George “Harmonica” Smith: West Coast Legend pt2

George “Harmonica” Smith: West Coast Legend was a series of articles written by Dennis Gruenling for the American Harmonica Newsletter starting back in 1997, written with the purpose of trying to get more recognition in the harmonica and blues field for one it’s most influential harmonica figures. I’ve taken these articles and done my best to edit and update them accordingly, and will be including links relating to topics mentioned within in the near future.

Part 2: Third Position

In the first part of this series, I gave a brief history of George “Harmonica” Smith’s career as a harp player. Now let’s start to delve deeper into why this man was one of the outstanding blues harp players in the post-war era.

One aspect of George’s playing that really grabs me is his third position playing on the diatonic harmonica. George seemed to be equally at ease playing third position as he was at playing the “usual” position used in post-war blues – second position. Part of the difficulty of playing third position on the diatonic harmonica is that in the lower octave of the harp, you have to bend to get certain parts of the scale that are used a lot and are important (for example, the flat 3rd & natural 3rd scale degrees, or the flat 5th or natural 5th scale degrees). When you also take into consideration that these holes can bend down as much as a step-and-a-half, you realize it’s not as easy as it may seem. Without a lot of practice, this can be quite a humbling experience!

The earliest known third position blues playing is on the Muddy Waters’ song “Lonesome Day” with Little Walter blowing harp, recorded in December of 1951. The earliest recorded example of George playing in third position is on his song “Telephone Blues” from late 1954. The harp playing on both of these sides is equally outstanding, yet quite different stylistically. Utilizing octaves rather effectively, Little Walter used holes 1 through 6 throughout the song, however he never really plays the 3 hole draw (inhale). This is very interesting because within the 3 hole draw, you have the flat 5th, the 5th, the flat 6th and the 6th scale degrees in the bottom octave of the harp. Also interesting to note is that in 1953’s “That’s It“, Little Walter does use the 3 draw quite a bit.

When you listen closer to what George is doing in third position, you hear that he is using a wider range of the harmonica (holes 1-8). Also, listening to “Telephone Blues“, you may notice his use of the 3 hole draw, and the octaves he utilizes in the song are especially clear & vibrant. Just check out his vibrato on the introduction when he hits the 1-4 draw octave. He also starts the solo quickly on the same octave.

On another song from the same session (“Blues Stay Away“), you hear George use the octave technique to even greater advantage. During another classic harp intro, he starts on the 4 hole draw, up to the 5 hole draw, back to the 4, then to a big 4-8 draw octave. This is the first time a post-war Chicago blues harmonica player was ever recorded playing a high draw octave (in which you block three holes with your tongue). It sounds even better when he hits the same octave in the solo. Starting with four hits on the 4 hole draw, he goes up to the 4-8 draw octave, and it sounds big! Such a big sound from such a small instrument.

George tended to have that effect on this humble instrument. Besides using tongue-blocking effects like octaves, chord vamping, and so forth, one of the first things I noticed about George is his tone on the instrument stood out as being big & fat.Just listen to the sound he gets from a single note on “Telephone Blues”, such as the 1 hole draw, or the 2 or 3 hole draw bends. Listen also to the sound he gets when he wails on the 6 hole draw and resolves on the 4 hole draw..or his trademark 3 hole draw bend-3 blow-2 hole draw bend-1 hole draw lick. The man definitely knew how to get the most out of the harp.

Although several of his first recordings were played in third position, he used it less frequently later on in his career. After the aforementioned songs from his sessions for the RPM label in 1954-55, the recordings of George Smith playing in third position are as follows:

  • I Want a Woman” (1960)
  • Nobody Knows” (most of his back-up harp – 1966?)
  • Down On Sarah Street” (the solo – from Otis Spann’s “The Blues Is Where It’s At – 1966)
  • Theme” (Muddy Waters Blues Band album – 1966)
  • Cynthia’s Blues” (Plaster Caster Blues Band album – 1969)
  • Night Life” (from Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Spoon’s Life” – 1980)

The influence of George’s third position playing can be heard in a number of the top blues harp players today. For example, one of his biggest disciples – Rod Piazza’s playing on his “Tribute To George Smith” (Harpburn -1987) including the first two choruses of the solo, the solo after the first 3 bars on chromatic on his “Are You Out There?” (Blues In The Dark – 1990), and on his “Skin Deep” (Alphabet Blues – 1992) where the first chorus of his solo is in third position, all show an obvious influence of George’s playing style.

Another of George’s protege’s on harp – the late William Clarke’s third position playing also showed an obvious stamp of George’s influence. Try giving a listen to Clarke’s solos on “Drinkin’ Straight Whiskey” (Tip Of The Top  – 1987), and “Must Be Jelly” (Blowin’ Like Hell – 1990 – the last four bars of this solo being in second position)…or his ending solos on “It’s Been a Long Time” (Serious Intentions – 1991) and “The Blues Is Killing Me” (The Hard Way – 1996).

Some other players who have similarly influenced are: Bill Tarsha, Mark Hummel (check out his “The Don’t Want Me To Rock” – Married To The Blues – 1995) and Kim Wilson (check out his playing on “A Man and the Blues” from the Al Copley & The Fabulous Thunderbirds release).

To quote the late Bob Shatkin, a great blues harmonica player & instructor from the New School in NYC, “My favorite playing from George is his third position work, as well as his very early recordings from the mid-50’s. He was one of the earliest to record playing in third position, and he knew how to use dynamics to his advantage, whether playing a lead or when playing accompaniment. And he very orchestrally explored the use of octaves. George deserves to have his place in the pantheon confirmed and celebrated. No doubt.

…to be continued…