Top 25 Best Harmonica Rock Songs of All Time

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Bob Dylan has two harmonica rock songs on our list of the Top 25 harmonica rock songs of all time.

Bob Dylan has two harmonica rock songs on our list of the Top 25 harmonica rock songs of all time.

Harmonica rock may be relatively new, but the instrument has a long history in America. It’s said President Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket, and soldiers on both sides of the Civil War kept them in camp. Originally invented in 1821 to play classical music, the harmonica’s now a staple in blues, folk rock and some rock bands. It’s hard to even picture Bob Dylan or Neil Young without a harmonica slung around their necks. Here’s my list of the Top 25 Best Harmonica Rock Songs of All Time:

25) Tangled up in Blue by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is synonymous with the harmonica. Drawing on harp influences like Wayne Raney, Little Walter, and Jimmy Reed, he started playing it while he was in high school after picking up the guitar. Dylan started using a harmonica rack “when I was performing solo in coffee houses,” (via Steve Hoffman). “I got the approach from Woody Guthrie … it really gave a coffee house performer more variety to be able to keep the rhythm on guitar while playing the harp.” Dylan kicks off his famous Tangled Up in Blue harmonica solo at 3:58 in the video below.

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24) The Wizard by Black Sabbath

Ozzy Osbourne laid down the harmonica track in this song including the long “train whistle” intro. “Harmonica aficionados will point out that Ozzy is playing a D harmonica in second position on the track,” writes InvisibleOranges. “In laymen’s terms, that means Ozzy is bending certain notes so that the harmonica is playing in a different key than intended. This is classic blues harmonica playing known as ‘cross harp.’ The deeply bent two-draw note combination that opens ‘The Wizard’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Chicago blues track or the Rolling Stones blues number like ‘Midnight Rambler,’ a song about serial killer Albert DeSalvo.”

23) You Don’t Know How It Feels by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

It was a close call between Last Dance with Mary Jane and You Don’t Know How It Feels, but there’s something about the simplicity of this song laced with Petty’s powerful harmonica playing that won the battle for me. I love how harmonica rock solo frames the guitar solo starting around 3:48:

22) Cryin’ by Aerosmith

Steven Tyler rocks a great harmonica solo in Cryin’ (starting around 3:45). Quickly joined by a guitar lead, it’s a quintessential ’80s rock ballad.

21) Piano Man by Billy Joel

Billy Joel’s first-ever single is his signature song – the song he closes most of his shows with. The 3/4 waltz starts with the piano and blues harp, and the rocking harmonica keeps coming back during the chorus.

20) He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother by The Hollies

Originally recorded by Kelly Gordon in 1969, it was The Hollies who made this song famous. They gave the harmonica a lot more prominence and added a backing chorus. The result is a sad dirge that echoes the song’s title: He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. The title was supposedly drawn from The Parables of Jesus. In one story, a small girl struggles to carry a large baby boy. When asked if she’s tired, she says “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.”

19) Roller Coaster by Little Walter

“The fiery harmonica wizard took the humble mouth organ in dazzling amplified directions that were unimaginable prior to his ascendancy,” writes Bluesharp.ca. “His daring instrumental innovations were so fresh, startling, and ahead of their time that they … sported a jazz sensibility, soaring and swooping in front of snarling guitars and swinging rhythms perfectly suited to Walter’s pioneering flights of fancy.”

Little Walter’s Roller Coaster can’t help but make you want to dance. Just pair his playing up with some drums, and you could rock all night long. Dylan has cited the virtuoso as one of his primary influences.

18) Miss You by the Rolling Stones

A disco-era tune from the Stones, Miss You features Jagger signing along with the harmonica and guitar solos in that famous falsetto of his. Session musician Sugar Blue of Harlem played harmonica on the track. “The sound of Sugar Blue’s harmonica could pierce any night,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. “It’s the sound of a musician who transcends the supposed limitations of his instrument.” Blue also played harmonica on other Stones songs including “Emotional Rescue” and “Tattoo You.”

17) I Want You by Bob Dylan

“The Harmonica is the world’s best-selling musical instrument. You’re welcome,” Dylan has supposedly said. Whether or not it’s true, there’s no doubt he’s responsible for a lot of harmonica sales. The last song recorded for Dylan’s double album, Blonde on Blonde, features a harmonica intro and outro that sets the mood for the entire upbeat tune.

16) Love Me Do by The Beatles

John Lennon laid down the harmonica on The Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do. The mouth organ was one of Lennon’s first instruments. When a bus driver heard him messing around on the toy, he offered to give him a real harmonica the next day. Lennon came back for it and would later lay down lots of harmonica for The Beatles’ early songs. “John expected to be in jail one day and he’d be the guy who played the harmonica,” Paul McCartney quipped.

15) Roadhouse Blues by The Doors

John Sebastian – founder of the The Lovin’ Spoonful – provided the harmonica parts on this Doors classic, which took two days to record in 1969. Snippets of his playing in the song has always reminded me of another vocal part, almost like a classic call and response.

Sebastian grew up playing and hearing the harmonica as his father was a “noted classical harmonica player.” His interest in the blues sent his harmonica playing in a different direction, and he ended up being a key part of the folk rock movement in Greenwich Village.

14) On the Road Again by Canned Heat

This song is rock and roll. Laced with harmonica throughout, it was inspired by Mississippi Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.” Canned Heat actually took their name from the Tommy Johnson song “Canned Heat Blues.” Alan Wilson sang in a distinctive falsetto and rocked the harp on the song.

13) Run-Around by Blues Traveler

John Popper’s easily one of the most famous harmonica players of his generation. His solo in Run-Around helped the song rule the airwaves in the ’90s, and it’s one of Blue Traveler’s signature songs. “When I was three my parents noticed that I was harmonizing in church when I was singing,” he says in an interview with Glide Magazine. “I had a true pitch. Someone recommended giving me musical instruments right away. A distant relative of ours was this famous bohemian cellist, David Popper, so they gave me a cello. I wasn’t a great reader and I never practiced, so I gave that up. I went through a whole collection of instruments. Anytime there was a teacher involved, I never enjoyed it. The thing about the harmonica was you didn’t need a teacher. You know, if it sounds good, its right.”

12) Heart of Gold by Neil Young

Little known fact: Heart of Gold is Neil Young’s only No. 1 single in the U.S. As the story goes, Young wrote the song as part of a series of softer acoustic songs when he had back problems that prevented him for standing for long periods of time. Young’s harmonica parts (during the intro and three instrumental breaks) define the song. Throw in some backing vocals by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt and you have a harmonica rock staple.

11) Long Train Runnin’ by The Doobie Brothers

The Doobie Brothers’ lead vocalist Tom Johnston never really wanted to record Long Train Runnin’. It was just something they played for fun at shows. “I just considered it a bar song without a lot of merit,” he says. When they finally recorded it, it would go on to peak at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Johnston’s harmonica rock solo, which starts at 1:28, is like the embodiment of a train ripping down the tracks.

10) Shape of My Heart by Sting

“One of the greatest harmonica players this century, Larry Adler, lives in London,” Sting says. “He’s played with Gerswhin, he’s had symphonies written for him, he’s a classical player. He was blacklisted by the McCarthy people in the late ’40s, left the US to live in London and he’s been there ever since. He’s thriving. I invited him along to play on ‘Shape Of My Heart’ and he was fantastic. Great tone.” In this video, Brendan Power plays the song’s wicked solo starting at 2:30:

9) Everything’s Gonna Be Alright by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band

This has to go down as one of the best live harmonica rock performances ever: the Paul Butterfield Blues Band ripping a 9-minute version of Everything’s Gonna Be Alright live at Woodstock. I love the intro. You can hear Butterfield’s labored breathing between notes as the drums start building behind him:

8) Christo Redemptor by Charlie Musselwhite

“Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica playing shows taste, bite, restraint and power,” the San Francisco Chronicle writes. “He’s one of the best, and as a bluesman, he’s as real as they come.” All his skills are on display in his signature song Christo Redemptor. Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, he knows how to play the blues.

7) Hook by Blue Traveler

You know you’re a rock beast on the harmonica when you use one that’s custom manufactured for you. Fender makes its own signature line for harmonica rocker John Popper of Blues Traveler. Popper’s said he gets inspiration for his harmonica style from virtuoso guitarist Jimi Hendrix. It all comes together in Hook. The harmonica makes appearances throughout the song, but the solo that starts at 2:30 is one of most incredible solos I’ve ever heard on any instrument. Throughout the video, you can see Popper in what used to be his trademark vest that contained pockets for all his various harmonicas.

6) Whammer Jammer by The J. Geils Band

This harmonica rocker was designed to jam. It starts with out with a ripping solo harmonica and keeps getting more fun as the other instruments layer in. The harmonica player, Richard Salwitz, had been dubbed Magic Dick (seriously) for his incredible playing. Critic Dave Marsh says he could be the best white musician to ever play blues harmonica.

5) When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin

There’s nothing like pairing a harmonica with one of rock’s greatest drummers, John Bonham, and guitarists, Jimmy Page – especially when you put a backwards echo on the harmonica. “On ‘Levee Breaks’ you’ve got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there’s also flanging; and at the end, you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that’s all built around the drum track,” Page said in an interview with Uncut Magazine. “And you’ve got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It’s all done with panning.” It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole.

4) The River by Bruce Springsteen

For my money, this is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best tracks. It’s a blue collar singalong that calls us back to the water’s edge. I grew up a stone’s throw from a river, and I spent every summer swimming in it, canoeing it, exploring, always imagining how it eventually flowed into the Mississippi and all the way down to New Orleans. There’s hope on the river, and it gets evoked by this haunting song. The first few notes of the harmonica solo are enough to give you chills (starting at 2:50). Springsteen also closes out the song with another harmonica rock solo:

3) Driftin’ Blues by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Originally trained as a classical flautist, Paul Butterfield took up the blues harp and didn’t look back. One of his Blue Band’s most popular songs was Driftin’ Blues. In it, Butterfield takes the 1940s blues standard and turns it into something epic. Just when you think his harp solo can’t build anymore, it keeps going, and you’re right there with it urging him to keep playing harder. The solo starts around 1:58 and just doesn’t seem to end:

2) Fingertips by Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder’s first hit, Fingertips, was recorded live. Mostly an instrumental, the song showed off Wonder’s chops on the harmonica. He was just 12 years old when it was recorded.

1) Take a Walk on the Wild Side by Jason Ricci

Jason Ricci stretches and contorts this Lou Reed classic into something altogether different. His harmonica solo, which starts at 4:35, is proof he belongs right there beside John Popper as one of the greatest harmonica players of this generation. Man, I could listen to it over and over again. If it’s not harmonica rock, I don’t know what is.

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21 comments on “Top 25 Best Harmonica Rock Songs of All Time
  1. I’ve never heard the cover of “Walk On The Wild Side” and there are just some things that shouldn’t exist or be attempted. Nice to see the Canned Heat song get props.

  2. Anyone happen to know what brand and model of harmonica Tom Johnston used to record (or uses today for) “Long Train Runnin’?

    • Tom Johnston didn’t play harp on that song. It was Norton Buffalo, and it was a key of C. I heard Norton used Huang harps, but I’m not sure about this song.

  3. Hey, Fred. Great list, thanks for that.

    I assume you have kept the criteria as rock. Otherwise here is one you may want to include:

    The Sinister Minister by Bela Flek and the Flektones. The harmonica piece is done my Howard Levy, one of the greatest harmonica players of the modern times. What’s unique about this number is that the harmonica is the LEAD instrument instead of the filler; which I have not heard before. These guys were great in their live concert

  4. How could you collect this list and not include the iconic “Room To Move” by John Mayall? That’s a massive oversight.

  5. I am not big on lists but any list with harmonica tunes that does not include Greg “Fingers” Taylor seems to be missing the mark somehow. All those however are great tunes…
    Dixie Dinner
    Coast of Marsellies

  6. Jason is awesome!!, But instead of Dylan twice, you forgot Taj Mahal, whose harp on “Leaving trunk” is epic!!

  7. Excuse me, where is the legendary, Lee Oskar, of WAR fame on this list? ‘Lowrider’? ‘Gypsy Man’? ‘Cisco Kid’? ‘Slippin’ Into Darkness’?! He even has his own line of harmonicas! Major oversight!

  8. Pathetic list. Were you born yesterday? The Yardbird’s Smokestack Lightning should have been number one. Keith Relf could make that harmonica wail with the best bluesmen.

  9. Never will be a definitive best-of list – we all have our own views. Bit I reckon this list did it’s job. Some fine performances, but more importantly it’s drawn out other fine suggestions above, some I never heard before.

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