The 13 greatest uses of harmonica in rock and metal
They say that the harmonica (AKA mouth organ, AKA French harp) is the easiest instrument to play – badly. A reedy favourite of blues musicians and acoustic-wielding singer-songwriters looking to and body and range to their jangling compositions, it’s a tool that’s easy to pick up but notoriously tricky to master: music’s small package capable of generating big power. Predictably, it’s been borrowed by the fast-and-loose world of heavy music frequently over the years, to often cringeworthy and occasionally iconic effect.
We’ve dug deep here, picking out 13 of our favourite reedy blasts from the last five-and-a-bit decades, across genres as diverse as punk, metal, industrial and good old blues rock. Here’s to hearing far more harmonica further down the line…
13. Foo Fighters – Another Round
Foo Fighters’ 2005 double-album was defined by the division between its electric side-one and acoustic side-two. Another Round was one of the less lauded tracks from the latter, but its tale of sticking by the ones you love through thick and thin still feels like a particularly poignant statement from a band who were stood right on the cusp of global superstardom at the time. The lengthy, low-key harmonica solo two-and-a-half-minutes in was performed by New Jersey filmmaker Danny Cinch, who also subsequently directed the Foos’ 2006 Skin And Bones live DVD. Easygoing class.
12. Orange Goblin – Beginner’s Guide To Suicide
It’s hardly a push to say that London stoner-metal legends Orange Goblin were influenced by Black Sabbath and, in turn, the swampy blues-rock traditions from which the metal genre was spawned. The final track from 2007’s Healing Through Fire saw the band throwing themselves wholly back into that territory for an eight-minute epic, which also touches on country and bluegrass before bursting groovily into life. Harmonicas are provided by Jonny Halifax (of Honkeyfinger and Jonny Halifax & The Howling Truth), providing a high-energy counterpoint to some jittery guitars. An ingenious fleshing-out of OG’s already massive sound.
11. Pearl Jam – Smile
The mouth organ sits proudly front-and-centre on the fifth track from Pearl Jam’s famously diverse fourth album No Code. Its aura of roadworn melancholy – the chosen sound of so many train-hopping transients – makes the instrument feel like a natural fit for one of the greatest bands of the grunge generation, while also hinting at the folky, bluegrassy sounds with which the band and frontman Eddie Vedder would experiment across the decades that followed. There’s jagged irony here as Eddie asks, ‘Don’t it make you smile?’, but it’s hard not to feel a little warmth in your soul.
10. The Clash – (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
Originally dropped as a B‑side for the 7‑inch single release of The Prisoner, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais was one of the more complex compositions in the early years of legendary London punks The Clash. Set to an easy ska rhythm, its indictment of the watering-down of British reggae (as perceived by frontman Joe Strummer), then of the political state of the country at large, unfurls with a sense of tired resignation, but guitarist Mick Jones’ harmonica solo closes out with a glimmer of hope, and a heartfelt touch of urgency.
9. Guns N’ Roses – Bad Obsession
Although it wasn’t committed to record until 1991’s Use Your Illusion I, Bad Obsession reportedly dates back to Guns N’ Roses’ early days, co-written as a chronicle of their insatiable narcotic appetite by guitarist Izzy Stradlin and friend of the band West Arkeen, who would himself pass away from an overdose in 1997. There’s real outlaw energy in the bluesy, country-fried composition, with Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe dropping in not only some brilliantly driving harmonica, but also some cheeky saxophone, too.
8. Motörhead – Whorehouse Blues
Approaching their 30th anniversary as a band, iconic English hellraisers Motörhead thought they’d have a go at changing it up for the end of underrated seventeenth album, Inferno. With all three members switching over onto acoustic guitar for a composition that felt like pure outlaw country, and Lemmy doing an impressive Johnny Cash impersonation on lyrics like ‘We come blazing like a shooting star / We light you up real good’, they managed it with characteristic badass verve. The frontman’s conclusion, towards the end, that, ‘The only thing that’s missing / Is a little mouth harp blues’ segues into a brilliantly throwaway solo. Too cool.
7. Volbeat – Heaven Nor Hell
Speaking of Johnny Cash’s influence on the world of heavy music, it’s always been there in the psychobilly tendencies of Copenhagen hard-rockers Volbeat. The third single from 2010’s Beyond Hell/Above Heaven has a dustily old-school crossroad-demon narrative about a man who sells his soul to the devil then steals it back, and features Henrik Hall of Danish pop-rockers Love Shop powering through on harmonica. That extra sonic dimension adds real force to its message that life is worth living in the here and now.
6. Aerosmith – Cryin’
One of the all time rock-harmonica classics. The third of seven(!) singles taken from 1993’s awesome Get A Grip, Cryin’ tells the story of a relationship that started out on a euphoric high before ending up in utter misery, which either refers to some romantic entanglement, or to frontman Steven Tyler’s drug use. “Listen to the lyrics,” he told Rolling Stone when pressed on the track’s twangy style. “It was country – we just Aerosmith’d it.” The choice of instrumentation was compelling proof, too, of the Bostonians’ increased wild-western tendencies, as if any more was needed.
5. Crobot – The Necromancer
‘All hail, the Necromancer / The killed get up and kill!’ Pottsvilee, PA’s heavy funk rockers Crobot love a bit of harmonica, with frontman Brandon Yeagley layering it on as an integral part of their throwback appeal. The third track from 2014 debut LP Something Supernatural sees him blasting on his harp from start to finish, over an Evil Dead-inspired tale of a zombie army commanded by the titular Necromancer, wading through a bloody battlefield to kill us all. Because who says mouth organs can’t be pure evil?
4. Weezer – My Name Is Jonas
Los Angeles alt. icons Weezer have a weird talent for making ostensibly out-of-place stylistic choices feel like the most natural in the world. That dates back to the very first song on their self-titled 1994 debut, where the terrifically off-kilter tale of a serious traffic accident experienced by frontman Rivers Cuomo’s brother surges through wave after wave of proto-emo electric/acoustic riffage and into a breathless harmonica solo by the singer himself. Absolutely timeless pop-rock perfection.
3. Ministry – Filth Pig
Another band where many listeners mightn’t even have taken onboard the use of mouth organ first time round, Chicago industrial supremos Ministry have always been more about sheet metal riffage, nightmare atmospherics and sheer sonic chaos than any sort of blues-rock revivalism. On the title-track from 1996’s Filth Pig (so named after frontman Al Jourgensen was called a “filthy pig” in the British Houses Of Parliament), however, the instrument is woven expertly into the mix, adding another level of trippy shimmer to the swirling sonic nightmare. Still a weirdly unsettling listen, 25 years on. ‘Filth pig, I sleep with both eyes open…’
2. Clutch – Electric Worry
On the other side of the coin, Maryland blues rockers Clutch are exactly the sort of dudes you’d expect to have harmonicas swinging round their necks. They don’t disappoint, particularly in the raucous breakthrough single from 2007’s outstanding From Beale Street To Oblivion – a partial cover of blues legend Muddy Waters’ 1955 classic Trouble No More. Eric Oblander of Ohio stoner-rockers Five Horse Johnson plays the instrument on this and several other tracks across the LP.
1. Black Sabbath – The Wizard
It’s been observed, often, that the sound of the harmonica is reminiscent of a train blowing its horn down some distant railway tunnel. That’s absolutely the case with Ozzy Osbourne’s wailing licks on the fourth track from Black Sabbath’s self-titled 1970 debut. Legend had it, originally, that the track was an ode to the band’s drug dealer (‘Never talking / Just keeps walking / Spreading his magic’), but guitarist Tony Iommi has since clarified that it’s actually about a local oddball Ozzy and bassist Geezer Butler witnessed leaping around outside the pub while they were thoroughly stoned. Either way, the song feels fantastically otherworldly, while simultaneously paying propulsive tribute to the bluesy traditions from which the band were born.
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