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What harp is Sonny Boy Williamson playing on "Dissatisfied"?

Rice Miller (AKA Sonny Boy Williamson II) did several versions of this tune over the course of his career, but on the classic 1957 recording (as issued on the Checker album "Down And Out Blues”), he is playing a 10-hole chromatic that is tuned the same way as a standard 10-hole diatonic.

"Richter tuning" is the name commonly given to the note arrangement of the typical 10-hole diatonic harmonica (although strictly speaking, the name "Richter" refers to the construction of the instrument, rather than the tuning itself). When chromatic harmonicas were first introduced, they also used a similar layout - playing with the button out gives you the same notes as a blues harp in C; pushing the button in gives the same notes as a blues harp in C#. On his recording of "Dissatisfied", the band is in the key of G# and Sonny Boy playing a key of C 10-hole chromatic with this tuning. He is holding the slide in for most of the tune, playing it as though playing in second position on a C# diatonic, although he occasionally lets the slide out and back in for ornaments.

Up until the 1950s, the Hohner Chromonica 260 was available in this tuning (described in the catalogs as “Regular Tuning”, as opposed to “Solo Tuning” which became the standard note layout for most chromatics), but the presence of dual-reed bends means that the harmonica played on this tune lacked valves. Except for the very first ones produced, the 260 always had valves, so the most likely model is the Koch chromatic, which kept the older style of tuning and was unvalved. This harmonica was originally made by the Koch harmonica company, who were bought out by Hohner in the late 1920s. Hohner kept this model in production for several decades under the Koch name, changing the design slightly and finally discontinuing it just a few years ago. For a while Hohner also produced the Slide Harp, a similarly tuned 10-hole chromatic with nickel-plated reedplates and partial valving, which allowed blues style bending. These have also been discontinued.

"Dissatisfied" was recorded September 1, 1957 at the Chess studio in Chicago. This was an interesting session in many ways. As well as his only piece using any type of chromatic harmonica, this session had his first recordings featuring the low tuned Marine Band 364 (or possibly the 365), which he played on the songs “99” and “Unseen Eye”. It was also his first session to feature amplified playing, cupping the harp tightly against the microphone, rather than simply playing into the vocal mic from a few inches away, as was his usual style. Sonny Boy was apparently in a somewhat argumentative mood that day, using rather colourful language directed at Leonard Chess, causing some some of the recordings to be declared “unsuitable for airplay” at the time.

As a side note, there is a picture on page 42 of Howard Elmer’s “Blues: Its Birth and Growth”, captioned "Sonny Boy Williamson's Box Of Harmonicas”, apparently taken during one of SBW’s German tours in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, there are several Echo Vampers and Echo Super Vampers, but there also appear to be at least three Hohner Super Chromonicas. It would seem a little strange that Sonny Boy would carry around several harmonicas that he did not intend to play, or worse, that he was incapable of playing. Perhaps somewhere in a cluttered basement in Germany, there is an old reel to reel tape recording of SBW blasting out a tune on a Super Chromonica. We can but hope.


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