Although there are many non-blues harmonica players who did important and influential things, there were in my opinion, 7 blues harmonica players who basically defined the way blues harmonica is played to this day.
Since these 7 blues players arrived on the scene, there have been others who have truly come up with a unique approach to the blues. They might have been influenced by the Mount Rushmore players, but they still developed a unique style. Some of these players include Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Wells, Rod Piazza, Rick Estrin, William Clarke, Paul Delay, Sugar Blue, Carlos Del Junco and Jason Ricci.
Sadly or not, depending on your perspective, the majority of the blues harmonica players are highly regurgitative, or perhaps you can say tradition based.
Let it be understood that some of the 7 Mount Rushmore players were truly innovators. They came up with what made them so special. Others are popularizers. There were recordings prior to theirs that showed another player utilizing the same ideas, some even playing with more facility. Yet the Mount Rushmore player’s records SOLD, and therefore they received the credit.
John Lee Williamson aka Sonny Boy Williamson I
I call John Lee the Elvis of the harmonica. Although the first harmonica recording was 1924 and there were songs featuring harmonica that were hits, the harp player was usually a sideman. Although there were some leaders such as Jazz Gillum or Deford Bailey that had hits, John Lee really was the first to have hit after hit in the 1930s and 40’s. He wrote the songs, he sang, his name was on the record. One of his song went to number 4 on the Billboard charts. He was a star.
Do you think you would have to be interested in blues to know who BB King was? Everyone knows BB King. John Lee Williamson was like that. He was the harmonica guy. You didn’t have to like harmonica or blues to know about the harmonica guy.
Although in performance Williamson sometimes used an amp and hand held microphone, all of his recording have him playing acoustically, which allowed him to emphasize the wah wah hand muting techniques.
Although backed up by some bands, he was often backed up by one other performer. These performers were playing acoustic instruments.
Although he is not the first harmonica player to be recorded using the cross harp style, he basically invented the underlying concept of all further cross harp playing and was a master at tongue blocked slaps.
It is also worth noting he basically invented the idea of playing harmonica in between his own vocal lines.
Learn more about him in the new biography John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson The Blues Harmonica of Chicago’s Bronzeville, by Mitstoshi Inaba.
Alex Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson II
Most harmonica players will refer to the second Sonny Boy as Rice Miller, as a way of differentiating the two players. Although Miller was born first and claims to have had the name first, most historians agree he stole the name in order to cash in on John Lee’s fame.
Nowadays we laugh about it. “Oh, that old scalawag!” But imagine if someone went around saying, “No, I’m Buddy Guy!” It wouldn’t fly now, and it didn’t then. Many professional musicians from that era are quoted as having disrespect for Rice Miller for stealing their hero’s name. If he wasn’t such an incredible harp player, singer and songwriter he would be a footnote of the blues.
Different stories suggest John Lee was angry and confronted Rice, but since Rice was a big man the conversation didn’t last long, to the opposite, where John Lee was relaxed about it and they were friends.
Miller continued to play without a hand held microphone and amp even after they became all the rage. He probably knew that he was the best EVER at the wah wah hand muting techniques and didn’t want to ruin his good thing.
Stylistically he used small repetitive phrases that would differ slightly, creating themes in very short 12 bar solos.
Many people try to imitate Miller, but in my opinion, most fail. I think it is better to be influenced by him and utilize his techniques within your own style than to try and create a full on imitation.
Big Walter Horton
I often compare Horton to Forest Gump. Not because he wasn’t a smart man, he was very intelligent. Rather, like Gump, he is everywhere in harmonica history. From the twenties to the seventies, whenever harmonica was recorded, Horton was one of the players being recorded.
Although he has many solo recordings, he was a much stronger harp player than a singer. He has done many recordings as a sideman and I would strongly recommend Jimmy Roger’s Chicago Bound, which also has many Little Walter recordings.
Whether playing acoustically or electrically, Horton is generally given the title of BEST AND BIGGEST TONE EVER.
The King of the blues harmonica.
Named Marian Walter Jacobs, Walter is famous for three reasons.
First, he was the first harmonica player to record with the Muddy Waters Band. Waters created a style of blues that has been widely imitated and Walter’s harmonica style has a large part to do with it.
Jimmy Rogers, the guitarist, was actually the harmonica player before Muddy recorded. When he met Walter, he gladly stepped over to the guitar.
There is an idea that Muddy and Walter performed together for 13 years. It was more like four years. After a few years, they were recruited by Chess Records. On the first day, they recorded a Muddy song and the Walter song, “Juke” a harmonica instrumental that is essentially the harmonica player’s national anthem.
Juke went to number 1 on the blues charts. While on the road, watching people play “Juke” on the jukeboxes, it didn’t take long for Walter to realize he was more popular than the man he was backing up. He quit Muddy while on the road.
However, Chess Records advised Muddy if he wanted to continue recording with them, Little Walter was required to be Muddy’s studio harp player. Which is great, because Walter was a genius and now we have lots of recordings. But not so great because to be the performing harp player in Muddy’s band, you had to be an excellent harp player. Although some of those players went on to have solo recording careers, some are mere legends now.
Walter went on to have a solo career as a frontman where he sold more records than nearly any other bluesman of his time. This is why the harmonica community was upset when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman.
Second, he is credited with being the first harp player to use a handheld mic and amp. It was more likely Snooky Pryor, but Walter was a star outside of harmonica circles so he got the credit.
Third and most importantly, he was essentially the original Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica. He did things no one had thought of before. Many compare him to a jazz saxophonist.
John “Juke” Logan, RIP, the harmonica player for the television shows Roseanne and My Name is Earl, and a fine singer songwriter in his own right, said, “There are two kinds of harmonica players; those who have joined the Little Walter sweepstakes, and the rest of us.” Meaning that a large amount of harmonica players spend their lives trying to emulate what Walter played. He is probably the most innovative and influential harmonica player ever.
For more information check out the Muddy Waters bio I Can’t Be Satisfied, the Little Walter bio Blues With a Feeling and enjoy the Hollywood movie Cadillac Records, but know it lies like crazy. At one point, Walter is shown as a murderer. Although Walter definitely had drug, alcohol and violence issues, there is no history of a murder. The producers, when confronted, stated they cannot sell a movie to the hip-hop generation without a murder. Walter’s children are still alive. Imagine if your father was the very best at his career and Hollywood showed him as a murderer to sell more tickets. Messed up.
George Harmonica Smith
George was a member of the Muddy Waters band. Then he moved to California and mentored two of the most important players of the next generation, Rod Piazza and William Clarke. Piazza and Smith formed the two harp band Bacon Fat. California has remained a mecca of harp players and every one of them owes a debt to Smith, the king of the West Coast blues harmonica.
Although a great singer and cross harp player, George basically defined the way most players approach third position. The song Telephone Blues is the textbook example.
George also took the chromatic work of Little Walter and combined it with the non blues chromatic of bands like The Harmonicats and soloists like Larry Adler. He created a very advanced way of playing chromatic while still maintaining the intense blues feeling introduced by Little Walter.
Born with eyesight issues, he became legally blind later in a childhood accident. This likely led to a lonely childhood where the harmonica was possibly his only friend.
Much of Terry’s style is derived from the work of Pre War (read before World War II) harmonica players but he definitely added his own flair to their ideas. He was very chordal and extremely good with hand effects, always playing acoustically. He had a great sense of melody and would often echo the singer.
He had a partnership with Brownie McGhee, a great singer/guitarist. They became darlings of the New York City folk world, hobnobbing and recording with Ledbelly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. They performed in two separate Broadway shows, Finnegan’s Rainbow and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. They were the blues duo in the movie The Jerk.
By the end of their career they hated each other to the point where each played a solo set and required separate dressing rooms and transportation.
It is my opinion that like Rice Miller, true imitation of Terry’s style is extremely rare and difficult.
Reed might not have invented his style, but he was the best selling blues artist of his time. So when people describe a certain type of playing as “that Jimmy Reed stuff” he earned that through sales alone.
Jimmy was a great singer, songwriter, guitarist and played harp on a rack. Nearly all of his songs sound exactly the same. Many times at a blues show, the leader will turn to the band a say, “Play a Jimmy Reed shuffle.”
On harp, he played in two ways. His method of playing standard cross harp in holes one through six didn’t change the way anybody thought about harmonica. But when he played in 1st position in holes 7 through 10, the world paid attention. Anyone playing the high notes owes a great debt to Reed.
No matter how you feel concerning innovation versus traditionalism, even the player bent on creating something new must be aware of what came before so as to not repeat history. Listen and learn to these masters and try to understand how their ideas laid the groundwork for heroes of today.
I hope you are enjoying these blogs as much as I am.