Best Harmonica Solos
Don’t be fooled by the harmonica. Sure, more musically inclined cowboys used to whip ’em out around the campfire, and cultures from Eastern to Western and everything in between have laced their traditional music with the tiny mouth organ. Its versatility makes it one of the accessible instruments out there, which is why all forms of popular music through the years — from blues to indie rock — have included it. But the songs on our list of the Best Harmonica Solos step aside and let the tiny instrument hog the spotlight.
In 1989, one of the best bands on the planet gave it one last shot to break into the mainstream. Their rowdy reputation and unwavering ability to sabotage their career was legendary by this point, so when they cleaned up on ‘Don’t Tell a Soul,’ there was more finger crossing than breath holding. The plaintive mid-tempo ballad ‘Achin’ to Be’ features a locomotive harmonica solo at the halfway mark, played by frontman Paul Westerberg with all the urgency of an espresso-fueled folksinger.
U2 were still uncovering their American roots when they released their half-live album, half-U.S. chronicle ‘Rattle and Hum’ in 1988. So it was only natural, among all of the blues and gospel sounds, that they’d throw a harmonica solo onto the album somewhere. It landed on the first single, ‘Desire,’ charging forward as Bono channels everyone from front-porch bluesmen to Bob Dylan.
Alanis Morissette tried on roles as varied as pissed-off ex to wide-eyed believer in irony on her 1995 breakthrough album ‘Jagged Little Pill.’ The LP’s second single, ‘Hand in My Pocket,’ stops for a Dylanesque harmonica solo played by Morissette with a breathless intensity that verges on sloppiness. Or maybe it’s chaos. Either way, it’s her modern-day folkie guise.
‘London Calling’ broke many of punk’s rigid rules: It’s a double album with thick production, R&B horns, disco backbeats, worldly songwriting and songs with hooks as big as Johnny Rotten’s head. The Clash even tucked away one of their best and most pop-leaning singles at the end of the record as an unnamed bonus track. Shuffling harmonica, far from punk, guides ‘Train in Vain’ straight down the tracks.
Dave Matthews’ debut album set the template for pretty much everything that followed, shoving an elastic rhythm up front and keeping the performance loose and jammy. In addition to all of the band’s usual musical elements (acoustic guitar, violin, saxophone), there’s a whirlwind harmonica solo — played by Blues Traveler’s food, gun and hat enthusiast John Popper — that sends it into another stratosphere altogether.