There are myriad reasons why playing music is one of the most enjoyable and spiritually beneficial things to do on earth. Melody, rhythm and lyric are but three glorious aims. One drawback to playing music, however, is that it can be a cumbersome profession or hobby. There are guitars, cases, drums, amps, organs, pianos and many other instruments and accouterments that go along with performing songs. One instrument, though, that is as easy as can be to carry and break out is the harmonica.
A harmonica is a versatile, compact, light-weight, hand-held melody maker that’s been used from work songs to blues to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll since the instruments were mass produced in the 19th century by Hohner. And while there are many who’ve played the thing and banged a few notes out, few have truly mastered it. Below we wanted to celebrate some of the folks who have made the harmonica a transcendent and necessary instrument.
Little Walter, Essential link
If anyone could truly sing on the harmonica, it was Little Walter. The man had melody is each breath he offered the harp. You get the sense that Little Walter, upon discovering the harmonica, spent hours playing each note, bending them, playing sharps and flats until it became second nature. He saw the skies open up. He had true purpose. Little Walter was a virtuoso who, beginning in the late 40s, changed the way people thought about the harmonica.
Stevie Wonder, Essential link
Perhaps more than anything else, Stevie Wonder exuded brightness in his harmonica playing. There was joy in his sound. Whereas many harmonica solos or rhythms can accentuate or participate in the blues – that sullen, lamenting quality – Wonder always felt like he was putting on a party, opening a proverbial window to let extra unshine and fresh air in.
John Popper, Essential link
The man who kept a vest full of harmonicas on seemingly at all times, John Popper popularized the harmonica in the 90s like no other. The musician was discovered by his high school band teacher, playing like a whirlwind in the school hallways. Ever since, his whirling dervish, jam band style has made Popper infamous and earned him spots on Billboard charts.
Alan Wilson, Essential link
Co-founder of the blues band, Canned Heat, Alan Wilson had one of the crispest tones of any harmonica player in popular music. The musician sung with a high falsetto and he buoyed his unique tone with his glinting harp playing. Wilson also mastered the art of weaving in his harmonica playing into his songs’ verses in a subtle, though still powerful manner.
Indiara Sfair, Essential link
While this contemporary Brazilian musician may not yet be a household name, Indiara Sfair’s playing is up there with the all-time greats. She sheds proverbial blood, sweat and tears on her instruments. She’s excellent in showcasing emotion on traditional rock and soul covers or in creating lightening-quick solos and melodies in her own original compositions. She’s a force of nature.
Big Mama Thornton, Essential link
The Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, thousands of musicians owe a debt of gratitude to Big Mama Thornton – from Elvis to everyone on this list. And while many may think of her for her big, booming voice and her songwriting skills, the musician is a groundbreaker when it comes to the harmonica, too. You get the sense there is nothing this woman couldn’t do when it comes to rhythm, melody, blues and bringing a room to life.
Paul Butterfield, Essential link
Harmonica playing can sound like a lot of different styles. It can sing like a sad man staring at the river. It can sound forlorn like a funeral. Or it can shriek for joy like a celebratory birthday party. But when Paul Butterfield plays the harmonica, it sounds like straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds like rebellion. It shreds, pulses and pushes.
Sonny Boy Williamson, Essential link
Sonny Boy Williamson is so good at harmonica that it seems like he’s playing two at a time. The tall, lanky player glides on the instrument. He’s smooth, capable. He’s like an ice-skater on the thing. As true a blues man as there ever was, Williamson treats the harmonica like an extension of himself. He probably slept with the instrument under his pillow.
Phil Wiggins, Essential link
This contemporary D.C. blues legend rips when it comes to the mouth harp. The way he plays, you’d think he might never stop, that he doesn’t seem to ever need to take a breath. It seems even that playing the harmonica IS the way he takes a breath. Wiggins is a fish in water, an eagle in the air, a cheetah.
Bob Dylan, Essential link
While Bob Dylan may not be the most artful harmonica player in history, he is certainly one of the instrument’s most dedicated players. It shows up in some of his most well-known songs from “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” And is there anyone else on earth more responsible for selling those neck-brace-like-harmonica-holders? Likely, no.
Toots Thielemans, Essential link
Finally, we’ve reached our orchestral portion of the program. Like Sondheim with musicals or Dave Brubeck with big bands, Toots Thielemans thrives on stage with sweeping, swooping melodies, a string section and as many other backing players as his conductor can find. But it works! Not every harmonica master is the same and Toots is certainly a singular one to behold.