Do it if you can, harmonica man

“The harmonica is the most voice-like instrument.  You can make it wail, feel happy, or cry.  It’s like singing without words.” — Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite


Who knew that one of the most expressive instruments in the annals of rock music got its start in ancient China?

Have you ever heard of the sheng?  Me neither.  As one of the first free-reed wind instruments ever devised, it happens to be the precursor of the harmonica, also known as the mouth harp, or French organ, or blues harp.

The harmonica, as we know it today, was invented in Germany in the early 1800s.  It maxresdefault-10migrated to America in the 1850s and, because of its relative simplicity and affordability, was quickly adopted and widely used in American folk music.  Almost anyone could play a harmonica, almost anytime or anywhere.  Indeed, even Abraham Lincoln was known to keep one in his pocket.  He once said, “Sometimes I think I’m happiest when I’m sitting on my porch playing my harmonica.”

By the 20th Century, the harmonica became an important part of country-western music, and the blues, and folk music.  It should probably come as no surprise that when rock and roll arrived in the mid-1950s, the harmonica came along for the ride.

Whether it’s played in a slow drawl or a frenetic double-time, the mouth harp can create a musical mood unlike any other instrument.  It’s suitable for a gentle acoustic arrangement or a rockin’ blues band at full tilt, and the best mouth harp players are capable of handling both environments.

In the Spotify playlist at the end of this post, you’ll find a sampling of the work of the artists who have been rated as the best harmonica players of the past 50 years.  Let’s take a look at who they are:


Little Walter

Delta bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy WatersJames Cotton and Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs set the standard and forged new trails in the use of the harmonica in classic ’50s and ’60s blues tracks like “Bring It On Home,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” “Mean Ole Frisco,” “Key to the Highway” and “Roller Coaster.”  They went on to inspire dozens of up-and-coming mouth harp artists like Britain’s blues titan John Mayall, and Keith Relf of The Yardbirds, and Chicago blues wunderkind Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson.

King of the jazz harmonica players was the great Toots Thielemans, the Belgian-American who performed and recorded with everyone from Benny Goodman to Quincy Jones.  You can also hear his work on such well known pop pieces as the 1969 “Midnight Cowboy” soundtrack theme and the 1984 Julian Lennon hit “Too Late for Goodbyes.”

Meanwhile, in Nashville, harmonica greats like session wizard Charlie McCoy were in high demand, inserting expert harp solos on many dozens of tracks by the leading artists of the day, from Johnny Cash and Buck Owens to Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Folk music may be the genre through which the harmonica reached the widest audience, bob-dylan-play-guitar-harmonicathanks to Bob Dylan, who was inspired by the harmonica playing of the Memphis Jug Band, Woody Guthrie and John P. Hammond.  Beginning in 1962, Dylan used a harmonica mounted on a neck rack, which allowed him to play it and an acoustic guitar simultaneously.  Many of his early anthems — “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'” — showcased prominent (albeit rudimentary) harmonica passages.  Dylan continued to use harmonica selectively in the ’60s (“I Want You”), the ’70s (“Tangled Up in Blue”) and the ’80s (“Every Grain of Sand”) as well.

“The harmonica is now the world’s best-selling instrument.  You’re welcome.” — Bob Dylan, 1964

257a93422d1929d3302748dfe0376924Over in England, a Liverpudlian named John Lennon took notice of the harmonica, particular the way Dylan used it.  Prior to The Beatles’ arrival on American shores, the band’s debut single on the British charts was “Love Me Do,” which put Lennon’s harmonica front and center.  And the band’s next hit single, the #1 “Please Please Me,” also featured the harmonica in key moments of the arrangement.  In the 1964 smash film “A Hard Day’s Night,” Lennon’s mouth harp completely dominates the recording of “I Should Have Known Better.”  Later, on his solo albums, Lennon occasionally added a harmonica lick here and there (“Oh Yoko” on the “Imagine” LP).

Musical-Genius-stevie-wonder-36838745-389-394In Detroit, a blind child prodigy named Stevland Morris had wowed the key people at Motown Records, who dubbed the 12-year-old “Little Stevie Wonder” because of his multiple talents.  Said Wonder many years later, “I never imagined I’d ever meet (Motown chief) Berry Gordy.  When I did, he told me, ‘You know, your singing’s okay, but I like your harmonica playing better.’”  Sure enough, his first appearance on the charts in 1963, an amazing live performance called “Fingertips,” was a tour-de-force that stressed his harmonica abilities over his vocals.

Stevie-WonderIn fact, it was only the tip of the iceberg, as Stevie Wonder emerged as one of the finest harmonica players of his age, from his ’60s hits like “I Was Made to Love Her” and “For Once in My Life” to ’70s staples like “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Too High,” “That Girl” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman.”  Just as important were his many guest harmonica solos on the recordings of others, like James Taylor’s “Don’t Be Sad ‘Cause Your Sun is Down” (1976), Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (1982), The Eurythmics’ “There Must Be an Angel” (1985) and Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For” (1991).

In the rock music world, the harmonica has been a celebrated component of some of the genre’s biggest names:


Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass player and lead vocalist, was also a virtuoso on harmonica, as heard on the 7-minute live recording “Traintime” from their #1 LP “Wheels of Fire.”

Steve Miller plays a mean harp on such vintage tracks as 1968’s “Living in the U.S.A.”

On The Doors’ blues stomper, “Roadhouse Blues,” that’s The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian chipping in with a great harp solo.

Mick Jagger offers some mean licks on “Midnight Rambler,” the great Rolling Stones track from 1969’s “Let It Bleed” (as well as the live “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out” LP).  The Stones also invited the great blues harps man Sugar Blue to contribute to monster hits like “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue.”

Robert Plant belts out some earthy blues harp on early 1969 Led Zeppelin songs like “I Can’t Quit You Babe” and “Bring It On Home,” as well as on the seismic 1971 track, “When the Levee Breaks.”

Ozzy Osbourne shows his harmonica chops on Black Sabbath’s debut LP on the heavy metal classic “The Wizard.”


John Mayall

The aforementioned John Mayall must be singled out for his incredible mouth harp work on the 1969 song “Room to Move,” the most well-known of dozens of harmonica-laden songs in his voluminous catalog.

Allan Clarke, co-founder and lead vocalist of The Hollies, also played harmonica, which was featured most famously on their Top Ten hit, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz of J. Geils Band is widely praised as a ferocious mouth harp player, and you can hear him wailing away on studio and live versions of tracks like “Lookin’ for a Love,” “Homework” and especially “Whammer Jammer.”

Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers had a way of making a harmonica sound like a locomotive chugging down the tracks, which came in very handy on the group’s 1973 #1 hit “Long Train Runnin’.”


Neil Young

Neil Young‘s early work is full of songs that feature his aw-shucks brand of harmonica, from the #1 hit “Heart of Gold” and CSN&Y’s “Helpless” to deep tracks like “Out on the Weekend” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”

Billy Joel won his claim to fame as the Piano Man, but on that same 1973 song, it was Joel himself who provided the telltale harmonica part that helped catapult the song to legendary status among ’70s anthems.



Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen added harmonica parts to his songs as early as on his 1973 debut album (“Mary Queen of Arkansas”) and his classic “Born to Run” (the intro to Thunder Road”).  Later, harmonica was critical to his arrangements for the title track on “The River” and throughout his spared-down LPs like “Nebraska” (1982) and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995).


kim wilson

Kim Wilson

Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds is still among the Top 20 harmonica players mentioned when such lists are compiled.  Check out his playing on such tunes as “I Don’t Care” and “Look at That, Look at That” from the group’s 1986 album “Tuff Enuff.”

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith surprised many when he contributed harmonica to the excellent song “Cryin'” from the group’s 1993 LP “Get a Grip.”

John Popper of Blues Traveler emerged as one of the top harmonica players of the ’90s, especially on incredible tunes like “Run-around” and “Hook” from their Top Ten LP “four” (1994).

Tom Petty added the harmonica parts to his song “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on the 1994 “Wildflowers” album.


Because harmonicas are inexpensive and portable, many people without much musical talent have picked them up and tried to play them without success.  (Perhaps you have a friend or family member who has done this!)  Their lame results have caused the harmonica to suffer some undeserved belittlement as a serious musical instrument, lumping it in with the kazoo and the recorder.  This is unfair…but it has sparked humorous cartoons like the ones below:



And then there are one-liners like:  “I play the harmonica…but the only way I can play is if I get my car going really fast, and stick it out the window.” — Comedian Steven Wright


A little-known fact about the harmonica is its healthcare benefits.  Because of the sucking and blowing of air required to make it work properly, the harmonica has been used in pulmonary rehabilitation programs to help patients regain lung capacity.  How many instruments can make that kind of claim?

Let us conclude by praising Tom T. Hall, award-winning country singer-songwriter, who in 1983 came up with “The Harmonica Man,” which told the story of an old man who longed for, bought, and eventually died holding a harmonica he’d seen in a storefront window:  “An old man stood and stared into the music store window, and he saw a sorta harmonica lyin’ there in the sun, he thought of the music the harp could be playing, he closed his old eyes and he started to hum… Well, he bought the harmonica and he took it on home, with his youth all behind him and livin’ alone, he soon learned to play it as pure and as cool as any great master musician could do…”



Take a sad song and make it better

Is there anything left to be said about The Beatles that hasn’t been said?

Well, maybe.

revolver_902_426_81_sThere have been hundreds, maybe a thousand or more books written about the Fab Four.  Some of them date back to the Sixties when the group was still together, while others were published as recently as 2017.  There are authorized (and unauthorized) biographies, detailed rundowns of their recorded works,  lurid exposés of their sex-and-drugs stories, “meanings behind the lyrics” discussions, tell-alls by ex-spouses, even coffee-table books with nothing but photos.  Being a huge Beatles fan, I happen to own a couple dozen of these myself.

So is there anything left?  Is there any new light that can possibly be shed on these guys and their music?

Amazingly, yes, but not in a new book.

The fascinating new information comes this time in video (DVD) form — a revealing series called “Deconstructing the Beatles,” which successfully breaks down specific Beatles recordings to their individual components in order to show how they were assembled, how they were accomplished, how they became the songs we have known and loved for all these years.

Beatle_4-cover_artwork_530x@2xTruth be told, these are essentially just glorified “TED Talks” — videos of lecture presentations before auditoriums full of like-minded folks who share the same love for The Beatles’ classic recordings.  I can’t deny that these talks occasionally made me roll my eyes just like some of those lame-o multimedia lectures we were all subjected to back in high school.

But damn, the “Deconstructing the Beatles” tapes are full of such fascinating information that I’m willing to overlook the less-than-excellent production quality.  Even for a Beatles aficionado like me, I was thrilled to find out many new tidbits I hadn’t known before.

The guy behind all this is an undeniably nerdy fellow named Scott Freiman, a curious combination of entrepreneur, scholar, composer, producer and Beatles enthusiast.  Here’s how he explains his motivation for this project:  “I like to take apart the creative process.  Isolating the tracks of the original recordings allows people to understand what The Beatles accomplished in the studio, and appreciate the music even more than they could just listening to it.”

So far, Freiman has “deconstructed” four of The Beatles’ 13 original studio albums.  He wisely began his efforts with what many would call the group’s best, most intriguing LPs — “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The Beatles (The White Album).”

1476049511599In each album’s deconstruction, he begins his talks with a 10-question quiz, just for fun,  to gauge the audience’s knowledge of that album’s songs.  He then provides historical perspective about the climate and conditions in which the album was created.

For example, we learn that “Rubber Soul” — a superlative collection of songs that exponentially advanced the band’s musical development — was recorded during an impossibly demanding 30-day window in late 1965, between the end of several months of live appearances and a firm date by which the lacquered mixes had to be delivered in time for the Christmas shopping season.

How utterly amazing that The Beatles walked into Abbey Road studios on October 12th of that year with only a couple of rough song fragments, and then exited on November 13th with 16 extraordinary recordings (14 album tracks and a two-sided single) that not only rocketed to #1 on the charts but earned widespread praise for their sophisticated growth in musical ideas and lyrical content.

On the other hand, “The White Album” was laid down in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the world was rocked by assassinations and upheaval, and the band’s vibe was one of increasing tension and estrangement.  No wonder at least one third of the songs on that album were essentially solo tracks rather than band recordings.

What “Deconstructing the Beatles” gives us, most of all, is an audio-visual breakdown of individual song tracks so that we can hear vocals (lead and harmonies) without instruments.  Or we can hear just the inventive bass part, or just the drum flourishes, or just the harmonium or organ, to learn how or why those individual parts made such an important contribution to the track’s final result.

On the “Rubber Soul” DVD, we are reminded how large a role the tambourine played in Beatles recordings in 1965.  And we learn how a bouzouki (a Greek stringed instrument) was the source of the unique sound heard on “Girl,” and how George Harrison’s attempts at sitar parts on “Norwegian Wood” were noticeably lame on the first few takes.  Perhaps most remarkably, we are shown how the harpsichord solo in the middle of “In My Life” was, in fact, not a harpsichord at all but a piano played at a slower tempo and then sped up on the recording to sound like a harpsichord.

We learn that, as the band convened in the spring of 1966 to begin work on “Revolver,” the studio very quickly became a workshop where new ideas, new sounds, new methods were explored and employed in the making of the game-changing tracks found on that album.  These days, technology allows bands to get any sound they want through the use of synthesizers and similar devices, but in 1966, they had to come up with imaginative ways to achieve the sounds they heard in their heads.

2017-06-07_DeconstructRevolver_BThrough the isolation of tracks on the recording of “Yellow Submarine,” Freiman explains how chains pulled through shallow water made the sound of waves, and how various noisemakers from the Abbey Road sound effects cupboard were used to produce the sounds approximating the noisy underwater chamber of a submarine.

By isolating the background vocal tracks of “Paperback Writer,” Freiman reveals that at one point, George Harrison and John Lennon are actually singing “Frere Jacques” behind Paul McCartney’s lead vocals.   Freiman also shows us how the basic structure of McCartney’s Motown tribute “Got to Get You Into My Life” borrows heavily from Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” which was a big hit at that time.

By the time we scrutinize the songs of “Sgt. Pepper,” we are treated to a fascinating look-see into how the sounds behind those tracks were devised.  Freiman shows us how a tamboura and a Lowery organ gave us the effects behind “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, and how harmoniums and snippets of calliope recordings were mixed together to create the circus-like sounds of “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”

Just as important to Freiman’s storytelling is the inclusion of little-known tidbits about the back stories behind the Beatles songs.  For instance, the inspiration for “She’s Leaving Home,” which tells the tale of a girl from an upper-class background who flees her parents to test the waters of a hippie lifestyle, is an actual British runaway to whom Paul once awarded a prize on British TV’s “Ready Steady Go” program back in 1963.  Similarly, we learn that the Prudence in “Dear Prudence” is actually Mia Farrow’s sister, who squirreled herself away in her cabin at the Mahareshi’s India retreat and needed to be cajoled to “come out to play.”

Freiman isolates the song tracks to show us how toilet paper and combs were used to create sounds on “Lovely Rita,” or why Lennon was so eager to have his vocals altered on “Tomorrow Never Knows.”   Freiman also features a previously unheard demo tape to show how Lennon used the inspiration of a breakfast cereal commercial to come up with “Good Morning Good Morning.”  He gives us insight into how Lennon directed the use of various animal sounds to create the fade-out to the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise track.

Perhaps most insightfully, Freiman explains how the wondrous “A Day in the Life” track was constructed, allowing us the chance to hear isolated orchestral instruments as they built toward the mind-blowing crescendo.

So many interesting stories here.  I’ll bet you didn’t know that the edgy sound you hear on “Yer Blues” was achieved by the band cramming into a ridiculously small studio room to record it.  And I’ll wager it’s news to you that the Beatles made a 30-minute, slow-paced heavy-metal take on “Helter Skelter” that preceded the frenetic faster-paced recording we hear on “The White Album.”

And did you know that The Beatles recorded more than 100 takes of a Harrison song called “Not Guilty,” and then ended up cutting it from “The White Album”?  (It eventually appeared a decade later on a Harrison solo LP.)

And who knew that McCartney played lead guitar parts on several Beatles tracks — “Taxman,” “Back in the USSR” and “Sgt. Pepper,” to name just a few — because Harrison was either not available or couldn’t adequately perform what was required?

deconstructing-5Here’s my favorite new factoid of the entire project:  When Lennon and McCartney were working on “A Day in the Life,” and were searching for some way to connect McCartney’s “Woke up, fell out of bed” fragment back into Lennon’s main “I read the news today, oh boy” part, they used the chord sequence they’d just heard in Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “Hey Joe” (F-C-G-D-A).  Fantastic.

Freiman has indicated that his next “deconstructing” project will address The Beatles’ final studio LP, “Abbey Road,” and I eagerly anticipate his exploration of how that incredible “Side Two” medley was assembled.

He hasn’t yet mentioned any plans to deconstruct the group’s first five albums (“Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Beatles For Sale” and “Help!”), probably because those recordings were far more simple in arrangement and production, and lacking in studio trickery.  Consequently, there’s very little “deconstructing” there to be done.

But it sure has been fun to get this behind-the-scenes look at how our favorite Beatles tracks were made.

The Spotify list below draws from “The Beatles Anthology” series of CD sets released in 1995-1996, which offer “first drafts,” alternate takes and previously unreleased fragments culled from the recording process of those classic Beatles songs.  Enjoy!