Sonny Boy Williamson II
One of the greatest blue songs ever written is "Help me" by Rice Miller (the second Sonny Boy). I am a fan of this great harp player and I enjoy listening to his work. He is often overlooked by new harp players as his style is more acoustic and he doesn’t sound like Little Walter. However, he is always listed at or near the top of favorite players by anyone who has struggled very long to play the harp.
"Help Me" is a great song. It has that "Green Onions" bass line, but "Green Onions" dates from 10 years after Sonny Boy recorded "Help Me." I am particularly impressed by the way Sonny Boy can shift between playing a lick and then singing and then back again without hesitation.
Another great thing about "Help Me" is Sonny Boy’s use of "chugging" to emphasize the beat. One of the easiest things to do in harp playing is to chug the 2 and 3 holes. Just open you mouth a little so the 2-3 holes are open and draw quickly saying the word "CHUCK-CHUCK" You can let a little 1 hole in, even a little 4 hole. It’s hard to do it wrong. But with the harp, all the notes are good notes, so it’s not what you play, it’s when you play it! Listening to Sonny Boy play, you notice he’s playing a counter rhythm to the "Green Onions" bass line.
I am using the Help Me on "The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson" on Chess, disk 2. Sonny Boy is playing in the Key of F using B-flat harp.
Let’s start right from the beginning. Sonny Boy plays a nice little intro. It is deceptively easy.
He kicks off the 3 draw and slides up to the 4 blow and plays the 4 bent and then slides it up to the 4 draw unbent. He holds the 4 unbent and then slowly bends it down. As he reaches the fully bent note he quickly slides down the 3 hole draw and the 2 hole draw – so fast that you can hardly hear it.
We practice juke so much that we always want to start off of the 2 hole draw. The 2 hole is, after all, the tonic and our home note. Sonny Boy creates tension here by using the 3 hole draw as his kick off. Our ears want us to get to the 2 hole, but Sonny Boy just barely hints at it by bending down the 4 slowly towards it and just tapping the 2 hole at the end of that slide.
Note: Sonny boy misses the 3 hole slightly when he starts out and you can hear he is "Playing the post" not the hole – he’s not quite centered on the 3 and there’s a little 2 hole in it. I don’t think this was on purpose. This is not the kind of thing you can practice. You can, however, play the 2 hole and immediately slide up to the 3. The 2 hole hardly sounds before you hit the post. The suction in your mouth builds and then when you hit the 3 hole, it is released with a sharp defining edge to the note. Practice this technique of playing a note and then sliding up immediately to get a good punch on the draw note above. You can do it on any of the draw notes, not just the 3.
Sonny Boy, by sliding down to the 2 hole, has positioned himself for the chugs.
Next, he kicks off the 2 hole single bend. I almost always use the 2 hole bent all the way down and if I need to, I step up through the half bend, but here, against my tendencies, is the 1/2 bend to start with, sliding up to the unbent note.
(Held with tremelo)
He hits the 3 hold first bend and slides it to the 4 hole. He’s bending a little on both notes, but they are just a little flat. You can hear him unbend to the 4 hole draw
He plays the 4 blow, but it has a little 3 blow mixed in with it. He’s heading back down, so he hits the 3 hole draw as a transition and heads down to the 2-3 chug and catches the beat there. You expect the 2 hole draw after the 3 hole draw, but his sense of timing is so good that he hesitates so as to catch the chug in the right place.
After chugging he goes for the 5 chord. He heads up to the 5 hole draw bent, sliding up through the 3 and 4 hole draws so fast that you can just hear them.
(Hold with tremelo)
Sonny Boy slides down again to the 4 draw and bends it down and back up again, all in one fluid motion. He chews on this awhile giving it a nice tremelo that is part throat vibrato and and half wavering bend, bringing the 4 hole down a little and back up. At the end he bends the 4 down all the way and back up and then plays the 3/4 holes draw and then blow. Sonny Bow has just had a long draw and as a heavy smoker, needed a quick breath to get the next notes.
The next note follows immediately with a 3 draw and a long 4 hole blow for the 4 chord.
He slides back to the 3 draw – implying but not playing the 2 draw. He hesitates to emphasize the beat, and then back to the chugs! He doesn’t play the turn around – he just chugs.