Top 11 Songs with Memorable Harmonica Parts

Frank MastropoloCategories:Top 11

Rock Cellar Magazine

“I play the harmonica. The only way I can play is if I get my car going really fast, and stick it out the window.”

—Steven Wright

  1. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” by Elton John

Elton John and Davey Johnstone composed the music for “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”; Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics about his wife at the time, Toni Russo. “I wrote this in Montserrat, an island that, tragically, no longer exists,” Taupin noted in Songfacts.”Basically, it’s a letter home with a small tip included about making the most of time, not wishing it away just because you can’t be with the one you love. Time is precious; read books, paint a picture, bake a cake. Just don’t wallow, don’t be content.”

The song was a No. 4 hit in 1983. Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on the track, one of a number of times he has collaborated with John. “That was the run-through, by the way,” John told Billboard.

“Even though ‘I’m Still Standing’ was kind of an anthem,” John said in Rolling Stone, “‘Blues’ is the one for me because it’s just a great song to sing. It’s timeless.”

  1. “Join Together” by The Who

Pete Townshend wrote “Join Together” as part of his Lighthouse rock opera. When the project was abandoned, “Join Together” was released as a non-album single by the Who in 1972 and reached No. 17 on the Billboard chart. Townshend told Melody Maker he thought the track was “incredible,” and was surprised that it didn’t chart higher.

Townshend plays a chord harmonica and a bass harmonica on the track; John Entwistle played the bass harmonica in concert. Townshend also added an ARP synthesizer, which left Roger Daltrey skeptical.

“I remember when Pete came up with ‘Join Together,’ he literally wrote it the night before we recorded it,” Daltrey told Uncut. “I quite like it as a single, it’s got a good energy to it. But at that time I was still very doubtful about bringing in the synthesizer.

“I just felt that with a lot of songs we’d end up spending so much time creating these piddly, one-note noises that it would’ve been better just doing it on a guitar. I mean, I’m a guitar man. I love the guitar; to me it’s the perfect rock instrument. I don’t think Pete did much with those sequencing things that he couldn’t have done on the guitar anyway.”

  1. “What I Like About You” by the Romantics

When “What I Like About You” was released in late 1979, it only reached a disappointing No. 49 on the Billboard chart. The song become a rock anthem after it was featured in Budweiser commercials in the late-1980s.

“What I Like About You” featured lead vocals by drummer Jimmy Marinos and was written by Marinos, guitarist Mike Skill, and Wally Palmar, who played the harmonica solo. “I came up with ‘What I Like About You’ quick,” Skill recalled in Classic Bands.

“‘What I Like About You’ is three or four simple chords we could bash out and put melodies to. The trick is to get a good melody to it and a good chorus with a good beat behind it.

“I had this thing that I came up with in my backyard, the three chords, the verse, and then I got to the studio, a rehearsal studio which was just me and Jimmy there. He played it, got a beat to it and was already coming up with some kind of little melody, like the verse. The other guys came in and we started formulating a little bit. It was still raw, and over time, probably the next few weeks, I came up with the hook.”

  1. “Take the Long Way Home” by Supertramp

“Take the Long Way Home” was written by Supertramp‘s Roger Hodgson. The song, from 1979’s Breakfast in America, was a Top 10 hit. Rick Davies played harmonica, Hammond organ and synthesizers on the track.

“I think I wrote that during, or right before we went into the studio to record the album,” Hodgson told Acoustic Storm. “It was a last-minute surprise for me.

“‘Take the Long Way Home’ for me is home on two levels. I mean, I’m talking about not wanting to go home to the wife, take the long way home to the wife because she treats you like part of the furniture, but there’s a deeper level to the song, too. I really believe we all want to find our home, find that place in us where we feel at home, and to me, home is in the heart and that is really, when we are in touch with our heart and we’re living our life from our heart, then we do feel like we found our home.”

  1. “On the Road Again” by Canned Heat

“On the Road Again” was the breakthrough single for Canned Heat from 1968’s Boogie With Canned Heat. Alan Wilson sang the falsetto lead vocals and multi-tracked harmonica, tamboura, and guitar — a situation that he opposed at first. “I find it difficult to argue against a system that allows one person to appear five or six times on a record if necessary,” Wilson told Down Beat. “At first I had philosophical objection to playing harmonica at the same time I was singing, because that seemed unreal, but I was prevailed upon to try it and it certainly did come out better.”

The song’s lyrics were adapted from earlier blues songs that included 1953’s “On the Road Again” by Floyd Jones. “One thing that was very important was that we put blues-oriented music in the ears of white audiences by having hit records worldwide, like ‘On The Road Again’ and ‘Goin’ Up The Country,’ drummer Fito de la Parra asserted in Goldmine. “Those were two undeniable country-blues songs, and we put them in the Top 10, so we made white audiences aware of it.”

“On the Road Again” by Canned Heat

“On the Road Again” by Floyd Jones

  1. “Long Train Runnin'” by the Doobie Brothers

“Long Train Runnin'” was a No. 8 single from the Doobie Brothers‘ 1973 album The Captain and Me. The track was written by Tom Johnston, who played guitar and harmonica. Johnston told Ticketmaster that producer Ted Templeman convinced him to write the song.

“‘Long Train’ was a jam. It wasn’t a song. We were playing it before we even ever got signed to Warner, and it had no lyrics. We would play it and I would make up whatever words every night, and it would change all the time. And then in 1973 when we were doing Captain and Me, Ted said, ‘You know, you ought to make that a song.’ And I said, ‘Really? It’s just a jam.’ He said, ‘It kind of reminds me of a train. Why don’t you write something about a train?’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea,’ so I went into the other room, sat down and wrote those lyrics, and then played the harp solo on it, and all of a sudden it became a song.”

  1. “Daydream” by the Lovin’ Spoonful

John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote, played harmonica and whistled on “Daydream.” Sebastian, notes Songfacts, wrote “Daydream” with a nod towards the success of “Baby Love” by the Supremes.

“We had no way of knowing what a nice long shelf life some of that material was gonna have. At the time, we were certainly aiming only for the next few months. That’s really what we were trying for, a Top 10 record right now, right then. Everything else is unexpected.” The formula obviously worked. Released in 1966, “Daydream” was a No. 2 hit.

“Daydream” is said to have influenced the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.” On the Get Back sessions, John Lennon and George Harrison are heard riffing on “Daydream.” “I love it. I love it!,” Sebastian told Transatlantic Modern. “I had to wait 15 years for a compliment like that, but it was just so much fun. And yes, Paul has copped to ‘Good Day Sunshine’ being totally a case of, ‘What do I do after I hear the Spoonful?’ It’s been a long enough time now that some of the effects we had are no longer hidden.”

  1. “Midnight Rambler” by the Rolling Stones

“Midnight Rambler,” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, was loosely based on the crimes of Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to being the Boston Strangler. Richards played all the guitars on the track; Jagger performed vocals and played harmonica. “Midnight Rambler” was included on the Stones’ 1969 LP Let It Bleed.

“That’s a song Keith and I really wrote together,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. “We were on a holiday in Italy. In this very beautiful hill town, Positano, for a few nights. Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don’t know. We wrote everything there — the tempo changes, everything. And I’m playing the harmonica in these little cafes, and there’s Keith with the guitar.”

“Usually when you write, you just kick Mick off on something and let him fly on it,” Richards said in Rolling Stone in 1971. “Just let it roll out and listen to it and start to pick up on certain words that are coming through, and it’s built up on that. A lot of people still complain they can’t hear the voice properly. If the words come through it’s fine, if they don’t, that’s all right too, because anyway that can mean a thousand different things to anybody.”

  1. “Love Me Do” by the Beatles

“Love Me Do,” released in Oct. 1962 in the UK, was the Beatles‘ first record and marked their shift from performing cover songs. John Lennon and Paul McCartney harmonized on the chorus, McCartney sang lead vocals and Lennon played guitar and harmonica.

“Introducing our own numbers started round Liverpool and Hamburg,” Lennon recalled in Anthology. “‘Love Me Do,’ one of the first ones we wrote, Paul started when he must have been about 15. It was the first one we dared to do of our own. This was quite a traumatic thing because we were doing such great numbers of other people’s, of Ray Charles and [Little] Richard and all of them. It was quite hard to come in singing ‘Love Me Do.’ We thought our numbers were a bit wet. But we gradually broke that down and decided to try them.”

Lennon originally performed lead vocals but producer George Martin decided his harmonica playing interfered and switched the lead to McCartney. “George Martin said, ‘Can anyone play harmonica? It would be rather nice. Couldn’t think of some sort of bluesy thing, could you, John?’ McCartney recalled in Many Years From Now.

“John played a chromatic harmonica, not a Sonny Boy Williamson blues harmonica … The lyrics crossed over the harmonica solo so I suddenly got thrown the big open line, ‘Love me do,’ where everything stopped. Until that session John had always done it; I didn’t even know how to sing it. I’d never done it before. George Martin just said, ‘You take that line, John take the harmonica, you cross over, we’ll do it live.’

“I can still hear the nervousness in my voice! We were downstairs in number two studio and I remember looking up to the big window afterwards and George Martin was saying, ‘Jolly good.'”

  1. “Low Rider” by War

“Low Rider” was inspired by Southern California’s cars equipped with hydraulic lifts that lower each wheel and make the car bounce. Some of the members of War were part of the low rider culture before forming the group. The tune was a No. 7 hit in 1975.

Lee Oskar, a founding member of the funk rock band, played the harmonica riffs. “So the formula was: I was the melody maker, I’m the hook,” Oskar explained in The Stranger.

“So when you’ve got hook lines that come through the melodies, and you’ve got the lyrics — basically, a lot of times, the lyrics started with an idea when we were jamming, and then after we’d jam, then we got these incredible jams tracked — then, the other guys go in and say, ‘okay,’ and write some lyrics, or embellish on the lyrics, like sang while we were jamming, and then they become the song with the melodies and the hook lines that I created, so basically that’s how that worked.”

  1. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty played guitar and harmonica on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a number 14 hit in 1993. “That song took on a few shapes,” guitarist Mike Campbell told Songfacts. “It was written in my garage. I didn’t write it, but we were jamming in the garage and Tom was playing one of my guitars. It was called ‘Indiana Girl.’ The first chorus was ‘Hey, Indiana Girl, go out and find the world.’

“It had actually been around for a while, just the basic riff and that chorus. We cut the song and he was singing the chorus, and he decided he just couldn’t get behind singing about ‘Hey, Indiana Girl,’ so we went back and about a week later he came in and said, ‘I’ve got a better idea,’ so he changed the chorus to ‘Last dance with Mary Jane.’ In the verse there is still the thing about an Indiana girl on an Indiana night, just when it gets to the chorus he had the presence of mind to give it a deeper meaning.”

“I really struggled with the words right up to the last minute,” Petty recalled in the book Conversations With Tom Petty. “I was actually doing the vocal, and I was still sitting there, going, ‘No, wait,’ and then I’d sit down and write, and kept polishing. To where I was almost confused, by the time I was finished, and hoping it was right.”

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