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8 tracks that make a hero of the harmonica

The harmonica can cut through any mix with brilliant tone and sound redolent of the human voice. Here are 8 tracks that make a hero of the harmonica.

The harmonica (also known as the blues harp or mouth organ) is often regarded as an extra instrument and rarely accorded the space to distinguish itself as a true solo performer. Even if it does only feature as a side instrument most of the time, the harmonica’s treatment by some players can make it the essential voice in a song.

Here are 8 tracks that are unquestionably elevated by the presence of this pocket-sized wonder. Marvel at the way it can effortlessly cut through a mix, lending the music an inimitable yearning, human quality.

Robert Plant with Harmonica
Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin warming up with his harmonica backstage in February 1970
Photo: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Neil Young – Heart of Gold

There are harmonica essentials, then there’s Heart of Gold. Neil Young’s Harvest hit is one of those archetypal harmonica folk-rock examples. And even if it wasn’t the first to team up the acoustic guitar and the harmonica, it sure as hell perfected the sound.

Not a virtuosic performance, but it doesn’t need to be. Just the insistent rhythm of the guitar and the memorable melody of the harmonica laid on top, with all the dynamics and emotion of the human experience channelled through Young’s humble harp.

Stevie Wonder – Isn’t She Lovely

For Stevie Wonder, the harmonica is just one of the instruments which he plays at an extraordinarily high level. The former prodigy spent his childhood in the studio, speedily mastering each instrument that he turned his attention to and at some stage, he must have picked up the harmonica.

His talent for the blues harp is clear for all to see on Isn’t She Lovely, where he takes the vocal melody to ranges that can’t be explored with the voice, infusing his solos with perfectly articulated blues embellishments.

The Beatles – Love Me Do

A few short years before The Beatles explored sonically uncharted territories with albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, they were the hottest, up-and-coming band in England. And at the centre of their breakthrough single? The harmonica, of course.

Love Me Do is a far cry musically from the songs that marked the ambitious second half of their career, but it announced that the Liverpool lads were here to stay, with a simple and impossible-to-forget mouth organ melody played by John Lennon.

Big Mama Thornton – Down Home Shakedown

The harmonica, alongside the guitar, is one of the instrumental pillars on which the tradition of the blues is built. It’s an instrument that has the power to reflect the gamut of human experience and there was no better exponent of the blues harp than Big Mama Thornton.

Watch as she leads this group of harmonica slingers through the Down Home Shakedown, taking on all-comers and showing the full expressive potential of this sophisticated instrument.

Bob Dylan – Mr. Tambourine Man

If Neil Young perfected the folk harmonica, he must have taken inspiration from Bob Dylan, the seminal songwriter who emerged from the hallowed Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s. Dylan often didn’t need to arm himself with more than his lyrics to get his message across, so when he played the mouth organ, he made it count.

In spite of the misleading title, Mr. Tambourine Man is the quintessence of Dylan’s relationship with the harmonica. And like Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, the line is a unique embellishment of the vocal melody, but in Dylan’s singular style.

The Rolling Stones – Midnight Rambler

Despite having found global superstardom with infectious rock hits, The Rolling Stones are as perfectly at home atop the stage of a sweaty juke joint, as they are filling stadiums. The key to their connection to the blues is Mick Jagger’s ability to wail like a man possessed on the blues harp.

In Midnight Rambler, Jagger takes us on the tour of the harmonica, warming up with a few subdued licks, then ratcheting it up to a level of distorted bliss, all the while maintaining a supreme swagger, never failing to cut through the mix.

Beck – Saw Lightning (Freestyle)

Over the decades, the harmonica gradually came to be seen as a blues and folk specialist. When Beck burst onto the scene in the ’90s, he must have missed the memo. Harmonica, slide guitar and banjo was blended with breakbeats, funk and rock in his no-holds-barred eclecticism.

In the lead up to his latest record Hyperspace, he released a freestyle version of his track Saw Lightning – featuring his voice, a bone-jarring kick and the mother of all harmonica tones. The harmonica is well and truly the hero of this new millennium hoedown.

Toots Thielemans and Jaco Pastorius – Three Views of a Secret

This song, composed by Pastorius (who ventured away from his beloved bass in this version) shows the harmonica in a light that it’s rarely seen in. Belgian jazz artist Toots Thielemans display of virtuosity is rare on any instrument, let alone the mouth organ.

Every last ounce of musical expression is wrought from an instrument that can fit in the palm of your hand by Thielemans, proving that the humble harmonica can musically communicate at the very highest level.