The Harmonica,(or mouth harp) was invented around 1820 in Germany and started being massively exported to the U.S in the last quarter of the 19th century. The cheap and easy to carry instrument quickly became very popular among itinerant blues musicians in North America’s deep south. They popularized the technique known as “cross harp”, which means playing the instrument in a different position, and consequently, key than it was originally intended for, creating a more mournful and brooding sound. This made the harp not only a perfect fit for the blues but also one of the driving forces behind the genre.
To pay tribute to this vital instrument, Blues Rock Review lists its top 10 blues harmonica players.
10. Sonny Terry
Saunders Terrell was born in Greensboro, Georgia in 1911. He went blind at the age of 16 and that kept him from working on the farm which led the unfortunate boy to play music for a living, His trademark whoopin’ style, combined with his astounding melodic approach has placed him among the most celebrated harp players in the history of blues music. Terry enjoyed a reasonably successful career, releasing and participating in a dozen of albums, (most notably with his long-time partner, guitarist and vocalist Brownie Mcgee) before passing out peacefully in 1986, after spending his last years in Mineola, New York.
9. Jason Ricci
Jason Ricci is a musician born in Portland, Maine in 1974 and one of the best and most important blues performers currently active. His drug and alcohol addiction, his strong opinions and the fact that some people don’t handle well that he is openly gay/bisexual have put some bad press in his name, however, make no mistake, the man can play the hell out of a harmonica. Aggressive and heavy, but remarkably pleasant, Ricci’s playing has earned him critical praise, a Grammy award (for his collaboration on Johnny’s Winter Step Back album ) and a place in our list, of course.
8. Big Walter Horton
Born in Horn Lake, Mississipi in 1921, Walter Horton is a legend of blues harp and one of the masters of the amplified harmonica style. His fat, powerful tone and distinctive one-note lines make him one of the most influential and imitated players in the scene. Although struggling financially and never reaching anything close to mainstream fame ( just like almost everyone on this list), Horton has built an important musical legacy, collaborating with some of the blues most acclaimed names (Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Carey Bell, etc) and releasing some great solo material by himself (although he clearly preferred the sideman’s role). Walter passed away in Chicago, in 1981.
7. Charlie Musselwhite
Charlie Musselwhite was born in Mississipi in 1944 and is recognized as one of the earliest white blues harpists. Although a very competent guitarist and singer, Musselwhite is mostly known for his versatile, potent and technical harp playing. Starting his career in the early ’60s, Musselwhite’s been waving the blues flag ever since, delivering the goods both live and in the studio. He’s also won the Grammy for best blues album for his collaboration with Ben Harper in Get Up!. He’s still active and shows no sign of slowing down.
6. James Cotton
Grammy Award-winner James Henry Cotton, born in Tunica, Mississipi in 1935, was a harmonica virtuoso notable for his work with some of blues music greatest titans (especially in Muddy Waters’s band) and his solo career. Explosive, fiery, versatile and tasty, Cotton’s harp sound defined a generation and helped shape the blues as we know it today. He kept recording and touring even at a very old age and just like fine wine, he only got better. Accurately nicknamed “Mr. SuperHarp”, Cotton died in 2017 in Austin, Texas.
5. Sonny Boy Williamson II
Aleck (or Alex, depending on the source) Rice Miller, born in Tutwiler, Mississipi (possibly) in 1912, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, was one of the greatest bluesmen of his time and a stupendous harmonica player. Despite stealing John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s (more on him later) name to capitalize on his fame, Miller was much more than an imitation, developing an influential style of his own and enjoying a long and successful career, having played with the likes of Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. His memorable bursts of licks and solos of soulful and potent harp technique and his mean-sounding vocals created a mesmerizing musical experience. Rice Miller died in Helena, Arkansas in 1965.
4. Paul Butterfield
Paul Vaughn Butterfield, who was born in Chicago in 1942 (just like his most famous song indicates), was one of the greatest bluesman to ever pick up a harp. Mastering both amplified and acoustic harmonica, His playing was extremely technical, encompassing jazz and soul elements, but also conveying a lot of feeling, thanks to his always sharp, piercing and intense tone. Mentored by Muddy Waters himself, He developed into a great singer, songwriter and bandleader very quickly and was one of the main reasons the Chicago blues sound reached white audiences. Paul died tragically in 1987 in North Hollywood, California, after a drug overdose.
3. Junior Wells
Amos Wells Blakemore Jr. was born in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1934 and is truly a force to be reckoned with regarding amplified harmonica. He served as Muddy Waters’s harpist, toured with the Rolling Stones and succeeded in a long-living and brilliant solo career making him widely recognized as one of the true masters of the electric blues. For Wells, every note mattered, and his wailing, potent, and sometimes melancholic tone combined with his deep, strong vocal interplay made him one of the finest names in the business. Either serving as a sideman or as solo attraction, when Wells picked up his harp, people knew they were in for a show. He died in 1998 in Chicago after a battle with cancer.
2. Sonny Boy Williamson
Born in Madison County, Tennesse in 1914, John Lee Curtis “Sonny Boy” Williamson, or the original Sonny Boy, pioneered the use of the harmonica as the lead instrument in the blues, which, in his music, worked sometimes almost as a second voice, answering his vocal passages with weeping and piercing notes. He’s also one of the greatest songwriters and singers in blues music, making him truly a triple threat. His graceful, inventive, and masterful playing was influential to hundreds of other greats blues harmonicists, and even though Rice Miller is the far more famous Sonny Boy, John Lee is as important and brilliant as him. After recording dozens of hit singles, and at the peak of his career, John Lee sadly died in Chicago in 1948, after a brutal beating during a robbery.
1. Little Walter
Marian “Little” Walter Jacobs, born in Marksville, Louisiana in 1930, is the undisputed king of the blues harmonica. After arriving in Chicago and making a name for himself, he found his place as the first proper harpist in Muddy Water’s band and played with giants such as Willie Dixon and Jimmy Rogers, however, his solo career is where he really shined, displaying all of his songwriting magic, releasing one hit single after another. His rich, ripping, haunting and unique tone, merged with his solid rhythmic sense and pioneering use of the amplified distortion makes him very special in the history of music. He was the harp equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, but unfortunately, his prolific career met a tragic and untimely end, when he died in 1968, of coronary thrombosis, after being injured in a bar fight in the south side of Chicago. Nevertheless, his legacy as the ultimate harmonica wizard lives on.