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.

1st Position Blues Harp – An Introduction (Part 1)

Harps and Guitar 1A guide to straight blues harping

No force, however great, can stretch a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line which is accurately straight. Elementary Treatise On Mechanics (William Whewell)

The classic blues harmonica journey starts with a crusade to the Holy Shrine of cross harp. Whereupon, straight harp (normally in the guise of Oh Susannah) is swiftly abandoned. Drunk on the glories of success, and soon lavishly equipped with assault amplifiers and bullet microphones, the crusade continues.

New techniques are won – including tongue blocking, vibrato, blow bends and third position blues – before a dark specter looms like a cloud on the horizon; the ghost of first position past. It’s been neglected for too long and now it’s broken our serenity, and it’s raining torment. Here’s how to make amends…

Listen to

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Norton Buffalo Navigates Four Key Changes

Norton & BonnieDo not pass GO
Greasy Rob, Otis the mailman, Stomping Stu and the Doc were deeply engrossed in a Friday night game of Monopoly. A pot of Rington’s Tea steamed away beside Otis, the evening’s banker and custodian of a premium biscuit assortment. Otis had hotels on the green home straight, Rob had all four railway stations, and the Doc had a strong collection of reds and pinks.

Stu, meanwhile, was on skid row. “I’d have more luck playing Bonopoly’, he grumbled. ‘What on earth is that?’, quizzed the Doc. ‘Same as Monopoly, but the streets have no name,’ replied Stu, preparing to mortgage his Water Works. (more…)

The Little Walter Diary Ch.2 – Sad Hours

LogoRound about five
Having openly declared my personal shortcomings apropos studying Walter Minor, there’s no escaping his genius. And the guy continues to toss pebbles at the window of my blues garret. The latest wake up call was a request to decode the start of Sad Hours. The outcome? Unexpected exposure to an architectural masterpiece. I was left standing in my pyjamas, rubbing my eyes, wondering what hit me.

Listen to

It’s a given that mastery of Little Walter’s diatonic dialect is an essential step in any blues harp player’s development. Ever contrary by nature, I therefore embarked on a love affair with Big Walter. Latterly however, I have come to accept my latent appreciation of Marion Walters Jacobs and to indulge in the occasional flirtation. Sad Hours certainly gets the blues fuse smouldering. It was Walter’s 1952 follow up to Juke and it made No.2 on the Billboard R&B Chart. (more…)