3 Famous Harmonica Players

Songs of 3 Famous Harmonicists

Those new to playing the harmonica may be surprised to find out just how many famous harmonica players have elevated the art over the years. Here we take a look at 3 of the most prolific.

Bob Dylan: Legendary folk singer, Dylan has been recording and performing for decades and shows no signs of slowing down. Dylan is believed to play the Hohner Marine Band harmonica, a standard usually used in folk and country genres.

He has recorded a wide range of songs and some of his more popular tunes featuring harmonica playing are “On the Road Again,” “I Shall Be Free” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Dylan is so well known as a harmonica player that books and websites devoted to studying his work are available. Dylan also has a signature series harmonica with Hohner.

Stevie Wonder: Wonder began playing different instruments at a young age including the harmonica. By the time he was 13, Wonder had released “Fingertips (Part 2)” which featured Wonder singing vocals and playing the harmonica. He can also be heard playing the harmonica on Chaka Khan’s single “I Feel For You”. Wonder usually plays a chromatic harmonica on his songs for a wider range of sound.

Little Walter: When it comes to harmonica players, Little Walter has been called revolutionary, legendary and innovative. The blues diatonic harmonica player defined Chicago blues and enjoyed the height of his success during the 1950s. Walter’s was noted for his use of electronic distortion the first harmonica player to utilize this technique, he is also noted for his versatility in non-standard cord changes.

Walters has the distinction of recording the only harmonica instrumental to come in at number one on the R&B charts. The song “Juke” has since become a standard performed by other harmonica players and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Other popular harmonica songs released by Walters include “Mean Old World,” “Blues with a Feeling” and “Key to the Highway”.

Thielman Getting Jazzy With The Harp

Jazz Harmonica

Although many of the uninitiated to not consider the harmonica when contemplating favorite jazz musical instruments, quite a few musicians have made their name playing jazz both in the past as well as the present.

In fact, traditional jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman, encouraged harmonica playing with the traveling orchestras of the day back in the late 30s and throughout the war years as well. One such musician was Toots Thielmans, a Brussels, Belgium native that Goodman encouraged to come to New York to play. Thielmans soon made harmonica history.

Carving Out a Spot

Not only did Thielemans take Goodman up on his offer to come to New York to play, the guitar-playing, whistling harmonica enthusiast soon went solo – on the harmonica. He is now credited as being one of the, if not the, greatest harmonica player from the 20th century.

Thielemans found the riveting, upbeat Bebop jazz style that originated out of Kansas City in the early ‘4os much to his liking. In fact, Thielemans is credited with bringing harmonica playing into mainstream jazz recording with contemporary stars such as Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson and Jaco Pastorius. Now at 90, he plays occasionally in public although he recently suffered a stroke.

Passing the Torch

Although there was hardly a harmonica player that could come close to Thielemans in the 30-odd years of his popular reign, there were many who came close throughout the world such as Mauricio Einhorn from Brazil, Charles Leighton, Pete Pedersen and Les Thompson from the U.S. as well as Frenchman Glaude Garden.

Then in the 60s enters a young, soon-to-be star that produced his own individual approach to harmonica playing just as Thielmans did. The young 18-year-old phenom who even recorded with Thielemans playing the latter’s famous “Bluesette” was none other than Stevie Wonder.

Traditional Style Remains Valid

While Thielemans and Wonder were developing unique and personal harmonica playing styles that would help etch their vaulted spots in the history of the chromatic, others continued pursuing traditional swing or Dixieland styles.

Musicians like Harry Pitch or Jack Emblow have been performing for more than a half-century in the United Kingdom as the Rhythm and Reeds. Harmonica player Joe Martin has been playing with Jazz a Plenty in the US for more than 70 years. Harmonica playing styles can differ throughout the jazz landscape.

Present-Day Resurgence In Playing Interest

There’s been a recent resurgence interest in jazz harmonica playing, in short because of the popularity of the Internet. Young players are mixing use old techniques marrying these to new influences. Two of these young players that are emerging on the scene today are from the UK. One is Julian Jackson and the other is Adam Glasser, a South African born but London-based musician. Not to be outdone, the French are also producing their own crop of young artists that are led by Greg Szlapczynski, Olivier Ker Ourio, Sébastien Charlier and Frédéric Yonnet.

In the US, watch for performances by Gregoire Maret (Swiss transplant).


Stevie Wonder’s Harmonica Hits

Stevie The Great

It actually was a wonder when Steveland Hardaway Morris, a blind-since-birth 11-year-old signed a contract with Motown records. Once hitting the stage with his newly ascribed name of Stevie Wonder, this young and deeply talented musician stole every show. He would open for such famous Motown acts as James Brown, walk out onto the stage wearing a white tuxedo with a red shirt and launch off into his own stylized version of “Fingertips” playing a chromatic harmonica.

A Lot to Admire

For a half-century, Wonder has developed a litany of achievements and accolades and has been acclaimed as one of the all-time greatest musical geniuses. He is not only an accomplished and talented singer, songwriter but plays van orchestra-full complement of instruments – including the harmonica.

He is responsible for penning dozens of hits that are now classic songs, many where his harmonica playing is a key focus and with hearing but a few notes, an avid listener knows it’s Wonder playing. His style has been referred to as the musical version of a smile that produces utmost joy as “bright as a cloudless spring day.”

Established Style Since Early On

Wonder had already perfected his signature style when recording “Fingertips – Pt 2” at the age of 12 for his well-titled album – “The 12-Year-Old Genius.” He was soon thereafter sought by many megastars of the music world for “guest” album appearances playing harmonica including the Eurythmics, Elton John, Sting, Chaka Khan and many others.

Part of the reason that Wonder has developed his own style is due to his primary choice for harmonica being a chromatic, rather than a diatonic is typically employed for blues music.

A chromatic harmonica can be quite harder to master and play. It has 16 holes added to the mix of manipulating as opposed to 10 holes found on a diatonic harmonica. He also plays different solos in different keys all over the alphabet, for example:

  • Fingertips – D
  • Isn’t She Lovely – E
  • Creepin’ – F
  • Please Don’t Go – G
  • For Once in My Life – F#
  • Gotta Spend a Little More Time With You (James Taylor’s Hourglass) – C

Harmonica players will also understand what makes Wonder a distinct player in that he uses the slide on the harmonica that several musicians have attempted over the years to imitate.

Blowing at Age Five

Wonder was placed in an incubator when born receiving too much oxygen, leaving him blinded. His parents sought activities he could handle at an early age and he became self-taught on the harmonica at age five.

By the time he hit his teens, Wonder was putting out tunes such as 1964’s “Hey, Harmonica Man.” Throughout the years Wonder has leant his playing prowess to other artists. Some non-Wonder harmonica songs include:

  • Will It Go Round in Circles (Billy Preston)
  • I Feel For You (Chaka Khan)
  • That’s What Friends Are For (Dionne Warwick)
  • Alfie (Eivets Rednow)
  • I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues (Elton John)

Famous Harmonica Artist In The UK

UK Harmonicist

Harmonica music is often seen as a popular trend. Folk, blues, jazz – all bring to mind the brassy tones of the mouth flute. However, one would be remiss to think that only popular music uses this instrument. One such individual to buck this trend is Canadian-born Tommy Reilly. While he was born in the New World, his fame and mark on Harmonica players goes back to his time in London, where he spent most of his professional career.

Tommy’s passion was the international concert circuit, which for the Harmonica might not have been taken all that seriously under a lesser player. Canadian great, Bernie Bray, and French master Claude Garden paved the way for him by playing the harmonica as a concert instrument. Mr. Reilly took this a step further, becoming known internationally as a virtuoso and showing that classical pieces could be done on the harmonica with dazzling results.

Today one can find over 30 different concerts composed specifically for Tommy Reilly. Michael Spivakovsky’s Harmonica Concerto of 1951 is often seen as the single most important piece of classical styled music designed specifically for the harmonica.

Not only were works by modern writers converted for his use, but Bach, Chopin, and Mozart were converted. He also recorded original works by such greats as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Arthur Benjamin, and Villa-Lobos. The Hohner silver was developed as a concert quality harmonica at his behest and much of the playing standards known and used can be traced back to to his handbook Play like the Stars.

One the other end of spectrum is Paul Lamb. Along with his band the King Snakes, Mr. Lamb is known for being leader of one of the best blues bands in the United Kingdom. Lamb’s skill has led him from representing his nation at the World Harmonica Championships to playing to sold out concerts. His style and leadership has created both award winning music and lead to breaking records for recording sales.

Another Master in the harmonica crowd would be British born Steve Baker. Not only does this player have his own tuning from Hohner (the SBS or Steve Baker Special), but he joins with Tommy Reilly’s legacy in another fashion. Where Tommy cemented classical harmonica, Steve’s Harmonica Handbook is known as the ‘bible’ for modern diatonic players. He is known as one of the world’s ten top blues harmonica players and has been showcasing his talent for over 35 years.

Some people just play the harmonica. Others make it their life. One final addition to this category from Britain is Pat Missin. His unusual style, friendly ease, passion, and broad understanding of technical aspects of the instrument lifts him above many others who are more well known.

Not only does Mr Missin play the harmonica, but he repairs, modifies, rebuilds, and designs them. He plays Blues and Jazz based harmonica, but can also do anything from ‘folk to reggae to avant garde to pure pop’ (his words). His music can be heard on recordings by Angie Scarr, Roger Higgins, and Basil Kirchin.

Pop and Rock Artist Who Play The Harmonica

Harmonica Rockers

The harmonica can be considered one of those cool musical instruments that has long been a part of the landscape of many genres of music. However, we sometimes let the image of the harmonica fade into the background and not give it – or harmonica players — their proper due. This is unfortunate because great harmonica players deserve their share of credit.

A few popular harmonica players can actually be considered legendary figures in the world of pop and rock. Probably the most well known would be Billy Joel as he played the harmonica is scores of his top songs with Piano Man being the most well known. Billy Joel is not the only legendary harmonica player in the music world. There are quite a number of other truly brilliant players that should be mentioned.

Brendan Power can be considered the most well known artist that is exclusively famous for his harmonica playing. He is based out of New Zealand and he tours the world playing his popular harmonica song favorites. You might consider his success atypical to say the least since so few people these days are popular for their harmonica talents.

At one time, that was not the case. The blues world was known for its amazing collection of legendary harmonica players that would use the “mini organ” as a means of creating incredibly memorable compositions during equally memorable performances. Slim Harpo, Taylor Hicks, and Paul DeLay were among the most famous of the blues harmonicists.

The country and blue grass world probably would be just as famous as the blues genre when it came to presenting people with skills with the harmonica. Many legendary blue grass songs feature the harmonica. Mike Stevens would probably be the most famous of the blue grass musicians that played the harmonica.

The world of folk probably borrowed the idea of using the harmonica from the realm of blues. Regardless of the origins of the inspiration, it is a good thing so many were inspired since it led to a great many memorable songs and performances. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bobby Darring would be among the names people think of the most when the words folk and harmonica are brought up together.

And yes, the world of rock has some truly diverse people that enjoy using the harmonica as part of their performances. Diverse is not a word used lightly since we see such a wide range of different genres reflected by artists ranging from Bono to Alice Cooper to David Bowie.

As you can see, the harmonica plays a huge role in many different genres of music. It presence will likely continue to be a part of the music landscape for many more decades to come.

Canadian Harmonica Players

Harmonicist of Canada

In French Canada the Harmonica is one of the traditional folk music components. English Canada also uses the Harmonica but follows a style taken from the Chicago (United States) area. There have been a number of famous harmonica players from Canada, although the earliest ones are French-Canadian.

Famous Quebec players often pair with violin and button accordion to perform folkdance music in the tradition of reels, quadrilles, jigs, and waltzes using the diatonic harmonica (this form is also popular in country and blues music). The most prolific individual to record this type of music in the 1920’s was Henri Lacroix, whose work survives in 78’s vinyl format. Others who also recorded this music form include La Bolduc, Joseph Lalonde, and Louis Blanchette. These artists continue to inspire younger players to this day, with modern folk and jazz players like Gabriel Labbe Alain Lamontagne and Gérald Laroche who still make appearances at festivals.

Across the cultural divide, English schooled Canadians often hear the harmonica not as folk music but as the Blues. While some roots reach back to the 1920’s it was the 1960’s that really moved the instrument into the eye of the public. King Biscuit Boy is among the most famous of this wave with his first recording producing the single ‘Corrina, Corrina’ in 1970. His legendary status among Canadian Blues musicians is unquestioned.

Among popular musicians, internationally known Canadians such as Neil Young and even Alanis Morissette have demonstrated proficiency in the instrument. Neil Young’s body of work includes a wide range of commercially successful songs with much critical acclaim including “Expecting to Fly,” “Broken Arrow,” “Mr. Soul,” “I Am a Child,” “Country Girl,” “Helpless,” “Ohio,” “American Dream,” “Southern Man,” “Round and Round,” “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Tell Me Why,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and “This Note’s for You.” Morissette’s famous songs include “You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” “King of Pain,” (a cover of a Police tune) “Hands Clean,” “Everything,” “Crazy,” and “Magical Child.”

The harmonica has been the instrument of choice for a number of celebrated individuals widely known in Canada but not as known outside of the country, also. One such figure is Patrick Esposito Di Napoli. A brilliant musician who played for Les Colocs. The group’s final album, November Outside, is dedicated to his memory. “Séropositif Boogie” is one song produced by this band that was written by him, and like most of the music this band produced had “humanity, simplicity and social conscience” in dealing with the relevant topic of the time. “Dehors Novembre” was written from the perspective of someone dying.

Some harmonica players are by far more adventurous than others. Take Les Stroud, who is far more known as a survival expert. He is a skilled player of the harmonica and has produced some very good music. Indeed he has played in the David Bowie cover band Diamond Dogs, among others. His harmonica work places him in the exceptional category for a blues player.

Some of The Most Famous Harmonica Players

Players of Fame

While the harmonica is only a century old, it has made a big difference to the music industry.  In fact, there are several players that have made a huge difference to the music industry by playing the harmonica.

Listed below are not just harmonica players that are famous, but also players that have influenced the harmonica and more broadly the music industry.  Enjoy!

Larry Alder

Alder may not have been the inventor of the original harmonica; however he effectively invented the chromatic harmonica.  He wanted an instrument that could match in with a variety of different music types, in a variety of keys.  The chromatic was his answer.

He was also a phenomenal player and would draw large crowds whenever he performed.  From reviews, not only was he a great player, but it was almost impossible to take your eyes off him on stage.  A true advocator for the industry.

Charlie McCoy

Not many people have heard of Charlie McCoy outside of the harmonica or country music world, however he has had a huge input on the music industry.

He is credited by many to creating a genre of country harmonica music.  While there had been some players that tried before hand – Wayne Rainey to name but one – he was the one who really took it to the front.  During the 1950s, and even to the 1980s the majority of country albums featured McCoy as the harmonica player.  He truly did have a huge impact on the harmonica and music world.

Little Walter

The impact of Chicago blues on the harmonica and music world is huge.  The fantastic electronic sounds really brought the harmonica into a league of its own,  Little Walter was right there during the 1940s to 1970s making all of this happen.  A true legend of the industry.

The harmonicats

This doesn’t relate to one specific band,  in fact during the 1940sto 50s almost every city in the America has a harmonica band.

What made the difference was the actually band.  These bands again helped to make the harmonica popular and started to bring in the crowds.  Often this is what people looked forward to each week – especially when money was tight.

Stevie Wonder

While there are a few great players who focused on rock, Stevie Wonder has to be named as one of the best.  His unique style of music and his exceptional harmonica playing really brought in the crowds.  He again helped to keep the instrument popular throughout the ages.

Bob Dylan

It was because Bob Dylan was so famous that his harmonica playing became even more famous.  His legendary harmonica sounds can be heard in many of his favorite songs.

Billy Joel

Finally, Billy Joel deserves a mention.  The harmonica playing in “Piano Man” reinforced just how important the harmonica is to all genre of music.

As can be seen from above, there are many great players – and bands – that have made the harmonica a legendary instrument.  Next time you pick yours up to play, think of all the other greats who have played this humble instrument.

Five Little Known Facts about Harmonicas

Interesting Facts

Harmonicas are very popular and played in almost every country in the world.

This popularity has led to a range of quirky facts about the instrument.  If you pick yourself as a trivia buff, then test your knowledge against the facts below.  Enjoy!

The most popular instrument on the planet!

You knew that harmonicas were popular, but we bet you didn’t know just how popular they were.

The harmonica is the world’s most popular and best selling instrument.  Worldwide over 10 million harmonicas are sold each year.  In the United States more than 2 million each year.

All in all that is a damn lot of harmonicas sold, and explains why you can see buskers playing them all over the Globe.

The harmonica isn’t that old!

In terms of age the harmonica isn’t actually that old.  It was only invented in 1821 by a teenager in Germany.  Since this time it has been adapted and changed into the current model that it is today.

One of the main changes has been to the affordability of the model.  After the mid 1860 to 1870s, the Hohner factory looked to commercialize and mass produce the harmonica to the US market.  This made a big difference to its popularity.

A lot of well-known musicians play the ham

While it has a very distinctive sound, it is played by more people and is included in more major songs than most people know.

Key songs include “Fingertips” by the legendary Stevie Wonder, “Love Me Do” by the Beatles and of course the very famous “Piano Man” by Billy Joel.

Because it is such a versatile instrument, it can be included in any range of song types, and played by any range of performers.

How the harmonica got its name

While invested in the 19th century the origins of the name date back to US founding father Benjamin Franklin.  He invented a music instrument which was based around glass bowls with different levels of water.  He named this the glass harmonica.  The harmonica component comes from Latin which means tuneful and is then roughly translated to harmonic.  The harmonica as it is today got its name from these origins.   Quite interesting to note!

Is it possible to swallow a harmonica?

This question generally gets asked when people are teaching kids to play the harmonica.

The answer is technically yes, because the world’s smallest harmonica which is the Hohner Little Lady could easily be swallowed – don’t try that at home!  However, a normal harmonica generally can’t be swallowed.  So the kids are safe to go ahead and play!

The above little known facts about harmonicas show how important the harmonica has been for people around the world.  While some of the facts are a bit out there, the main message is that harmonicas can be played by anyone, anywhere.

Get out your harmonica now, and start having fun.