When Two Harmonica Players Meet

From “Harmonica World”Dec 2012

Some years back, while in New York, I met Trip Henderson, a wonderful old timey and bluegrass harmonica player. I went to his shows, often ending up on stage with him. We traded solos, but more often played simple lines together. It worked well.

In Asia, harmonica players mostly play together, in the West they rarely do. Harmonica teaching is mostly blues based, with solos the key focus. When two players do get together, a common result is a train rhythm by one, with solos by the other. Here are some ideas for where to go next.

As always, we steal from Little Walter. However, this time, not from the man himself, but his backing players, e.g. Louis and Dave Myers. Not surprisingly, guitar lines from Little Walter tracks are great for supporting the lead in a harmonica duo.

If you’re not yet on to Little Walter, then go to iTunes and get “The Complete Chess Masters (1950 -1967). Check out a few tracks, you’ll soon learn why he is so widely imitated. Now let’s pick out some guitar lines.

Listen to Ah’w Baby. It’s in G, so take a C harmonica, try the following line:

2D 2D 6B 6B 5D 5D 4D 4D

Note: The TAB system is 2B = blow 2 hole: 3D = draw 3 hole. ‘ indicates a half bend, ” means a full bend.

Now we turn this line into a 12 bar, like this

2D 2D 6B 6B 5D 5D 4D 4D (4 times)
1B 1B 4B 4B 3D’ 3D’ 2D 2D (twice)
2D 2D 6B 6B 5D 5D 4D 4D (twice)
1D 1D 4D 4D 4B 4B 3D” 3D”
1B 1B 4B 4B 3D’ 3D’ 2D 2D
2D 2D 6B 6B 5D 5D 4D 4D (twice)

This 12 bar phrase is bread and butter for blues guitarists. The big 3D” bend makes it hard for us though. Play along with “Ah’w Baby”, try to match the steady rhythm. Note also that the phrase above is not quite what the guitar does.

Now try “Shake Dancer”, one my favourite Little Walter tracks. It’s in E, so take an A harmonica. The guitar line, more or less, is

2D 2D 4D 4D 5D 5D 6B 6B (4 times)
1B 1B 2D 2D 3D’ 3D’ 4B 4B (twice)
2D 2D 4D 4D 5D 5D 6B 6B (twice)
1D 1D 3D” 3D” 4B 4B 4D 4D
1B 1B 2D 2D 3D’ 3D’ 4B 4B
2D 2D 4D 4D 5D 5D 6B 6B (twice)

Again, the 3D” is hard to get, worth it when you do. Play along with the track, catch the energy of drummer Fred Below, the unsung hero of many great Chicago Blues tracks.

Now try it in 3rd position. Take a D harmonica, the notes are

1D 1D 3D” 3D” 4B 4B 4D 4D (4 times)
2D 2D 4D 4D 5D 5D 6B 6B (twice)
1D 1D 3D” 3D” 4B 4B 4D 4D (twice)
3D” 3D” 5B 5B 6B 6B 6D 6D
2D 2D 4D 4D 5D 5D 6B 6B
1D 1D 3D” 3D” 4B 4B 4D 4D (twice)

Tougher this time, particular the phrase starting with the 3D”. Again, play along with the track.

Finally, “Sad Hours”. It’s in F, so take a Bb harmonica, the notes are

2D 2D 6B 5D 5B 4D 3D 4D (4 times)
1B 1B 4B 3D’ 3D” 2D 2B 2D (twice)
2D 2D 6B 5D 5B 4D 3D 4D (twice)
1D 1D 4D 4B 3D 3D” 2D’ 3D”
1B 1B 4B 3D’ 3D” 2D 2B 2D
2D 2D 6B 5D 5B 4D 3D 4D (twice)

The 3D” 2D’ 3D” is challenging. In fact, all these guitar lines are hard. Not surprising. Notes easily reached by guitar players are a struggle for us. Nonetheless these lines are great for backup, albeit perhaps harder than the solos they support.

Back to the harmonica duo. Try some of these lines together. In particlar, try the “Shake Dancer” line with one player in 2nd position, the other in 3rd, using the notes above. Even better, learn the Little Walter solos to go with it (on my to do list for the last 30 years, ahem..)

Harmonica festivals, workshops and online groups mean that our peers are more easily found than before. Learn some of these lines, find a like minded player, and start jamming. Maybe you’ll fall on your feet, like I did, and run into someone like Trip Henderson.