Introduction to Sonny Boy II Harmonica Technique

Rice MillerDon’t start me talking, I’ll tell you everything I know

Elwood reminded folks at the Harp Surgery it’s the anniversary of Sonny Boy II’s birthday this week. How about we tab out one of his monster tracks? he suggested. The Doc stroked his goatee and lifted his bowler down from the coat stand. No need to tab one number, young Elwood, we’ll do them ALL he replied. But how is that possible? quizzed Elwood.

The Doc raised a sagely eyebrow. Once you’ve mastered his trademark cross-harp licks and timing, my boy, you can tackle much of his material. Then it’s a case of studying the first position harp work, timing and tone. But always remember you will never sound exactly like the master, nor should you . Elwood started warming his favourite blues burger. So where do we begin? he asked. From the turn around, answered the Doc, it’s his signature lick. It goes like this…


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Which Keys Do I Need?

The keys to success
Different players and tutors will give different answers depending on their experience and personal preference. The choice is subjective and may also be steered by budget. From a practical perspective however, there are keys that are used a lot and others that tend to gather dust. Here’s our take.

A complete set of regular tuned harps will have twelve keys : A  Bb  B  C  Db  D  Eb  E   F   F# G  Ab

Most players start with a C harmonica. This is mid-range tonally and most tutorial information is published in this key. Next up are  A  D  G  F  and Bb. These keys are used most often on the band stand, when jamming and when learning from recordings by the greats.

We then recommend a Low F. A regular F is very high tonally. A Low F lends itself to blow bending in holes 8-10. It’s also good for familiarising with the feel of Low tunings. Then we’d recommend Eb and Ab, and finally B, Db, E and F#. From experience, these last four are used least frequently.

You might also like to supplement your spread with a High G. Tonally a normal G is the lowest of the regular tunings. There may be the odd occasion when you want to work in a higher pocket. Pencil Full of Lead by Paolo Nutini is an example.

How low can you go?
From here, and if you’re willing to splash out, you can add your choice of Low tunings. These are an octave below regular tuned harps. They are not only ideal for creating a darker mood, but also for occupying a lower pocket when accompanying, for example, slide guitar. Listen to recordings by Son of Dave for an idea of how great these sound, and also Mr Lucky by Gary Primich.

Tuesday Evening Online Workshop

Schedule : We meet every Tuesday evening
Time : 7.00pm-8.30pm (UK)
Platform : Zoom
Fee : £10.00 GBP payable in advance
Sign up : paypal.me/harpsurgery

What do workshops include?
Styles from Blues, Americana, Folk, Celtic, Latin, Pop, Rock, and World Music. Breathing and musical warm up exercises. How to identify the key of a ‘mystery’ song. Work on chosen study pieces. Focus on specific harmonica skills and techniques. Jamming. Q&A, advice and information exchange. We use a combination of harmonica tabs and standard notation, but you won’t need to read music in order to join in. All ability levels are welcome.

How to sign up
Harp Surgery sessions are pay-as-you-go. To confirm your attendance and receive our unique weekly password please transfer £10.00 in advance by PayPal. Simply type paypal.me/harpsurgery into your web browser and follow the instructions. Please ensure you include the Workshop Date and Your Name in the ‘What’s this payment for?’ window. (more…)

In Memorium – Mark Hughes of Split Rivvit

Mark Hughes (right)

Dear Harp Surgery, I’m Mark Hughes’ sister Isobel. It’s been over 20 years since he died, and there is still rarely a day that passes without me thinking of him. Today would have been his 65th birthday. It’s heartwarming to read about Mark and the rest of the the band, bringing back the happier memories.

My siblings and I have only a couple of photos of Split Rivitt, so I was excited to read that Charlie has lots (hi Charlie!) – it would be wonderful to have some copies. I hope all is well with you, Dave W, Chris and Dave L. It would be lovely to hear from you. Isobel x

Thanks for your message Isobel – here’s some footage from the BBC’s Nationwide programme back in the day, featuring Mark in the studio with Johnny Mars, Mark Feltham and Skid Stuart. Sending you love and best wishes from everyone at the Harp Surgery.

If anyone has any memorabilia we can add to our Split Rivitt archive, please message us through our contact page. Harp Surgery visitors can enjoy the Split Rivitt archive here.

Richard Teaching Harmonica Live On The Radio

Early on Friday morning at this year’s Harpin’ By The Sea harmonica festival, Richard Taylor, launched proceedings in the company of BBC Radio Sussex reporter Hanna Neter.

Hanna was challenged by Breakfast Show host Alison Fearns to learn and perform her first ever harmonica tune live on air. Richard and Hanna duly got to work and within half an hour Hanna was playing When The Saints Go Marching In! You can hear what everyone got up to right here…


If you’d like to learn the harmonica for yourself, or improve your existing skills, contact Richard Taylor now. Details of lessons are right here.