Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Chicago Blues style Harmonica Comp?
Chicago Blues style Harmonica Comp?
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28 posts
Jul 15, 2017
7:42 AM
Hey so im a little stuck on this one thing harmonica players do when theyre playing with a Chicago blues band. At open jams when i play i usually take a backseat and i play a long with the melody or i either do a chugging rhythm when someone solos or i dont play. I never really go out my way to add more sound and as a result, the audience doesnt really hear any harmonica apart from my solos


comparing that to how Little Walter accomponied Muddy Waters (he was all over the place, and it was always distinct) am i doing something? should my harmonica be all over the place with trills and such while keeping the beat and leaving room for phrases and licks?

Last Edited by ejakon on Jul 15, 2017 7:46 AM
270 posts
Jul 15, 2017
9:38 AM
I don;t know about "little walter" will have to listen more intently

I do feel If yr gonna play during singing or someone elses lead--then u should know chord structure and or octave splits and the volume should be low, on the bassy side and blend not stand out
My friend does the same licks and fills, even during singing -gets kind of annoying

but I've been to opinionated lately and think
Im "full of it"
2718 posts
Jul 15, 2017
2:52 PM
You need to do more listening and determine what makes the playing in those classic songs work. Sometimes, it's about tension and release. Sometimes, it's about creating a hypnotic pattern. Sometimes, it's about carrying the groove. Listen to the song and attempt to ascertain the emotive effect the player is attempting to convey. It's all about supporting the vocal and the story. Don't do anything that detracts from the vocals. If your playing isn't adding something to the song, then doing nothing is the right thing to do.

Little Walter's playing wasn't all over the place. He was brilliant. It helped to convey a very soulfully emotional message. When you play Blues, that ought to be the goal. Playing all over the place will deliver the wrong emotional message.

The Blues Photo Gallery

Last Edited by Joe_L on Jul 15, 2017 2:56 PM
492 posts
Jul 15, 2017
3:21 PM

You should not play all over the place. You should listen to the records and figure out what is appropriate.

The general rule of thumb is "the louder you play, the more repetitively you must play."
Marc Graci
YouTube Channel
6296 posts
Jul 15, 2017
5:51 PM
I'll second everything Joe L said about Little Walter and what to listen for.

Actually, I'll second Mirco just as loudly. Yes: it took me thirty years to learn that particular lesson.

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jul 15, 2017 5:54 PM
29 posts
Jul 15, 2017
6:33 PM
I can't believe I did not look at it that way, thank you!
65 posts
Jul 16, 2017
12:29 AM
First, I agree with Joe L.

But I think there's another important component. Muddy's was a "harmonica band", typical of Chicago's Southside. It's the sound Muddy created - "...it's the sound I heard in my head" was how Muddy described it - two guitars weaving around a bassline, harmonica and piano doing fills and horn parts. So whether it was the Walters, George Smith, Mojo Buford, Paul Oscher, Cotton, Jerry Portnoy or Jr. Wells, they fit in the Muddy mold when they played with him - they didn't step on his vocals, they knew exactly where to fill. Nobody was "all over the place".

But my experience with jams is that unless the harp player is leading the band (singing/playing) or unless the guitar knows how to "play the shit", most jams are run by the singer or guitar player and things tend to be guitar centric. So instead of the "harmonica band sound" of Muddy, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, etc the songs are guitar focused - B.B., SRV, Buddy Guy, etc and don't lend themselves to the same harp style.

So maybe learn some horn lines listening to B.B. and Albert King, Fenton Robinson or Bobby Bland. Pull those out at the jam. Fill, solo using horn style lines, maybe try low harps for backing, and don't step on the vocals or solos. Play Muddy style when it's a harmonica band style song.

Much as I wish it were different, most guys at a jam don't know the song if you call the name and fewer still can play it like on the record so we do the best we can. Just keep practicing, playing, and keep it in the groove.

2721 posts
Jul 17, 2017
11:56 AM
BnT - Your points are very valid.

I have often said there are really two things that a person needs to do to play Blues on any instrument.

First, learn to operate the instrument. Second, know what to do with the instrument in the context of the music being played. As you know, you can teach the first. To do the second part takes a huge time commitment and a passion for the music that of you don't have it, you won't be able to play it convincingly.

The rewards come when both parts are combined. There are some artists whose playing is deceptively simple, but they combine it with an incredible soulful feeling, e.g. Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells or Howling Wolf. Their playing may seem deceptively simple, but very few artists could touch the level of soul in their playing and their ability to deliver a song and make it sound like it is the most important thing you'll ever hear.

The Blues Photo Gallery

Last Edited by Joe_L on Jul 17, 2017 11:57 AM
318 posts
Jul 17, 2017
3:08 PM
Jimmy Rogers has said that when he got with Little Walter that they had to reign him in and teach him timing. LW was used to playing on Maxwell Street, where it was more of a let it fly scenario. Rogers said that LW would play up one wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall. During the early years, other than Muddy's slide guitar, LW's harp WAS the lead instrument; what Muddy called the 'Mother of the band'. LW became a genius at knowing how to play over Muddy's vocals without distracting from his singing and the song. It takes a lot of finesse, and a singer at a jam might pull his piece on a harp player that walks all over his vocals.
Ricky B
RIVER BOTTOM BLUES--crime novel for blues fans available at Amazon/B&N, iTunes, iBook
THE OAXACAN KID--available now
HOWLING MOUNTAIN BLUES--Ditto too, now available

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