Where would rock 'n' roll music be without the harmonica?

An incredibly versatile instrument, the harmonica has appeared across the history of rock music, from folk to R&B to blues.

You've got Bob Dylan, for example, who arrived on the folk scene in the '60s with a harp strapped around his neck like a collar. A few years later came Stevie Wonder using it in soul form on albums like Fulfillingness' First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life. There's also blues-based bands like Led Zeppelin, the Doors and the Rolling Stones using the harmonica in ways that harken back to veteran blues musicians like Little Walter, Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed, among others.

Below we're running through the Top 35 Harmonica Songs, featuring some of the best mouth organ blowing ever recorded.

35. Sly and the Family Stone, "I Want to Take You Higher"
From: Stand! (1969)

Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" opens with a double punch: a searing harmonica note and a bluesy guitar riff played by Freddie Stone. This was a B-side, but still a Top 40 hit, and it was also covered by Ike & Tina Turner in 1970, though their version doesn't include a harmonica.


34. INXS, "Suicide Blonde"
From: X (1990)

A harmonica riff opens this INXS track, the lead single from 1990's X, and appears throughout the song. It was written by Michael Hutchence and Andrew Farriss, shortly after the band reconvened from a year-long hiatus. That's Charlie Musselwhite playing the harmonica, a leading figure of the Chicago blues movement of the '60s who came to fame via acts like Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield.


33. The Rolling Stones, "Miss You"
From: Some Girls (1978)

"I started to learn the harmonica after hearing the greats of the blues such as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Since then I've played harmonica on so many tracks and at countless gigs over the years," Mick Jagger said in 2023. "Miss You" is just one example of this, and there's more further down on this list. In 2023, Jagger released his very own harmonica line in collaboration with whynow Music and Lee Oskar. "Hopefully some of them will get into the hands of young harmonica players who turn out to be the legends of the future," he said then.


32. Huey Lewis and the News, "Workin' for a Livin'"
From: Picture This (1982)

"For me, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was sort of my inspiration," Huey Lewis once explained of his harp background. "I started playing harmonica before that, but then I saw them in New York. I was in prep school in New Jersey and I saw him in Town Hall in New York and it just changed my life." Lewis' chops were on full display in 1982's "Workin' for a Livin,'" but he also got so good at it that other people enlisted him to play harmonica on their songs. "I asked Huey to play harp on my 1997 single 'Little White Lie,' and he killed it," Sammy Hagar once said. "Still one of my favorite songs, and the harp solo is a huge part of it. He also tried to teach me to play, but when he handed me the harp he just finished suckin’ on for the past hour, needless to say, I passed on the lesson from the master."


31. War, "Low Rider"
From: Why Can't We Be Friends? (1975)

Remember Lee Oskar from Mick Jagger's harmonica line? Well that's him playing the harp on War's iconic "Low Rider." Oskar was born and raised in Denmark, where he got his first harmonica at age 6. He moved to the U.S. at age 18 to pursue a career with the instrument. Here's some advice he gave in 2016 for those looking to learn the harp: "Just let it play you, caress it, explore what you are hearing and feeling, and you will connect with the harmonica. My best advice is to feel it from the heart, let that be the blues, your blues. Blues is about connecting with your soul, and that is the true sound of the blues. The rest will follow..."


30. Stevie Wonder, "Isn't She Lovely"
From: Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

It's remarkable to think that farewell concert tour plans were being made in 1975 by Stevie Wonder, who wound up changing his mind, signing a new record deal and releasing one of the most famous albums ever, featuring "Isn't She Lovely," which includes some top-notch harmonica playing. Wonder has established himself so surely as a harpist that he's even been called upon by contemporary acts like Travis Scott and Beyonce to play on their albums (2018's Astro World and 2024's Cowboy Carter, respectively).


29. Guns N' Roses, "Bad Obsession"
From: Use Your Illusion I (1991)

Guns N' Roses called up one of their inspirations for this Use Your Illusion track: Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks. They sent him a rough mix of "Bad Obsession" and the rest fell into place. "I dug the song and said yes, so they flew me to L.A. for the recording session," Monroe, who played harmonica and saxophone on the song, recalled to Classic Rock in 2023. "When I arrived in the studio they played me some of the new stuff they had recorded, like 'Live and Let Die,' which sounded really impressive blasting out of the big speakers. ... Slash had [a] very specific idea of how he wanted the harp melody to be, so we worked on it until it was perfectly what he wanted.”


28. David Bowie, "The Jean Genie"
From: Aladdin Sane (1973)

David Bowie played harmonica himself on a number of his albums, arguably the strongest example being the bluesy vamp in "The Jean Genie." As Bowie described the making of the song in his 2005 book Moonage Daydream: The Life & Times of Ziggy Stardust, it began as a "lightweight riff thing" that morphed into "a smorgasbord of imagined Americana." (You could also often find Bowie playing harmonica live on tour during this era.)


27. The Who, "Join Together"
From: 1972 Single

If you watch the below video, you'll see Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon playing instruments that sort of resemble harmonicas, but are actually called Jew's harps, which vibrate with reeds and create the kind of bouncy sound heard at the top of "Join Together." In the video, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle play chord and bass harmonicas. (Interestingly, it's the other way round on the song's recorded version: Daltrey playing harmonica and Townshend playing the Jew's harp.)


26. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Mary Jane's Last Dance"
From: Greatest Hits (1993)

Tom Petty didn't always play harmonica — sometimes that duty fell to the man he often referred to as his "Swiss Army Knife," Scott Thurston – but when he did, it was memorable. Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded "Mary Jane's Last Dance" while Petty worked on his solo album Wildflowers, and it landed on 1993's Greatest Hits. "It's an interesting track," guitarist and co-producer Mike Campbell recalled to Songfacts. "It's very inaccurate, it's kind of greasy and loose. That day we just gelled and every time we mixed it we could clean up the sound and make it more posh, but it just didn't have the juice that one mix had."


25. Supertramp, "Take the Long Way Home"
From: Breakfast in America (1979)

The bright, clear harmonica tone at the top of Supertramp's "Take the Long Way Home," played by Rick Davies, sets the scene for a catchy number. You'll want to stick around for the interplay between Davies' harmonic aand John Helliwell's clarinet solo. This was the last song composed for 1979's Breakfast in America.


24. Aerosmith, "Big Tench Inch Record"
From: Toys in the Attic (1975)

Aerosmith's "Big Tench Inch Record" was not an original but a cover penned by Fred Weismantel and recorded by bluesman Bull Moose Jackson in 1952. "I think Aerosmith has always been a blues-based band," Steven Tyler, who played the harp on this track, said to Rolling Stone in 2003. "When music hit me the most — when I was nine, 10, 11 — it was always that blues from Mississippi that only came on at night...the devil's music." Like Jagger, Tyler also has his own signature harmonica line.


23. Canned Heat, "On the Road Again"
From: Boogie With Canned Heat (1968)

No, this isn't a cover of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," though that song also has a jaunty harmonica part in it. This is Canned Heat's own "On the Road Again," with an blistering harmonica played by Alan Wilson. Three years after this song was released, Canned Heat made an album with the legendary John Lee Hooker, whose praises for Wilson could be heard on the double album they made together, 1971's Hooker 'n Heat. "I dig this kid's harmonica, man," Hooker said. "I don't know how he follow me, but he do."


22. The J. Geils Band, "Whammer Jammer"
From: The Morning After (1971)

They don't call Richard Salwitz of the J. Geils Band "Magic Dick and his Lickin' Stick" for nothing — he earned that nickname through his harmonica playing, arguably the best example of which can be found on "Whammer Jammer." Even after the band split up in 1985, Salwitz went on to create a harmonica design of his own, patent included. "I love the unique sound of the harp and how it can mimic the expression and tonal palette of both the sax and the trumpet and the voice," Salwitz told Forbes in 2015. "Ever since beginning to play the trumpet at nine years old, I've been interested in all the horns. But the fact that you can engulf the harp and the microphone with your hands and shape its tone is the reason for my focus on it. It's become a sonic and tactile fixation, yielding a mental universe of associations of shapes and tones. Put simply, it makes me happy!"


21. Led Zeppelin, "Bring It On Home"
From: Led Zeppelin II (1969)

You might not think of Robert Plant as Harp God, but there are some Led Zeppelin songs on which his skill just can't be denied, and "Bring It On Home" is one of them. His playing in the first minute of the track sets the scene for the raucous following three. This is, of course, not an original but a cover of Willie Dixon, first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson, a giant of a harp player, in 1963. Plant often went to blues festivals as a teenager and when he was 14, he ran into Williamson at a urinal, where he introduced himself and was met with a curt "fuck off." Plant's response was to sneak backstage and steal Williamson's harmonica...


20. Blackfoot, "Train Train"
From: Strikes (1979)

The harmonica note at the top of "Train Train" mimics — you guessed it — a train whistle. All aboard the Blackfoot express. There's actually two people responsible for the harp in this song. The prelude part was recorded by the song's writer, Shorty Medlocke, grandfather of Rickey Medlocke. The other harmonica parts in the song's body are by Cub Koda of Brownsville Station. "[Shorty] toured with the band," Rickey Medlocke said in a later interview. "He would come out and play 'Train Train' on stage with us on the harmonica. ... I would introduce him to the audience as the world's oldest rock star. He ate that up because the audience would just freak out. Here was this guy standing in front of them, blowing the harmonica, and it was amazing. Here is a guy in his late '60s, soon to be 70, and he was out there just rocking."


19. U2, "Desire"
From: Rattle and Hum (1988)

Like many other U.K.-born acts, U2 were fans of American blues. They leaned into this significantly on 1988's Rattle and Hum, which featured a guest appearance by none other than B.B. King. "In that world of the blues, we were novices, we were students," is how the Edge put it in a 2021 Austin City Limits radio interview (via No Depression). Still, at the end of "Desire," Bono blows a pretty impressive harp solo.


18. Aerosmith, "Hangman Jury"
From: Permanent Vacation (1987)

We're back to Aerosmith. If you've listened to the band's 1987 album Permanent Vacation, you know that most of it is polished glam rock, but "Hangman Jury" stands out for being an obvious blues number. "The music for 'Hangman' reflected the rapport I'd always felt for Taj Mahal's deep-rooted blues," Joe Perry wrote in his book Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith


17. The Clash, "Train in Vain"
From: London Calling (1979)

Mick Jones didn't sing lead vocals on too many Clash songs but "Train in Vain" was one of them. That's also him playing the harmonica vamp. All said, the song only took a couple of days to get done in the studio, but it wound up the band's very first to reach the Top 30 in the U.S. "We didn't even have time to think about what we were doing," Jones said to Magnet magazine in 2007. "The train was going 1,000 miles an hour before it crashed at the end."


16. Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue"
From: Blood on the Tracks (1975)

There is an entire separate list that could be made titled "Bob Dylan Harmonica Songs," but we've chosen a handful of the very best for this list here, starting with "Tangled Up in Blue" from Blood on the Tracks. "I been playing the harmonica for a long time," Dylan said in a 1962 interview, speaking to the harmonica holder he was often seen performing with. "I just have never had...couldn't play 'em at the same time. I used to play the smaller Hohners. I never knew harmonica holders existed, the real kind like this. I used to go ahead and play with the coat hanger. That never really held out so good."


15. Stevie Wonder, "Boogie On Reggae Woman"
From: Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)

For this particular 1974 track, Stevie Wonder did not play his usual chromatic harmonica, but instead a diatonic A-flat blues harp. "The harmonica for me is like a saxophone," Wonder explained to Larry King in 2018. "And when my uncle gave me a harmonica, a chromatic harmonica, I said 'Wow.' I like it because I can have it right here with me...It's like my little saxophone. [picks up harmonica and plays 'Isn't She Lovely' riff]."


14. The Doors, "Roadhouse Blues"
From: Morrison Hotel (1970)

John Sebastian left the Lovin' Spoonful in 1969, but he almost immediately found new work. For one thing, he appeared at Woodstock that same year. And then came session work. That's him playing the iconic harmonica parts in the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues." (That's also him on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Deja Vu.") "Paul [Rothchild, Doors producer] described it to me that we have the feeling Jim [Morrison] would behave a little more if you would be there," Sebastian recalled to New Times Broward-Palm Beach in 2016. "In retrospect, it's hard to remember, as the Lovin' Spoonful are barely remembered and the Lizard King thing is huge, but the fact was that Paul did know that with me around as an older player, Jim might straighten up. He very much was that day. He did a great vocal and was up for it. Nobody remembers, but Lonnie Mack played bass on that song, and I was much more excited about playing with Lonnie Mack than the Doors."


13. Bruce Springsteen, "The River"
From: The River (1980)

Bruce Springsteen has made a habit of gifting his harmonica to audience members at his show — a treasured token for many fans. There's a number of songs the Boss utilized the instrument on, but one of the most memorable is the title track to 1980's The River, which begins with a stark, haunting bit that foreshadows the style Springsteen would adopt on his next album, Nebraska.


12. Black Sabbath, "The Wizard"
From: Black Sabbath (1970)

Who said heavy metal can't incorporate harp? Certainly not Black Sabbath, who featured it on 1970's "The Wizard." Like Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler, Ozzy Osbourne also earned his own harmonica line, which came packaged in a little coffin-shaped case, fit for future Princes of Darkness.


11. Joni Mitchell, "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio"
From: For the Roses (1972)

Graham NashDavid Crosby and Neil Young all reportedly contributed to the recording session for 1972's "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," Joni Mitchell's response to her record label's insistence that she write a radio-friendly hit. But in the end, it was just Nash's harmonica part that was kept for the finished version. In 2023, Mitchell put out a previously unreleased demo of the song, this one featuring Young on guitar and harmonica.


10. Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind"
From: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

Back to Bob Dylan, who also earned his own Hohner harmonica line. Scott Emmerman, Director of Marketing and Sales for Hohner U.S.A., interviewed Dylan at the time, who gave typically brief answers. Does the harmonica play a role in your songwriting process? "No." How do you feel your harmonica playing has influenced today's players? "I'm not sure it has."


9. The Beatles, "I Should Have Known Better"
From: A Hard Day's Night (1964)

John Lennon's mouth organ was a staple of the Beatles' catalog and was a particular star in the band's earlier years, like on "I Should Have Known Better." "I played a lot of harmonica and mouth organ when I was a child," Lennon once explained. "We used to take in students and one of them had a mouth organ and said he’d buy me one if I could learn a tune by the next morning. So I learnt two."


8. The Pretenders, "Middle of the Road"
From: Learning to Crawl (1984)

We suggest listening to Chrissie Hynde blow a mean harmonica solo in 1984's "Middle of the Road," and then turn your attention to her 2023 live appearance with Guns N' Roses in which she played harp for a song included earlier on this list, "Bad Obsession." (It was the first time the band had played the song live in 30 years.)


7. Bruce Springsteen, "The Promised Land"
From: Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

The Boss bookends "The Promised Land" from Darkness on the Edge of Town with two harmonica solos. "Some of the greatest blues music is some of the darkest music you've ever heard. And I had maps," Springsteen explained of the album's music to NPR in 2010. "Obviously, Dylan had come when I was 15, and obviously I listened to his music first, and his music contained a lot — I used to say when I heard 'Highway 61,' I was hearing the first true picture of how I felt and how my country felt."


6. Billy Joel, "Piano Man"
From: Piano Man (1973)

Billy Joel's "Piano Man" starts out with, of course, piano, but a forlorn sounding harmonica soon enters the picture. Joel got his own Hohner harmonica made in 2019 – in the key of C, the same as the one used for "Piano Man."


5. Tom Petty, "You Don't Know How It Feels"
From: Wildflowers (1994)

Here's another classic harmonica riff courtesy of Tom Petty. Interestingly, it was the harmonica that originally brought Petty together with the Heartbreakers. After Petty's first band, Mudcrutch, split up in 1975, he considered pursuing a solo career. But then Benmont Tench invited him to come play harmonica on some demos of his own he was working on with a group of Gainesville, Florida musicians. "So I drove over there and I went in to do my harmonica track," Petty recalled in Conversations With Tom Petty, "and I went in and heard the Heartbreakers playing. And I thought 'Shit – this is amazing."


4. The Rolling Stones, "Midnight Rambler"
From: Let It Bleed (1969)

"That's a song Keith [Richards] and I really wrote together," Jagger explained of "Midnight Rambler" to Rolling Stone in 1995. "We were on a holiday in Italy. In this very beautiful hill town, Positano, for a few nights. Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don't know. We wrote everything there – the tempo changes, everything. And I'm playing the harmonica in these little cafes, and there's Keith with the guitar."


3. Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks"
From: Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

Here's some more harp blowing from the Golden God. Robert Plant's love affair with the blues started at a young age and continued through his entire time with Led Zeppelin, whether he was singing or playing harmonica. "There's a huge catalog of blues songs that have affected me over a period of time...some of the intentions and lyrics from the songs from that era — the 1960s, '63, '64 — are out of this world. They're just part of the dream machine, really," he told Spin in 2020. "I think that whole idea of melancholia, the angst — wherever it was these songs were being written, it was obviously for a different mentality, and probably for a different age group. But those were the songs that hooked me in, big time."


2. Neil Young, "Heart of Gold"
From: Harvest (1972)

In 1970, Neil Young injured his back while attempting to move planks of wood at his newly bought Broken Arrow Ranch, which he first tried to correct using a brace of sorts, and then opted for surgery. All of that meant that he struggled to stand and play electric guitar for long periods, so he began spending more time with instruments that were easier to play seated, like acoustic guitar and harmonica. This is how he came to pen "Heart of Gold."


1. The Beatles, "Love Me Do"
From: Please Please Me (1963)

As Lennon put it to Rolling Stone in late 1970, the harmonica was one of the key reasons the Beatles had grabbed the attention of people in the early '60s. "The first gimmick was the harmonica," he said. "There had been 'Hey, Baby' with a harmonica and there was a terrible thing called 'I Remember You' in England. All of a sudden we started using it on 'Love Me Do.'"

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Gallery Credit: Allison Rapp

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