The Harmonica Company looks at the world’s best harmonica players of all time. From Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, James Cotton, Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder to some of the more modern players such as Brendan Power, Christelle Berthon, Steve Baker and YouTube sensation Indiara Sfair.
If you asked the average person in the street to name a famous harmonica player, chances are you’d get one of three answers: Stevie Wonder would probably score highly; older people, especially in the US, might say ‘Junior Wells’; but the most ubiquitous name mentioned would almost certainly be Bob Dylan. The interesting thing about this, of course, is that Dylan is not regarded by many musicians as being a particularly good harmonica player. In some circles, indeed, he’s even regarded as being a terrible harmonica player. So why is is name so inextricably linked with the instrument and what type of harmonica does he actually play?
The link with the harmonica is a fairly obvious one: listen to any of Dylan’s early singles and the instrument forms a prominent part of them – from Mixed Up Confusion through to Subterranean Homesick Blues. It’s not show-off virtuoso solos, but the harmonica complements the songwriting perfectly and forms an integral part of each song – just imagine The Times They Are a Changin’ without the (admittedly simple) harmonica hooks. Conversely, something bluesy and complicated shoehorned in would not add anything; it would only detract from the song.
As for harmonicas, you’ll find for sale various official Bob Dylan Signature Edition harps made by Hohner over the years, but it’s unlikely that you’ll hear these exact instruments on any of Dylan’s recorded material. Rather, almost all of his harmonica work until more recent years will have been done on a Hohner Marine Band. Some enthusiasts take this to mean that the Marine Bands from the 1960s are some sort of mythically great instruments, especially since they were used by almost all of the great harmonica players of the 20th Century, but the truth is much more prosaic; players chose the Marine Band because it was well made, cheap and easily available. There really wasn’t much choice back in those days!
Later in his career, Dylan also used the Hohner Special 20, but it is the Hohner Blues Harp that he is generally associated with now (and which the latest Signature Edition models are based on). The differences between this model and the Marine Band are extremely minimal – they both share the same thickness of reeds (they’re not thinner on the Blues Harps , as some players erroneously believe) and comb material, and it’s only really the shape of the cover plates that differentiates them. I challenge anyone to successfully differentiate their tone in a blind test.
So, if you want to replicate Dylan’s sound, look for a Marine Band or Blues Harp from Hohner. If you’re happy to spend a bit more than these two harps, the Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover offer similar tone and feel, but with more swell-resistant combs. For Dylan songs that require the use of harmonic and natural minor harps, your only real choice is the Marine Band, as most other harmonicas in these tunings feature plastic rather than pearwood combs, which give a slightly different tone.
We take a look at Little Walter – the legendary harmonica player.
Any awards system in the arts (and, perhaps, some in the field of science) is open to criticisms of subjectivism and bias. Music, as in all aesthetic pursuits is no exception, and is interesting to note that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has existed since the 1980s, has often been accused of giving primacy to artists from the 1970s and beyond, at the expense of the earlier rock and roll and blues pioneers.
A cursory glance at a list of inductees will reveal only one artist who has been inducted purely as a harmonica player. That artist, is of course, Little Walter, and few would argue against his inclusion.
Little Walter was born as Marion Walter Jacobs in Louisiana in 1930 (or possibly earlier – census data are not conclusive on this matter). In common with many blues musicians, he left school at an early age, choosing to earn money by busking on the streets of New Orleans and other US cities, before finally making his home in Chicago in the 1940s.
By 1950, he’d made his first recording and had started to play with blues legend, Muddy Waters. This led to various recording sessions, culminating in the release of Walter’s first solo record – Juke. The success of this track was repeated over subsequent years, with Little Walter scoring 14 top 10 hits in the R&B Chart.
By the 1960s, though, musical tastes had changed, and Walter fell into alcoholism and ill health as his popularity declined. He died in 1968 at the age of just 37, having suffered head injuries in a street fight.
How to Sound Like Little Walter
One thing that you notice when looking at harp tab for Little Walter songs is the dominance of the second position on the diatonic harp. He used third position on a number of occasions, and experimented with first position, but the majority of his hits were played in second position. This, of course, isn’t uncommon for a blues harmonica player.
One thing Walter was particularly known for was the early use of the harmonica with handheld microphone. He often used Masco valve amps, which were originally intended for PA use. Many of the extant Masco amps from this period have been snapped up by harp players, eager to achieve the Little Walter sound. For those of you without the time or energy to search for vintage kit, a similar setup can be achieved today by using something like a Bulletini mic, with its vintage sounding element, and a good all valve amp, like the Supro Supreme 1600 1×10.
In terms of harps themselves, Little Walter’s primary diatonic was a Hohner Marine Band. A modern 1896 Classic Marine Band is extremely close in construction and sound to those used by Walter in the 1950s, even down to the unsealed comb and nailed construction. Players look for a slightly smoother and more swell resistant harp would be best served by the Marine Band Deluxe, which has smoother edges, a sealed comb, and modern bolted construction.
Those of you who have studied footage of Walter and his record covers will know that he didn’t confine himself to the diatonic; he occasionally used a Hohner 280 chromatic.
In his 2008 book, Outliers, the American intellectual and writer, Malcolm Gladwell, discusses the role of natural ability in achieving world class expertise in a particular skill. In one of the early chapters, he focuses on the work of Stanford professor, Lewis Terman, who sought out child prodigies and followed their subsequent progression into adulthood.
What Gladwell finds interesting about these “Termites” – as the studied children were nicknamed – is that, despite having exceptionally high IQs, none fulfilled Terman’s hypothesis that they would grow up to be pre-eminent figures in art, business, science, government or literature.
The music world is also full of child prodigies, yet few develop into artists of the calibre that would be expected, given the talents displayed at such early ages. They may learn to play complex Mozart pieces with perfect accuracy and exquisite feeling, yet they fail to ape the great composer in his ability to create original work.
Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known by his stage name of Stevie Wonder, is one of the few exceptions to this rule. Born six weeks premature, and with retinopathy of prematurity, leading to permanent blindness, Wonder had few of the advantages of life enjoyed by many child prodigies, especially those in the classical oeuvre. Yet it was clear, even at a young age, that he possessed not only a polymath’s command of multiple instruments, but also a creative flair that would see him release original material at the tender age of twelve.
Although Stevie is, perhaps best known as a keyboard player, vocalist and songwriter, the harmonica has featured heavily both in his own work and in his contributions to the recordings of other artists.
Wonder’s remarkable talent for playing the harp was obvious at an extremely young age. This is evident in rare footage of the Motortown Revue, a series of concerts designed to promote Motown artists in the early 1960s, where a 12 year-old Stevie wows the crowd with a virtuoso performance of ‘Fingertips’ on the bongos and harmonica. Later released as a single, “Fingertips” went on to top the Billboard Pop Singles Chart, giving Wonder his first true hit, and making him the youngest artist to achieve the number one position.
After a short period in the wilderness, while his voice underwent the usual changes that adolescence brings, Stevie scored his first self-penned hit with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” which displayed a harder, more rock-influenced sound. During this period he was also signed to the Motown songwriting department, which led to him composing songs for himself and labelmates, most notably ‘Tears of a Clown’ which gained Smokey Robinson and the Miracles the coveted number one singles spot.
Back to the Harmonica
Towards the late 1960s the harmonica began to feature heavily again in Wonder’s music: initially in an album of instrumental jazz/soul tracks, entitled ‘Eivets Rednow’, and later with the memorable singles, ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ and ‘For Once in My Life’. It’s a testament to Wonder’s interpretation of the latter that most people assume that he wrote it (in fact it was originally penned by Motown songwriter and producer, Ron Miller, as a much slower piece, intended to be performed in the swing genre).
In both of these hits, Stevie Wonder displays his trademark harmonica style: virtuosic without being self-indulgent. Compared to the harmonica that featured in other, predominantly folk-based, contemporary chart singles, Wonder’s solos are notable for their complexity, and use of jazz scales, whilst still remaining true to the primary tune of the song itself.
Throughout the 1970s Stevie Wonder matured as an artist, touring with bands such as The Rolling Stones, and developing a sound that was quite distinct from his early Motown work. This period produced his two finest albums: 1973’s ‘Innervisions’ and 1976’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, both of which feature heavily in most music magazine’s top albums of all time.
The 1980s saw Stevie Wonder build on this critical success with significant commercial achievements, including his first platinum album – ‘Hotter than July’ and the phenomenally popular ‘Happy Birthday’ single, which was part of his ultimately successful campaign to establish Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday in the USA.
Other work included collaborations with Elton John and The Eurythmics, on whose respective singles, ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and ‘There Must be an Angel’ Wonder played harmonica, with trademark zeal.
Although the last 25 years has seen a reduction in Wonder’s original musical output, he has continued to contribute to the work of many popular artists, been sampled by others (perhaps most famously, in Coolio’s 1995 hit single ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, which extensively sampled ‘Pastime Paradise’ from ‘Songs in the Key of Life’), and performed live to huge audiences, at events such as the Winter Olympics and Glastonbury Festival.
Style and Harmonica Choice
From a playing perspective, Stevie overwhelmingly favours the chromatic harmonica. Unlike the more ubiquitous diatonic harmonica, commonly used for folk music and the blues, the chromatic harmonica has a full range of notes, by dint of more holes (up to 16, rather than 10) and a slide, which raises the pitch of each hole by a semitone. The primary downside of the chromatic harp is the additional difficulty in learning to play it. Circular breathing, as commonly practised by classical wind instrument players, is a necessary skill, due to the chromatic harmonica generally requiring a greater amount of air to produce its wider range of notes.
Wonder’s use of the chromatic harp is quite distinctive. Harmonica artist, Randy Singer has noted that Stevie manipulates the slide forcibly, whilst using a significant amount of vibrato to achieve a shifting effect. This is mixed with a fluttering effect from his use of the tongue to achieve his trademark sound.
Although Stevie now mainly plays a custom made Huang harmonica, many of his recordings feature the Hohner Chromonica Super 64. Players wishing to attempt to replicate his sound will find this a good starting point, as it offers the necessary four octave range at a competitive price point. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that chromatic harmonicas obviate the need to purchase multiple harps, as they can effectively play in any key, making the generally higher initial outlay significantly more bearable).
A slightly cheaper alternative is the Hohner Chromonica 64, which features similar construction but replaces the silver mouthpiece surface of the Super 64 with nickel.
Conversely, players who are willing to spend a little more would be advised to look at the Chromonica Super 64X, which upgrades the mouthpiece surface to gold, and produces a louder, richer sound, particularly in the low range, due to its double reed plates.
Of course, while all of these models will give you the potential to play like Stevie, they, unfortunately, won’t instantly imbue you with his talent (more’s the pity!)
It’s a sad feature of the modern world that a significant event can easily be overshadowed in the popular consciousness if it happens to coincide with a different event that is deemed more newsworthy by the media.
Recent history is littered with examples of this kind of “popularity Top Trumps”, not least of which were Mother Theresa’s death being eclipsed by Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, and Groucho Marx’s passing away being dwarfed by the untimely demise of Elvis Presley.
And so, in the week that has given us the death of Chuck Berry, one of the true pioneers of early rock and roll, it is, perhaps, inevitable, that the loss of blues harmonica legend, James Cotton, has been somewhat overlooked.
Cotton, who was known for his virtuoso harp work, both as a solo artist and on recordings and performances with a range of blues and rock acts, died of pneumonia on Thursday 16th March 2017 in Austin, Texas, at the age of 81.
Born in Tunica, Mississippi, but later moving to West Helena, Arkansas, where he met and was mentored by blues harmonica player and songwriter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Cotton actually began his musical career, albeit the amateur part, as a drummer. It soon became clear, though, that the harmonica was where his talents lay, resulting in him being recruited, in the early 1950s, to Howlin’ Wolf’s band, where he remained for a number of years.
In 1953, he recorded his first solo record – Straighten Up Baby – for Sun Records, following this with a second single – Cotton Crop Blues.
After a stint recording and touring with Muddy Waters, Cotton, by then nicknamed “Mr Superharp” in honour of his talent on the harmonica, fronted a number of eponymous bands, including the James Cotton Blues Band. During this time he released a range of live and studio albums, including 100% Cotton, High Energy and Live and On the Move. He combined this work with his own bands with forays into blues rock territory through collaborations with artists such as Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Santana, amongst others.
In the 1970s he resumed his work with Muddy Waters, which reached its zenith with the Grammy award-winning Hard Again LP, released in 1977. The 1980s brought further Grammy nominations for his Live in Chicago and Take Me Back albums, then in 1996 he received a Grammy in the Best Traditional Blues Album category for his Deep in the Blues LP. His work in the 2000s included Grammy-nominated studio albums, Giant and Cotton Mouth Man.
He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006 and in 2010 was honoured by New York’s Lincoln Center with an all-star concert. The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal paid tribute to Cotton with their 2015 B.B. King Award for his contributions to the blues.
Cotton continued to tour, even as a senior citizen, and credited this as a means by which he felt younger:
“That’s because I like to see people dance and have a good time,” he told one interviewer. “I like to keep it up, keep it moving. I always liked people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Santana. I don’t sing much anymore but I don’t let it bother me too much, I just concentrate on blowing harp more.”
As a blues harp player, Cotton was renowned for his explosive style, precise choice of notes and tonal variety.
The New York Daily News described him as, “The greatest blues harmonica player of all time.” NPR Weekend Edition offered a similar tribute: “Conjure up a list of all-time great blues harmonica players, and high up on it you’ll see the name James Cotton.”
Primarily a diatonic harp player, Cotton tended to use various types of Seydel 1847 harmonicas, including the 1847 Silver, which can be heard on many of his live recordings.
Cotton’s hard-blowing style has influenced generations of harmonica players, and his work with Muddy Waters was particularly significant in the impact it had on later rock bands, such as the Rolling Stones.
Toots Thielemans was one of the greats in the harmonica world, his illustrious career saw him use his harmonica skills on the theme tune for the iconic TV show ‘Sesame Street’. His harmonica was also prominently featured on movie soundtracks, including those of the Oscar-winning “Midnight Cowboy,” ”The Pawnbroker,” ”Jean de Florette,” and “The Sugarland Express.” Also adept as a whistler, he could be heard on the Old Spice after-shave commercials. He performed and recorded with Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, among many others.
Toots Thielemans was born in Brussels, Belgium, on 29 April 1922. His parents owned a cafe. He began playing music at an early age, using a homemade accordion at age three. During the German occupation of Belgium beginning in 1940, he became attracted to jazz, but was then playing on full-size accordion or a harmonica, which he taught himself to play in his teens. Since 1959, Thielemans led his own small groups and toured internationally when not working in the studios.
Although mostly recording straight-ahead jazz albums, he released two albums in the 1990s as “The Brasil Project,” featuring such prominent Brazilian artists as Dori Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso.
Even despite suffering with asthma most of his life he still managed to be one of the most instrumental harmonica players, being one of the first to blow complex bebop lines. His harmonica of choice was a custom-made Hohner chromatic.
Toots died in his sleep at the age of 94 in a Belgian hospital.
After the announcement, the Netherlands-based jazz and pop orchestra Metropole Orkest, along with American trumpet player Quincy Jones, performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall in Toots Thielemans’ honor. Another concert was performed at the Brussels’ Grand Place.