In some people’s eyes, the harmonica might be a support instrument, something that is there to fill a gap. But that would hardly be true. It has been at the forefront of some great music for more years than we may realize. The harmonica goes back to the Blues days and is still being used today.
The difficulty with finding the most popular harmonica songs is not in finding them, but in deciding which ones to leave out. And, on my list, there will be some great songs with harmonica I have had to omit.
- More People Should Play
- Crossing Genre Boundaries
- Top 15 Popular Harmonica Songs
- My Babe by Little Walter
- Love Me Do by The Beatles
- Heart Of Gold by Neil Young
- On The Road Again by Willie Nelson
- Roadhouse Blues by Status Quo
- Whoopin’ the Blues by Sonny Terry
- Parchman Farm by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers
- Hey! Baby by Bruce Channel
- Not Fade Away by The Rolling Stones
- When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin
- For Once In My Life by Stevie Wonder
- Long Train Runnin’ by The Doobie Brothers
- Take The Long Way Home by Supertramp
- The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan
- Genevieve by Larry Adler
- Interested in the Harmonica?
- Popular Harmonica Songs – Final Thoughts
More People Should Play
When young people, or their parents, think about learning an instrument, then it is most likely going to be the piano, guitar, or violin. I don’t suppose many would immediately think of the harmonica. Yet, it has produced some memorable moments in music.
And it is capable of making plenty of sounds once you have learned to play it. As we shall see from my list, it can be happy, sad, uplifting, joyous, and even tragic. It can be the support instrument, providing counter melodies. Or, it can take the lead role and play the melody.
Crossing Genre Boundaries
It is one of the few instruments that seems to cross genre boundaries with ease. You will hear it in Blues, Country, and Bluegrass. And you will hear it in Rock and Pop music and film scores. You really can’t escape it.
On this list, there will be a range of styles and genres where the harmonica has made a difference. And at the end, one that you might not be familiar with. Let’s get started by jumping in the DeLorean and going back in time to…
Top 15 Popular Harmonica Songs
My Babe by Little Walter
This is what they called at the time “Chicago Blues.” The song was written for Little Walter by bluesman Willie Dixon. It became the #1 R&B single in 1955 and was one of the biggest successes either of them had.
Willie Dixon based the song on an old gospel tune recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe called “This Train.”
It is a classic Blues song that shows off his very recognizable voice and some decent Blues harmonica. If you like your Blues simple and traditional, then you will love this. The walking bass line, played on double bass by Willie Dixon, and the basic drums demonstrate how it should be done.
Love Me Do by The Beatles
From the 50s to the 60s, and the song that started a change in music that was never seen before or since. It was a simple enough pop song that featured John on harmonica, but you could say “modern music” began here in October 1962. It reached #17 in the UK chart.
“Love Me Do” as a song won’t be remembered for very much more than that it was The Beatles’ first. The musical and lyrical content of the song was basic and gave us no idea of the genius to come.
It is a song from a boy to a girl asking her to love him. Nothing special, and at the time, quite normal. But 1962 was a normal year, and whilst we saw some new faces, the old brigade still dominated with their ballads and instrumentals.
I was young at the time…
But, of course, I remember “Love Me Do.” However, the song I remembered most from that year was “The Locomotion” by Little Eva. I digress; we are supposed to be talking about “Love Me Do.”
The song, of course, started with the harmonica, which made a big impact and was present just about all the way through, including the solo.
It was all very basic harmonica technique and not overly special when compared with the best players. So, why choose the harmonica for these parts? Because of the sound of the harmonica. It is pleasing to the ear and just fits the song and the time.
Heart Of Gold by Neil Young
From the 50s to the 60s and now into the 70s. This is a classic harmonica song from one of the great exponents of utilizing the harmonica in his music. It has always been one of Neil Young’s most popular songs and is taken from his excellent 1971 album, Harvest.
The song is a reminder…
Sometimes, good things can come out of bad experiences. Young was laid up after a severe back injury when he wrote this. He chose to write and record acoustically for his next album because he knew he wouldn’t be able to carry an electric guitar for a while.
The result was the album Harvest and songs like this. The harmonica takes a leading role in this song, almost sounding, at times, like the sort of thing that Bob Dylan might play.
It is in songs like this that you hear another side of this great instrument. It almost cries at you with a sound that seems to be heart-wrenching. Very few instruments without dozens of effects pedals can achieve that. But, in the right hands and the right song, the harmonica can.
On The Road Again by Willie Nelson
I am not a great Country music fan by any stretch of the imagination. Some, like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, I do enjoy. Others, like Faith Hill and Shania Twain, I don’t count as Country artists.
But Willie Nelson is different. There is something about him and how he sings a song. Perhaps it is his rebellious streak. This is pure Country music, but he seems to take it to another place. It is very much a great song with the harmonica for driving that long journey.
Roadhouse Blues by Status Quo
I suppose you could say this song and the band were a match made in heaven. It was included in their album, Piledriver. It was written by The Doors, who also produced a very good version of it. But, it didn’t quite have the power that Status Quo could generate with this sort of song.
This was the song that turned Status Quo from a Psychedelic Pop group into the hard-rocking band we all know. Pictures of Matchstick Men was confined to history after they heard The Doors’ version in 1970.
The group that only knows three chords is how they are sometimes described. That might be an exaggeration, but if it was true, they play those three chords better than anyone else.
It has a pounding uptempo Blues beat. And, depending on which version you hear, the harmonica plays a typically prominent part in the breaks.
A Message In The Lyrics?
Jim Morrison’s lyrics make a few cryptic comments. When The Doors were recording it, they had to do so many takes because he was so drunk he could hardly sing the words. He sings in the song that you cannot control life; you just carry on.
Not sure I wholly agree with that. Sometimes, the way we live our lives has an impact on the quality of it. A good example of this is Morrison himself, who died of heart failure after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
Lines at the end might well be prophetic, “The Future is uncertain – The End is always near.” Unusual lyrics for one of the most popular harmonica songs like this as it drives along.
Whoopin’ the Blues by Sonny Terry
This is an upbeat 1984 Blues track with Sonny Terry’s traditional vocals and some outstanding blues harmonica. The guitar parts are also interesting and played in the Piedmont Southeastern Blues style.
The Piedmont style of fingerpicking alternates the thumb and fingers in a defined pattern. This creates a very distinctive rhythm.
He had some interesting help with the song…
Sonny wrote it with a little help from Willie Dixon, who also played bass. And there was a guest appearance from Johnny Winter on guitar.
This is one of those performances that Sonny Terry was well-known for. Sounds like someone has let him loose for the day, and he is making the most of it.
Parchman Farm by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers
Staying with the Blues but crossing the pond to the UK. John Mayall was one of those musicians who liked to have new players around him.
He once said that he feeds off their energy, and it always surprised him how much he learned from them. He introduced a lot of musicians to situations where they could better themselves.
This is a typical John Mayall Blues track. Quite frantic in some ways and with some great harmonica work. It was released in 1966 from the album Blues Breakers.
Hey! Baby by Bruce Channel
Let’s take a change of pace now with a song that was popular and definitely a sound of the 60s. Released in 1962, it was a big hit, in the UK reaching #2, and #1 in America.
It has a simple and very familiar chord pattern of C, A-minor, F, and G, playing underneath the harmonica. Furthermore, it is the harmonica, played by Delbert McClinton, that sets the song apart with its distinctive sound.
The song was written by Channel with Margaret Cobb. It was featured in the film “Dirty Dancing.”
Not Fade Away by The Rolling Stones
It could be argued that this was the song that established The Rolling Stones. It was a stand-out track, not because of Jagger’s vocals or Richard’s guitar, but because of Brian Jones.
He played the harmonica track that made this song something special and brought it and him, the attention they deserved. In turn, it became one of the most popular harmonica songs.
Released in 1964…
It was a success in the UK, reaching #3 but not so much in America, where it peaked at #48. The song was written by Buddy Holly under the name of Charles Hardin, with a little input from Norman Petty.
It was originally released in 1957 as the B-side to “Oh Boy” and was included on the album, Chirping Crickets. The rhythm is a play on Bo Diddley, but with a little added impetus and with Jagger using maracas to good effect. However, it is the harmonica that people remember.
When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin
This is a track remembered for two things. Firstly, John Bonham’s huge drum sound, which he created in a stairwell at Headley Grange studios in Hampshire. And secondly, the wailing harmonica played by Robert Plant.
The song was taken from the original by Memphis Minnie. She wrote the song about the floods in Mississippi in 1927. Despite the inherent and obvious dangers, workers were forced at gunpoint to carry on working. Nice.
The drums are relentless throughout, but the harmonica adds plenty and makes this one of the most powerful tracks on that fourth album. As a result, it remains a very famous harmonica song in Rock music history.
For Once In My Life by Stevie Wonder
Let’s lighten the mood now with this memorable harmonica song from Stevie Wonder. This is one of those songs that has the “feel-good” factor. It was written by Orlando Murden and Ron Miller and was originally a much slower ballad. Tony Bennett released it first in 1967.
Wonders’ Version Was Delayed By…?
No less than Berry Gordy. It seems there are plenty of these “record label bosses” who, at times, wouldn’t know a hit record if it ran them over. There have been quite a few. He was finally “persuaded,” and it came out in 1968.
It went to #3 in the UK and #2 in America. A great track made even better by the harmonica, which seems to bring joy and happiness to the sound. Another way this great instrument can work.
Long Train Runnin’ by The Doobie Brothers
In my opinion, one of the best bands of the 70s. And their album, The Captain and Me, is one of the best albums of a great decade.
Fantastic percussion, Tiran Porter’s great bass lines, and some “Doobie harmonies” make this something very special. But “something special” goes to “something great” with the appearance of that harmonica solo in the middle break.
It was released in 1973 as a single in America, where it reached #8. Finally, it was released as a single in the UK in 1993 and reached #7. The harmonica seems to appear out of nowhere when you first hear it. The second time you can’t wait to get to that part again.
Take The Long Way Home by Supertramp
London-based Supertramp can only be described as a very underrated band. Their albums in the 70s and 80s were always excellent, creative, and different. This track was taken from their 1979 album, Breakfast In America. It reached #10 in America but wasn’t released as a single in the UK.
They were one of those bands that had good melodies, clever arrangements, and very meaningful lyrics. But they usually gave a few surprises as well.
This track had one…
The song starts slowly, and you are waiting for something to happen. Then comes that mournful harmonica sound that sets the tone of the song.
It is one of those songs you come across where you don’t need too much of an instrumental introduction. You know almost immediately what it is.
The song talks about a man who doesn’t want to go home because his wife thinks he is “part of the furniture.” What it is saying is that our home is where we are most happy.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan
The word “genius” is bandied around these days when a better word might be “good” or even “alright.” But, in case you have lost track of a musician-cum-poet who was a genius, here’s one.
This is one of the most well known songs with a harmonica. And one that changed a generation. And remember, he was in his twenties when he wrote it. That makes it even more incredulous. The song was taken from the album of the same name.
There were a dozen songs I could have picked featuring Bob and his spluttering harmonica almost strapped to his face.
But, I have chosen this…
The harmonica parts fitted neatly in between verses, perhaps to give you time to take in what he had just said. Many tried this style, but no one else got close.
The harmonica is used in a way that is not just as a support instrument. But as a fundamentally important part of the structure of the song.
Genevieve by Larry Adler
“What?” some may ask. This was taken from the film of the same name about a 1950s London to Brighton trip for vintage cars. The ‘trip’ turned into a race, which was strictly forbidden, between the two of them, one a car named Genevieve.
Why have I finished the list with this?
Because it shows the harmonica in all its glory, creating an atmosphere. And, played in the hands of someone who was a master at the techniques required, Larry Adler.
Interested in the Harmonica?
Also, if you want more music that often includes harmonicas, have a look at our detailed articles on the Best Bluegrass Songs, the Top Fingerpicking Songs, the Best Banjo Songs of All Time, and the Best Country Love Songs for more great song selections.
Of course, you need to hear them. So, don’t miss our comprehensive reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Best iPhone Earbuds, and the Best Sound Quality Earbuds currently on the market.
Popular Harmonica Songs – Final Thoughts
A sound for all seasons. That is how the harmonica could be described. It gives so much to just about every song where it is used. From the hardest rocking blues to the gentle and sympathetic film soundtrack, it just seems to work everywhere.
I started by saying that it isn’t an instrument that is considered for a young, or not-so-young starter musician. But maybe after this, you might reconsider.
Here are a few suggestions. For the beginner – Urbane Blues Deluxe Harmonica (Key of C) or Eastar Major Blues Harmonica (Key of C). Or, for those with a bit of experience wanting to upgrade – East Top Diatonic Harmonica (Key of A). Pick one up and start your journey.
Until next time, happy listening, and let your music play.