The Best Harmonica Musicians of All Time

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Written By Tanya

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It was easy to pick the best harmonica players. There aren’t many candidates, so we can agree on this. We could argue about the order they appear.

To make the list, a harmonicist must possess top-level skills. We also considered their creativity and the impact they had on the music industry. We thought you might enjoy our list of Best Flutists in the World. They are all pretty similar instruments.

It’s difficult to limit yourself to 10 top picks. We also have a few runners up and honorable mentions. Keep checking the list below if you don’t see your favorite. Let’s get to the list with the top harmonica players worldwide…

#10 – John Popper

ASSOCIATED ACTS : THE JOHN POPER PROJECT, BLUES TRAVELER

John Popper was the founder member of Blues Traveler and served as frontman. He also sang lead vocals and played the harmonica. The band gained a large following through their frequent touring and gained a good reputation in the jam band scene. John Popper and Blues Travel made the leap to mainstream Pop/Rock in 1994 with “Four”, their album.

The Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance By a Duo/Group Vocal was given to “Run-around” in 1996. This song is a Popper composition. Popper’s solo album, “Zygote,” was released in 1999 and he toured with the John Popper Band to promote it.

Trivia Facts Popper played harmonica with the Smashing Pumpkins during their second day of their 1997 Bridge School Benefit performance. He also performed the song “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans.” Popper is the harmonica player on Hanson’s 2000 album This Time Around. Popper wrote and performed Roseanne’s theme song in its ninth year.

#9 – Stevie Wonder

ASSOCIATED ACTS MICHAEL JACKSON, PAU MCCARTNEY

Stevie Wonder, who was talented from an early age, signed with Motown Records at the age of 11. His debut single, “I Call it Pretty Music But the Old People Call it the Blues,” reached the Billboard 100 and spent a week at 101.

He reached No. 13 with “Fingertips”, his first single. He was the youngest artist to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1. Stevie had two songs from his 1972 album, “Superstition” at the tender age of 22. They were “You are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” both of which won him 3 Grammy Awards.

Stevie is regarded as the greatest American artist. His 1976 album “Key of Life” was No. 1. It remained at No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 14 consecutive weeks. He may be considered one of the greatest piano players in the world . However, they are mistaking his fun songs for extreme skill (he is still good).

Trivia Facts – Stevie is the only artist to have won the Grammy for album of the Year for three consecutive albums. These were 1973’s “Innervisions”, 1974’s “Fulfillingness First Finale” and 1976’s “Songs In the Key of Life”. To celebrate the birth Aisha, Stevie wrote “Isn’t She Lovely”. Stevie and his band performed “Superstition” on an April 1973 episode of Sesame Street, a children’s TV show.

#8 – Alan Wilson

ASSOCIATED ACTS : CANNED HEAT, SSON HOUSE

Alan Wilson was an avid student of early blues. He discovered his passion for it after a friend played a Muddy Waters record. Wilson studied Music at Boston University. He was also a musician on the folk-blues circuit in a Cambridge, Massachusetts coffeehouse.

Wilson met John Fahey while performing at Cambridge. A bit later, he met Bob Hite and the two would go on to form Canned Heat. Wilson, a member Canned Heat would perform at Monterey Pop Festival 1967 and Woodstock 1969, two of the most prestigious concerts of the 1960s.

Canned Heat’s performance was cut from the Woodstock film’s original theatrical launch. However, Canned Heat included the 25th-anniversary Director’s Cut. He deserves to be on the top harmonica players’ list for his efforts in getting this instrument into Woodstock.

Trivia Facts Alan Wilson was given the nickname “Blind Owl”, by John Fahey, because of his nearsightedness and roundish face features that he possesses a scholarly nature. Wilson once placed his guitar on his wedding cake as a sign of his nearsightedness.

#7 – Sonny Boy Williamson

ASSOCIATED ACTS – BLUEBIRD RECORDS

Williamson is often referred to as the “father” of blues harp. His first recording was made in 1937 for Bluebird Records. Williamson’s music was loved by black audiences in the South. His name was associated with blues harmonica over the next ten year after he recorded “Good Morning, School Girl”.

Here are some of his other recordings: “Shake the Boogie”, “Early in the Morning”, and “Sugar Mama Blues”. “Shake the Boogie,” would reach number 4 on Billboard’s Race Records chart.

Williamson had a profound influence on many blues harmonica players such as Little Walter, Billy Boy Arnold and Junior Wells. Williamson was undoubtedly the most influential blues musician of his generation.

Trivia Facts A historical marker is located on Highway 18 in Tennessee near Williamson’s birthplace. John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson Day, which is observed every June 1, is a day dedicated to Williamson’s achievements. It has been celebrated since 1990. Williamson’s song “Good Morning Little SchoolGirl” has been hailed as a blues legend.

#6 – Little Walter

ASSOCIATED ACTS : MUDDY WATERS JIMMY ROGERS THE ACES

Marion Walter Jacobs, also known as Little Walter was a pioneer in the playing of the harmonica. His approach to it has influenced generations. Walter recorded his first recording for Bernard Abrams’s Ora-Nelle label in 1947. Walter owes much of the style he played the harmonica to Sonny Boy Williamson who was a pioneering blues harmonica player.

Walter’s amplified harmonium would be heard on the first song of his 1952 album, “Country Boy.” Walter’s second hit was “Juke,” which Walter recorded for Checker Records. “Juke”, which was released for Checker Records, would be the Billboard R&B Chart’s top-selling song for eight weeks.

Walter would climb the ladder of success and had fourteen hits in the top ten between 1952-58 on the Billboard R&B charts. Sonny Boy Williamson was not able to enjoy his success.

Trivia Facts Little Walter was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2008. He was the first person to be inducted solely for his harmonica playing. “Juke,” a harmonica instrumental, is the only one to reach number one on the Billboard R&B charts.

#5 – Paul Butterfield

ASSOCIATED ACTS – THE PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND

Paul Butterfield founded the Paul Butterfield blues band in 1963. Butterfield was an American blues harmonica player. He was also a singer and bandleader. Paul Butterfield Blues Band released their debut album later that year.

The album reached 123 on the Billboard 200 album charts in 1966. It featured songs such as “Blues with a Feeling”, and “Look Over Yonders Wall”. Their Billboard ranking was not enough to reflect the album’s impact on culture. In 1968, the next album, “In My Own Dream,” would be released. It reached number 79 on Billboard’s album charts.

The Woodstock Festival, August 18th 1969, was an invitation to The Butterfield Blues Band. This event saw them perform seven songs together. It’s impossible to be a Woodstock musician and not be a great harmonica.

Trivia Facts Paul Butterfield was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame back in 2006. Butterfield and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Both Hall of Fame institutions were impressed by Butterfield’s ability to play the harmonica.

#4 – Indiara Sfair

ASSOCIATED ACTS – MILK’N BLUEES

Blues harmonica player, Fair quickly gained fame for her sensitive and unique harmonica techniques. You can find her music on YouTube and Spotify. Curitiba is a large Brazilian city where she learned to be a musician and a composer.

Indiara is from a musical family. Her grandfather sang the blues and her uncle and grandmother are pianists. Her brother plays the drums, and her uncle is an accomplished guitarist. They should have had their own band! She grew up listening and singing blues, rock, and new age music, as well as Brazilian music.

She has quickly risen to the top of the list of harmonica players. With the advent of social media and the internet, her impact on increasing awareness of the instrument will be immense (and much appreciated).

Trivia Facts Indiara Sfair is a member of the Brazilian blues band, “Milk’n Blues.” She is an outstanding harmonica player and a talented composer. Eric Clapton and David Gilmour are among her favourite musicians, but Carlos Del Junco is her favorite harpist.

#3 – Big Mama Thornton

ASSOCIATED ACTS : MUDDY WATERS BLUE BAND

Willie Mae Thornton, also known as “Big Mama”, was a strong and influential African American female vocalist in the Rhythm and Blues style. After moving to Houston in 1948, Big Mama’s music career began. She signed with Peacock Records for 1951. Thornton was a performer at the Apollo theatre on February 12, 1952.

Soon after, she recorded “Hound dog”, a hit song that has sold over half a million copies. It remained at the top of the R&B charts for several weeks. Big Mama Thornton, who was touring Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965, was hugely successful. It was rare for a female blues artist to be accepted in another country.

Thornton was a unique vocalist who could also play the harmonica and drums. She was revered as a catalyst for the revival of Blues music. Many famous artists, including Elvis Presley, respected her. Sassy Mama, Big Mama’s final album in 1975, received praise from across the country.

Trivia Facts Big Mama Thornton began her music career at the age of 14 when she moved to New York to join Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. Her singing style was heavily influenced gospel music because she was the daughter of a preacher. Her song “Ball n Chain” is listed in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame as one of the Top 500 songs to have influenced Rock and Roll. She was also a well-known songwriter.

#2 – Phil Wiggins

ASSOCIATED ACTS – CEPHAS AND WIGGINS

Phil Wiggins was part of the American Acoustic Blues duo, Cephas & Wiggins. He was originally a member in Wilbert Ellis’ band. However, he and Cephas continued to perform as a duo after leaving the band in 1980.

Phil was also able to teach workshops and classes, and was able tour the world, performing in Asia, Africa and other noteworthy locations.

Wiggins was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 2017. This award was the highest possible honor the government could bestow on folk and traditional arts. Phil is well-known for his Piedmont Blues Music. This transcends time and makes Phil a great music director.

Trivia Facts Before 1990, Phil was a carpenter. In 1987, Phil was awarded the Entertainer of the Year Award at the Blues Music Awards. Phil is also the third harmonica player ever to be awarded the National Heritage Fellowship’s lifetime honor. Phil has also been awarded the WC Handy Blues Foundation award twice.

#1 – Toots Thielemans

ASSOCIATED ACTS: QUINCY JONES, CHARLIE PARKER’S ALL-STARS

Toots Thielemans, a Belgian jazz musician, had a profound impact on the world. He is widely regarded as one the greatest musicians of all time. His humble beginnings were with a small band.

He was a Benny Goodman member and toured Europe and the USA in 1949 and 1950. He finally went to the USA and led his groups. Then he traveled the country.

Thielemans composed many soundtracks, but his most well-known contribution is the harmonica theme song to Sesame Street’s children’s program. Toots was awarded the Jazz Master title in 2009, which is the highest honor a Jazz musician can earn in the US.

Toots was a harmonica player and artist from all over the globe. We are certain that he is our choice for the best harpist ever.

Trivia Facts – Toots Thielemans is also well-known for his guitar playing and whistling skills as well as playing the harmonica. In 2005, he was nominated for the award “The Greatest Belgian.” Additionally, he reviews an honorary joint doctorate of two Belgian universities. Thielemans’ motto is “Be yourself, not more, nor less.”

Runners up: Who is almost one of the best Harmonica players in the world?

It’s difficult to only include 10 top picks when there are so many talented players who deserve recognition. You may have selected different harmonicists for your top 10. Here are 4 runners up, and then a list with honorable mentions to ensure everyone gets a shout-out.

Bob Dylan

ASSOCIATED ACTS : THE BAND, TRAVELING WILBRYS, JOAN BAEZ

Bob Dylan, a well-known figure in pop culture, is a singer, visual artist and songwriter that has touched many hearts. Dylan’s music has often addressed America’s problems during the Civil Rights Movement. Because there were real issues in the world, Dylan was well-known for his determination to make music and lyrics that meant something.

Dylan’s early music consisted mainly of folk songs. However, he began to use electric instruments and music in mid-1960s. Bob Dylan has performed on the “Never Ending Tour”, backed by many well-known musicians since 1988. Dylan and his band have played over 3000 shows. In the future, he plans to tour Japan.

Bob Dylan is one the most popular musicians to have produced music in multiple genres. (Folk and blues, rock, gospel and country. He is one of the most-sold music artists.

Trivia Facts – Dylan published eight books that contained drawings and paintings. These books have been displayed in many galleries across the globe. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and ten Grammys. Bob Dylan was inducted multiple times into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for various categories of achievements.

James Cotton

ASSOCIATED ACTS : MUDDY WATERS, HOWLIN’ WOLLF, JIMMYCOTTON BLUES QARTET

James Cotton was an American blues harmonica musician and had the honor of playing with some of the greatest players of his time. He was a blues artist and also played with his own band. After hearing Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio broadcast, he became interested in music and began his professional career in the 1950s.

He was a member of Howlin’ Wolf’s group and later recorded one of Sam Phillips’ first Memphis recordings. He was eventually hired to be the leader of Muddy Waters’ band, until he founded the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet in 1965.

Cotton was a harmonica player on the Grammy Award-winning Johnny Winter album of the 1970s. James Cotton is a blues harmonica player who is renowned for being one of the most energetic and prominent of his time.

Trivia Facts – James Cotton was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame back in 2006. He has shared or won ten Blues Music Awards during his career. James Cotton also opened for Janis Joplin on numerous tours. James Cotton was instrumental in the 2008 induction of Little Walter into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Greg Szlapcynski (aka “Zlap”)

ASSOCIATED ACTS JEANJACQUES MILTEAU and JEANMARIE ECAY

Greg Zlap traveled to France in the 1980s, bringing a harmonica. When he started going to Paris nightclubs, he joined several music groups. Zlap started holding monthly meetings that revolved around the Blues. Greg Time, a live album was recorded by Zlap in 1998.

Greg has been a performer with many French Blues musicians over the years. He has also traveled the country performing live shows and assisting with French film soundtracks. He is a well-known French singer and harmonica player, and is highly sought after for his unique style and passion in Blues music.

Trivia Facts Greg Zlap started a harmonica school and gave workshops to children with asthma who were admitted to hospital. He also has five albums under his name. Zlap only plays Hohner harmonicas, and he says it is because of its excellent sound quality.

Richard Salwitz (aka Magic Dick)

ASSOCIATED ACTS : SHUN NG, THE J. GEILS BOARD

Richard Salwitz, an American Harmonica player, is best known for his work in the J Geils Band. His best performance is “Whammer Jammer”, which was part of the band’s live album. Although the band disbanded in 1985, Magic Dick reunited his friend J. Geils and formed Bluestime.

Two records were also released by the new band: Bluestime (1996) and Little Car Blues (1996). They toured extensively throughout 2002, and performed numerous shows in 2003. They performed as a solo act, and also as part of B.B. King’s Bluesfest.

Trivia Facts Magic Dick designed his harmonica, the “Magic Harmonica,” and he was also a singer during his career. Magic Dick is a well-known actor for his role as Grown Ups 2. He is an avid collector and admirer of trumpets, and considers Louis Armstrong to be one of his heroes.

Honorable Mentions for the Best Harmonica Players around the World

There are so many outstanding harmonicists, it’s impossible to limit ourselves to just the ones mentioned above. Your favorite might not be listed yet, but they definitely deserve a shout-out. Here’s the next batch of harmonicists who have a great chance to climb the rankings over the years.

  • Aleck Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II)
  • Mickey Raphael
  • Jerry Adler
  • Jason Ricci
  • Howard Levy
  • Kim Wilson
  • Dennis Gruenling
  • Paul deLay
  • Wade Schuman

We’ll keep talking about it forever if we don’t stop here. This is a great topic because we know that if another person asks us or re-weights our variables, the entire top 10 list will shuffle around or be replaced completely.

Here’s a question: Are you sure any of these harmonicists made it to the richest musicians in the world ? You can bet they have a lot of their soundtracks and other music. You should check it out! We appreciate you sharing your thoughts about the greatest harmonica players ever!

The Top 10 Most Influential Harmonica Players of All Time

This table lists the top 10 harmonica players ever. It includes their names as well as the associated acts.

RankHarmonica PlayerActs Associated
1Toots ThielemansQuincy Jones, Charlie Parker’S All-Stars
2Phil WigginsCephas & Wiggins
3Big Mama ThorntonMuddy Waters Blues Band
4Indiara SfairMilk’n Blues
5Paul ButterfieldPaul Butterfield Blues Band
6Little WalterMuddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, The Aces
7Sonny Boy WilliamsonBluebird Records
8Alan WilsonCanned Heat, Son House
9Stevie WonderMichael Jackson, Paul McCartney
10John PopperMuddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, The Aces

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