Backing Harmonica on Guitar

Part 1: FORGET “LEAD GUITAR”

Most would agree that ever since the crossover success of BB King and the superstardom of Eric Clapton, it’s been a guitar world. For generations, the most popular blues artists have mostly been slammin’ lead guitarists where the band is built around the guitar.

The high point of the song is often the guitar solo, especially when it comes to Johnny Winter, Albert King, Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Luther Allison, and Joe Bonamassa. These artists and many similar ones have inspired so many guitar players to pick up the guitar-- and that’s all well and good.

But NONE of this will help you AT ALL to play behind a harmonica. So the first step is to TRY to temporarily put aside everything you know about any of the above players, and about ‘lead guitar’ in general. You’re no longer the top dog.

harmonica group

Can you imagine songs like Muddy’s I Just Want to Make Love to You, Howlin’ Wolf’s Evil, Jimmy Roger’s Chicago Bound or Jimmy Reed’s Big Boss Man without the harmonica? I can’t! It’d be like cutting the heart out of the song. The rich (usually) amplified blues harp sound of Little Walter, James Cotton, Walter Horton, Junior Wells, etc is such an essential part of this era of blues.

One of the reasons those harp players sound so great is because those bands have an ensemble sound that’s really built around the harp. I have spent a good bit of my career playing “behind” harp players. When I first started doing this, I didn’t know anything about it and I really had to dig deep into the early Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers records to get my footing, but I am so grateful that I did.

It’s been my good fortune to perform or record with lots of fantastic harp players over the years: Paul Delay, Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Johnny Sansone, Sugar Ray Norcia, Billy Branch, Quique Gomez, Aki Kumar, RJ Mischo, Andy Santana, Jim Liban, Scott Dirks and Martin Lang, to name some of my favorites.

As different as all these artists are, they all needed the same thing: a guitarist who played a strong Chicago lump de lump, consistent chords, and used a tone that blends with and supports the harp rather than clashes with it.

A Supportive Tone:
little-walter

I’d use the neck pickups or a combination of the neck and a middle pickup and back the treble off for a warmer sound. Or you could experiment with the bridge pickup with the treble rolled way off. To me this sounds better on a semi-hollow or a hollow body, but you can still get by with a strat or a tele, or any guitar, if you work on adjusting your tone.

The Stevie Ray Vaughan strat tone is awesome, but it really doesn’t work well with the frequencies of the harp. I’d also roll the treble back and the bass up on the amp settings. Experiment with smaller amps, and tweed amps.

If you have a large amp like a twin, you could use an overdrive or distortion sparingly until you get a mellow, bassy, “light roar” that you hear on a lot of the Chess Little Walter singles. Have some fun with it!

The Right Hand

The actual way you strike the notes is as important as your gear and tone settings. Try playing without a pick. If you can carry a bass note with your thumb at least some of the time, then you can pick treble strings with your fingers and flesh out the sound and the rhythm that way.

You can experiment with a thumbpick for a bigger “thump” in your bass notes. The Jimmy Rogers tracks on the acoustic record “Chicago Blues at Home” (Advent records, 1977) is a good way to hear the right hand techniques in a more revealed way.

PART 2: THE REPERTOIRE

Little Walter’s classic songs are pretty much the bedrock for this style. If you’re gonna play with real harp players, you’ve gotta KNOW songs like Mean Old World, Juke, Can’t Hold Out Much Longer, Sad Hours, My Babe, You’re So Fine, Just Your Fool, I Just Keep Loving Her for starters.

All these songs and many others like them rely on the open, ringing tones, usually in the E position. So if a harp player plays one of these songs in F or G-- no worries, just whip out your capo!

harmonica jimmy rogers

Most of you know the “Chicago lump”-- the boogie pattern on the low E and A strings that’s in so much of this music. You can also play mid-range “lumps” in the middle of the E chord on the G and B strings-- that’s what Louis Myers is doing on You’re So Fine.

To me, this is “getting the music out of the chord”. I’ve done a youtube lesson on the Myers brothers on my youtube channel that illustrates a lot of features of many of these songs.

Jimmy Reed songs: Bright Lights Big City, Hush Hush, Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby, Baby What You Want Me to Do, Goin’ To New York, You Don’t Have to Go. There are many many more-- you can’t go wrong!

Eddie Taylor songs: Bad Boy, Ride Em On Down, Big Town Playboy. The Jimmy Reed and Eddie Taylor songs are great for getting a handle on the A position. I’ve done a youtube lesson on Eddie and on Jimmy Reed as well if you need it as a reference.

Muddy Waters songs: Long Distance Call, Got My Mojo Workin, Sugar Sweet, Rock Me, Forty Days and Forty Nights, She’s Nineteen Years Old, I Want to Be Loved-- another case where there are so many and you can’t go wrong!

Jimmy Rogers: Just listen to the Chicago Bound LP a million times.

James Cotton songs: Good Time Charley, Lovin’ Cup, Soul Survivor, The Creeper, -- we’re getting into a different era now but James Cotton is a hugely influential harp player and so many folks do his songs from the Verve era.

This is just a start: there are also artists such as John Brim, Billy Boy Arnold, Johnny Young, and on and on. To get a grip on the ethos and history of this creative, explosive period of Chicago Blues, I recommend the book Chicago Blues: The City and The Music by Mike Rowe, and Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story by Tony Glover and Scott Dirks.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

The real common thread of all these songs and artists is an emphasis on an ensemble sound where the harmonica is, if not in the actual forefront, it’s the ‘animating spirit’-- the instrument that tells the story and sets the mood.

While it might seem not as exciting at first, there’s a real glory in being part of something bigger than yourself-- remember the old phrase, “there is no “I’ in ‘band’”?

eddie taylor

Simple physical changes can change your attitude and a band’s attitude. For example, a lot of this music was played sitting down-- so try sitting down, turning down, adjusting your tone and your right hand, and mostly playing bass lines and chords.

With one ear, you listen to the band and with another ear you monitor yourself. If you can play without watching your instrument, and watch the band and the leader instead-- great! I couldn’t do that until I forced myself not to look at my guitar, and just kept on making mistakes until I could do it.

Then I was free to look at the leader if I was a sideman, or look at the audience if I was leading the band. I still look at the guitar of course, but not all the time.

Finding another like-minded guitarist can really add a lot. If you can, experiment with formats: a bass and two guitars, two guitars and no bass, even three guitars which are actually on a lot of Jimmy Reed records!

I get so much pleasure from hearing how the guitars interweave on music from this era. A lot of the magic was made by great guitar teams like Dave and Louis Myers, Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed and Eddie Taylor. It's one thing that has been lost in the transition to the GUITAR WORLD we live in today.

DOES ANYBODY STILL PLAY LIKE THIS?

Yes! Despite the recent loss of James Harmon, Paul Oscher and others, there are lots of great traditional players and bands out there.

Billy Branch, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia, and The Cash Box Kings are all still active and putting out great music.

On a more grass-roots level, I keep discovering cool bands who are into this kind of music in almost a fanatical way: The Jelly Roll Men of Norway, Little Hat of The Netherlands, Jesus on a Tortilla of Italy, Steve Wes Weston of the UK (who plays with the trad blues band Trickbag of Sweden), The Silver Kings of Los Angeles are all very passionate about this style, a lot of fun and well worth a listen.

Some seventy years later, people are still drawn to this music across cultures and language barriers. This music is just too good to go away. I love this kind of playing, this repertoire and this era of blues; I never get tired of it. I do hope that this article might encourage you to play in this style.