While it’s not all that difficult to play the harmonica—and by “play,” we mean “make it produce a sound“—it’s quite another thing to play the harmonica well.
When you hear a great harmonica player, like any of those listed below, you may likely wonder how what you’re hearing is possible.
The very best players elevate the harmonica beyond its multi-millennia-long history, most of which was spent as a simple reed instrument played by peasants in their spare time.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at the lives and careers of 15 of the most famous harmonica players throughout history. Let’s get started.
1. Stevie Wonder
Born in Michigan, Stevland Hardaway Judkins lost his sight as a newborn.
He had an R&B hit at the top of the charts and a recording contract twelve years later.
He had shown musical ability not long after he could sit up on his own as a baby and went on to win 22 Grammy® Awards over his 50-plus-year career.
The world knew him as a keyboard player (especially during the 1970s when he experimented with and effectively used synthesizers in his wildly popular and critically acclaimed music) and as a singer.
As a multi-instrumentalist, he showed mastery of the harmonica relatively early, as well.
His harmonica lines have become part of popular culture with many people listening to him play without knowing who they’re hearing: Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You,” Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and Sting’s “Brand New Day.”
This is a tiny sampling of his body of harmonica work. He remains an active musician and composer.
2. John Sebastian
Sebastian played harmonica and guitar and sang with The Lovin’ Spoonful in the 1960s.
Before that, though, he earned renown in his hometown of New York City as a harmonica player and was in great demand, which led to him playing with Bob Dylan and many others.
His father was also named John Sebastian and was a classical harmonica player, but the younger Sebastian found himself drawn to blues and folk music.
One of his early musical outings was with a group called The Mugwumps, which, when it split, gave rise to both the Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas and The Papas.
He appeared at both Woodstocks—in 1969 and 1994—playing guitar and singing at the first one as a last-minute fill-in and harmonica with Crosby, Stills, and Nash at the second festival.
He’d been invited to join CSN years earlier but turned them down.
He has authored harmonica method materials, played with Jim Morrison and The Doors, and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
3. John Popper
As the lead singer and harmonica player of Blues Traveler, Popper elevated harmonica playing to new heights when the band scored some Billboard hits.
This allowed millions of people to hear the Ohio native’s virtuosic mastery of the instrument, prompting many to proclaim him the greatest of all time.
He certainly seems to do some inhuman things on the instrument.
He is also a songwriter and has written and performed with a ridiculously long list of big names because he is so good at what he does.
Aside from his harmonica mastery, he was long known for his size, having fought obesity for many years.
He had a motorcycle accident in 1992 that put him in a wheelchair for several months and a heart attack in 1999 that nearly killed him.
He changed his eating habits and lifestyle, had gastric bypass surgery, and lost a large amount of weight.
4. John Lennon
The world first heard Lennon’s harmonica stylings on the Beatles’ early hit “Love Me Do,” playing a riff that pretty much everyone on earth can hum.
As a founding member of the band, he and Paul McCartney would become one of the greatest songwriting duos in the history of humanity.
He had a toy harmonica as a kid and got good enough on it that a bus driver, upon hearing him play, gave the boy a professional-grade instrument out of the lost and found. Lennon continued to play and got quite good at it.
Lennon went on to great success as a solo artist after the Beatles split, writing, singing, playing guitar, and playing harmonica on his albums.
His politics and social justice concerns often overshadowed his musicianship, but he remained an accomplished player for his entire life.
He was murdered by an insane fan outside his home in October of 1980.
5. Big Mama Thornton
If you’ve never heard of Big Mama, you nevertheless know her music, as she was the first person to record “Hound Dog,” which did much more for Elvis Presley’s career than hers.
Born in Alabama to a preacher and a singer, Thornton was exposed to music early through the church.
She found the blues and made that music her home, and she became one of the leading blues harmonica players of all time, often called that without people adding “female” as a qualifier, which is kind of a big deal.
She died of complications of liver and heart disease in 1984.
6. Little Walter
Marion Walter Jacobs was one of those players who changed the way people thought about the instrument he played.
Jimi Hendrix did it with the guitar, but Little Walter did it for the harmonica.
He was so revolutionary on the harp that he remains the only person ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame solely as a harmonica player.
At the age of 12, he had already left his Louisiana home and worked his way north.
He eventually ended up in Chicago, where he quickly made a name for himself as a blues harmonica player.
He became a pioneer in amplifying the instrument. He purposely fooled around with amplifier settings for different sounds and is often credited with being the first musician to use distortion on purpose as a part of his sound.
He lived fast and died young, in his sleep after a bar fight.
7. Bob Dylan
Robert Zimmerman came into the world in Minnesota, first drawn to rock and roll music as a kid and a teenager, but eventually moving to folk music, where he became a legend.
He released his first album in 1962, and while it sold barely 5,000 copies, it was the start of a career that would span generations and influence countless musicians.
The harmonica got him noticed enough to get the deal, allowing him to record that first album.
He played on a folk singer’s album, and producer John Hammond took notice.
He has gone on to be known as much because he regularly sings while accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica as for his songwriting.
But the visual of Dylan playing guitar with a harmonica holder around his neck is an enduring one.
He has an Oscar, ten Grammys®, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom and continues to be a force in popular culture and Western civilization.
8. John Mayall
As the leader of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Mayall played the guitar and harmonica and sang.
While the band itself never really broke out, it saw some huge names in its lineup over the years.
Mick Fleetwood and John McVie formed Fleetwood Mac after leaving, Mick Taylor joined the Rolling Stones, and Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton started up some kind of group called Cream.
He served as a kind of mentor to players who would become rock heroes, but he himself is a gifted multi-instrumentalist.
As a harmonica player, he has made an impact on the way people play blues harmonica.
9. Paul Butterfield
Growing up in Chicago, Butterfield originally studied classical flute, but an interest in the blues quickly led him away from that and toward the harmonica.
By the mid-1950s, he was sitting in on harmonica on live performances with Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, and even Muddy Waters.
He joined up with Elvin Bishop for some live performances, and the two got noticed.
They formed The Butterfield Blues Band, recording hits like “I Got My Mojo Working” and “Born in Chicago,” which opens with Butterfield’s harmonica, a singular sound.
The band played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965 to an audience unsure of what to expect, what with all the amplifiers onstage, but the band—specifically Butterfield’s harmonica playing and his singing—won them over quickly.
Many consider him the first white musician who was a real bluesman.
Butterfield died of a drug overdose at age 44.
10. Larry Adler
Jerry Adler won a Baltimore talent contest at age 13 by playing a Beethoven piece on the harmonica.
He played in an entertainment branch of the Army Air Corps during World War II, touring around the South Pacific.
He went on to be the seminal Hollywood harmonica player, contributing to the soundtracks of some of the biggest films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including the John Wayne hits “Shane” and “The Alamo,” and musical smash hits like “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady.”
His contributions to film also included consulting with actors to help them pretend to play the harmonica in front of the film more convincingly.
After leaving Hollywood, he continued playing the harmonica, riding the cruise ship circuit until the 1980s before retiring to Florida, where he died.
11. Jimmy Reed
As a kid in Mississippi, Reed learned the harmonica and played for money on the streets.
He became a successful blues musician, scoring a few hits after serving in the Navy during the Second World War.
After signing with Vee-Jay Records, he and childhood friend Eddie Taylor scored a hit with “You Don’t Have to Go,” the first of several hits for Reed.
He fought alcoholism and late-onset epilepsy, helped along mightily by his wife, Mary.
He is a member of both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
12. Alan Wilson
Growing up in Massachusetts, Wilson experimented with jazz as a schoolboy but quickly found his way to the blues.
He took that interest, along with his guitar and harmonica, and founded Canned Heat, an LA-based blues-rock band that took the world by storm in the 1960s.
Their hit “Going Up the Country” still gets play today, even on television commercials.
Wilson made himself such an expert on the blues that when Delta blues player Son House was rediscovered in 1964 after retiring years ago, Wilson was the one who taught House the musician’s own songs, which he had mostly forgotten in retirement.
Wilson is a member of the so-called 27 Club—musicians who died at that age—dying within weeks of fellow members Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and less than a year before Jim Morrison.
13. James Cotton
As a blues harmonica player, Cotton started his career with Howlin’ Wolf and recorded with Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame.
He went on to play with Muddy Waters, essentially trading recording sessions with Waters’ main harmonica player Little Walter.
Known as “Mr. Superharp,” Cotton made a name for himself as a blues harpist, touring as a professional at the age of 20.
Although his first single, “Straighten Up Baby,” wasn’t a smash hit, his music and his musical ability as a sideman kept him in high demand, and he spent his entire career as a venerated harmonica player.
His recording career spanned 48 years and ended with his 2013 release, “Cotton Mouth Man,” featuring guest spots by Delbert McClinton, Joe Bonamassa, Gregg Allman, and many other big names.
14. Toots Thielemans
The only Belgian on our list, Thielemans went by Toots rather than his given name of Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans.
Any name that needs a comma in it probably ought to be shortened, anyway.
A gifted guitarist and accomplished whistler (of all things), Thielemans made a name for himself as a harmonica player, specifically a jazz one.
While he played and wrote a great deal of jazz, working with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Pat Metheny, and Jaco Pastorius to name a very few, he also played on movie soundtracks, pop and rock recordings, and one particular television theme song.
As a result, nearly every American born after the Great Depression has heard him play at least once.
His soundtrack work includes Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Midnight Cowboy.
He recorded with musicians including Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, James Taylor, and Julian Lennon.
He also played on the theme for “Sesame Street,” and that recording ran for 40 years.
15. Neil Young
Rock’s elder statesman began his musical career in Winnipeg when he was barely out of his teens.
He left for California and soon joined up with Buffalo Springfield.
The band didn’t last long, but it cemented a partnership between Young and Stephen Stills.
Young would later join Stills in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young however, his fame is mostly due to his solo work.
He has played on albums credited to “Neil Young with Crazy Horse,” and beginning in 1966 with Buffalo Springfield, Young released at least one album every year until 1984, an impressive streak.
Despite the volumes of music he produced over the years, Young’s popularity has waxed and waned, but it was grunge musicians like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder whose devotion to Young made younger generations aware of the man that really boosted his career, at which point he became known as the Godfather of Grunge.
The scruffy Young, pictured with a haggard beard, a guitar, and a harmonica holder, is the image that springs to mind most often when people think of Neil Young.
Summing up our List of the Greatest Harmonica Players
We hope this article has given you an appreciation for the harmonica and that you’ve enjoyed learning about some of the most iconic players in harmonica history.
Remember, like any instrument, it takes some time and patience to become proficient. Practice daily or find a friend who can help teach you the basics.
And if you’re still looking for that perfect gift idea for someone in your life – give them a harmonica! They will thank you with hours of playing pleasure.