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The Top 5 Best Harmonica Songs In Rock

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Editor’s Note: Yeah, yeah…we know there are a TON of rock songs featuring a great harmonica break. Our writer picked five that are worth celebrating. ‘Cause that’s all we could fit in one post. Feel free to add your picks, but be nice. (Don’t make me stop this car…)

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The harmonica is a tricky instrument. It was developed in Europe in the early 19th century and if you play it right (and in the right places), it can elevate a rock song by giving it a boost like a B12 shot. Play it wrong and it will sound like somebody willfully hurting a cat. Let’s take a look at the top 5 rock/pop songs to benefit from the harmonica and be forewarned: I did not include anything by Bob Dylan. Why? Because although Dylan is an unmatched songwriter, listening to him play harmonica is a lot like your first high school kiss: sloppy, and it sounds like someone dared him to do it.

“The Promised Land”

After those two drumbeats, the harmonica wakes us up and forces you to sit up and take notice of the lyrics. Like most Springsteen poems, it’s about a man hoping to find more to his life than where he is presently at. It kicks off the second side of his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town and came after a legal battle that took years since his 1975 release, Born to Run. The song contains a great sax part from Clarence Clemons but it really is Springsteen’s harmonica that stands out against the other instruments.

“Piano Man”

Why have a song about a piano player by a well-known piano player on a “harmonica” list? Because Billy Joel’s harmonica at the top of this track sets the tone for the rest of the story. The song was a single off of Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man and was all about the people he encountered as a lounge musician at the Executive Room in Los Angeles. The harmonica wakes you up to the sadness you’re about to encounter from Davy in the Navy, the waitress who practices politics, and Paul the real estate novelist.

“Church of the Poison Mind”

This was Culture Club’s lead single off Colour By Numbers. Yes, they released this song ahead of “Karma Chameleon.” It takes a few more seconds for the harmonica to kick in than the previous songs on this list, but once it does it gets the song going. Add a few horns after the harmonica break and it sets you up with a perfect bridge back to the lyrics.

“You Don’t Know How it Feels”

We all knew this list would have Springsteen and Tom Petty on it. I’ve chosen “You Don’t Know How it Feels” off Tom’s Wildflowers album. Like “The Promised Land” the harmonica kicks in right away, but here we get a more laid back Petty harmonica than an amped-up instrument. It perfectly complements the tone of the song and Petty’s back and forth between the harmonica and the lyrics is a perfect trade-off.

“Blue Sky Mine”

This was Midnight Oil’s first single off their 1990 album Blue Sky Mining and would only go as high as 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. The harmonica is the third instrument we hear on the track, and when it kicks in again later with the drums it’s as though the song were daring you to stay seated. The song is about the Wittenoom asbestos mines in Australia and the diseases the workers contracted there. Mix a little politics with a driving harmonica rock song and you get a great tune.

-Robert Matvan

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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23 comments on “The Top 5 Best Harmonica Songs In Rock

  1. Take The Long Way Home (Supertramp), Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Tom Petty), When The Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin)

  2. Richard Short

    Well, first of all – nice article! It’s about time someone showed the harmonica a little love. The list was nice but missing some really, REALLY great songs. Here’s a few at random that came to mind IMMEDIATELY. I don’t know if a harmonica ever sounded better than on The Beatles “I Should Have Known Better” unless it was on The Beatles “Little Child” or “Please Please Me”. Guess you can tell I like the Beatles. Then, you simply can’t leave out Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” or the Stones “Sweet Virginia”. My God what an omission that would be. Even ol’ Neil Young with “Heart of Gold”. Just saying.

    • Absolutely Richard, I’m a huge Beatles fan as well and “Little Child” would have next on my list.

    • Lots of suggestions to add here, and it’s all such a matter of taste. But “I should Have known better”. Was pretty groundbreaking and an excellent song. It’s the only one I really would add.

    • LOVE the Beatles songs listed too!

  3. Mark Hudson

    Good choices, but as Mike noted, you can’t leave out Plant’s feral howl driven by Bonzo’s depth charge drumming on the mighty “When the Levee breaks!”

  4. Whammer Jammer/Hard Driving Man by J. Geils; the live version of The World is a Ghetto by War

  5. And Lee Oskar of R&B group WAR…no matter the song. Great article!

  6. Waldo Puck

    I know that we’re supposed to be nice but with the hundreds (thousands?) of choices for such a list, we get Culture Club?!?! Eeessh!

    • This is from the same writer whose previous article included the sentence, “I like to think that serious filmmaking began in 1967.” Based on that, it’s fair to surmise that their sense of historical context is…limited.

    • I agree, Culture Club out of thousands of other bands? But the point is that the harmonica is what makes the song acceptable. Today, it’s the only song by them that I would listen by choice.

  7. Whammer Jammer – J Geils

  8. John Mayall? Jack Bruce (Train Time), Blues Traveller, Kim Wilson? Glad someone brought up Magic Dick!

  9. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” by Elton John (featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica). And call me crazy, but I feel like “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” probably is a better representation of harmonica in a Billy Joel Song.
    Same goes for “Thunder Road” and Springsteen.

  10. Jim Berkenstadt

    I Should Have Known Better and Love me Do by The Beatles. And Hey Baby by Bruce Channel with Delbert McClinton on harmonica!

  11. Hey-ItsMike

    Oh, this is fun. Blues Traveler’s “Runaround” and “Hook” are both virtuoso performances. I second the post above that listed early Beatles songs; those seem a clear inspiration for the harp break in power pop classic, “What I Like About You” by the Romantics. And don’t forget Stevie Wonder’s great playing on songs like “Isn’t She Lovely.” Oh, and Neil Young on “Heart of Gold!” The harmonica was my own first instrument and I still love Bob Dylan’s sloppy but heartfelt playing on many of his early songs. Finally, it isn’t rock but rather Chicago blues, but do yourself a favor and listen to some Little Walter sometime. Start with “My Babe” and “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)”.

  12. Must include John Mayall’s “Room To Move”
    And really, it should be at the top. The solo in “Long Train Runnin’” by the Doobies is perfect, as is the solo in Stevie Wonder’s, “Boogie on Reggae Woman”.

  13. “For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder; that is near harmonica-solo perfection!

  14. Bruce Chanel “Hey Baby.”

    • Note: From what I recall reading, Bruce Channel’s harmonica player on Hey Baby! (Delbert McClinton) taught John Lennon harmonica riffs and gave him some tips, when the two of them were touring England together in 1962. And without that, there might not be many (any?) votes for John Lennon’s playing, who can say?

  15. I guess that’s why they call it the blues, Elton John (Stevie Wonder plays Mouthharp). Brilliant!

  16. Huey Lewis and the News, Working for a Living.

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