Harmonicas are such amazing instruments. In such a tiny package it can produce riffs and full solos that range from very upbeat and happy (like the ones in Long Train Runnin', Hook…) to ones that touch you deeply and give the whole song a sad vibe even if they only last for ten seconds and are made of six notes. (He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother)
I sat down and chose the top enriching solos in classic rock history. Listen to these solos and try to soak in on the use of techniques such as:
- Varying between playing single notes / multiple notes
- How the soloist goes up and down the different octaves and playing low or high.
- And overally, the vibes that the harmonica produces in each of the different tunes.
Listen closely for the solos and technique and duplicate it yourself in your own solos! Harmonicas are relatively easy instruments to imitate and get good on so use this to your advantage.
Harmonicas are used more widely in blues music (listen to some blues classics on YouTube for more examples of stellar harmonica technique) and there is an abundance of sick harmonica solos in blues music, but today we will focus on classic rock which is also more familiar, accessible and likable by a wider audience and you will probably know most of the songs I am going to list, which puts the solos fit great in your context of the rest of the song. Enjoy!
* Another thing that happens to be common wity all songs here is that they are all exceptional songs by themselves. The harmonica parts lifts them up even more. If you don't know one of them, give it a full listen. Anyway, I will be providing a “cheat sheet” with the exact timing of the solo if you wanna jump straight to it.
Top 10 Enriching Harmonica Solos In Classic Rock History
10: Elton John – I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues (1982)
Played by guest star Stevie Wonder, the solo starts at 2:48. A great example of a solo that “speaks” and accompanies a dramatic and beautiful typical Elton John song. It's performed exclusively on single notes and on the last part you can hear a great example of how to perfectly execute a rise to the high octave area of the harmonica to spice the solo up!
9: Bob Dylan – I Want You (1966)
The solo is at the beginning and the end of the song. That's a pretty simple but very fun and happy solo that can also be performed pretty easily while playing guitar and having the harmonica on a harmonica holder. I think that most of Dylan's harmonica solos are pretty generic and usually there's nothing special about them, but on this one he just hit it.
8: The J. Geils Band – Whammer Jammer (1971)
This harp classic features incredible harmonica jams all along. Watch and learn…
7: Ralph McTell – Streets Of London (1966)
The solo is at the beginning and then in between each of the verses. A beautiful and touching example of a solo that jumps between distant holes and incorporating accurate and beautiful big intervals.
6: The Doobie Brothers – Long Train Runnin' (1973)
The solo starts at 1:28. Joyful, bluesy, filled with bended notes and catchy phrases shot at us one after the other. If you ever jammed to some blues, you will be able to hear very clearly the 1-5-4 chord progression and the way he solos on top of it!
5: The Hollies – He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother (1969)
The solo is at the beginning and also at 3:24 a longer version of that same solo kicks in. In this short 10 seconds intro solo, The Hollies said with the harmonica what so many other musicians could not say in hours of playing. Unlike the usual folky and happy vibes that the harmonica is associated with, here the harmonica puts the whole song into the saddest mood that made this song one of the most popular funeral songs ever. Apparently…
4: Billy Joel – Piano Man (1973)
What is there that's left to say about this solo that will be new to you… I'll just shut it. It is very overdone indeed but there is a reason why this is easily the most recognizable harmonica solo of all times, and defiantly a gorgeous song too. If you haven't yet, pick up a C harmonica and try to play it yourself by ear – it's not hard at all.
3: Sting – Shape Of My Heart (1993)
The solo starts at 2:20. Wow! So emotional, so much talent here. This beautiful song from the soundtrack of the movie “Leon” is played on a chromatic harmonica (the harmonica with the button on the side as you can see in the video) and solely on single notes. Towards the end of the solo, you can see a perfect example of combining parts the song's melody line into the solo itself. Take note of the other riffs and fills that the harmonica player is using between the lyrical lines towards the end of the song.
On the recorded version there is a slightly different version of this solo that's also just as good. Btw, there's a great acoustic version of Sting playing this one on one with his guitarist – see it here.
2: Neil Young – Heart Of Gold (1972)
The solo is at the beginning and after each chorus. Here we hear the perfect folky harmonica vibes that this instrument is so well known for, and another one of the most recognized solos of all times, together with Piano Man. The video below is epic, how Young calls Heart Of Gold “this new song”, and looks for the right harmonica in his pockets. He does have some screw-ups in the performance and the harmonica in the album version sounds way more polished but the video is still great.
It's performed on a G harmonica and can be reproduced pretty easily using only your ears. The tricky part is nailing it simultanously with the guitar part when playing both because the rhythms are a bit different… Brilliant song.
Another great harmonica classic you can check out from Neil Young is “My My, Hey Hey“.
1: Blues Traveler – Hook (1994)
Gorgeous. Virtuoso. Flawless technique. Fast. WOW! This amazing solo starts at 2:30 and lasts almost for 40 seconds so enjoy it while you can. Also, Hook is such a wonderful song that not enough people know. More of a “90's rock” than classic rock but after you will hear the solo you will understand why the exception is made here.
Blues Traveler is an American rock band formed in New Jersey and they have a lot of other great songs with harmonica in them. Their 2nd best known hit after Hook is Run-Around.