Great Albums for Beginning Harmonica Players

By Winslow Yerxa

Here is a good list of albums listed by major style groups that harmonica players can use to hear some exemplary music. This list is way shorter than it could be — there’s just so much good harmonica music and so many great players to hear.

Blues

The harmonica has always been welcome in the blues, and hundreds of great harmonica records have been made in all the varied regional and historical blues styles. Here are some ecommendations in the blues category, arranged chronologically:

  • Various artists, Ruckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1: The Great Jug Bands (Yazoo Records)

  • Various artists, The Great Harp Players 1927–1936 (Document Records)

  • Sonny Terry, Sonny Terry: The Folkways Years, 1944–1963 (Smithsonian Folkways)

  • Sonny Boy Williamson I, The Original Sonny Boy Williamson, Vol. 1 (JSP Records)

  • Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), His Best (Chess Records)

  • Little Walter, His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (Chess Records)

  • Jimmy Reed, Blues Masters: The Very Best of Jimmy Reed (Rhino/WEA)

Other players you should hear include William Clarke, James Cotton, Rick Estrin, Joe Filisko, Walter Horton, Mark Hummel, Mitch Kashmar, Lazy Lester, Jerry McCain, Charlie Musselwhite, John Németh, Paul Oscher, Rod Piazza, Annie Raines, Curtis Salgado, George “Harmonica” Smith, Sugar Blue, and Junior Wells.

Rock

Many rock singers play a bit of harmonica. Some, like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, have a folk-like sound, while others, like Mick Jagger and Robert Plant, show a clear blues influence. Some, such as Huey Lewis and Steven Tyler, show strong blues chops. And a few show dedication and originality in pushing blues-influenced rock harmonica to new frontiers while influencing generations of other players, such as the following:

  • Paul Butterfield, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, East-West Live (Winner Records)

  • Magic Dick, J. Geils Band, “Live” Full House (Atlantic Records)

  • John Popper, Blues Traveler, Four (A&M Records)

  • Jason Ricci, Jason Ricci & New Blood, Rocket Number 9 (Eclecto Groove Records)

Bluegrass/Old-Timey

The old-time traditional music that gave country music its unique flavor continues on its own path to this day. Check out these great albums in the bluegrass/old-timey category, arranged chronologically:

  • Various artists, Black & White Hillbilly Music: Early Harmonica Recordings from the 1920s & 1930s (Trikont)

  • Mark Graham, Southern Old-Time Harmonica (Eternal Doom)

  • Mike Stevens, Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain, Old Time Mojo (Borealis Recording)

Additional names to look for in old-time music include Dr. Humphrey Bate, Garley Foster, Gwen Foster, Walter “Red” Parham, Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, Henry Whitter, and Kyle Wooten.

Celtic

Celtic is a convenient term for the musical traditions of Scotland and Ireland and their continuations overseas by immigrant communities. Here are a few great recommendations in the Celtic category:

  • Tommy Basker, The Tin Sandwich (Silver Apple Music)

  • Donald Black, Westwinds (Greentrax Recordings)

  • Jim Malcolm, Live in Glenfarg (Beltane Records)

  • Brendan Power, New Irish Harmonica (Green Linnet)

Additional names to look for in Celtic harmonica include Joel Bernstein, Eddie Clarke, James Conway, Donald Davidson, Rick Epping, Bryce Johnstone, Mick Kinsella, Phil, John, and Pip Murphy, and Noel Pepper.

Country

From the very first broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1927, harmonica has helped give country music its southern flavor. Here are some good recommendations for some great country harp listening:

  • De Ford Bailey, various artists, Harp Blowers, 1925–1936 (Document Records)

  • Charlie McCoy, The Real McCoy (Sony Records)

  • Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson, Willie and Family Live (Sony Records)

Other names to look for in country harmonica include Mike Caldwell, Lonnie Glosson, Jelly Roll Johnson, Terry McMillan, Wayne Raney and Onie Wheeler (both of whom straddle the line between country music and early rock-and-roll), and Jimmie Riddle.

Gospel

The use of blues-based harmonica in gospel music is a grassroots phenomenon that was little noticed for decades but is now gaining wider recognition. Here are some of the artists you might check out:

  • Buddy Greene, Simple Praise (Fibra Records)

  • Elder Roma Wilson, This Train (Arhoolie)

Contemporary artists to check out include Terry McMillan and Todd Parrott. During the early 20th century, blues singers sometimes recorded gospel material under pseudonyms (were they trying to protect their credibility as singers of the devil’s music or the other way around?).

A few of these closeted gospel performers include Brother George and his Sanctified Singers (including Sonny Terry and Blind Boy Fuller), Elder Richard Bryant (probably the Memphis Jug Band with Will Shade on harmonica), and Frank Palmes (Jaybird Coleman).

Jazz

Jazz polls have always categorized the harmonica as a miscellaneous instrument, along with bassoon and French horn (a harmonica player nearly always wins, though). Here are good recommendations in the jazz category:

  • Toots Thielemans, Only Trust Your Heart (Concord Records)

  • Howard Levy, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones (Warner Bros.)

  • Hendrik Meurkens, Sambatropolis (Zoho Music)

  • Bill Barrett Quartet, Backbone (Bill Barrett)

Other names to look for in jazz harmonica include Hermine Deurloo, William Galison, Filip Jers, Grégoire Maret, Yvonnick Prene, Mike Turk, and Frédéric Yonnet.