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The 10 Best Harmonica Players of All Time

The humble harmonica is cheap, portable and easy to play basic tunes on. Perhaps that is why it's often considered a children's instrument, or even worse - a toy! As a harmonica player, I want to send out some love to the players who make the harp so much more than it seems at first. There are many who have dabbled with the blues harp but few have mastered it. The following list is my personal take on the very best harmonica players we've ever heard, plus some essential listening to introduce you to their amazing work.

Who makes your own top 10 harmonica players? Let me know in the comments.

#10: Sonny Boy Williamson II

Opening our rundown is Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II. The 'second' Sonny Boy achieved even greater fame than the man from whom he stole a stage name, and the reason he makes this list is that he always put tone ahead of technique. He certainly had great chops but he could also make a little go a long way. If you want to know how to craft a blues solo from a few simple phrases, then Rice Miller is your man. Those massive hands could also be used for one hell of a hand tremolo. Sonny Boy was certainly the king of tone!

Did you know? Alex 'Rice' Miller got the nickname 'Rice' from a childhood love of the foodstuff.

Recommended listening - Bye Bye Bird

#9: Wade Schuman

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Wade Schuman plays out-of-this-world diatonic harmonica with his band Hazmat Modine. Along with the addition chromatic harmonica from various players over the years, his harp playing has been an integral part of the band's mixing of blues and folk traditions to arrive at a truly unique sound. The purists won't like it, but if you're looking for someone who pushes the boundaries of the instrument in a really quirky way, then look no further.

Did you know? Wade is an animal lover and often includes a 'mystery mammal' for fans to identify in his emails.

Recommended listening - Lost Fox Train

#8: Stevie Wonder

Not just a songwriting genius, Stevie Wonder has brought the harmonica into popular music like very few others have managed to. He is the only player in the list who almost exclusively plays chromatic, and his sound is instantly recognisable to the general public - which is no mean feat for a harmonica player! Aside from his solo work, he has also featured as a session harp player with a ruge range of artists, including extensive work with Sting and a memorable solo in the Eurythmics song 'There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)'.

Did you know? When Stevie Wonder plays keyboards, he doesn't use his right thumb.

Recommended listening - Isn't She Lovely

#7: Kim Wilson

Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson is known to the general public as the singer of 'Tuff Enuff' which was the Thunderbirds' only top 40 hit. But to harmonica players he's known as one of the greatest blues musicians of all time. Muddy Waters described him as the best since Little Walter, and the reason he makes this list is because of his ability to be endlessly creative within the limited confines of blues structure. His live shows are legendary, often featuring an epic harp solo where the band leave the stage and let Kim do his stuff for over 10 minutes. If you want to learn how to float over the chord changes and play exciting and unpredictable solos, Kim Wilson is a great place to start your listening.

Did you know? Kim Wilson played himself in a television appearance on an episode of Wiseguy in 1989.

Recommended listening - F Fat

#6: Grant Dermody

A real American roots musician, Grant Dermody makes the list for his versatility and sensitivity. He paints with a rich emotional palette in all his work, and for my money he's the perfect accompanying harp player. I first heard him through his work with Eric Bibb, but he's worked with lots of other artists and it's well worth checking out for his extensive solo output too. Like Sonny Boy II, his pursuit of perfect tone is endless and he always serves the song.

Did you know? When Grant Dermody saw Sonny Terry and James Cotton playing live he knew that was the emotional, rich sound he needed to achieve.

Recommended listening - River of Jordan

#5: DeFord Bailey

The first African American musician to appear at the Grand Ole Opry, DeFord is an under-appreciated country legend. Moving to Nashville as a teenager in the late 1910's, he became an important part of the city's growing music industry. Bailey playing several instruments but made the biggest waves with his harmonica playing, including an uncanny steam train imitation. His solo harmonica recordings are some of the most vibrant, melodic and beautiful country recordings ever, and that's why he makes the list. Sadly he wasn't able to make a career out of music in the long term and ended up supported himself and his family by taking lodgers and shining shoes.

Did you know? DeFord Bailey learned to play harmonica as he was recovering from polio as a young child.

Recommended listening - Pan American Blues

#4: Dennis Gruenling

Dennis Gruenling is the king of jump blues. An intelligent, dexterous musician, he is one of the best around at playing low tuned harps and can move confidently between diatonic and chromatic. He has a geniune respect for the blues and jazz traditions, but also puts his own slant on the music to make his recordingly very much his own. On top of all that, he is an absolute monster soloist. What's not to like? Check him out if you want to hear the humble harmonica going toe-to-toe with horns for some sweet early blues/jazz stylings.

Did you know? Dennis Gruenling has been a DJ for over a decade on WFDU college radio.

Recommended listening - Mississippi Saxophone

#3: Jason Ricci

Jason Ricci is sometimes called "the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica" - and with good reason. His playing can be blisteringly fast, making the harp sound like a red hot blues-rock guitarist, but he's also capable of sensitive, sutble playing when required. He shares the love through his YouTube lessons, and in the internet age he has garnered fans all over the world and inspired many imitators with his overbending abilities, ushering in a new generation of diverse and virtuosic harmonicists. He surely has to be considered one of the true pioneers of the instrument.

Did you know? Initially a vocalist, on joining a band Jason Ricci had the band choose an instrument for him and they chose the harmonica.

Recommended listening - Ptryptophan Pterodactyl

#2: Carlos del Junco

Mixing blues with Latin and jazz sounds, Carlos del Junco creates a harmonica sound all his own. His playing utilises the overblow technique pioneered by Howard Levy, putting it to work tastefully, making music that is exciting, rich in textures and sophisticated. Hearing him for the first time, you'll be amazed that you're actually listening to a harmonica. I was lucky enough to have some lessons with him and his approach to learning was revolutionary for me as a young man. Check him out to hear what harmonica sounds like when it's played with a perfect balance of ability and suitability.

Did you know? Carlos del Junco majored in sculpture at Ontario College of Art.

Recommended listening - Blues Mongrel

#1: Paul deLay

And the winner is... Paul deLay! Equally capable on diatonic and chromatic, this guy had it all: chops, variety, sensitivity, unpredictability and a sound entirely his own. Listening to Paul deLay, you can't always work out where he's getting his references from; sometimes you can't even tell what position he's playing! A Paul deLay solo takes you flying in a way very few soloists do. His personality and sense of humour came through in both his sonwriting and harp playing, and he was a wonderful singer too. For that combination of attributes, I think he's the best harmonica player ever.

Did you know? Paul deLay once served a 41-month prison sentence. While he was in jail, his band continued performing as the No deLay Band.

Recommended listening - Harpoon Man

So that's it for the list of top 10 best harmonica players ever! Who makes your own top 10 harmonica players? Let me know in the comments.

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2 Komentar

Thanks Liam for your top ten list! It's great to see some of my favorites, and to get introduced to some gifted players I didn't know before. So glad to see Stevie Wonder made your list, it's true his harmonica playing has been overlooked, partly because he excels in so many areas of music. I went back to have a listen to "Fingertips part 2", and there he is, 12 years old, playing the heck out of his chromatic harp, even though it looks way too big for him:

I didn't actually compile a list, but in my book, another chromatic player, Toots Thielemans, would probably make the cut. Also, women: Indiara Sfair, Christelle Berthon. Also my list woul…

Liam Ward
Liam Ward
08 Jul 2021
Membalas kepada

Yes they're all great players Michele. Very difficult to choose who to leave out! In the end it's just a bit of fun, always good to learn about new musicians though 😎

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