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…

Listen to

Please come home to your Daddy, and explain yourself to me
Almost exclusively, Sonny Boy II played acoustic harp into a standing microphone, leaving him hands-free (at times quite literally) to add a wealth of expression to his playing. From behind the harp these effects are driven by tones which are thin and reedy one moment, deep and fully choked the next. To our detriment, we are often so preoccupied with nailing amplified Chicago harp that we turn our backs on other equally important styles. Sonny Boy reminds us there are plenty of other options which deliver an equally devastating payload. So let’s start with his signature lick. He uses it at the turnaround on a huge number of his songs.

Sonny Boy Williamson IIThe signature turn around
The underlying rhythm is WAH wah-WAH wah-WAH wah-WAH wah-WAH-uh duh-WAH WAH. Try articulating it aloud. On the harp, each wah, accented or otherwise, is created with a precise opening of the hands. (For more information visit our Harp Skills Wah-Wah page). You must also learn how to choke the harp, using fully extended throat vibrato on the unbent draw 2 reed. All the control comes from the back of the throat and is anchored in the diaphragm. The end product is a ‘weeping’ harp. (For more information check out our Harp Skills Vibrato page).

Before we study the essential building blocks, here is an impression of the full effect using an Eb diatonic. See if you can copy it:

Listen to

Now let’s analyse the key components, starting with the basic notes without any hand effects. Accenting the bold notes for the down beat, the tab looks like this: 2D 2D-2D 2D-2D 2D-2D 2D-2D-2D” 1D-1D 1D.

Listen to

Remember that all the control comes from the back of the throat, with just a little help from the tongue around the 2D” stage (huddle-dah). Now let’s work on the throat vibrato. Using the basic note pattern, dig in and augment the entire phrase with full throat vibrato. The throatier the better, almost to the point of stalling the reed. This is what we mean by choking the harp – you can hear the throat pulls, or choking, in the background of this clip:

Listen to

Now let’s add the hand effect to the note pattern. Each ‘wah’ is produced by opening the hands as the note is played. This lends a human speech quality to the sound. Once you’ve tried this part, go back to the first clip and try it again, combining all the components.

Listen to

Rice Miller 3You gotta help me, I can’t do it all by myself
There are two licks on the classic track Help Me which are well worth learning. They are fundamentals of the Sonny Boy style and frequently appear in his recordings. One is straightforward, the other is not quite what it seems. Grab a Bb major diatonic if you have one, otherwise an A major will do (and you’ll be more popular with guitarists).

Here is a sound clip of the first lick. It starts with the basic notes 3D-4B-4D, then repeats them cleanly at tempo. Next with 4D changed to 4D and finally with 3D changed to 3D’. Now, somewhere between the last two lies the actual lick. The important point is while 4D is not a clean draw, neither is it a full bend. For this reason it is annotated askew and in bold. As the whole lick is played over the IV chord, 3 draw is also slightly bent for true ‘blues’ effect. If you don’t ‘blues’ everything up you’ll sound way too polite.Experiment, use the force, and work towards the optimum balance to emulate the master’s feel.

Listen to

The finished lick is a triplet rotation 3D’..4B..4D, accenting the last note each time. Sonny Boy also uses it in Born Blind and Don’t Start Me Talking. It cuts in late in the Help Me track (at around 2:16) and it’s great for working those diaphragm muscles.

Now listen to the second lick. It uses the ‘2D‘ option first and the ‘3B‘ option second. In the 2D version you can detect the breath rolling across the bridge between holes 2 and 3. The 3B option avoids hole 2 entirely, so no ‘rollover’ effect, just a punchier push-pull staccato.

Listen to

Logically, you might think the tab to this famous Help Me lick should be.. one 4D 4B 3D..2D..3D 4B..3B..4B 3D..2D..3D. The bold characters represent the downbeat. This facilitates a unidirectional ‘wobble’ between 4B..3B, and 3D..2D respectively. But is this accurate? Perhaps there’s an alternative. If so, what’s the Harp Surgery’s take on matters?

Rice Miller 2Subject to Sonny Boy telling us I did it like this, the following seems more expedient and more authentic. One 4D 4B 3D..3B..3D 4B..3B..4B 3D..3B..3D. It’s the second option in our clip, the one that avoids the 2 hole. This option lends itself to a more syncopated rhythm from the diaphragm and produces better staccato.

This little trickster has provoked a schism between 2D advocates and 3B partisans ever since it was recorded. Sonny Boy also uses it in Born Blind and Keep It To Yourself. In Help Me it appears at the 1:25 mark and once again it’s a repeated triplet played over the IV chord. You could play it anywhere in the song, but it will only sound authentic when you reproduce it over the IV chord. Make a mental note.

The other vital detail is the timing. The lick comes in after the down beat. So, in triplets, you count ‘one’-dah-dah dah-dah-dah dah-dah-dah dah-dah-dah. Rehearse and memorise this so you don’t get confused real time. The timing doesn’t come naturally to everyone straight away so be patient. Finally, remember to ‘blues up’ the 3 draw (3D, and 3D with the beat).

Please do me a favour, keep our business to yourself
There are another couple of classic licks which feature right at the end of Keep It To Yourself. They turn the rhythmic emphasis back onto the down beat and, in doing so, they stand out from the pack. At the same time they follow the chord changes, which ensures they sit perfectly with the musical flow. Here’s how it sounds when you put the first two parts together. We’re on a D major diatonic in cross harp.

Listen to

Now let’s break this down into manageable building blocks. The first lick is played over the one chord. Here’s the tab and the corresponding sound clip.

2D..2D”..1D 2D..2D”..1D

2D..2D..2D..2D 2D“..2D”..2D”..2D”

Listen to

The second lick is over the IV chord. Again here’s the tab and the corresponding clip.

3D’..3D”..2D 3D‘..3D”..2D

Listen to

King BiscuitNow we can start hanging it all together. The first line is repeated as the song returns to the I chord. Next we add a simple bent 3D over the V chord and then move to the outro. In this number the band stops momentarily, allowing Sonny Boy time to fill the false ending with a passing phrase before slotting in a standard blues finish. The final notes are not played altogether cleanly – Sonny Boy catches adjacent holes for effect. Here’s the outro he uses:

1D 2D..3D’..3D 2D..2D”..1D [passing phrase. Note 3D’..3D indicates a scoop from the bent up to the straight 3D]

6B 5D..4D..4B 3D’..3D

2D’..2D 2D’..2D

Listen to

Well done, you’re now ready to use this whole sequence whenever you like. You could use it at the very end of a song. You could also use it midway through, substituting the ending here with a standard turn around (above). Try the full sequence now, with the complete tab and sound clip here:

2D..2D”..1D 2D..2D”..1D

2D..2D..2D..2D 2D“..2D”..2D”..2D”

3D’..3D”..2D 3D..3D”..2D

2D..2D”..1D 2D..2D”..1D

2D..3D”……… [band stops]

1D 2D..3D’..3D 2D..2D”..1D

6B5D..4D..4B 3D’..3D

2D’..2D 2D’..2D

Listen to

Hold up your head, and don’t let your conscience get you down
Pick up your C major diatonic and let’s hit this very basic, yet essential Sonny Boy II lick. It appears 26 seconds into Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide at the end of the first I chord sequence. Timing is essential. Basic as it is, you must ensure it punctuates the lyrics at the optimum moment: 2D 2B..1D..2B..2D 2D 2B..1D..2B..2D. Grab your C harp, it sounds likes this..

Listen to

She asked me to wait until tomorrow, and she said everything would be alright
Sonny Boy IIThis is a line from Like Wolf where SB2 adopts the ‘sore-throat’ vocal style made famous by his brother in-law, Howlin’ Wolf. The number is also a great example of another essential aspect of Sonny Boy’s harp playing – his hand vibrato. In simple terms this is the quivering sound generated by rapid movement of the free hand. Keep the heel of your free hand anchored into the harp-holding hand, but flutter the fingertips as rapidly as you can. On a C harp, draw 4, draw 3 and draw 2, it sounds like this..

Listen to

Another simple lick.
Here’s another typical lick (a wobble as we like to call it) that Sonny Boy uses over the IV chord. As ever, it involves a triplet pattern. The tab is one 3D’..2D..3D’ 2D 3D’. The rhythm is one dah-dah-dah duh duh and the result should sound like this..

Listen to

More wobbles and elite syncopation
Here’s another Sonny Boy circuit over the I, IV and V chords. It is a further example of how he picks the twists, tucks and turns that nobody else thinks of. Add to this his visceral sense of syncopation and it is soon apparent why we’ve been celebrating his ingenuity for decades. Any harp will do, although the clip uses a C major. This time we’ll let you figure out the wah-wahs and hand flutters for yourself. The penultimate line of tab should be familiar by now; you just need to add the standard turn around lick to complete the exercise:

2D..2D’..1D 2D..2D’..1D

3D’..3D’..3D” 2D..2D..1D 2D”

3D’..3D”..2D 3D’..3D”..2D

2D..2D’..1D 2D..2D’..1D

1D 2D”..3D” 2D”..1D 4B

3D..4B..4D~ 3D..4B..4D~ 3D..4B..4D~ 3D..4B..4D~


Listen to

Blues Of Sonny Boy WilliamsonOut on the intro; somebody’s got to go.
Well done. We hope you’ve found everything helpful. Finally, now that we know about the turn around, playing over the I, IV and V chords and a couple of endings, it’s time we looked at how to start a Sonny Boy number! No better example than his intro to Don’t Start Me Talking (which makes a great ring tone for your mobile incidentally). Here’s the tab for the main part of the intro. All you have to do is add the wah-wahs and standard turn around. Enjoy.

2D 2D..2D”..1D 2D”

4D’..4D 4D’..4D 4D’..4D 4D..4D’..3D..2D

Listen to

Goodbye Little Girl
Hang on, I hear you say, I don’t recognise that Sonny Boy II title! And you’d be quite right. It’s a song by Gary Primich on his fabulous Botheration album. GP picks out some quintessential SB2 licks and weaves them into his song to the very best effect. Check it out and learn from it. Alternatively try Cross Your Heart by Lester Butler on the Red Devils album King King. And as a precursor to Sonny Boy’s phenomenal use of 1st position blues, grab a G harp and check out Kim Wilson’s rendition of Trust My Baby on his Tiger Man album. We’ll see you there another time.

Oh yeah, a couple more things: the best Sonny Boy II album ever? Try this one! Meanwhile check out the Master right here playing Keep It To Yourself on a low D harp. Maybe the Doc was right about that trickster lick after all. This is where Sonny Boy actually spells it out for us beyond all reasonable doubt. I did it like this…

37 thoughts on “Introduction to Sonny Boy II Harmonica Technique

  • December 8, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    That was a great post, Sonny Boy is the man, ‘Fattening Frogs For Snakes’ is my personal favourite. Thanks again Doctor.

  • December 9, 2009 at 12:11 am

    You’re welcome Johnny. Frogs For Snakes is a classic. I hope to revisit SB2 before long and look at his first position stuff.. Keep tuning in.

  • December 11, 2009 at 8:55 am

    This is a great arcticle thanks for writing it.

  • January 10, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    I came across this web site some weeks ago. Great stuff. The lecture on Sonny Boy is particularily good. I have been learning a lot. Many thanks !

  • January 10, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks for your kind words. We plan to add more posts on the Sonny Boy II theme. Hope they prove useful too.

  • March 4, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I’ve been playing for twenty-plus years, Sonny Boy has always been my idol. In fact, I learned by playing along to his albums.

    Try as I may, and believe me, I’ve tried and tried and tried again, I cannot figure out the runs he plays between the vocal lines in ‘Trust My Baby’. I know he’s playing a G-harp in first position, but those gorgeous fluid riffs have eluded me for nearly a quarter of a century.

    Please put me out of my misery!

  • March 14, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Hi Steve. I can totally sympathise. We weill look into it with the aid of The Amazing Slowdowner (available on line) and our expert ear. It may take us a week or two, but hopefully help is at hand.

  • May 27, 2010 at 9:55 am

    very good tabs!!
    in the third lick you explain,
    Sonny use tongue slaps?

  • May 29, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Ciao Marko!

    Great question. 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. The reverse can also be true however – you could block 2 to 4 and play hole 1. Either way the result is a system of playing where you blow from the side of the mouth rather than centrally.

    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.

    I will add this information and a sound file to our Harp Skills / Tongue Effects menu.

    Good harping to you!

  • May 30, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks very much for clear and comprehensive explanation!!! 🙂
    i like the one man band style of Sonny and
    this rhythmic technique for me is the root,
    and the shuffle rhythm is fantastic!!!! 🙂


  • November 14, 2010 at 1:11 am

    are this licks in 1st position? if they are can be used on 2nd? cause im kinda lost in that area i know the holes that represent the i iv and v chords for 1st 2nd and 3rd
    positions but i see you dont stick to it or maybe you are and im not gettin please answer me this is blowin my head thank you and god bless you

  • November 14, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Hello Mr Viper! It’s all in 2nd position (cross harp). Maybe you’re looking in too deep? ;O) Keep it simple and you’ll get it I’m sure.

  • November 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    ok thank u i just get confused a little bit cause in the intro you talk about gettin into sonny’s first position style guess you rigth it’s easy to get lost in tecnical things instead of makin it easy speacially whit the harp an instrumen that don’t make mistakes thank and have a nice day bro

  • November 20, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I see what you mean! Thanks. I have edited the second paragraph, so it should be slightly clearer now. Hope your SB2 homework is coming on ok!

  • January 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    This is totaly brilliant as iv been here and there trying to gain some wah wah intermediate approach, as i have been stuck with a good wah wah but with little effect as in choking the harp ?? i thought this was bad as tought by someone on youtube but clearly its the grit behind sonnys wicked sound… can any one help me any further i would be real gr8tfull.

    Thanks for a truley shit hot web site and info on throat vibrato too, not to mention intoducing me to the late GARY PRIMICH sssweet

  • January 28, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Hi Cain,
    Welcome to the Surgery! I’d be happy to connect on Skype and see how you’re doing if this would help.
    The Good Doctor

  • February 19, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    This is brilliant – thanks so much. Your explanation is so clear and detailed. Can’t wait to get to work. I’m going to be visiting Tutwiler in May to pay my respects to the great Sonny Boy.

  • February 28, 2012 at 12:15 am

    Thanks Kate, that’s very kind of you. Say hello to the Old Goat for us :0)

  • April 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Hello guys

    I’m from Brazil, and man, this website is very good, have a lot of information about harps, I really enjoy it.
    I’m a fan of Sonny Boy and bought a harp thinkin in learn the blues in it, also another songs either.
    I bought a harp without thinkin too much about the kind of it, I got one harmonic in A, it is ok to learn, but I’m already thinkin in bought a new one!

    Thanks for this website and all information that here have.

  • May 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Bon dia Erikson. Great to have a comment in from beautiful Brazil. We’re so glad you like Harp Surgery. There will be more stuff to read once we have finisghed setting up our harmonica in schools project. Keep in touch and come back soon. Doc

  • September 4, 2012 at 2:23 am

    This might seem like a silly question, but for the opening of “Don’t start me talking” what key harp is he using?

  • October 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Hi Vanilla! C harp in 2nd position. 2D 2D..2D”..1D 2D” etc. Check out my replies to similar questions regarding how to find the key of the song and the best harp for the job.

  • April 17, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Hello Doctor,

    Great website and loved the review of Help Me! Thank you! Was wondering if you could post the link to the ‘finding the key’ references you mention above. Always good to have new learning under my belt!


  • May 21, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Hi Greg…steer me in my friend…going snow-blind here trying to find the bit you’re referring to..

  • October 11, 2013 at 5:07 am

    Hi Wilf just found your site looking for SB2 tabs – fabulous one of the best around. I’m looking for the tab for Bring it on home I just can’t get the right combination of harp and lick to sound natural particularly the one between Baby … and with such a prominent lick it shows. My singing is OK but oh that stunning key lick. I’m relying on you. Any suggestions? Cheers

  • October 25, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    It’s on my list but may take a while. Otherwise a quick Skype lesson?

  • November 3, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Hi Wilf Sounds like a good idea to have a Skype lesson focussing on a specific need like that. You get what you pay for and the rates are acceptable. I’m not quite set up for that and Drop Box but will come back when I do. I recognise many of the topic experts contributing to this site so have confidence this is a quality site and it will be money well spent so will be back then. Cheers

  • November 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Impressive. Enjoying blues and jazz among my other musical tests, I picked up harmonica 6 months ago because I was bored and wanted to try something fun and cheap. This site has helped me heaps. When I started I was completely ignorant of what to look for when I wanted to train my ear to the real harp sounds. And while this page made me discover (and practice) Sonny Boy II, the whole site allowed me to discover Muddy Waters, Junior Wells & Buddy Guy (some of my favourite so far) and many others….

    Thank you for the ammount of shear awesomeness that you make available to us. Theory, history, anectdotes, audio licks and tabs…this site has it all. Keep up that work. I need it to blow off steam on rainy days, hopefully, I’ll wail someday. Cheers.

  • November 30, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Aw shucks Jezzer, you’re a very nice guy!

  • December 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    thanks. i keep coming back and dipping into your excellent site, mainly to discover what been playing arseways for years 🙂 keep up the great work, much appreciated. H.

  • December 31, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Thanks for your feedback Harper, I hope to bring a few improvements to the site in 2014.

  • January 17, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    I got into harp because of sonny terry’s ‘whoopin’, but i’ve totally fallen in love with rice miller in the past 6 months. this is a great break down of some of his riffs! thank you so much for the effort and time! now if you could do bye bye bird that’d be somethin!

  • January 28, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks for your kind comments Noble Savage. I’ll add Bird to the request list!

  • February 28, 2015 at 6:59 am

    What kind of harp is Sonny boy holding in his portrait?

  • November 13, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Hi Tom. Which portrait dude?

  • February 19, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    Hey man! Did I come to late to this great post?
    I can’t play the audio.

    Congrats for this work!

  • February 20, 2020 at 2:07 pm

    Hi Alex. Thanks for stopping by. Should be fixed for you now. Doc

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