The Little Walter Diaries – Introduction

LogoIn search of the inner Walter.

I am officially a liberated blues harmonica player. I woke up this morning and admitted to myself that I just don’t get Little Walter. I never have. I’ve been denying the fact for years, cowering in the deepest recesses of the blues closet, fearful of public ridicule. But now I’m out. O U T, out.

Listen to

Everyone knows mastery of Little Walter’s diatonic blues dialect is an essential step in any half-decent harmonica apprentice’s development. If you can’t recite Juke note for note, name all his hits and tongue block them, you’re nobody. Well, I can play the intro to Juke from draw two or blow three, with or without octaving blow six, I can tongue-block or purse it at will, but I’ve never stopped to learn the whole piece. The reason for which is two-fold. Firstly, there was a timing issue I just couldn’t unravel, whether or not it was a mistake on Walter’s part. Secondly, for love nor money, I simply couldn’t copy Little Walter’s phrasing, nor did I feel the urge to do so. Oh, and there was another reason. Big Walter.


Our First-Ever Blues Harp Albums (Part 2)

As we review the albums that first got us hooked on blues harp, The Good Doctor tries to pick out his all-time favourite harmonica album from his days as a beginner.

The Good Doctor’s choice:
When she was a pre-schooler, I used to joke that my eldest daughter was the epitome of indecision. Presented with two options, she would innocently substitute ‘either or’ with ‘and’. Bargaining was fruitless. Consequently I developed my own circus act, flipping pancakes and toasting waffles simultaneously.

I have since learned that, given the opportunity of two best options, ‘either or’ is quite simply an unfair question. So I am taking a leaf from my daughter’s book and, free of compunction, I have to name two favourite albums. In the frying pan we have Girls Go Wild by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, while under the grill we have Live at The Marquee by 9 Below Zero. No amount of balloon debating will change my mind.

As a teenager, both these albums had me air-harping in front of the bedroom mirror. Nothing else mattered. Kim Wilson and Mark Feltham were my surrogate blues harp mentors. Real-life harp tutors did not exist in 1980 suburban England. There was Tony ‘Little Sun’ Glover’s now famous reference manual, but we had no Youtube or DVD. We had to engage our ears and our imagination, take a deep breath and figure it all out by ourselves. Which is another reason why these two albums rarely left the turntable. While they were a joy to listen to, I was also trying to copy and learn from them. (more…)

Pack Fair And Square – Mark Feltham […with tab]

Life is like a card game, you always take a chance

And so to the final installment in our 9 Below Zero trilogy. So far we have covered Riding On The L&N and Swing Job. We’ve looked at the key musical influences in each case and considered some of the history involved. We’ve also tried tabbing out the harp parts. Pack Fair And Square holds no secrets. It’s drawn directly from The J.Geils Band’s live Full House album. Simple.

With 80s contemporaries such as The Cheaters from Manchester, 9 Below Zero were inspired by the high voltage delivery of the J.Geils Band’s live performance and they set about reproducing it British Pub-Rock style. (more…)

Swing Job – Mark Feltham […with tab]

Thank you. Good night!

Welcome to the second part of our trilogy, covering the top three harp tracks from 9 Below Zero‘s debut Live At The Marquee album, released on A&M in 1980. By that time the UK had already experienced the revolution of Punk Rock and DIY record labels such as Stiff, Beggars Banquet and Rough Trade. New Wave was virtually passe, two-tone ska was skanking it’s heart out and dueling shirted New Romantics such as The Teardrop Explodes and Duran Duran were waiting in the wings, busily back-combing. (more…)

Monkey Swings

A Monkey Swing is when you loop off one bend into a neighbouring hole. You can continue the journey bending reeds as you go. Alternatively you can swing right back to where you just came from, sustaining the original bend for your return. Monkey swings can be used at the top or bottom of the harp, wherever there is a bend or ‘vine’ to grab hold of. If you are unsure what this actually sounds like, we should probably use some examples.

Basic Monkey Swing

Itty Bitty Pretty One

Low End Combination Monkey Swings

9 Below Zero / Swing Job

Middle Range Combination Swings

Top End Combination Monkey Swings

Dog House / 9 Below Zero

Riding On The L&N – Mark Feltham [..with tab]

You can imagine sittin’ at Tulse ‘ill can’t ya!

I first encountered this barnstorming track on 9 Below Zero‘s debut Live At The Marquee album (A&M) when it hit UK record stores in 1980. The band had already raised heads with its eponymous EP a few months earlier (originally on M&L records featuring Pack Fair And Square, Rocket 88, Last Night and Tore Down). Their new LP bowled in, tweaked noses and blew everyone away. My copy flew onto the bedroom turntable straight from its jacket and there it stayed for months. Of the fourteen tracks that received a daily spin, L&N, Pack Fair And Square and Swing Job went straight to the top of the ‘I want to play harp like that‘ list. It was a tall order, but through trial and error the decoding process slowly took shape. (more…)

Paul Jones – Flatfoot Sam [..with tab]


It was Blues at The Fort, Portsmouth 2007 and the Good Doctor was in the backstage marquee with The Elevators. Three years earlier he was playing the same gig with The Blackjacks. ‘Who else is on the bill tonight?’ he asked. ‘Eddie Martin is after us,’ came the reply, ‘and The Blues Band are headlining.’ The Good Doctor smiled at the news; an excellent evening’s harpoonery lay ahead.

Then the Good Doctor’s thoughts rolled back to 1979 and radio reports of a new blues band that was taking the country by storm, featuring Paul Jones, former front man of Manfred Mann. It was a time when Punk Rock and New Wave were peaking on the UK music scene and live music gigs were where you still went to be cool. No MTV, no internet, no DVDs. The erupting live music scene had belched forth a number of red hot R&B bands. The Blues Band, 9 Below Zero, The Inmates and The Cheaters to name a few.

A year later, amidst great media interest, The Blues Band took the stage at the 1980 Knebworth Festival. The Good Doctor was in the crowd with the ‘naughty botty’ gang, ready for a musical feast which also featured Lindisfarne, Elkie Brooks, Santana and The Beach Boys. It was a fabulous day compered by Richard Digence and the bands were exceptional. After the festival, one song in particular stuck in the Doctor’s mental jukebox – Flatfoot Sam by The Blues Band. It was his favourite track on their Bootleg LP and just as good performed live. (more…)

Tongue Effects

Tongue slaps

This is a technique which goes hand in hand with the tongue block method of playing harmonica. Instead of pursing or puckering, you are covering about four holes with your mouth, blocking off three holes with your tongue and playing the remainng hole. Typically this means blocking the three holes to the left and playing the remaining hole on the right. So you might blocks holes 1 to 3 and play hole 4 (blow or draw). The reverse can also be true however – you could block 2 to 4 and play hole 1 (blow or dreaw). Either way the result is a system of playing where you work from the side of the mouth rather than from a central pucker. Tongue slapping is achieved when you briefly catch all four notes before ’slapping’ your tongue onto the harp to single out the one note you need. It adds a crunch effect to the sound. By repeating the process, a jig or shuffle rhythm can be created.

Tongue Rolls

This is when you roll your ‘r’ like a Scotsman (She was a bonny girrl) or Spaniard (Muy grrrrande). It is only possible on blow notes. When used lightly on lower notes you can mimic a cat’s purr. On upper notes you can mimic a cricket or 1970’s trim telephone.

Triple Tonguing

By articulating with your tongue, you can give the impression of playing single notes rapidly. Try saying either ‘Ta-ta-ta’ or ‘Diddley’ as you blow or draw. Your tongue does not actually touch the harp, but stays inside your mouth. For the record, I find diddling easier and faster than ta-ta-ing! For a great effect, try alternating rapidly between draw 2 and blow 3 using a single ‘Diddley’ in each direction. This an effect Mark Feltham uses on 9 Below Zero’s fantastic album ‘Live At The Marquee’.

Fluttering or Dabbing

Check out the very start of Whammer Jammer or Walter’s Boogie. In both cases Magic Dick and Walter Horton use what I call the dabbing technique. In effect it is octaving or note splitting across 4 holes, while quickly uncovering and covering the two middle holes to produce an intermittent chord. This is achieved by rapidly and repeatedly ‘poking’, ‘dabbing’, ‘fluttering’ or ‘tongue slapping’ with the end of your tongue.  It’s an in-out movement rather than a side-to-side movement.

In Whammer Jammer, Magic Dick plays a direct bend on hole 4, moves into a straight 4 draw and then splits draw holes 2 and 5, with dabs on holes 3-4. The bridge between holes 3 and 4 is the target point for the dab. In Walter’s Boogie, Walter Horton plays a very quick direct draw bend on hole 3, through a straight 3 draw and then octaves 1 and 4, with dabs in holes 2-3. The bridge between holes 2 and 3 is the target point for the dab. He then transfers up to draw split holes 2-5, back to octave draw 1-4, up to draw split 2-5, up to blow octave 3-6, and finally up to draw split 4-7. In each case (except for the 4-7) the dabs are played in a sequence of four triplets. Lots of puff needed for this one!


Any of the sounds produced with the tongue during speech can be articulated through your harmonica. Try ‘ka’, ‘tah’, ‘tuh’, ‘dah’, ‘doh’, ‘deh’, ‘doy’ and ‘diddley’ (articulation can also be produced from glottal stopping vowel sounds – see Glottal Stops). Articulation can help to trigger the start of a note, separate a sequence of notes or lend certain sound qualities to specific notes. An extreme version is Doc Watson’s ‘Mama Blues’. Using hand wah-wah and articulation, he mimics an infant saying ‘I want my Mama!’.

Trills, Rolls and Trains

What’s a trill?

Chicago toolkitIt’s when you alternate (move back and forth) rapidly between two adjacent holes. Trills can be achieved by puckering or tongue blocking. I find puckering best for control, but remember seeing an interview with James Cotton in which he cites Little Walter’s tone when playing tongue-blocked trills as totally ground breaking.

Technically trills can be achieved between two adjacent holes anywhere on the harp; across draw or blow reeds respectively – but not really between a draw and a blow note. Most often trills are played across draw holes 3-4 or 4-5; this produces that signature effect on the harp everyone loves.

It can and is used elsewhere though. On one version of ‘Walter’s Boogie’, Walter Horton extends down to a trill across blow holes 1-2. On other blues tracks players trill across blow holes 8-9 at the top end of the harp – sometimes moving into a blow bend across both holes and back to a straight blow.

The ability to bend into, and during, trills is something else you’ll need to master, as it lends an extra dimension to the finished effect. It’s something you’ll hear used on no end of harp tracks. Visit our Glissando and Portamento page for further information.

Whichever technique you adopt, the lateral movement is very slight. You are passing the air-flow back and forth across a bridge dividing two adjacent holes to create a trill or ‘quivering’ sound. The finished effect is a classic harp sound that appears in countless films and on numerous recordings. When you’ve refined it, it will become a central piece of your toolkit. Treasure it and don’t over use it!

Standard trills
The lateral movement necessary to achieve a trill is often referred to as a roll. This normally comes from moving your harp and hand grip laterally as you play using puckering or tongue blocking technique. Perhaps this should be called a ham roll.

Head rolls
A trill can also be achieved by rolling or shaking your head from side to side while puckering or tongue blocking. This is a head roll. It looks great on stage or in front of a mirror, but doesn’t promote accurate playing in my opinion. And it’ll give you a headache if used too vigorously!

Tongue Roll
Finally you can try a tongue roll – sometimes referred to as a U block. It is an unusual technique and something I am new to, but it is a valid technique nonetheless. Place the end of your tongue just under the bottom cover plate or just below the mouthpiece of your harp, with the target hole above. Push your tongue slightly forward and relax the sides so they are pushed in, and supported, by the inside of your cheeks. Now draw (or blow) your target hole. You should produce a clean note and feel air cooling the surface of your tongue.

Pull from the back of your throat and move your tongue laterally to transfer control into the adjacent target hole. At the moment I find I move my jaw and tongue when it comes to the trill. Perhaps with practice it will get easier. Mick Kinsella has tongue roll tracks in his excellent beginner’s blues module – Blues Harp From Scratch (ISBN 0-7119-4706-6). Sadly however, he doesn’t really explain how it works. I hope the above helps.

How to do it – the Harp Surgery way
First hold the harp as you would normally, but in one hand only. Your mouth should be right round the harp – no numbers showing – and the knuckle of your index finger should be nudging right into your philtrum. Dig into the harp and take control!

Now let the harp do the work. By this I mean avoiding head rolls at this stage – you can experiment with them later. Instead, try to develop muscle memory in your forearms and wrists while controlling the harp from an accurate, even and balanced sideways movement of your hand grip. Work the bridge between the two target holes.

Start your trill from, and end on, the lower note preferably. It sounds better musically as it lends itself to resolution. Weight each note evenly, keeping your delivery symmetrical. Listen to yourself and decide whether you are emphasising one side or the other. If you are, slow down and regain your balance. Control and balance are everything. Ensure you give both sides of the trill equal measure. Snatch it one way or the other and you have an ‘asymmetrical’ twitch rather than a balanced trill.

At all cost avoid the ‘toothbrush’ trill. This involves holding one end of the harp and shuttling or jerking it rapidly in front of your lips – like you’re brushing your teeth. My inebriated aunt can do this and it’s just not pleasant. Yes she still has her own teeth. Did Lee Brilleaux really do that? Well at Harp Surgery we don’t care – he always declared he wasn’t a harp player anyway; but look what he (and the Feelgoods) did for kicking the arse back into British and world music… I digress.

Now start your trill evenly and slowly. Pick up the tempo but keep control. Take it to top speed and then slow right down again, emulating the decay of a bouncing basketball. Doesn’t it feel far more complete? And no need to reach for the Colgate!

When to do it
9 Below Zero’s take of Rocket 88 shows it can be used as much or as little as you like – across the right chords. Alternatively it’s just an effect and quickly becomes boring or predictable. Better to judge it musically and play over the right chords or at the optimum point of a phrase. Mick Kinsella’s Southern Jive takes you round the chords beautifully, with optimum use of trills. Incidentally, he takes you around the chords on all his tunes – with and without bends. I really recommend his Blues Harp From Scratch book for beginners as it promotes best musical practice and avoids nasty comfort zones (one or two typos in the tab Mick, but hey…).

Further reading

Using Your Head (Or Your Hands)

Blow Bends

Colour Squares iiPart One

Be aware that blow bends take place at the top end of the harp. We’re talking holes 8-10 in principal. You will also find a slight dip in hole 7, however as there is no semitone interval between the blow and draw note, political correctitude says this is officially not a bending hole.

Why at the top end? Because we bend from the higher note in each hole. In holes 1-6, the draw note is higher than the blow note, so we use draw bends. From 7 up, it’s the other way round, so we use blow bends. Avoid using higher keys, C, D, E, Eb and F as you’ll probably burst a blood vessel before you get a bend. Give yourself a break and use a key Bb or lower.

Top end reeds are shorter than the others. Consequently they need a lot more pressure in order to play an accurate and controlled bend. They are not as delicate as you think. Ever tried twanging a ruler on the edge of a desk? The shorter you make it, the higher the twang and the harder you have to pluck. Same principle. Ever tried to balance on a stationary bike? It’s hard. Once you start moving, it gets a lot easier to stay on. Try a blow bend with a feeble blow and you’ll get little or no response. Blast it and, in time, you’ll be able to bring down light aircraft. So put the dog out, plug your ears, and let’s get started.

Part Two

It helps if you know how to whistle through your lips in the traditional way. Much of what you do to achieve a whistle – tongue and jaw position – is similar to blow bending. Try whistling a high note and lowering the pitch. Bending a blow reed uses the same mechanisms – you’re just projecting your effort through a hole on a harmonica.  Whether you can whistle or not, try this preliminary exercise:

Hold the palm of your hand in front of your face (about 20cm away). Make sure your hand is open flat, finger tips pointing at the ceiling and palm level with your mouth. (It doesn’t matter where your thumb points, as long as it doesn’t obstruct your palm). Now purse your lips and blow a jet of air into your palm. By adjusting your lips and jaw, try redirecting the jet of air upwards onto your fingers and downwards onto your wrist without moving your head or hand. Now see if you can keep a small cushion of air inside each cheek as you do it. Be a Mini-Gillespie, don’t go blowing your cheeks out all big! Finally, keeping your lips closely pursed, increase the force of the air jet by pushing from the diaphragm.

Part Three

Grab a low key harp and experiment using the technique outlined above. It’ll sound grim to begin with, but persevere. Remember to push hard – it will sound loud at first, but you’ll have more control and in time you will learn to economise your effort. On your first few attempts, you will probably find that the reed schreeches and then stops responding, or slips free. The screech is the reed telling you it doesn’t quite know where to go – this is the ‘bite point.’ By pushing a little bit harder still, you should break through the screech and find the bend. The scenario is similar to the clutch and accelerator pedals on a car. So when you find that bite point, let the clutch off and squeeze the accelerator! I would suggest you start on the 8 blow bend as it is marginally more forgiving…

Part Four

Listen to real examples of what can happen. Jimmy Reed and Sonny Boy 2 were great exponents. You’ll find blow bends come into their own particularly, though not exclusively, in first position playing (straight harp). Jerry Portnoy’s ‘Home Run Hitter’ is a fine example. Of course you can blow bend in other positions too. Check out Magic Dick’s ‘Whammer Jammer’ – he’s playing in second position (cross harp).

And finally

You can hasten the start of a blow bend by articulating a ‘Tuh’ or ‘spit’ from between your lips to trigger the reed. Once you start blowing the bend, sustain it and make a slight up and down movement with your tongue and lips to produce a fancy modulation in the bend. The blow bend at the start of Whammer Jammer is a good example of this effect.

And finally try looping off a bend reed – direct blow bend to straight blow (or reverse) in the same hole and pass into an adjacent straight blow hole. For example: 8 blow bend, 8 blow, 9 blow or perhaps blow 9, blow bend 9, blow 8. It’s the start of bigger things. Trust me I’m a doctor.

The opening to ‘I’m In The Doghouse’ on 9 Below Zero’s ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’ album is an excellent example of this.