Sonny Boy Williamson II, nicknamed “King of the Harmonica” by his peers, was one of the most inspiring harp players in blues history. With his passionate yet understated style, his metronome-like timing, and his endlessly inventive technique, he has influenced generations of players, including such virtuosos as Howling Wolf, James Cotton and Junior Wells.
In action “Sonny Boy unfolded slowly,” according to blues writer Paul Oliver. “He did not give away all his secrets either in conversation or music. Instead, when he played, he built up the tension of his phrasing with logical development. One had to listen for quite a while as he progressed from short bursts, single notes, punctuated phrases to filigree patterns of complexity and richness. His large, calloused lips enfolded the cheap harps that he played and he seemed to mould the notes through the long fingers of his cupped hands (King Biscuit Time liner notes).
Marc Ryan, another long-term admirer, wrote: “The tone of Sonny’s harmonica was unusually full, the result of a combination of virtuosic breath control and an especially large resonating chamber created by cupping his hands around his … harp … Sonny thus brought unique timbres to his blues, which were … laden with a joyful sensuality” (Boppin’ With Sonny liner notes).
Sonny Boy’s harp style included “intricately woven phrasing, bold sonic textures, trills and vibrato … He was also an effective showman — he could, for instance, put the entire harp in his mouth and still draw notes. More important, his playing made the harp the centre attraction, no matter how many other great blues musicians shared the stage with him (Sonny Boy Blues Society Home Page).
For blues harp aficianados, here are some further notes on Sonny Boy’s innovative technique
•His preferred harmonica was a 10-hole Hohner Marine Band or OId Standby, but he sometimes played the larger Marine Bands: the 12-hole 364 and the 14-hole 365. Some publicity photographs show him holding an Echo-Vamper, which is similar to the 364. From time to time — for example, on “Dissatisfied” — he used a Hohner Koch Chromatic. It has been claimed that he modified his harps by slightly bending the reeds with a toothpick, but this may have been a misconception.
•His preferred harmonica keys were F, C, B flat and D, but he also played in E, G and A.
•He generally played in second position, with the occasional exception (e.g., on “Trust My Baby” be played in first position on a G harp, and on “I Don’t Know” he played in third position on a C harp).
•He used the tongue-blocking (as opposed to lip-puckering) technique most of the time and was an accomplished note-bender.
•His Chess recordings were characterised by single-note runs, but his Storyville sessions reveal a skilful use of rhythm and chords.
•He had a largely acoustic sound, playing to a mike on a stand and using his hands extensively for tremolo and wah-wah effects. However, he sometimes opted for an amplified sound, using a mike cupped in his hands (e.g., in “Cross My Heart”).
•Almost all his notes are lower than the 5-hole draw. He rarely used the top octave, but when he did (as in “Sonny’s Rhythm”) he used it very effectively.
This page has benefited from discussions involving harp specialists from around the world on the web’s premier harmonica mailing list, harp-l, hosted by the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH).