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.

See also

» All harmonicas
» Blues harps
» Tremolo harmonicas
» Octave harmonicas
» Chromatic harmonicas
» Other types of harmonicas
» Harmonica accessories
» Harmonica books

20 responses
  1. John Rumler says:

    Surprised there is no mention of Neil Young’s stirring harmonica accompaniment on his amazing “Heart of Gold” song!

  2. Shocka Cohn says:

    Get out of my town that you didn’t mention I feel for you by Chaka Khan

  3. Gene Russell says:

    WTF??? You didn’t include LOWRIDER BY WAR????? You do know that Lee Oskar is well-known as one of the best in the business don’t you???
    Shitcan your choice of “Once Upon a Time in the West” (which is ridiculous, just because it has a harmonica in it DOES NOT MAKE IT GREAT!!!!! SMFH)!!!
    Your limited knowledge of popular music should disqualify you from writing articles on music!

  4. LORRAINE HALL says:

    I can’t believe the Midnight Cowboy theme isn’t on here! It is haunting harmonica all the way through! It was the first thing I thought of!

  5. Lynn Pruitt says:

    Several tunes and names mentioned I am fond of. I am still partial to John Mayall, James Cotton and J Geils Band Whammer Jammer is awesome.

  6. Howard Bruce Asseo says:

    Not sure what any of you guys are tawkin bout as I surmise that not one of you have ever seen the guy from the group “War” did his harmonica solo for about 8 minutes
    straight. Check out the live version (around 13 minutes long) and you might then
    “sing a different tune”

  7. Judd Lander says:

    Many thanks, I’m very flattered to see an entry, just about to do a UK TV interview re ‘Church of The Piosend Mind’ & ‘Karma Chameleon’ and Spice Girls tracks. Had a call with Charlie McCoy not so long ago, love ‘Stone Fox Chase’, and I see dear Toots in this selection – bless, met him at Ronnie Scotts Jazz club in London – what a warm and lovely man. Good luck with the page!
    Best Judd (Lander)

  8. Blu says:

    Corky Siegal playing harmonica in the Closing credits for the movie Wanted Dead or Alive. That piece always sends shivers down my spine.


  9. Gary says:

    I would have to recommend George Fields. He played the haunting chromatic harmonica for Henry Mancini’s Moon River, that was in the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Written for Audrey Hepburn’s range, to sing in the movie.

  10. tom stanley says:

    the band blackfoot did the song called train train it has the harmonica its awsome to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBP15lRprPs

  11. Greg says:

    Sonny Boy Williamson II – Spotify

    Pisses all over this garbage lol.

  12. Cecil McDaniel says:

    I play with one of the top 10 harmonica players of this Era. A guy who goes by the stage name “Blind Mississippi Morris” who from Clarksdale Mississippi but resides in Memphis Tennessee. Look him up please. You will be glad that you did.

  13. Simone says:

    Bob Dylan? Godfather of the harmonica? Yikes… He single-handedly made the harmonica seem like a toy to people. Try listening to the actual pioneers from the Mississippi Delta, like for example Sonny Boy Williamson, then come back here and tell me how good is Bob with his harmonica; literally anyone could sound just like him, because that’s the power of the harp: even if you play it badly, or it remotely resembles a melody, it’ll bomb anyway. But after you realize who the real pros are, you’ll truly understand what’s this instrument about. Long story short, Bob Dylan is a great, great artist, but an unskilled harmonica player, that’s a proven fact.

  14. charles davenport says:

    anyone hear of Little Walter or James Cotton or even Paul Butterfield?

  15. MsFigtree says:

    Hey Mr. Lander! Thanks for standing up and being counted, but beyond that, thank you for your (not so) “little” contribution to this important list! I made sure to add it to my Spotify playlist:

    Happy Christmas!

  16. judd Lander says:

    Hey, feeling rather left out here – what about my little harmonica contribution to pop group Culture Clubs ‘Karma Chameleon’ & ‘Church Of The Poisoned Mind’ and what about dear friend Charlie Mc Coy’s classic ‘Stone Fox Chase’ – Christmas is here so why not bring us some cheer – ha-ha!
    Best Judd (Lander)

  17. Nigel says:

    I have been trying to find the harmonica tabs for I recall a gypsy woman but cant find anywhere…can you help please

    • Hi Nigel,

      Unfortunately, we can’t find them either. Perhaps someone is willing to do a video or make/find harmonica tabs for you on a harmonica forum?

      In any case, I hope you keep enjoying this little instrument!

      Marnix | Bax Music

  18. Don J Davis says:

    Stevie Wonder – Isn’t She Lovely (long version) about the birth of his first child is in a class of its own. The rest of these songs are all second rate.

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