This is Why Little Walter is the King of Blues

By Michael Rubin

Written by Michael Rubin on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Harmonica Players

Here’s a loose quote by John “Juke” Logan, harp player for the television shows Roseanne and My Name is Earl as well as a fine songwriter, singer and bandleader in his own right, RIP.

There are two kinds of harmonica players, those who have joined the Little Walter sweepstakes and the rest of us.

What he meant by that was that there are an overwhelmingly large amount of harmonica players whose main goal in life is to sound like Little Walter. The king of the blues harmonica, he is famous for three basic reasons… (article continues after the videos, below)

1. My Babe
Key F, Harp Bb, position 2nd

2. Sad Hours
Key F, Harp Bb, position 2nd

3. You’re So Fine
Key E, Harp A, position 2nd

4. Last Night
Key D, Harp, G, position 2nd

5. Blues With a Feeling
Key A, Harp D, position 2nd

6. Can’t Hold Out Much Longer
Key G, Harp C, 2nd

7. Juke
Key E, Harp A, 2nd position

8. Mean Old World
Key F, Harp Bb, position 2nd

9. Off the Wall
Key G, Harp C, position 2nd

10. You’d Better Watch Yourself
Key E, Harp A, position 2nd

11. Blue Light
Key D , Harp C chromatic, position 3rd and Harp G, position 2nd

12. Tell Me Mama
Key G, Harp C, position 2nd

  1. He is credited with being the first harp player to use a hand held microphone and amplifier. It was more likely Snooky Pryor, but Walter made it popular.
  2. He was the first harp player in the Muddy Waters band. Actually, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy’s guitarist, was first, but as soon as Walter came along, he stepped aside as he knew who the harp player was supposed to be. Walter is the first to record with Muddy. Although the legend is that they performed together for around 13 years, that is not true. It was only a few years. Walter’s number one hit on the blues chart, Juke, came out while the Muddy Waters Band was performing and Walter quickly recognize he was more popular than the man he was backing up. He quit the band while on a road trip.

However, Chess records realized that Walter was the secret to hitmaking and required Walter to be Water’s harp player in the studio for 13 years, all the while outselling Waters and almost every other blues musician of the day as a frontman.

  1. He was essentially the Jimi Hendrix of our instrument, creating sounds and harmonies never thought possible on the harp.

Although there are many compilations of his work, my first introduction was the double album “Boss Blues Harmonica”. This was my 3rd harmonica album I bought, along with a Rice Miller record. I remember holding up both records to the other blues fan in the store and asking, “Who is better?” to which he answered simply, “They’re both good.” That was the understatement of the year and my question one of the great mysteries of the universe.

I would have chosen “Boss Blues Harmonica” but the Youtube version is all in one video. Check it out anyway. Most of these songs are from that album.

Although you could dissect these songs forever, I will focus on a few simple things that I feel are worth awareness.

First, notice how many of these songs were slow. Track 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 11. These were all hit songs. Slow blues is good blues.

Next, notice how every song but one is in 2nd position. Although Walter was a master of third position and occasionally forayed into first position, his basic style lived in holes one through six in the cross harp style. There is some great music to be had by keeping things simple.

Notice many of the songs have an opening harp part before the singing began. Listen to track 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 12.

Most of these openings were short, perhaps for 4 bars. Mean Old World uses a classic blues move called “taking it from the turnaround” or “In on the five” which means the band begins to play the song in the 9th bar and plays what is loosely called the turnaround, a four bar phrase which turns the song around back to the beginning of the progression.

I say loosely in that sometimes the final bar is also referred to as the turnaround, which can cause confusion.

The term five in the phrase in on the five refers to the name of the chord played during the ninth bar. If the band is in the key of C, the fifth note in the C major scale or do re mi fa so la ti do scale is a G chord. They mean start on the G chord.

Or listen to the full 12 bar opening of Blues with a Feeling. He plays the start of this melody throughout the song in between the vocals, creating a great theme.

In You’re So Fine and Can’t Hold Out Much Longer, he plays for four bars and then begins singing on the fifth bar of a 12 bar progression.

But the most important idea I want you to notice is that these openings are specific parts. The harmonica player has a part to play in these songs and if you are to cover these songs in a band or at a jam you are expected to be able to play these parts. There are countless harmonica parts in blues, not just in Walter’s music. Start collecting and learning them.

A shake is when you rapidly alternate between two notes that are right next to one another in the same breath direction. It is normally very important to play each hole for an equal amount of time and never play so fast that you lose control of the clean single note.

Sometimes this is referred to as a warble. I dislike the term warble because in classical music, the term means a quick differentiation between two notes. Well if you picked one hole and blew in and out very quickly, that is a warble. Therefore, every shake is a warble, but not every warble is a shake.

Little Walter is the expert of a different type of shake, the drone shake. In music, a drone means to hold one note for a long time. Other notes can be played at the same time. A bagpipe is a great example of drone music.

Let’s say you were shaking on holes 4 and 5 draw. In a normal shake, an equal amount of time would be spent on each hole before moving on to the next hole. In a drone shake, hole 4 would be played constantly, so the shake would be between hole 4 and a double stop of holes 4 and 5 played at once. In order to do this, you cannot widen and narrow your mouth opening quickly enough, so you have to alter the centring of the harp from just hole hole to split down the middle between hole four and five. Although he does this on almost every song in various combination of holes, check out Last Night at 1:15 to hear a great example.

A dwa is also sometimes called a dip bend. It means to begin on a bend sound and very rapidly release it. A more advanced dwa would be to begin on a low pitch bend on a hole with multiple bends and very quickly release up to a higher pitch bend. The most popular of these would be from hole 3 draw double bend up to 3 draw single bend. Listen to Sad Hours at 2:07, but also find this in Off the Wall.

When you play a piano, it is impossible to play a sound that is in between two consecutive keyboard notes. However, on instruments that have no frets, like a trombone, fiddle or a stand up bass, this is easy to do.

When you bend on a harmonica, you can get these in between sounds. Every time you bend on a harp, you get the notes (or sounds) that are in between the blow notes and the draw notes. For example, 1 blow is C and 1 draw is D. The only keyboard note is between those two notes is C#, otherwise known as Db. Have you ever tried bending into a tuner? Notice how difficult it is to bend precisely to that Db. That is because there is a range of pitch in between the Db and the C and the Db and the D.

This range is loosely referred to as quartertones. Play too many quartertones in American or European symphonies and get fired. But in the Middle East, India, China, they love them!

Blues loves them as well. Listen to Blue Light at 59 seconds. There are only officially 2 bent notes on hole 2 draw, but Walter begins on a very low pitch, raises it, raises it AGAIN and then finally raises it to the unbent note. Anytime you bend on hole 5 or 7 you are playing a quartertone. Last Night has another beautiful move at 1:46 from 4 bend to a HIGHER four bend with vibrato, never releasing to the unbent note.

Finally consider the instrumentals Sad Hours, Off the Wall and what is essentially the harmonica community’s national anthem, Juke.

These songs are master works of developing themes and then building on them further in the next verse until a climax in the second to the last verse and finally a verse to calm down. Think about how dynamics, quiet and loud affect these songs.

When you are ready, learn as many of these instrumentals note for note. Not to become an imitator of Walter, but to understand more about why he is considered the king of the blues harmonica.

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