The Harmonica: Masters of the Mouth Harp
I’ve always marveled at how such big sound can come from a tiny instrument that’s the size of a pocket comb. How do they do it? By “they” I mean the musicians who have mastered the art of bringing the mouth harp to melodious life.
Is there sheet music for the harmonica? How do you hit the right notes without being able to see the keys–or in the case of the harmonica, the holes? How do you direct your breath into each tiny orifice to extract the sounds of this mysterious little music maker?
I think most of us have tried our hand–or mouth–at playing the harmonica when we were kids. Remember the ones you could buy at Woolworth’s? They were red, with little chrome handles at each end. Blow in. Blow out. Drive your parents nuts. Try as we may, the most we might have accomplished was a rough rendition of do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do forwards and backwards. Blow in. Blow out.
I was messing around with the harmonica... but I was 13 before I got a real good note out of it.— Muddy Waters
I won’t go into how a harmonica is made—or its components—in this article. My purpose is to feature artists who have mastered the mystery of this compact wind instrument that is most often heard in blues, folk, country, and rock and roll compositions. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t attempt to find and share the answers to the questions I posed above.
Yes, there is sheet music specifically for the harmonica. It only makes sense, right? As far as how to play the instrument, well let’s just say, it requires some tongue action in addition to controlled breathing. You can learn more about it by visiting harmonica.com.
Ready to hear some great harmonica music? Me, too. Let’s go!
Masters of the Harmonica by Genre
The soulful sounds of the blues often include reed and wind instruments, including the harmonica. Let’s take a look at some of the greats. Feel free to let the music move you. Clear the floor, turn it up and feel the rhythm.
Taj Mahal, born Henry St. Clair Fredericks, fell in love with the blues in the 1960s while furthering his education at the University of Massachusetts. As the offspring of a gospel singing school teacher (his mother), and a West Indian piano playing jazz arranger (his father), music runs through his veins.
Check out this video featuring Taj Mahal and Gregg Allman. If this doesn’t get you moving, I don’t know what will!
Taj Mahal With Gregg Allmann
Big Walter “Shaky” Horton
Big Walter “Shaky” Horton (1917-1981) was probably the greatest harmonica player to hit the stage. He was known to perform entire songs on the harmonica. After moving to Memphis soon after he was born, Horton taught himself how to play the harmonica when he was five years old. Later he would go on to perform on street corners and in local dance clubs. Horton was best known for his Chicago blues style and eventually joined the Muddy Waters band in 1953. Big Walter “Shaky” Horton was known as “Boss of the Blues Harmonica”. Take a listen.
Big Walter "Shaky" Horton
Another Good One by Shaky Horton
Another great blues harmonica player was Paul Butterfield (1942-1987). He grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Initially he learned to play the flute while studying classical music under an accomplished Chicago Symphony flautist. Later Butterfield’s musical interests turned towards blues when he met singer Nick Gravenites. After ditching class in favor of hanging out at the blues clubs, he dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. Elvin Bishop noticed this “white boy” hanging out at blues clubs and a long friendship was born. Bishop and Butterfield joined forces, recruited a bass player and drummer to form The Butterfield Blues Band. In 1972 the group disbanded and Butterfield ventured out on his own. It’s said that Paul Butterfield was integral in turning white music lovers onto the blues. Check out this Woodstock performance:
Paul Butterfield at Woodstock
We can’t look at great harmonica artists without featuring one of my favorites, Bob Dylan. He’s a legend in his own time, whose career has spanned five decades and counting.
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, MN May 24, 1941. He formed several bands during his high school years, performing covers by Little Richard and Elvis. But rock and roll didn’t cut it for him. In his own words, “The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough… there were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”¹
While attending the University of Minnesota in 1959, Zimmerman joined the Dinkeytown folk music circuit, playing coffee houses, where he began introducing himself as Bob Dylan. Strongly influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Bob’s basic belief that he was born to the wrong parents are what led to his name change. His popularity grew in the 1960s as social unrest and anti-war movements pre-occupied America’s boomers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Without further ado, I now bring you Bob Dylan displaying his mastery of the harmonica.
Bob Dylan Live
Arlo Guthrie is synonymous with folk music. Arlo Davy Guthrie was born in Coney Island New York in 1947. Following in the musical footsteps of his father, Woody Guthrie, Arlo is known for his protest songs. One of his best known is “Alice’s Restaurant”, a satirical piece about a young man who gets tangled up with The Law while dumping some trash for Alice on Thanksgiving Day. (Every year a local Orlando radio station plays the 18-minute long song precisely at noon on Thanksgiving Day. I make sure I crank it up while I’m puttering in the kitchen.)
The following video was recorded at the Florida Folk Festival in 2004. Treat yourself to a free concert. Guthrie is another living legend who will undoubtedly be known for generations to come.
Arlo Guthrie at the Florida Folk Festival
Here’s something I found while researching this article. It’s “The House of the Rising Sun”, originally sung by Eric Burden and the Animals, done on harmonica. Take a listen. It’s pretty cool.
Awesome Rendition of "House of the Rising Sun"
Charlie McCoy is touted as “the Godfather of modern bluegrass and country harmonica styles”. He was born in Oak Hill, West Virginia in 1941. McCoy learned to play the guitar and harmonica at the tender age of eight after his family moved to Miami. He added the bass and trumpet to his repertoire in his teen years. Although at the time rock and roll was Charlie’s music of choice, he was coerced by a high school friend into checking out a country barn dance radio show. Little did he know that the friend would arrange for him to sing onstage. The crowd went wild and McCoy got the fever. He was later invited to Nashville by Mel Tillis, but was unable to get signed. He returned to Miami, enrolled in Miami University and majored in musical education. Charlie continued to pursue his musical career but couldn’t really get a solid break. After several years of bouncing from band to band, he received a call from Cadence Records with a signing offer. Then in 1961, Chet Atkins heard one of McCoy’s demo tapes and hired him to play harmonica for Ann Margaret’s “I Just Don’t Understand”. He was beginning to make an impression as a harmonica player and was hired by Monument Records to play backup on Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man”. His talent soon became known in the world of country music where he found a permanent home.
If that wasn’t enough for you, here’s Charlie McCoy and Buddy Greene performing “Harp Playing Fools”, written by McCoy. You’ll enjoy this. It tells the story of how McCoy came to be the star he is today.
This is Amazing
Did you know Clint Black plays the harmonica? If you didn’t, you do now! Clint Black is the youngest in our lineup so far. Clint entered the world by way of Long Branch, New Jersey in February 1962. Before he was a year old, the family moved to his dad’s home state, Texas. Black is another self-taught harmonica player and wrote his first song at age fourteen. Clint and his brothers formed a band and played local venues. He subsequently dropped out of high school in favor of pursuing his dream. Working odd jobs and playing small gigs, Clint ran into guitar player, Hayden Nicholas. They began writing songs together and soon became noticed after sending out their demo of “Nobody’s Home”. It wasn’t long before RCA Nashville snatched Clint up, giving him the start he needed. Today he’s pretty much a household name in the world of country music.
Clint Black on Harmonica
Rock and Roll
The harmonica has a place in just about every musical genre, rock and roll included.
Once a member of the harmonious Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and co-founder of Buffalo Springfield, Neil Percival Young hails from Toronto, Ontario Canada. Although Lynrd Skynrd berates him in “Sweet Home Alabama” (“Southern man don’t need him around any how”), Neil Young is one of the greatest rock and roll songwriters to grace the stage. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. That says something about his music don’t you think? Personally, I’ve always loved his music. In my opinion, Crosby, Stills and Nash weren’t the same band without him. His voice balanced out the harmonies and drove the message home.
Young has enjoyed a successful career despite being afflicted with epilepsy. Many artists’ careers don’t fare as well when they go out on their own, but that’s not true of Neil Young. In fact, (again, my opinion) I think he did better once he went solo. Young’s career spans five decades as a musician/singer/songwriter. He’s also a director, screenwriter, producer, and humanitarian. In 2007 he was the recipient of The Allan Waters Humanitarian Award. He’s active in several charities and is a staunch supporter of children’s causes, the environment, physical challenges (two of his three children have cerebral palsy and one suffers from epilepsy), creative arts, small farmers (can you say Farm Aid?) and more.
Young plays several instruments including the harmonica, guitar, and keyboards. He may be best known for his protest songs of the ‘70s, but his music continues today. Young has battled polio, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty and injustice, a brain aneurysm – and won. His music speaks of the real world. Real people. Real tragedies. And real triumphs. He really does have a heart of gold.
Here he is singing “Heart of Gold” in 1971. It takes him a few minutes to find the right harmonica, but he has fun with the crowd as he searches for it.
Neil Young and "Heart of Gold"
Ozark Mountain Daredevils
Blending Southern rock with a little bit of country and blues, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils gained a following with their foot stompin’ music and energetic performances in the early 1970’s. It would take several rotations of guitarists and keyboard players before founder Randall Chowning felt a cohesive balance had been made. In the early days, the band played for small crowds at the New Bijou Theater in Springfield, Missouri under such names as Family Tree, Burlap Socks and Buffalo Chips. The band was later re-named The Ozark Mountain Daredevils (an abbreviated version of Cosmic Corncob and His Amazing Ozark Mountain Daredevils) by John Dillon, when they learned another band held title to the name Family Tree.
The Ozark Mountain Daredevils eventually signed on with A & M Records and released their first album, “The Ozark Mountain Daredevils” in 1973. By the summer of 1974, “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” hit the charts at number thirty.
Here they are doing it live. Check out the harmonica solo.
Ozark Mountain Daredevils
Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen is a New Jersey native who has earned America’s love through his songs inspired by our country’s working class. And it’s no wonder. Springsteen’s mom was the main breadwinner in his growing years. Although his dad worked odd jobs, he was mostly unemployed; leaving the family’s well-being to Bruce’s mom’s earning power as legal secretary. Bruce was raised Catholic and attended Catholic School in Freehold Borough, where he more often than not bumped heads with the nuns. Despite the conflicts, Springsteen admitted in a 2012 interview that his Catholic upbringing greatly influences the tone of the songs he writes.
The Boss’s dedication to and appreciation of his fans is evident in the three-hour long concerts he gives. His performances are energetic and interactive. Whether performing with the E Street Band or solo, Bruce Springsteen brings the house down with his talent and spirit.
Did you know that in Bruce Springsteen’s early years the harmonica was his second instrument of choice? Still is, really. Watch him in action (notice the cross in his left ear?). What a heartfelt and humble performance!
Bruce Springsteen Giving a Waterfront Acoustical Performance
Do you like harmonica music?
How such a tiny instrument can exude such powerful sound escapes me. But it’s no mystery that the masters of the harmonica bring life to music like no other. From wistful melancholy to joyous laughter, it brings human emotion to the surface of music. To those who bless us with their musical talents, I am ever grateful. To those who move us to unravel the mysteries within ourselves, I welcome their song.
And for the mystical emotions that emanate from the harmonica I am in awe.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2015 Shauna L Bowling