Ever since its début in the early 1800s, the harmonica has always had a prominent place in the music scene. Countless singer-songwriters have used this instrument to add that special something to their music, even though it had already secured its spot in history by being used in classic songs that are still played today. Are you curious about the stories behind some of the most famous harmonica solos in the history of rock ‘n roll? Bax Music is happy to present our top ten.
10. The River – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen’s successful chart-topping album Born to Run (1975) features the harmonica from the get-go. ‘Thunder Road’ begins with a soft harmonica intro that sets the scene and takes the listener on a journey through the rest of the album. As well as the fantastic Clarence Clemons on saxophone, Bruce was backed by the top-notch horn section of the E Street Band. In 1980, Bruce released the double-album The River, and almost 40 years after its release, the timeless title song is still regularly heard on the radio today. Springsteen used a Hohner Marine Band for this legendary blue-collar ballad.
9. For Once In My Life – Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder’s musical career began when he was discovered as about twelve years old. He was blind as a bat, but he could play the piano, harmonica and sing like nobody’s business. He was introduced to the audience as the new ray Charles, who happened to also be a blind pianist. Stevie used the harmonica in some of his most prominent works, including ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, ‘I Was Made To Love Her’, ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’ and of course, ‘For Once In My Life’. For all his hits, Stevie played the chromatic Hohner Super 64.
8. Once Upon A Time In the West (The Man With The Harmonica) – Ennio Morricone
For many, this classic film has been an integral part of their upbringing. It came out in 1968 and was directed by Sergio Leone. When people think about the harmonica, this world-famous fragment is often the first thing they think of. In this hero’s journey, Charles Bronson dramatically plays his harmonica, which is the plot thread. The soundtrack is played on a Hohner Chromonica 40 but the instrument in the film is a diatonic harmonica that looks a lot like a Hohner Marine Band. The song can also be played on the more comprehensive Hohner Chromonica 48, which is identical to the Chromonica 40, but has two additional blow holes for eight extra tones.
7. Long Train Runnin’- The Doobie Brothers
he Doobie Brothers’ successful signature song ‘Long Train Runnin” came out as a single off the album The Captain and Me in 1973. Since it was first released, it’s been covered several times in various ways and topped the charts repeatedly over the years, but the harmonica solo just around the 1:00 mark has always remained intact. Lead vocalist and co-founder of the Doobie Brothers, Tom Johnston, was responsible for playing the solo on something much like a Hohner C blues harp.
6. Piano Man – Billy Joel
Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ has been a chart-topper for decades ever since it was released in 1973 as a single. It was deemed unworthy of being included on an album, but its catchy melody and unmistakable harmonica solo have proved otherwise. The harmonica in the video is a Hohner Marine Band in the key of C, but for live performances, Joel often uses the Hohner Special 20 Classic C for this song.
5. Love Me Do – The Beatles
The Beatles have actually released several songs that feature the harmonica in various ways. ‘Love Me Do’ is probably the most well-known example, and John Lennon is responsible for the bluesy dry ‘dockside’ solo. Opinions are divided as to which harmonica Lennon actually uses in the recording; some are convinced it’s a chromatic harmonica while others are 100% sure he’s playing a diatonic harmonica. We tend to agree with the latter, and think he used a Echo Super Vamper E. Unfortunately, this harmonica is no longer in production, but the Marine Band 364 (with 12 holes) is the next best thing.
4. Bluesette – Toots Thielemans
Of the handful of famous harmonica players in the world, Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans (1922 – 2016) is at the top of the heap. The Flemish-born musician started playing accordion at the age of three and not long after, learned how to play harmonica and guitar. He emigrated to America when he was thirty and worked with world-famous artists like Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Billy Joel and Paul Simon. Thielemans is considered one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world and ‘Bluesette’ (1962) is probably his most well-known song. He uses a Hohner Chromonica chromatic harmonica and has there are two signature models that carry his name, the Hohner Toots Thielemans Mellow Tone and the Hohner Toots Thielemans Hard Bopper.
3. Mr. Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan
A blog about famous harmonica solos must include the godfather of them all, Bob Dylan. He began his career more than 50 years ago with nothing more than his voice, a guitar, and a harmonica. Dylan didn’t have a harmonica holder, so he fashioned one himself out of a clothing hanger. Dylan has written countless songs that all feature the harmonica prominently, but ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is arguably the most well-known. For the largest part of his career, Dylan used a Hohner Marine Band, which is also the harmonica used in this song. Dylan also has a signature model with Hohner, the Bob Dylan Signature harmonica.
2. School – Supertramp
“What’s the name of that song with that long harmonica part at the beginning?” Anyone who’s asked that question was surely referring to ‘School’ by Supertramp. The unmistakable haunting wail of the diatonic harmonica is reminiscent of ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ and goes on for almost 45 seconds before the song actually starts. Its bright, clear tone, played by lead/backing vocalist Rick Davies, makes it almost certainly a Hohner Special 20 in the key of D major.
1. Carolina Blues – Blues Traveler
Whenever anyone talks about the harmonica, blues music is almost always the next subject in line. The two go hand in hand, after all! The harmonica in ‘Carolina Blues’ (1:45 min.) is playful and lively. The band’s front man John Popper is a master of the diatonic harmonica, which can be heard in just about every Blues Traveler song. On stage, Popper often has two harmonica belts on, both chock full of harmonicas in just about every key. Popper is a self-proclaimed to be a fan of the Hohner Special 20 harmonicas and the Blues Harp as well. Lately, he prefers his very own John Popper signature series by Fender. His special Shure harmonica microphone makes his sound stand out from the rest.