CategoriesHarmonica Players

Little Walter – Rock and Roll Legend

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.

Early Life

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.

Solo Success

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.

Here are a trio of videos to get you started:

As ever, any questions or comments just post them in the comments section below and we’ll do our best to answer them.