More Than 10 Harmonica Albums You Should Hear

By Winslow Yerxa

The harmonica isn’t limited to blues, folk, and rock music. You might be surprised to learn that several classical, pop, and world albums feature the harmonica. Check out the following albums to hear the various ways the harmonica can be used. It’ll be an ear-opening experience.

Classical

The introduction of the chromatic harmonica in 1910 allowed harmonica players to tackle complex music, and pretty soon, famous composers were writing concertos for the harmonica. Here are two recommendations in the classical category:

  • Robert Bonfiglio, Robert Bonfiglio with the New York Chamber Symphony, Villa-Lobos: Harmonica Concerto, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5: Aria (RCA Red Seal Records): Bonfiglio is the world’s premier classical harmonicist, regularly playing concertos with symphony orchestras worldwide. This CD presents a concerto written for John Sebastian by 20th-century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos.

  • Tommy Reilly, Tommy Reilly and Skaila Kanga Play British Folk Songs (Chandos Records): Canadian-born Reilly went to Germany to study classical violin just as World War II broke out. During his five years as a prisoner of war, he had ample time to polish his harmonica technique. This CD presents his silvery chromatic harmonica phrasing accompanied by stringed harp.

Other names to look for in classical harmonica include Philip Achille, Larry Adler, Franz Chmel, Sigmund Groven, Jim Hughes, John Sebastian the elder (father of the blues/rock musician John B. Sebastian, who plays a mean blues harp), Douglas Tate, and Yasuo Watani.

Pop

Popular music is distinct from both rock and blues in its greater emphasis on melody. Here are some recommendations in the pop category:

  • Larry Adler, Maestro of the Mouth Organ (ASV Living Era): Adler’s trademark dark, throbbing tone and rhythmic high energy defined the sound of the harmonica for several generations in both the United States and Great Britain.

  • The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds and Smile (Capitol): Harmonica player Tommy Morgan was part of the Wrecking Crew, a group of Los Angeles recording studio musicians that backed many of the finest pop artists during the 1960s and ’70s. Morgan worked with Linda Ronstadt, the Carpenters, and many others, but perhaps his most comprehensive and unusual work was with Brian Wilson, who underscored many of the vocal parts on Beach Boys records with harmonica, occasionally letting a harmonica note shine through or featuring a bass harmonica solo.

  • The Beatles, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (Parlophone/Capitol): Paul McCartney, like Brian Wilson, felt that the harmonica helped audiences relate to music by giving it a certain warmth. Even after John Lennon gave up playing diatonic harmonica on such early hits as “Love Me Do,” the band still managed to sneak bass and chord harmonicas into “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Fool on the Hill.”

  • The Harmonicats, Jerry Murads Harmonicats: Greatest Hits/Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom White (Collectables Records): The Harmonicats were an all-harmonica trio that had a huge hit record in 1947 with Peg O My Heart and continued to be a popular act for nearly 50 years. Interestingly, as of this writing, Amazon.com indicates that this record is ranked No. 28 in popularity for indie easy listening — even higher than it was when the first edition of Harmonica For Dummies was published!

  • Lee Oskar, War, The Very Best of War (Rhino Records): In the early 1970s, War introduced a new synthesis of pop and R&B that featured Lee Oskar’s blues-influenced yet non-blues harmonica both as part of the horn section and as a solo instrument (remember “Low Rider”?).

  • Stevie Wonder, Eivets Rednow, Eivets Rednow (Motown): Stevie Wonder has made dozens of great harmonica recordings that dot the landscape of his and other artists’ albums. This one, made under the pseudonym Eivets Rednow (Stevie Wonder spelled backwards), features some amazing playing that harp players are still enthusing about.

World

Around the world, musicians have interpreted the repertoire of their national traditions on the harmonica with great flair. Here are a few recommendations in the world category:

  • Hugo Díaz, Tangos (Acqua Argentina): Hugo Díaz adapted the harmonica to both tango and Argentine folk music in an arresting manner that has never been duplicated, as heard in this collection.

  • Isom Fontenot, various artists, Folksongs of the Louisiana Acadians (Arhoolie Records): Cajun harmonica player Isom Fontenot is prominently featured in some great down-home music with the true Cajun flavor and some really fine harmonica.

  • Gabriel Labbé, Gabriel Labbé and Philippe Bruneau, Masters of French Canadian Music, Vol. 3 (Smithsonian Folkways): Gabriel Labbé was the last of the old-time tremolo harmonica players of Quebec. The buoyancy of his highly rhythmic style shows the true spirit of French-Canadian tradition in this collection of dance tunes.

  • Sväng, Sväng (Aito Records): Sväng is a high-energy Finnish harmonica quintet whose repertoire encompasses tango, gypsy music, and a bit of Finnish folk music. Their music uses the traditional bass harmonica, chromatic, and chord harp, but they show influences from blues harp and other trends in modern music.