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.

Little Walter 2When a small group of fellow blues enthusiasts emerged at school, there was a real buzz. The violinists and cellists became instant witnesses to Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley. The pianists meanwhile worshipped at the alter of Pinetop Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis or Professor Longhair. Nobody knew much about Willie Dixon, Fred Below, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith or any other rhythm section players, so our solitary percussionist just got on with it. All of which left a big gap in the market. A gap I meant to fill.

Short of approximating the theme tune to the Old Grey Whistle Test, nobody could really figure out the blues harp, although we accepted this was essential for completing our burgeoning blues band. And everyone agreed Little Walter was where it was at. Everyone that is, except me. I nodded in tacit agreement. I couldn’t risk excommunication from our musical conclave. But somehow Big Walter seemed to speak more clearly. Through the harp at least. As did Sonny Boy Williamson II and Jimmy Reed. Inwardly I knew I was a ‘Walter Minor’ apostate. Big Walter was the daddy.

Sure, I knew all about My Babe, Out Go The Lights, Temperature and Just Your Fool. My favourite Brit Blues and Pub Rock bands were covering them. Lew Lewis Reformer, Dr Feelgood, The Blues Band, 9 Below Zero and Fast Eddie, they were all at it. But I was Juke Record Labelcontrary by nature. Not a counter-revolutionary, just someone who ran apart from the pack.

Now, wholly and retrospectively, it’s time to change my ways. I’ve decided to grasp the nettle and do penance. It’s time to find my inner Walter. I have no idea how or where my odyssey will end, but during this quest for the holy wail, I will keep a diary to record my progress. Will I determine once and for all whether all the soothsaying that surrounds Little Walter is just pentatonic hot air? Will I find my way to short-harp nirvana before I scuttle back into the blues closet, Big Walter LPs tucked under my arm, and lock the door behind me. Time to find out.

7 thoughts on “The Little Walter Diaries – Introduction

  • September 14, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Great bit about Little Walter. I think like tons of harp players you can fall into one,both or many camps of influence and I have spoke to heaps of harp players on many levels who just don’t dig Little Walter but of course appreciate who and what he is! No shame in what you have to say in fact it’s honest….go forth and bloweth as some cat once said …I’m sure ;-).

  • September 22, 2014 at 10:02 am

    I totally hear you about the timing issue on the “Juke” recording!
    Thos first few bars of the second progression always throw me…

  • June 13, 2016 at 5:18 am

    Great article! I would love to read an update. My feelings about Rice and the Walters could not have been more perfectly expressed than in this article. But just recently I have been working on Juke, and a few choruses in I am both astonished by and struggling mightily with the subtleties of his phrasing. I can deal with the uneven timing. All the blues greats of the period seem to drop or add half a measure here or there. But that bouncing swing feel built into those turn-arounds just does not sound at all like Walter when I attempt it. anyhow, I am curious about where this journey led…

  • December 12, 2017 at 10:59 pm

    I’m a latecomer to this particular party, but loving the site! Thank you for an interesting and diverse coverage of the subject.

    I’ll have to dig out Juke but one of my first ‘proper’ blues albums was by Little Walter and I loved his sound from the off. Perhaps fortunately, I’ve never had to try and play his stuff 🙂

    A thought tho – as someone else noted, a lot of the guitarists used to only keep rough time (took me ages to work out Muddy Waters had played a 17-bar blues on one track!), so maybe Little Wal simply missed a note or whatever and that’s the version we hear? Any other recordings of it by him to compare and contrast?

    Yours in total enjoyment and considering using another harp!

  • February 6, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Adam you’re very kind. Glad you’re enjoying our humble offerings!

  • June 22, 2018 at 10:02 pm

    The second verse actually throws some 2/4 bars in there (2 of them). However, you can simply add to counts and do a (2 2″ 1) riff to close out the two extra beats and then it becomes a standard 12-bar format your band can support you on without getting crossed up.

  • August 27, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    That’s a handy top tip Greg, thank you for sharing.

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