Blues is about tradition and personal expression. At its core, the blues has remained the same since its inception. Most blues feature simple, usually three-chord, progressions and have simple
structures that are open to endless improvisations, both lyrical and musical. The blues grew out of African spirituals and worksongs. In the late 1800s, southern African-Americans passed the songs down orally, and they collided with American folk and country from the Appalachians. New hybrids appeared by each region, but all of the recorded blues from the early 1900s are distinguished by simple, rural acoustic guitars and
pianos. After World War II, the blues began to fragment, with some musicians holding on to acoustic traditions and others taking it to jazzier territory. However, most bluesmen followed Muddy Waters' lead and played the blues on electric instruments. From that point on, the
blues continued to develop in new directions -- particularly on electric instruments -- or it has been preserved as an acoustic tradition
Electric Blues is an eclectic genre that embraces just about every kind of blues that can be played on an
amplified instrument. Its principal component is that of the electric guitar, but its amplified aspect can extend to the bass (usually a solid body Fender type model, but sometimes merely an old "slappin''' acoustic with a pickup attached), harmonica, and keyboard instruments. Stylistically, the form is a wide open field, accessible to just about every permutation possible -- embracing both the old, the new, and sometimes futuristic, and something that falls between the two. Some forms of it copy the older styles of urban blues (primarily the Chicago, Texas, and Louisiana variants) usually in a small combo format, while others head into funk and soul territory. Yet electric blues is elastic enough to include artists who pay homage to those vintage styles of playing while simultaneously recasting them in contemporary fashion. It is lastly a genre that provides a convenient umbrella for original artists of late '40s and early '50s derivation who seemingly resist neat classifications. ~ Cub Koda
What is now referred to as the classic Chicago Blues style was developed in the late '40s and early '50s, taking Delta blues, fully amplifying it and putting it into a small-band context. Adding drums, bass, and piano (sometimes saxophones) to the basic string band and harmonica aggregation, the style created the now standard blues band lineup. The form was (and is) flexible to accommodate singers, guitarists, pianists, and harmonica players as the featured performer in front of the standard instrumentation. Later permutations of the style took place in the late '50s and early '60s, with new blood taking their cue from the lead guitar work of B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, creating the popular west side subgenre (which usually featured a horn section appended to the basic rhythm section). Although the form has also embraced rock beats, it has generally stayed within the guidelines developed in the 1950s and early '60s. ~ Cub Koda
Piano blues refers to a variety of blues styles, sharing only the characteristic that they use the piano as the primary musical instrument. Boogie woogie is the best known kind of piano blues, though barrelhouse, swing, R&B, rock and roll and jazz are strongly influenced by early pianists who played the blues. Notable blues pianists include Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Dr. John, and Ray Charles.
The Piano Blues is also the title of an episode of Martin Scorsese's documentary series The Blues. The episode was directed by Clint Eastwood, himself an avid piano blues enthusiast and one-time jazz pianist. Eastwood interviews several blues and jazz pianists, including Marcia Ball, Pinetop Perkins, Dave Brubeck, Jay McShann, Ray Charles, and Dr. John.
The harmonica then made its way with the blues and the black migrants to
the north, mainly to Chicago but also to Detroit, St. Louis and New York.
The music played by African Americans increasingly began to use electric
amplification for the guitar, blues harp, double bass, and a crude PA system
for the vocals. Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, is one
of the important harmonicists of this era. Using a full blues band, he
became a popular act in the South with his daily broadcasts on the 'King
Biscuit Time', originating live from Helena, Arkansas. He also helped to
popularize the cross-harp technique, which became an important blues
A young harmonicist named Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs revolutionized the instrument by playing the harmonica with a microphone (typically a "Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers cupped in his hands with the harmonica, giving it a "punchy" mid-range sound that can be heard above radio static, or an electric guitar). He cupped his hands around the instrument, tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, somewhat reminiscent of a saxophone.
Big Walter Horton was the favored harmonicist of many Chicago blues bandleaders, including Willie Dixon. His colorful solos used the full register of his instrument and some chromatic harmonicas. Howlin' Wolf's early recordings demonstrate great skill, particularly at blowing powerful riffs with the instrument. Sonny Boy Williamson II used the possibilities of hand effects to give a talkative feel to his harp playing. Williamson extended his influence on the young British blues rockers in the 1960s, recording with Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds and appearing on live British television. Stevie Wonder learned harmonica at age 5 and plays the instrument on many of his recordings. Jimmy Reed played harmonica on most of his blues shuffle recordings.
1960s and 1970s blues players
The 1960s and 1970s saw the harmonica become less prominent, as the overdriven electric lead guitar became the dominant instrument for solos in blues rock. Paul Butterfield is a well known harp player of the era in the blues and blues-rock arena. Heavily influenced by Little Walter, he pushed further the virtuosity on the harp. Chicago harmonica player James Cotton specialized in slow, magnificent note-bends.
Blues harmonica players who are primarily or mainly associated with the instrument include Jerry Portnoy, Lazy Lester, Bob Dylan, Rabini Zami, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, Corky Siegel, Kim Wilson, Slim Harpo, Al "Blind Owl" Wilson of Canned Heat, Jack Bruce of Cream and John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful.
Musicians who are primarily known as singers or performers on another instrument who also have recorded and performed harmonica solos include Bruce Springsteen, Donovan, Taj Mahal, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Peter Green of (the original) Fleetwood Mac, Roger Daltrey of The Who, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and Richard "Magic Dick" Salwitz of The J. Geils Band. Billy Joel famously plays the harmonica, in addition to his piano, on his signature song, "Piano Man." includes the harmonica throughout the piece. John Lennon played harmonica on early hits as "Love Me Do" and "I Should Have Known Better" and in his solo career on songs such as "Oh Yoko!."
2000s blues players
Contemporary harmonicists Howard Levy, Chris Michalek, Jason Ricci, and Carlos del Junco have pushed the envelope of the instrument. Levy explored and pioneered the over blow technique in the early seventies, which enables the diatonic harmonica to play full chromatic scales across three octaves, while retaining the particular sound of the harp. Overblowing is used by Howard Levy, Adam Gussow, Chris Michalek, and Jason Ricci and Carlos del Junco are starting to integrate it in a more blues or rock oriented music. Richard "Magic Dick" Salwitz, Billy Branch, John Popper, "Dirty" Patrick Walsh, Big Dave Perea and others are keeping the harmonica tradition alive.