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The Harp: How the Blues Met the Harmonica: The Blues Harp, Part 2.5

Updated: Mar 6

How the Blues Met the Harmonica: The Blues Harp

Playing along with the blues is not that hard. First try it unaccompanied, without a backing track. Use your foot or a metronome set at, say, 70 bpm. You can download a metronome on any smart phone. A bar is four beats. Use your C harp, and just play 2-draw for the first 16 beats, or four bars. Then play 4-blow for two bars, or 8 beats. Now back to the 2-draw for two bars. Then play 4-draw for only 4 beats, then 4 beats of the 4-blow again, and finish up with that faithful 2-draw for the last two bars. You truly can’t go wrong. The 2-draw note is your friend; it is your tonic note. You can play through an entire 12-bar blues using the 2-draw only. Of course you will begin to get more creative as you improvise, playing other notes as you get more comfortable.

Easy and simple, yes? That is the 12-bar I-IV-V progression. (Yes, you have to use Roman numerals for that.) The I is properly known as the tonic note; the IV is the subdominant, and the V is the dominant. You will hear and recognize those terms.

Happy Traum, a friend of Butterfield, a neighbor in Woodstock, and a fine guitarist in his own right, said “Paul used to say that he played only one note, but that he really knew how to play it.” [Paul Butterfield with Happy Traum, Paul Butterfield Teaches Blues Harmonica. Homespun Tapes, 1997, Woodstock, NY). Before we speculate exactly which note that is, notice that Levon Helm, drummer for The Band who played a very nice blues harp as well, confirmed Traum’s simple-but-complex point. In 1998, 11 years after Butterfield had died, Levon explained “A Nice Trick that Paul Butterfield Showed Me, “ ( as he demonstrated a valuable lesson on playing the blues harp to the film-maker Rees Candee. ( Levon says, about Butterfield, “If you can bring that, that will bring the other ones.” And: “What a touch Butterfield had. He could hit a single note and make it sound like an orchestra.” ( He meant, and Happy Traum meant, of course, the 2-draw, the tonic.

Good, you still have your C harp in hand. Now play it with a backing track. For the next step: go to your computer and download a guitar track in G. You can find one here:

This track is 16 minutes long, but the initial 12-bar blues is contained in the first 34 seconds, so the 12 bars are repeated about 30 times. It won’t kill you, by the way, to play that pattern 30 times over the duration of the backing track. But first listen to it and watch the notation: G (ignore the 7 attached to that G: that number is for guitar players) for 4 bars, C (2 bars), G (2 bars), D (1 bar), C (1 bar), G (1 bar), D (1 bar). That is the entire 12-bar blues. During the first 4 bars, in G, play the 2-hole draw. For the next two bars, in C, play the 4-blow. Then back to the 2-draw for the next two bars (G). Then during the 9th bar, play the 4 draw, D. For the 10th bar, the C again, which is 4-blow. Back to the faithful G again for the 11th bar, then to the D, for the turnaround, 4-draw, in the 12th bar. Note here that the turnaround is optional, used for the sake of continuity: you can go on to the next 12-bar sequence without using it.

Use the turnaround in the next 12-bar sequence. Playing good improvised blues, which is what you are doing, means employing repetition with variation. Using the turnaround in one 12-bar sequence, then deciding not to use it in the next: that is a good example of the variation. The same principal applies to your choice of whether to use the 1-draw or the 4-draw in the turnaround: they are the same note, separated by an octave. Both are D. Variation. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Try it both ways.

An excellent introduction to the 12-bar blues format is a series of three ten-minute videos among Adam Gussow’s earliest postings, in 2007:, and then the two videos that follow it. Professor Gussow even throws in a 13-bar blues in the middle of that third video, just to test you. But count off with him those conventional twelve bars, and play the changes. That’s it. You just played the 12-bar blues on a blues harp. Good work. It felt and sounded terrific, didn't it? (If you would prefer one fifty-minute lesson from Gussow that demonstrates and explains the 12-bar blues in one shot, go here:

Now go back to that other link at the beginning of the text two paragraphs above, the long blues shuffle, and play along with that one on your own. Great work. You think Butterfield didn’t memorize and internalize and know that 12-bar blues structure, in his sleep? Of course he did. Then he moved on to more complicated stuff – and you can, too.

Did you notice that most of that blues progression resides in the lower end of the harp, and in the draw notes? Hit the page-back button and look at those two diagrams in the previous posting, The Harp, Part II: “Love Me Do,” and the one labeled “Lick 4.” Now come back to this page: everything resides in that lower octave, and almost every note is a draw note. That will have consequences for regulating how we breathe while playing the harp, of course.

But back to those draw/low notes: Around 1900 when blues music was broadening its base among harmonica players in the American south, harmonica players realized that the low draw notes offered a wider and more expressive range of tonal effects to simulate the mood of their songs. And, as we have noted, they discovered that those notes could be bent, delivering even more and “bluer” expression there with flatted 3rd, 5ths, and 7th notes.

The 12-bar blues structure looks like this (remember three things that you already know: that you are looking at Roman Numerals, that each Roman Numeral represents four beats, and that four beats equals one bar):


and the notes on the C harp correspond to these notes and bars:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

That’s right: you are playing the I chord, the 2-draw G note on your C harp, for eight of the 12 bars. You are blowing on the harp, with the C note (4-blow) for only three bars. Get used to it.

Back with that harp in your mouth, be careful: do not play 4-blow anywhere else other than during that IV chord. If you do, it will clash with the music and sound awful, especially if you blow it when you should be playing the G, during the I chord. Likewise with the 4-draw: be careful with it, playing it only during the D (Roman numeral V, subdominant) chord. And remember: you can play that 2-draw almost everywhere. You will even notice, to your pleasant surprise, that you can play it throughout the 12-bar blues, with all of its changes from tonic to subdominant to dominant and back, while varying the rhythm and volume. It will sound OK. As Adam Gussow, a wonderful teacher of blues harp says, “You can LIVE in that 2-hole draw. Don’t be afraid to be simple.” and . He also says there: “You’re so lucky that someone gave you a harmonica for Christmas.” And he’s right: you are.

Pause the long audio in that backing track, above, breathe, and play it again. And again, of course. Then answer the classic question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.

As you listen to other blues recordings, including those of Butterfield, you will notice that they are commonly composed using an AAB rhyming scheme. Consider “Driftin’ Blues,” by Charles Brown in the mid-1940s, covered by Butterfield on the 1968 album “The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw”:

I'm driftin' and driftin', like a ship out on the sea

I'm driftin' and driftin', like a ship out on the sea

Nobody seems to want me, Except the wide and open sea.

My ship ain't got no captain, my ship ain't got no crew

My ship ain't got no captain, my ship ain't got no crew

Don’t that tide dare blow me and my past and future too.

I look around for a savior to search me from the hungry sea

I look around for a savior to search me from the hungry sea

Maybe he's down at the bottom, waiting patiently for me.

The harmonica is closer to the sound of the human voice than any other instrument. When B.B. King or Eric Clapton bends those strings on the guitar, you can hear a person crying. And when Bonnie Raitt presses that slide on the guitar, you can hear that voice coming up from the fretboard and the human guts and the throat. And so it is with those who those who are virtuosos on the blues harp. Charles Keil in his influential book Urban Blues cites Sonny Boy Williamson #2:

"After listening to Sonny Boy's harmonica weave in and out of a blues lyric, one can almost substitute words for notes." (Keil, p. 176)

Let’s listen to, and maybe even try to play along with, some Butterfield music. Listen to him playing the solo on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” at Here the music in in C, so Butterfield uses a high F harp, which is unusual for him. The solo begins midway through the song, at 1:40, and lasts for only 40 seconds in music that is part confessional, part dirge. Butterfield’s swooping, swirling mournful repetition of the song’s tonic line is almost heartbreaking. Here the harp is saying, “If I die and my soul be lost, it ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.”

Or go here, to “New Walkin’ Blues.”, from September 15, 1978 at a concert in Germany called Rockaplast. ( This is another standard 12-bar I-IV-V blues, in which the AAB rhyming scheme is slightly altered. Play along with the song yourself, using your C harp (yes, you know by now that Butterfield is playing cross-harp in second position; the band is playing in G). Draw on that 2 hole during the I chord, then the 4-blow during the C, back to the 2-draw, for the I chord, then up to the 4-draw for just that one bar of the D chord, back to the C chord (4-blow) for one bar, then finish up with the 2-draw again for the last two chords, without, in this case, using the turnaround. Remember: repetition and variation.

There was nobody better than Butterfield at using that repetion-variation principle. He was expert at laying down a theme at the beginning of a performance, hinting at it a little bit later on, playing it identically maybe mid-song, than answering it with a meaningful and tension-releasing variation at the end. He usually settled on the 2-draw, the tonic note, as he wrapped it up.

Butterfield is absolutely blasting that harp in “New Walkin’ Blues,” and it is the perfect vehicle for him and the band. If you know the blues history a little, you will recognize the song as an update of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.” And if you think that you should be holding back a little bit on this song, then take a look at how Hakan Ehn plays it, honking into his Shure 545 mic as he stands in his kitchen, positively blistering those bent notes, at . Turn up the volume as you play along with Hakan, who is using a Golden Melody – which I don’t like: too bulky, but he cranks away on it nicely -- C harp.

Or try here, “Blues With a Feeling,” a Little Walter song:, Here is a conventional AAB rhyme scheme with the standard 12-bar blues format.:

“Blues with a feeling, that’s what I have today.

Blues with a feeling, that’s what I have today.

I gotta find my baby if it takes me all night and day.”

Once again the band is playing in G, so you will be in second position with your C harp. So yes, grab your C harp and play along with it. It is not that difficult. The Butterfield band played this song at the Newport Folk Festival on July 23, 1965, the same gathering where Dylan famously --or, to some, infamously-- plugged in. (Listen, by the way, as Peter Yarrow introduces them warmly. “Please welcome with ME: Paul Butterfield.” Notice also the thin applause that greets the band after the introduction; you can almost hear the sound of one hand clapping. But after the performance the assembled crowd gave them a very enthusiastic ovation.)

Here is a conventional AAB rhyme scheme with the standard 12-bar blues format. Listen carefully for the 2-draw tonic during the I chord in the harp introduction and in the solos that follow. Don’t miss what are called the changes in the I-IV-V progression, as the band moves from one chord to the next, and how Butterfield resolves those changes with the key notes from the I-IV-V. Catch the change to the 4-blow in the subdominant C chord, the 4-draw when the D chord (Roman numeral V) dominant comes around, then back to the 2-draw for the tonic again. You can play along with them without worrying about Butterfield’s embellishment of them and subsequent improvisations. The main lick is 6 notes: 2-draw, 3-draw, 4-blow, 4-draw, 3-draw, and back to 2 draw. Just play that lick and repeat it. As noted above, much of the blues is repetition, and call-and-response, so indulge those here. During the “response” riff Butterfield will venture all the way up to the 6-blow. No problem: that note, G, is the same as the safe, bluesy, tonic 2-draw.

Butterfield’s voice is strong and confident, his harp is piercing and sharp, and the band behind him is following along in perfect sync with its leader. Michael Bloomfield and Butterfield trade off very effective call-and-response licks throughout.

One last song while you have your C harp in hand. It is not a Butterfield song, but it is fun and rewarding to play along with. "Six Strings Down," a gorgeous piece commemorating the death of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Again, the music is in G, for 2nd-position cross-harp, C harp. This one includes exquisite guitar work from Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Jimmy Vaughan, and Robert Randolph (on a 13-string pedal steel instrument), with no harp and no horn section. YOU are the harp/horn section, and you are on your own. You will fill after vocals and during guitar solos with your harp. Yes, during guitar solos, and in the spaces after the guitar licks. Realize that you are playing harp over solos by four of the best blues guys anywhere as they play blues guitar, and you absolutely would not do that when you are playing with a band. You would play only after the solos are done, and the bandleader nods, “OK, your turn.” Just have fun and attend to those tonic notes. From this and the other songs above, you will be attaining a sense of what the blues harp did and can do, and what Butterfield might have done had he been up there on that stage with his C harp.

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