5 Simple Steps to Play Like Paul Butterfield

Five Steps to Play Like Paul Butterfield

Why is Paul Butterfield also a harp god? Because who else fronted a band on harmonica at the legendary Woodstock concert in 1969?

Paul Butterfield was a



The great saxophone player David Sanborne describes being on stage with him “like playing with a hurricane every night”. :wind_face:

So how can YOU harness that RAW ENERGY that comes through in Butterfield’s playing?

Even if you’re a beginner, you can start working on these four things:

:one: A Butterfield Blues Lick (with no bends) :sunglasses:

3 -3 -4 5 6 -5 5 -4

:two: Glissandos :playground_slide:

The word glissando means “a continuous slide between 2 notes.”

For example, in the lick we just learned we could slide down to the -2 or -1 to finish off the lick, like I do here:

3 -3 -4 5 6 -5 5 -4 glis. -2

3 -3 -4 5 6 -5 5 -4 glis. -1

Here’s another example of a type of glissando that Butterfield used all the time. The word turnaround refers to the last 2 bars of the blues form. Let’s take a simple turnaround riff.

-2 -1 1 -2 -1 -1

Instead of going from -2 straight to -1, the Butterfield way is to go up to the -3 and do a quick glissando down to the -1:

-2 -1 1 -2 (-3 glis.)-1 -1

These are the kind of tiny details that make ALL the difference.

:bulb: Note: all of this stuff :point_up: is easier heard than explained, so check out this rough n ready video.

:three: Vibrato :wavy_dash:

A lot of the intensity of the Paul Butterfield sound comes from his rich diaphragm vibrato. You can review types of vibrato here.

The main place you hear this vibrato is on the -2, and I recommend practicing it, like I do here.

:four: Practice…Quietly?? :shushing_face:

Although you might never guess it, Paul Butterfield said when he practices he plays VERY QUIETLY. That may seem counterintuitive for someone who got up on stage every night and blew “like a hurricane” but playing LOUDLY is actually MUCH EASIER than playing quietly.

To play at a whisper volume requires a lot more control. When you get up on stage in front of people and the adrenaline kicks in, you WILL play loud. You don’t have to worry about THAT.

But practicing QUIETLY puts a much bigger demand on your breath control and overall technique. If you can sound great quiet, you can sound great loud.

And here’s one more Butterfield tip if you’re intermediate/advanced:

:five: Bending :arrow_heading_down:

Especially the -3’ and -4’ are a HUGE part of the Butterfield sound, as exemplified in this lick:

3 -3’ 4 -3 -4’ -45

In this lick, I’ve written the tab as -45, but really it’s a DIRTY -4. That means you hear the -4 more than -5. Again, easier heard than explained, so check it out here.

:exclamation: BTW 1. If you’re a Butterfield fan, you might enjoy watching the independent documentary newly available for free on YouTube: Horn from the Heart: the Paul Butterfield Story. It’s a great film, and highlights Paul Butterfield’s social virtue (easily lost on those of us born in the late 60’s and beyond).

Assembling a mixed race band prior to the Civil Rights movement in America (the drummer and bass player had previously worked for Howlin’ Wolf), he reassured the black musicians in the group: anywhere you’re not welcome, we won’t play. And he never backed down when confrontations did ensue.

:exclamation: BTW 2. To learn more Paul Butterfield licks, you might want to check out Roly Platt’s excellent Butterfield Part 1 lesson.


Good to see Butter getting some attention. I need to learn more of his style as he’s one of my favourite harp players. If you know the blues scale, then next step should be to learn some Butterfield licks. Jason Ricci has two videos on Butterfield lately @Luke check them out.


I love Paul, been listening to him for years. But, since you’re talking about fronting bands at Woodstock you can’t discount Alan Wilson of Canned Heat. I love their music, they always came out hot and just tore it up.


Oooo nice @explorermatt! Did he play some harmonica at the Woodstock concert?

Well said @Dai the blues scale and Butterfield go hand in hand!


Yep Canned Heat played at Woodstock.