Continuing our look at the basic techniques of the blues harp and the way the harp is used in the blues idiom, we come to the subject of how the harp can be used to introduce songs. Some of the coolest harp riffs occur at the start of songs, to grab the listener's attention and set the mood for the piece that follows.
The first example is one of the classic blues harp intros. This intro was used on many songs by John Lee Williamson (the first Sonny Boy), the version notated here being from "Elevator Woman"1. I have also heard similar riffs on recordings by Junior Wells, Sugar Blue and many others. Played in cross position on a C harp (song in the key of G), this will require a little practice if you are unfamiliar with using tongue blocking to play octaves. If this is new to you, there are many blues harp books that will explain it more fully. Basically, you block off two holes with your tongue and allow the notes either side to sound (the first notes should be played with your tongue covering holes 2 and 3, allowing 1 and 4 to play, making for a big, full sound). Don't give up if you can't get this at first, it may take time. Although a lot of blues playing will work equally as well with a "whistle-style" lip position, many effects only really work with tongue blocking. Once you can play this intro as written, try lifting your tongue from time to time, fleshing out the riff with chord textures.
Regular readers of this column will have noticed that I am very fond of the harp player who recorded under the name of Rhythm Willie. The second example is his introduction to Lee Brown's "Little Brownskin Girl"2. Again the song is in the key of G, but Willie is playing this in first position on a G harp. As an exercise, try working this riff out in cross harp at the bottom octave of the instrument.
Finally, we have an example of an intro by Sonny Terry. Again, this is a riff he used over and over again with variations (including singing part of the line in falsetto voice). This one is taken from "Easy Rider"3 and is played cross on a Bb harp (guitar in F) and bears some resemblance to the Sonny Boy intro. Sonny played using the "whistle" embouchure, but try it using tongue blocking as well and compare the different sounds you get.
Now that we've got some cool ways to start a song, next time we'll look at some ways to it finish off!
1. Reissued on Bluebird Blues (RCA 55156). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
2. Reissued on Complete Recorded Works 1937-1940 (Document DOCD-5344). Click here or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
3. Sonny recorded this song several times. This version is transcribed from the album On The Road (Folkways FW02369). It does not seem to be available from Amazon, but you can order it directly (or preview some audio clips) from Folkways by clicking here.
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