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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > top current Chicago blues harp players: the list
top current Chicago blues harp players:  the list
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825 posts
Jan 22, 2015
1:45 PM
Ok. Another list. Not sure what the author's qualifications are ( his bio is pretty thin )

He really didnt even provide guidelines for how he devised the list.

always good to give publicity to harp players but ranking them is probably not the best way to go about it. Sugar Blue rates higher than Billy branch because of an ancient non blues Stones connection.?

Why not just say they are all accomplished players?
3815 posts
Jan 22, 2015
1:46 PM
I knew eight of the ten. Very strange that Martin Lang who I'm pretty sure is based in Chicago isn't mentioned.
43 posts
Jan 22, 2015
1:59 PM
I have heard of seven of them.I also wore out an early Studebaker John CD.Well you can't actually 'wear' out a CD but you know what i mean.Excellent harp player with,then, a kick ass band.
1218 posts
Jan 22, 2015
5:37 PM
Being born and raised in Chicago and active in going to gigs in the area, I'll give this list a shot. This is the way that I see things right now.

1. James Cotton - deservedly so, and still great, but I would venture to say that Cotton is Number One Emeritus.

2. (tie) Sugar Blue and Billy Branch - both gig regularly, in Chicago and world-wide. Each has a great band, although I'll give the edge right now to Blue's band because of recent personnel changes in Billy's band - the passing of bassist Nick Charles last year, and the retirement of drummer Moses Rutues Jr. on December 31, 2014. Blue has a great lead guitarist in Rico McFarland. Both have current projects and both have released albums in the past year. Blue of course has the famous Rolling Stones history. Both have had the harp chair in Willie Dixon's band. Billy has cut almost a dozen albums of his own, and albums with Hubert Sumlin, Kenny Neal, Carey and Lurrie Bell, appeared on both the Superharps and Harp Attack albums, as well as the Living Chicago Blues History series, while Sugar Blue has concentrated mostly on his own output singularly, and has not collaborated with other artists as much as Billy. Both have great clear tone and both can do anything with a harp, both without manufactured distortion from pedals, mics, or amps. Billy is more traditional style, Blue can play old school and cutting edge, and has ventured into jazz collaborations(Stan Getz, Joe Farrell, Gayle Moran etc.) Both are going strong. Billy got married to Rosa last June, Blue and wife Ilaria Lantieri (his bass player) have a young son, and life is good all around. I have to call this one a draw.

3. Billy Boy Arnold - a very talented harp player, Sonny Boy Williamson was his teacher and mentor, a Chicago legend, does not gig as much as he used to and when he does, sings and plays guitar more than plays harp about 60-40. But Billy Boy is still as much or more technically proficient than the rest of the pack, even though his style is more old school that Billy Branch. Plays almost exclusively acoustically.

4. Matthew Skoller - this was a tough call because you could probably have a three way tie between Skoller, Pierre Lacocque and Joe Filisko. Filisko's technical expertise is unmatched, is based in Chicago but does not gig as much, and his teaching and harp making make him stand out in the Chicago area. Pierre is a great player and tours often with his great band Mississippi Heat, but most of the time NOT in Chicago. Skoller (Buddy Guy's son-in-law) collaborates with Lurrie Bell frequently (also producing Lurrie), Deitra Farr, John Primer, a smoking duo with guitarist Bill Sims, CD's (new one coming out this year), gigs in Chicago and around the country and overseas regularly with his own band, and has the Living Chicago Blues History affiliation, as player and producer. The nod is to Skoller, but very slight.

5. Pierre Lacocque.

6. Joe Filisko

7. Omar Coleman - I'm going to give him the nod over Studebaker John because of his steady climb through the ranks. A great vocalist, he has gotten better over the years, plays with Toronzo Cannon, The Kinsey Report and John Primer, and fronts his own band. His rise has been steady and sure.

8. (tie) Studebaker John - a fine player, he just does not headline as much as the other players, and for that reason he is dropped down the list.

8. (tie) Harmonica Hinds - great underrated player, long time Chicago harp force, plays in a one man show (with guitar) most of the time at Legends and other venues.

9. Kevin Purcell - I know him, I've seen him, I like him. Kevin is a very good player, but his band is not strictly blues. They have a fiddle player and play Charlie Daniels and country rock about 40% of the time (I heard them playing Led Zeppelin at one gig, and it sounded great but...). And he does not play a lot of harp in his songs. Still, they gig a lot in the north suburbs and out of state.

10. Geneva Red - A very good player (Hohner endorsee) with a lot of personality, but her band does not have the punch - IMHO - which I believe lessens her impact on the scene. She used to play in the city more, but rarely does now, staying in the far northern Illinois and Wisconsin.

Honorable Mention - Jason Ricci - if and when he is ever in town, or decides to make Chicago his home base.

Last Edited by atty1chgo on Jan 22, 2015 5:58 PM
1848 posts
Jan 23, 2015
4:40 AM
Kingley wrote: "I knew eight of the ten. Very strange that Martin Lang who I'm pretty sure is based in Chicago isn't mentioned."

1219 posts
Jan 23, 2015
6:15 AM
Quite frankly, I've never heard of him, but thanks for the heads up. I just looked him up, and I see that he plays with Rockin' Johnny sometimes, who I know of but haven't seen in awhile.

Here is his Facebook page:


Last Edited by atty1chgo on Jan 23, 2015 6:16 AM
3816 posts
Jan 23, 2015
6:35 AM
atty1chgo - I'm really surprised you haven't heard of Martin Lang. He plays with Tail Dragger quite a lot and is a really badass harp player. He can easily hold his own with the people on that list and could probably even out play some of them too.

Last Edited by Kingley on Jan 23, 2015 6:38 AM
1220 posts
Jan 23, 2015
8:32 AM
I like Taildragger but don't make a point to see him in a separate gig, he is usually second act to the headliner at Buddy Guy's Legends, or dropping in on one of Billy's gigs or someone else's. After 3-4 songs, even a blues afficionado can get tired of his vocals. Come to think of it, I did seen Lang backing Taildragger at Legends a few years ago. I'll have to pay more attention. The live video you posted was shot at Smoke Daddy on the near North Side, a little smokehouse with an even smaller stage.

Last Edited by atty1chgo on Jan 23, 2015 8:33 AM
5533 posts
Jun 12, 2015
7:02 AM
Martin Lang was at the Wabash Tap blowout last night. He's got a great, pedigreed traditional sound. Very good touch. On the downside, he's not particularly original. That's the shadow side of traditionalism: he's doing a superb job of keeping an older sound alive. I love the "Pulaski Stomp" above. Who does that sort of thing better? I can't think of many. Kingley was quite right to name him here.

Also dropping by last night were Taildragger and Annika Chambers.

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jun 12, 2015 7:02 AM
2853 posts
Jun 12, 2015
7:38 AM
I give Omar a thumbs up. He spent a day at my house and recorded a cd worth of stuff with the Sean Carney Band. They had just returned from a European tour. We recorded all this stuff one take with everyone in the same room at (20'x20')low volumes in my studio. Omar is a great vocalist and also makes some cool harmonica belts. Walter

Sean does the singing on these. It was his CD. I think I have a couple of Omar singing somewhere.

omar colman cut

another omar colman cut
walter tore's spontobeat - a real one man band and over 1 million spontaneously created songs and growing. I record about 300 full length cds a year in the Tunnel of Dreams Studio.
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my videos

Last Edited by waltertore on Jun 12, 2015 7:45 AM
2620 posts
Jun 14, 2015
8:54 AM
Martin is a very strong player with a deep vocabulary to tap into. He has been with Taildragger for a really long time. If you've ever seen Taildragger for more than three tunes, you'll know why that's important. For those who don't, he does two things. Shuffles and slow blues. Everything is in the key of A. Martin recently released a new CD which is very good.

The Blues Photo Gallery

Last Edited by Joe_L on Jun 14, 2015 8:55 AM
529 posts
Jun 14, 2015
11:40 AM
Kudzurunner, I saw Martin Lang play two more times the following night (Friday). I saw him sit in with Billy Flynn (who is awesome) at Smoke Daddy's, and it was similar to what he did at Wabash Tap... he was playing Chicago amplified in the pocket... very well done but not that different from a lot of other players I heard this weekend. Later, I heard him next door at Phyllis, and he was playing through a cupped vocal mic. This time, I heard a lot more interesting and original phrasing, maybe because the details of the individual notes stood out better. Bottom line: very good player.

I also played with both bands at both clubs... did a dueling harp thing with Bob Corritore (really great player and cool guy) with Billy Flynn's band. Billy Flynn really blew me away, as did his female keyboard player (didn't get her name). I sat in at Phyllis also... didn't catch this band's name, but they were also very good (albeit a bit less polished).

BTW, Kudzu, you and Alan sounded great all weekend. You had me dancing at Wabash Tap, and that's not easily done!!!

Last Edited by scojo on Jun 15, 2015 11:20 AM
300 posts
Jun 14, 2015
5:16 PM
wow,i know it has been said already a few times,but not having martin lang on that list is crazy!!!

he is,perhaps,one of my favorite harp players living.

Last Edited by shakeylee on Jun 14, 2015 5:19 PM
5536 posts
Jun 15, 2015
5:45 AM
Thanks for the update on Lang, scojo. It sounds as though you heard what I heard in that particular venue, but you also heard other things later on--and I wish I'd been there!

Alan and I very much enjoyed your CD during the long drive home, BTW. I kept pointing at my car stereo speakers and saying "You hear that? What the hell was THAT?!"

For any who might be lurking on this particular thread, I'll just say: the name of this website is Modern Blues Harmonica. This doesn't mean that appreciation for traditional blues harmonica styles isn't welcome, but it does mean that my own emphasis is on players who are invested in the project of showing me (and everybody) something new, something I've never heard before, some new twist, something that meets the three-second test: If I hear three seconds of you on the radio, will your playing have the stamp of originality that makes me know it is YOU and not, for example, somebody who gets every nuance of Little Walter's sound?

That's what I'm always looking for. That's how my ears work. I seek grounded originality: somebody who knows the tradition, and deeply, but has done their best to take it somewhere new.

There are many sorts of fine blues harmonica players. The shadow side of innovation and "modern" sound, BTW, is lack of grounding. That needs to be made clear, too. It is entirely possible to play with originality, speed, and conviction, and yet lack the funk; lack some necessary roots.

Nico Wayne Toussaint played a very interesting set. I should say at the outset that I think he's one of the strongest, most original, and most interesting contemporary players I've heard, and it was great to hear him up close and personal. I was surprised, though, on "Blow, Wind, Blow," to hear him play a solo that relied almost entirely on licks taken directly from James Cotton. He deployed them with great power, and if you didn't know Cotton's work, you'd be blown away. If you know Cotton's work, as I do, you might be puzzled. Why would a great player like Toussaint submerge his own voice in Cotton's like that? Homage is one thing, but straight-up recycling/appropriation is another. But perhaps his aesthetic is different from mine; perhaps, in France (where I believe he's from), that's what you're supposed to do: prove, on a song associated with a specific performer, that you can nail his style.

In the next song or two, however, he switched gears and did fantastic, original stuff--the kind of stuff that I'd want to tease apart and copy. No overblows, and none needed. He was playing HIS stuff, not Cotton's. He was playing on the vocal mic, too, for the whole set. Great tone. Amazing energy. A bandleader's attitude--eyes working the audience.

I hope that folks here (and lurkers, one of whom, an old acquaintance, I met this weekend) understand where I'm coming from. I respect all working players as my fellow tradesmen. But I'm also doing my best, often in ways that irritate people, to keep the pot boiling. Always, at the top of my mind, is that three-second test: If and when they play you on the radio, how quickly will I know that it is YOU and not the range of other people it could be? This test may be unfair to people who don't care as much about originality as I do. But I'll remind them, and you guys: the players we celebrate here, especially (but not only) the African American greats, all had incredibly distinctive styles. If you want to be great, you need to distinguish yourself. You need to work just as hard for that as you need to work in order to master the tradition.

We're just having fun here--talking harp, arbitrating the question of what we like and don't like and thus the question of what is worth celebrating and not worth celebrating. Of course we're going to disagree. At some point I'll be the old guy in the corner grumbling to himself. Heck, I'm halfway there already. Burgess Meredith in "Rocky." I coulda been a contender......

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jun 15, 2015 5:49 AM
2622 posts
Jun 15, 2015
7:11 AM
That's funny. When I hear Martin play, I can identify his sound almost immediately. His tone is unique and very bell like. No one sounds like him.
The Blues Photo Gallery
5537 posts
Jun 15, 2015
8:46 AM
Well, back atcha, Joe. When I exerted due diligence in regards to Lang, I stumbled almost immediately on this video. Where you hear an identifiable sound, I hear an absolutely seamless blend of Big and Little Walter. It's possible there's .01% Lang in there, but I'll be damned if I can hear it. The first thing I hear is where he learned his craft. No one can doubt that he IS a craftsman after hearing this, and that's something I made clear in my initial comments about him:

Please post a clip, any clip, that highlights what you feel is Lang's distinctive and original contribution to blues harmonica. I'm more than willing to revise my initial comments regarding lack of originality. "Pulaski Stomp," as I hear it, is ancestor worship of the highest order. I like it; I enjoy it. As my own teacher, Nat Riddles, would say, He's playing properly. He's elegant; he swings. Not a wasted note. But original? Hardly. And I can't imagine that many people except me and a few other crazies will be interested in asking the question of originality after hearing "Pulaski Stomp." What's not to like? He does everything right: as right as somebody living in our own time can "do" a style whose heyday was 50 or 60 years ago.

But if I want to hear something with all of that tradition behind it that also keeps me on my toes, not really knowing what's coming next, I want Mitch Kashmar or Jason Ricci or Billy Branch or Sugar Blue or, on the traditional end, Kim Wilson.

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jun 15, 2015 8:56 AM
2623 posts
Jun 15, 2015
4:25 PM
Thank you for placing me on the defensive by requesting that I post clips of Martin Lang. I'm not going to be investing a lot of time researching youtube and other Internet sources to debate this topic. If you are interested in learning more about Martin's playing, it isn't that hard to find. Neither is he. He's on facebook as was noted in previous message. Here is the link:


I believe that I said, "When I hear Martin play, I can identify his sound almost immediately. His tone is unique and very bell like. No one sounds like him."

I was speaking to his tone. I know his sound when I hear it. He sounds fairly unique to me. If he's on a recording, I know who it is pretty quickly. Yes, his sound is traditional, but his tone is fairly unique to my ear. If he's on recording, I know his sound when I hear it.

Regarding your comment about not know what's coming, damn near all players have patterns. All you have to do is listen to a player long enough and you'll pick up on them.

The beauty of music is that you can listen to whatever you want. If you limit your listening to four or five guys, you're going to miss out on a lot of great music.

The Blues Photo Gallery
5538 posts
Jun 15, 2015
8:35 PM
With all due respect, Joe, that won't do. You write above that his recent CD is "very good." Tell me which track or two meets the three-second test. I'm soliciting your pushback. You're throwing it back on me. But he's YOUR guy--somebody whose playing moves you. I'm surprised you're not jumping at the chance to say "Listen to THIS!"

I'll be amazed, frankly, if anybody on this forum, including you, tries to defend "Pulaski Stomp" on the basis of originality. But I won't be surprised--especially in light of what Scojo has said--if there are other tracks on the album that cast him in a different light. All I've asked you to do is tell me what those tracks are, so that I can go and buy them, listen to them, and have my mind changed. Sounds as though you can't be bothered. Too bad. My ears are open.

Like you, I pity people who only listen to four or five guys. I listen to everything--more jazz than blues, actually, although a lot of harp players shove CDs at me, and I listen to at least some of most of them. Paolo Demontis, for example, an Italian player who was at the Thursday night show where I spoke briefly with Lang:

The looping thing, as he does it, gets tiring--until you get to "Hard Drinkin' Woman," which is a weirdly memorable track that I want to listen to from the top the moment it's over. Not a "pedigreed sound," but an original vision of the instrument's possibilities, and very much grounded in the long tradition of the instrument, acoustic to amped-up. I'm a little more traditionalist, myself, but I can appreciate the sound of the 2010's:

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jun 15, 2015 8:43 PM
2624 posts
Jun 15, 2015
10:30 PM
Adam - I think it is great that you've moved beyond Blues and into Jazz. I listened to those tracks. If that's what you're into, that's great. If you feel that is cutting edge stuff, then embrace it, play it and love it.

Considering, you are an educator, I find your thinking rather limited. You encourage people to be in the cutting edge of a traditional music, yet you minimize those players who are playing music which sticks to the tradition.

In keeping with the spirit of players like Little Walter, who took the harp in a new direction, you should also not forget that Little Walter waxed a number of songs by Doctor Clayton, Tampa Red and T-Bone Walker. Those songs were originally recorded between 10-30 years before Walter ever recorded then.

It isn't unlike your recordings of Superstition or Crossroads. The versions you covered were recorded in the the early 1970's. That's 40 years ago.

There is plenty of room for the complete spectrum of the music. It isn't like we are talking about a musical genre where people sell hundreds of thousands of records. As you know in Blues, a big seller will be measured in the thousands.

Let's get back to Martin Lang. Again, you missed my point about his tone and choose to focus on one song. When I first started learning, I asked James Cotton who I should listen to. He said listen to everyone. If you want to hear more of Martin's playing, buy the CD's that he is on. They aren't hard to find. His recorded legacy doesn't number in the thousands of tunes.

It's completely pointless to recommend anything to you. You have made your mind up based on the one or two tunes that you've heard on YouTube. This is not the first time that we have been at this cross roads. If you don't dig it, that's fine. I'm not trying to ram anything down your throat.

As an educator, I think it is weak to limit your think, especially when you are influencing a whole new generation of students. It's your choice. It's your forum. You pay the bills.

The Blues Photo Gallery
246 posts
Jun 16, 2015
4:45 AM
I dig that Hard Drinkin' Woman track. Reminds me of Velvet Underground.

I don't see how acknowledging that artists who bring something new to the table are more important is limiting one's thinking, Joe_L. If that weren't the case, then art would have lost its appeal thousands of years ago. There's only so much that you can paint in plant dyes on cave walls.

I'm not calling traditionalism primitive, I'm just saying that the best traditionalists -- the most important ones -- also bring something new to the table. I don't really see how that's a controversial point at all.

Check out my music at http://bmeyerson11.bandcamp.com/
50 posts
Jun 16, 2015
5:24 AM
What a great thread. I'm a loooong way from all this, in Sydney Australia. But it feels like I'm in Chicago, arguing the toss over who is who.

We did have Joe Filisko here recently, he really left a mark on our scene. His style blended perfectly with Eric Noden, but there were times when I thought "what the hell is he doing here", then realised, then had a long quiet think about how much getting better is yet to be done.
Tony Eyers
everyone plays...
1272 posts
Jun 16, 2015
6:53 AM
OK, I listened to Pulaski Stomp. I can't say that it is an identifiable tone or sound. That's not to say that it doesn't sound good. It does. Would I go out and buy a CD on Amazon? Probably not. If I did at all, it would be to support the artist at a show, but I usually buy what I will listen to later. If all of his playing was very similar to Pulaski Stomp, I wouldn't buy it because I like some variety. Just my opinion.
531 posts
Jun 16, 2015
8:34 AM
To push this back to a more positive mode of discussion... I tend to like stuff that mixes genres and, while including blues in it, also has elements of rock, folk, jazz, funk, "world" music, electronica etc. That's what I try to do in my own stuff, and that is what most readily draws me musically... so that I am focused on the songs first and the harmonica as a prominent element of that.

I am very impressed by the new CDs from Paul Messinger and Ron Rosco Selley (the latter of which I am listening to right now). They are both nuanced, lyrically textured, and very rewarding on multiple listens. It's also part of why I remain a John Popper fan... he is doing something original, not only with his harmonica playing, but with the whole musical package. That's what I find lacking in too much blues... Even if I haven't heard it precisely before, I have heard the broad outlines.

Now, having said all that, my weekend in Chicago around my CBF performance really helped rejuvenate my love of great blues harmonica players. Adam was great as always (and easily the most progressive player I heard)... I was also impressed with Nico Toussaint, Martin Lang, Bob Corritore (also fairly progressive, to my ears, while still rooted in tradition), and my new friend and fellow Seydel endorsee JB Bustillos. So I can get off on the blues, but surprise me with something new and I will really pay attention.

On a related note... my new album got a review on Cashbox. It was very complimentary, but it also used the word "blues" about five times. I don't consider it a blues record at all, although there are several pretty rootsy songs. But I do play a "blues" harmonica and I am from Mississippi, so what are ya gonna do? :)

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