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The Harp: The Analysts & the Critics

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

The Analysts and Critics


Roly Platt, guesting on Tomlin’s online channel (https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/free-harmonica-lessons/page/12/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94ba3OI1F5U ) points out that Butterfield “hits the flat 3 all the time,” referring to the 3-draw bent down half a step: the blue third. “The other note he hits is the flat 5,” meaning the 4-draw bent, and he was the master of those notes.


Ronnie Shellist (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcyvn7lP0L0&list=RDEEof08Vbxvc&index=4) uses Michael Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary” off the “East-West” album for his analysis of Butterfield – not a song that shows him at his best. Butterfield is playing a D harp in second position. But Shellist states that Butterfield “has great tone and uses a lot of vibrato,” which is a choking-chugging action deep in the throat that provides repetition and emphasis to a single note that the harpist lingers on. More generally about Butterfield’s style: “His attack is a knock-you-out kind of attack; "everything is really high-intensity and emotional in his playing."


Will Wilde analyzes “Everything Is Going to Be Alright” from Woodstock, 1969 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEof08Vbxvc), where Butterfield is using a C harp. Wilde notes that Butterfield tends to stick to the basics and stay within the blues scale and its variation, the pentatonic scale, starting on one-draw bent, and uses them expertly. He agrees with Shellist that Butterfield uses throat vibrato effectively, especially on the 4-draw bent note.


Tomlin Leckie, https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/free-harmonica-lessons/page/22/, devotes five lessons to Butterfield songs, including “Born in Chicago,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” (an unusual choice, since it is the signature song of B.B. King, and has been covered by every blues singer on the planet -- but an effective lesson) “Mellow Down Easy,” “Blues With a Feeling,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” The last is an uncommon choice, as well, because every blues band in the world has covered this song, too – a bunch of them even played it at a fancy White House reception in 2012 and got President Obama to sing one of the choruses. But Tomlin feels that Butterfield played his own harp-led version of it exceptionally well, so he taped not one but two lessons on it.


Tomlin emphasizes the harp effects that Butterfield uses so skillfully, especially the vibrato, as Shellist and Wilde stated. He also singles out the hand-wah’s and the sixteenth-note arpeggios. He mentions that Butterfield can play without a mic as well as amplified, most particularly on “Blues With a Feeling,” which he calls a “very acoustic piece.” Otherwise Tomlin focuses on the teaching of the songs, lick by lick.


Finally there is Hakan Enh, with his series of lessons that focus on Butterfield: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3FF3F86A31A04531. These include “New Walkin’ Blues,” and “Born in Chicago,” among others. Hakan shows how Butterfield used the vibrato so effectively.

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