beginning. Sonny Boy plays a nice little intro. It is deceptively easy.
He kicks off the 3 draw and slides up to the 4 blow and plays the 4 bent and then slides it up to the 4 draw unbent. He holds the 4 unbent and then slowly bends it down. As he reaches the fully bent note he quickly slides down the 3 hole draw and the 2 hole draw – so fast that you can hardly hear it.
We practice juke so much that we always want to start off of the 2 hole draw. The 2 hole is, after all, the tonic and our home note. Sonny Boy creates tension here by using the 3 hole draw as his kick off. Our ears want us to get to the 2 hole, but Sonny Boy just barely hints at it by bending down the 4 slowly towards it and just tapping the 2 hole at the end of that slide.
Note: Sonny boy misses the 3 hole slightly when he starts out and you can hear he is “Playing the post” not the hole – he’s not quite centered on the 3 and there’s a little 2 hole in it. I don’t think this was on purpose. This is not the kind of thing you can practice. You can, however, play the 2 hole and immediately slide up to the 3. The 2 hole hardly sounds before you hit the post. The suction in your mouth builds and then when you hit the 3 hole, it is released with a sharp defining edge to the note. Practice this technique of playing a note and then sliding up immediately to get a good punch on the draw note above. You can do it on any of the draw notes, not just the 3.
Sonny Boy, by sliding down to the 2 hole, has positioned himself for the chugs.
Next, he kicks off the 2 hole single bend. I almost always use the 2 hole bent all the way down and if I need to, I step up through the half bend, but here, against my tendencies, is the 1/2 bend to start with, sliding up to the unbent note.
(Held with tremelo)
He hits the 3 hold first bend and slides it to the 4 hole. He’s bending a little on both notes, but they are just a little flat. You can hear him unbend to the 4 hole draw
He plays the 4 blow, but it has a little 3 blow mixed in with it. He’s heading back down, so he hits the 3 hole draw as a transition and heads down to the 2-3 chug and catches the beat there. You expect the 2 hole draw after the 3 hole draw, but his sense of timing is so good that he hesitates so as to catch the chug in the right place.
After chugging he goes for the 5 chord. He heads up to the 5 hole draw bent, sliding up through the 3 and 4 hole draws so fast that you can just hear them.
(Hold with tremelo)
Sonny Boy slides down again to the 4 draw and bends it down and back up again, all in one fluid motion. He chews on this awhile giving it a nice tremelo that is part throat vibrato and and half wavering bend, bringing the 4 hole down a little and back up. At the end he bends the 4 down all the way and back up and then plays the 3/4 holes draw and then blow. Sonny Bow has just had a long draw and as a heavy smoker, needed a quick breath to get the next notes.
The next note follows immediately with a 3 draw and a long 4 hole blow for the 4 chord.
He slides back to the 3 draw – implying but not playing the 2 draw. He hesitates to emphasize the beat, and then back to the chugs! He doesn’t play the turn around – he just chugs.
Riffs between Vocal phrases
When Sonny Boy sings he has the harp in his hand and can quickly play a riff and then continue singing, without any pause at all.
Through out the first and second verses, Sonny Boy plays the chug on the 2/3 draw between phrases until he hits the 4 chord where he blows on the 2/3 to make a 4 chord chug. It’s much harder to “punch” a blow than a draw so make sure that you really give it a good “CHUCK-CHUCK” vocalization, perhaps “DUCK-DUCK” is nearer to the mark.
Then into the 5 chord before “I’ll have to find myself somebody else” he plays the 5 chord riff:
He plays the 1 chord base which is the 2 draw, bends it down all the way (a very cool flat 7th) and the bounces on the 1 hole draw. The 1 hole draw is the 5 chord so he plays it three times. These notes should not sound mushy so make sure you articulate them well with the phrase “Dirt-ty dog, dog, dog!” (actually I use dee-yah dah dah dah, articulating the bend slows me down too much).
The 2 hole unbent has a little 3 hole leaking through. Sonny Boy was not exactly on the 2 hole when he started playing.
Then he sings the punch line – “I’ll have to find myself somebody else” and goes for the turnaround.
He bends the 2 hole down and bounces it up to the 2 unbent, letting in a little 3 hole. He plays this for what sounds like 4 times and drops back the the 2 hole full bend and settles down on the 1 hole draw for the 5 chord in the turnaround.
This is the first real solo in the song and Sonny boy incorporates a few of his own riffs into it. When you hear this, there is no doubt who is playing the harp.
Sonny comes out of the turnaround of the last verse and starts a warble going on the 3 and 4 hole draws.
After about 16 times he draws the 3 down to break up the warble a little and indicate the bar change.
The warble continues for a few more times and Sonny Boy takes a breath. He then jumps up to a wail on the 5 draw. This is like a fast 4, implied, but not played. He slides up the 5 and catches a little 4 draw on the way up.
Sonny Boy steps down, none to cleanly from the 5 draw to a 5 blow, a 4 draw, 4 blow down to the 3 draw where begins his warble again. The steps are loose and bleed notes from either side as he slides down.
He takes another big breath – all those cigarettes are taking their toll on him. He hits the 5 draw wailer again, lightly touching the 3 and the 4 draw on the way up.
This time he doesn’t play the 5 hole blow, but slides to the 4 draw instead, skipping the blow note. In order to keep the note count right he pulls down, bending the 4 draw and then letting it loose again. He then slides quickly through the 3 draw and the 2 draw. He’s setting up for one of Sonny Boy’s coolest patterns.
I visualize this as a kind of Celtic knot. Sonny boy is playing a 3 in 4 rhythm twist that is hard to wrap your mind around. This is played as soon as the organ goes to the 4 chord and sounds best when played as a kind of melody break counterpoint to the 4 chord.
I have trouble on the pattern of Blow-Blow-Blow in the middle where he plays the 4 hole blow, 3 hole blow and back to 4 hole blow. My mind doesn’t want to do that. Then at the end of the first iteration he plays a 3 draw and a 4 blow to get him back to the 4 draw in the second iteration. I want to take a breath or pause there. Sonny Boy fills that space. Then at the end, the 4 draw bent, sliding up to the 4 draw seems to be a surprise as the organ goes back to the 1 chord and Sonny Boy has finished his little complication.
He slurs the last bit of the above riff – maybe he’s running out of air. Not all the notes are clean and he’s bending his draws just a little flat, especially the 3 draw – that first bend is part of the minor sound of the music.
At the end of a long wail on the 4 he bends it down and back up and then slides down to the 2 draw. The 3 and then the 2 draw are just touched as he slides off the 4 draw.
Just so we won’t forget. Sonny Boy’s wonderful timing catches the two chugs at exactly the right time. You can hear him exhale after the chugs to get the breath for this finale to the verse.
He then heads up for a 5 draw wail for the 5 chord, hitting a few notes on the way up, dropping down to the 4 draw, then bending it and back up to the unbent 4 draw.
After the wail you can hear him do a little warble up and down from the 4 to the 5 draw, ending after only two of these with the 4 draw bent. He then exhales, sounding the 4 hole blow, but you can hear a little 2 and 3 and even some 5 blow. This is a very muddy sound and he is really getting breath for the chord change.
The song goes into the 4 chord and he does another warble thing, but more complicated then a two note warble. I have this slowed down and I hear this complicated thing, that you can’t hear when played at normal speed.
( )( ) ( )( )
The main pattern is a warble with a draw-blow pattern, drawing on the 3 and then blowing on the 4. (The 2 hole at the beginning is just the step up into this pattern.) What Sonny Boy does on the second and third times through this pattern is slide the draw up to the 4 draw immediately blowing on the 4. This gives a little bluesey shuffle sound to the warble. He doesn’t do it the last 2 times and then he drops down to the 2 hole blow when the organ hits the 1 Chord.
As in the Intro, Sonny Boy chugs through the turnaround.
And some biographical info:
Sonny Boy Williamson II: A Biography
By Dennis Ward (SHS)
Sonny Boy Williamson was one of the most inspiring harmonica players. He also helped make the way for modern blues today. Some people said that he was very unpredictable and a good liar. Sonny was also consider to be a show-off because once on stage, he would put the whole harmonica in his mouth and still play a song. Sonny was known in most black households for being a radio star. He often used the name Alex “Rice” Miller. Sonny Boy Williamson began playing guitar and harmonica at the age of five and was performing in juke joints and clubs throughout Mississippi and Arkansas under the name Little Boy Blue by the early ’20s. During the ’30s, he played at the Grand Ole Opry and worked with legendary bluesmen like Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert “Junior” Lockwood. He took the name Sonny Boy Williamson in 1941 and became a regular on the King Biscuit Hour. Sonny and Lockwood were called the King Biscuit Entertainers. Later on, Sonny and Lockwood joined with Peck Curtis, Dublow Taylor, and Pinetop Perkins to become a band. (L.R.CHIN). Williamson didn’t start recording until 1951 when he signed with Trumpet in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1955 he signed with the Checker Chess label until the early 60’s. He moved to Chicago. Williamson then toured Europe as part of the American Negro Blues Festival with Willie Dixon, who was the talent coordinator, and Horst Lippman, the promoter, along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lonnie Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe Williams, Otis Spann and others. Later Sonny Boy Williamson returned to England to tour the college circuit on his own with a young Eric Clapton
and the Yardbirds as his backup band.
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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 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) Hohnerharmonicas, 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.
“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.
Blues music may have been forged in the Mississippi Delta, but Chicago is where the music put on a shirt and tie, subsequently achieving commercial respectability. The period between 1950 and 1970 was the prime era for Chicago blues music, when giants like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Wells ruled the roost. Although the music slumped somewhat during the late-1960s, it remains a strong presence today. If you’re looking to start a blues collection, these are the ten Chicago blues albums to begin with…an instant record collection!
The greatest Chicago blues album ever recorded was made in Rhode Island and not in the studios of Chess Records. Muddy Waters’ explosive 1960 appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, backed by a band that included the talents of harp player James Cotton, guitarist Pat Hare, and pianist Otis Spann, put the Chicago blues on the map and helped bring an entirely new audience to the music.
Wolf’s first album, Moanin’ In The Moonlight, was released in 1959 and gathers songs that he cut for Chess between 1951 and ’59, while the self-titled 1962 album (often known as “The Rocking Chair” album for its cover), featured songs recorded in 1961 and ’62. Put together on a single CD, the songs from Wolf’s first two albums represent some of the artist’s finest work. Backed by the talents of songwriter and studio bass player Willie Dixon and the phenomenal six-string talents of guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers, songs like “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful,” and “Smokestack Lightning” have since become blues and blues-rock standards.
The first true Chicago blues album cut in the studio (others were collections of singles or recorded live) was also Wells’ first full-fledged album, and the young harpist pulled out all the stops to make it rock. Hard. Backed by friend and musical foil Buddy Guy (the guitarist listed as “Friendly Chap” on the original vinyl due to contractual legalities), Wells attempted to capture the sound and feel of a performance at a West Side blues club. The general consensus is that Wells accomplished what he set out to do; the harpist would return to Delmark for the equally raucous South Side Blues Jam album in 1970.
The infamous West Side head-cutter recorded eight singles for Eli Toscano’s Cobra Records between 1956 and 1958, each showcasing the fiery guitarist’s innovative six-string style and mournful vocals. All eight songs are collected here, along with an equal number of B-sides, and alternate takes of classics like “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “Double Trouble.”
“Magic” Sam Maghett made his bones the only way a Chicago bluesman could – performing lengthy, exhausting sets in West Side blues clubs, often times playing a total of four or five hours a night. Frustrated by a recording career that was going nowhere, with a string of unsuccessful singles under his belt, Magic Sam went into the studio to record a full-fledged album. West Side Soul was the classic result, a perfect showcase for the blues artist’s soulful vocals and expressive, fluid guitarplay. Tragically dying of a heart attack in 1969 while his fortunes were flying high, today Magic Sam is the third side of a West Side Chicago blues triangle that includes Otis Rush and Buddy Guy.
Harp wizard Paul Butterfield’s racially-mixed band revolutionized the Chicago blues, popularizing the music with young rock fans and introducing the talents of guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop to the world. This self-titled debut would mix inspired covers of classic Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James songs (“I Got My Mojo Working,” “Blues With A Feeling,” “Shake Your Moneymaker”) with newer material, like Nick Gravenites’ “Born In Chicago,” infusing each performance with Butterfield’s soulful vocals and growling harp playing, incendiary guitarwork, and a rock-solid rhythm provided by Chicago blues veterans Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay.
Blues guitar legend Buddy Guy recorded for Chess Records from 1960 to 1967, but it was primarily his role as a session player – adding his talents to recordings by artists like Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor – that the Chess Brothers were interested in exploiting. While Guy never had much chart success while at Chess, this collection of ten singles he recorded for the label during the 1960s perfectly frame Guy’s gospel-tinged vocal style and scorching fretwork. Guy would go on to bigger and better things, but this is where it all began….
Son Seals is anything but your stereotypical Chicago bluesman – his vocals are raw but potent, lacking the subtlety of a Muddy Waters, while Seals’ fractured, riff-driven guitar style contrasts sharply with the surgical precision of Magic Sam or Otis Rush. With a style distinctively his own, Seals helped usher in a second Chicago blues era, one with heavier rock & roll and lighter jazz influences. Although slicker and more polished than his self-titled 1973 debut, Midnight Son compliments Seals’ staggering guitar attack with blustery horns, effectively mixing old-school Chicago with the new generation of guitar-driven, houserockin’ blues music.
The former Muddy Waters sideman stepped out on his own in 1955 to pursue a solo career that, while short on commercial achievements, is every bit as influential as any Chicago bluesman, and displayed a longevity that stretched from the 1950s into the late-90s, halted only by Rogers’ death. Chicago Bound collects fourteen songs recorded during the early-50s by Rogers, showcasing the artist’s smooth vocals and inventive fretwork, accompanied by a veritable “who’s who” of Chicago blues, from Muddy Waters and Little Walter to Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and Big Walter Horton. An essential link in the Chicago blues story.
“Little” Walter Jacobs was, undeniably, the major innovative force in blues harp, his talents effectively bridging the rural country-blues tradition of players like John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson and modern harp-blasters like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite. Throughout the 1950s, Little Walter’s innovative and aggressive harp style helped define the sound of Chicago blues, and his talents are on full display with His Best, the album offering up 20 reasons why Little Walter is the most influential harp player in blues history.
Is your favourite player/s listed above -if not who would you include?