A Quick Guide to Amplified Blues Harmonica

"I was listening to Sonny Boy Williamson's records and I would close my eyes and I could visualize myself playing the harp." - Junior Wells

These days, there’s no one setup for a blues harp player. A Shure Green Bullet mic is still a very popular option, as are contemporary re-issues of vintage tube amps. But for a brash and brutish live sound, some players now run pedal chains through classic Marshall stacks.

However, even the most accomplished and experimental modern harpists have mastered the basics, traveling back in time to the dark corners of the Chicago clubs. After studying the many sounds, tones, and styles that emerged throughout the decades, you can gain confidence in your own abilities and experiment to your heart’s content.

With that in mind, we're taking a quick look at some of the quintessential players, their harmonica setups, and the characteristics of their sound. So if you’re looking for inspiration, harp gear recommendations, or are just curious about the rigs of players like Little Walter or Paul Butterfield, keep reading. Just remember: there’s no substitute for feel, groove, and technique, so pick up a harp and practice, practice, practice.

The Authentic Chicago-Style Club Sound

When the traditional Delta blues was adopted by The Windy City in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and electrified, the amplified harmonica rig really came into its own.

This evolution of the art form spawned a new wave of exciting, flamboyant and accomplished players including Sonny Terry, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, and of course, Little Walter.

Little Walter - "Little Walter's Jump", 1967)

As mentioned, each of these guys had a sound and style that was unique to them and their personalities. Why? Well, because the harmonica is incredibly intuitive and an extension of one’s voice—if played right.

Each of these big Chicago harp boys had a rig and a few tricks that made their voice instantly recognisable in the clubs, but there was a fundamental tone, and here’s how to achieve it.

The harmonica: For that gritty yet mesmerizing tone, go with a Hohner Marine Band.

The amp: Back then, combo tube amps were the most available choice on the menu when it came to amplifying your instruments. To get that authentic Chicago-style club sound, the likes of a Fender Pawn Shop Special Ramparte or a Masco MAP-15 1x12 Tube Amp will give you that pressing-hot, distorted tone you’re looking for.

The mic: From studying blues harp icon Little Walter in particular, during many live shows, he would tape a Claricon 38-011 and a bullet-style condenser mic together for a stereo effect. But, these days, that’s not necessary. Walter also used to favour an Astatic JT-30 bullet microphone—a marvel to look at and a demon to play. This rugged mic gave the amplified harmonica that ever-so-slightly distorted, raw punch that Chicago blues players were famed for.

Tip: For optimal Chicago-style club results, slightly roll off the high frequencies on your tube amp and push the mid up the same amount. The result? A deep, soulful, and rugged tone that will have you tooting like a Little Walter, Sonny Terry, or Junior Wells in no time.

The Bright "Next Generation" Sound

From the rural whispers of the Mississippi to the steamy clubs of Chicago, the blues produced some colossal harmonica players over the decades. These players went on to inspire a new generation to take up the harp.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the likes of Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite hit the scene, full force, inspired by the Chicago harmonica heroes.

Charlie Musselwhite Band - "Christo Redemptor"

Butterfield and Musselwhite were by no means carbon copies of one another and slapped their own, unmistakable stamp on the blues harp. But, like the Chicago players, there were some fundamental similarities to their respective sounds.

While emulating the sound of their heroes at first, many next generation players adapted their setups over time. This evolution of the sound was not only based on changing technology, but also due to the fact that, as time went on, many of the musical arrangements deviated slightly from the traditional I-IV-V blues format.

Brighter, cleaner, and punchier than the Chicago sound, these new players diversified their sound, focusing on the brighter tones of the higher harp frequencies. Occasionally, they would use octave or reverb pedals to make their rigs even more eclectic.

The Harmonica: The Hohner Blues Harp will prove effective for those clean, robust notes and bends.

The amp: Guys like Butterfield and Musselwhite favored early model Fender Tweed and Fender The Twin (Red Knob) amps, respectively, but there are other options that compliment effects rigs as well. Solid-state amps, for example, can help you achieve the more polished, modern sound that leans toward the higher frequencies of the harmonica. The Orange Crush 20 Twin-Channel amp will sing beautifully, as will a Fender Mustang I V2 or a similar amp.

The microphone: To take advantage of the brighter, wider rumblings of the harmonica spectrum, a dynamic mic will give you the sound you crave. Go with Sony F-38 Vintage dynamic mic or, for the non-bullet option, a Shure SM57.

Tip: Watch a host of clips from Butterfield and Musselwhite in particular, and study the range of effects they use, as well as their harp-to-microphone posturing. Emulate these varying sounds and styles an eventually you’ll be able to add your own spin to the next generation sound.

The Contemporary Harmonica Sound

When you're talking about modern music, the sky's the limit. These days, blues-based harmonica players are more diverse and more experimental than ever before. And the modern students of the "Mississippi Sax" have the original Delta pioneers, the Chicago players, and the next generation harpers to thank for that.

As such, the spectrum here is far too wide to specify what today's players do and do not use to build their rigs.

Will Wilde - "Parisienne Walkways" (Gary Moore)

Some have acquired vintage equipment to revert to a more purist, Chicago-based sound. Some have gone all-out with effects pedal chains to take the tone to a whole new universe. Some play through the PA only, while others use a hybrid of all these approaches.

Many players are now using a multitude of effects pedals coupled with vintage stacks to open up the instrument, using these equipment combinations to emulate brass or piano parts, as well as lead guitar solos and complex vocal melodies.

Featured above, one of the most prolific harmonica players of the modern age has to be Will Wilde. Not only does Will use the harmonica in a variety of different contexts, but he applies tasteful levels of reverb and distortion to add an extra depth to his sound, striking the perfect balance between a Chicago, next generation, and experimental tone.

Which harmonica players inspire you? Let us know in the comments.

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