Why do harmonica players get such a bad rap?

My second born just came into the world, and even before arriving played havoc with my guitar-playing time, so I've diverted a lot of the time I do have into finally giving blues harmonica a proper go, and years of dipping in and out and never really getting anywhere. The fact that I can practice in the car is a big plus

This time (and with the help of bluesharmonica.com, which I'm extremely impressed with so far) I am flying and I'm absolutely loving it. Could-become-my-main-instrument kind of loving it

But why do harmonica players get such a bad rap?

What should I do/not do to now be one of those guys?


Mostly because they sound like balls.

Don't get me wrong, sometimes I dig it.

But.. 99.999% of the time, it just sounds atrocious.

The worst are the dudes that turn up at jam sessions and open mics with their harmonica. Always wanting to do that awful "I woke up this morning and I got myself some beer" song.


When they try to play on EV - E - RY thing. Blues harmonica just does not fit in everything, no matter how good you are. When I see a guy come into a jam wearing a harmonica belt, I know it’s gonna be a rough night. If he’s immediately followed by a guy wearing a Zydeco vest, I’m outta there.

Bob Womack

Way too many harmonica players don't know how to lay out. I think that's the gist of it - harmonica players as a group seem to abhor a vacuum and are intent on filling every fraction of a second of it with the sweet, sweet sound of harmonica.
Remember, harmonicas are only a few reeds short of an accordion. Just kidding, but in my experience, the above quote about sums it up.

Do you remember the harmonica in "Stormy Monday" from The Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East? Of course you don't! Producer Tom Dowd Mixed it out and didn't revive it for over twenty years. Oh and by the way, in the ultimate irony, Duane Allman based his slide style around harp players.



Courtney DIDN’T Kill Kurt!
Silver Supporting Member
I don’t personally dig the blues style of playing. But I love John Lennon’s harmonica playing on those early Beatle records. Such an integral part and it worked because he was adding another layer to the hook.


Part of it is what everyone else has already said; a harmonica doesn't really blend with anything...any time it's playing, it absolutely dominates, even at low volume.

Another part of it is the fact that an awful, awful lot of harmonica players tend to mostly be blues/rock/folk guitarists and singers...a group not exactly known for its mastery of theory knowledge or nuance. The notion that a diatonic harmonica plays either the tonic or dominant is over a lot of their heads.

I once played with a guy that played harmonica that knew enough to have different diatonic harps for different keys...but not enough to understand how that worked. When we played something in E minor, he not only didn't know that he should have been using his G harp instead of his E harp, he didn't care and couldn't be told that the G# he kept blowing was wrecking us....just kept insisting that "since we were in E", he was going to keep playing his E harp. And no...this was not a guy with enough knowledge or technique to bend that G# down.

Now add the fact that most players would rather be, you know, PLAYING than resting...the idea of different parts coming in and out might be fine, but very few converted guitarists are going to be happy resting for 80% of a song. In their heads, they're supposed to be playing most of the time.

Combine all 3 of those, and you end up with a recipe for some dude standing there obliviously blowing a piercing, un-blending tonic or dominant way too often, probably way too loud, and without regard what what anyone else is doing.

I've got a ton of respect for harmonica players who know what they're doing....they're either really slick with a chromatic harp, or they're very good technically on a diatonic harp, especially in terms of overbending. But in my experience, most harmonica players have no idea what I even just said, let alone how to make it all work.

So...long story short, if you want to avoid being "that guy", just get good. A harmonica is just too potent a weapon of chaos to be lousy at it.
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The only song I really like hearing harmonica is Supertramp's Take the Long Way Home. Other than that I really do not like the sound of harmonica. The timbre irritates my ears.


Gold Supporting Member
I love Blues Harp in its proper context… especially from a Jump Blues/Little Walter/Rod Piazza perspective, where it’s actually part of the arrangement- not just blowing solo stuff over everything

Which is why so many cringe when a harmonica player shows up to a gig, wanting to sit it - they rarely have any self control or sense of dynamics. And the ones that do are usually already in a band of their own.

My old Blues/Rock trio had a Harp player for a while… but only as a “special guest“ for part of each set, because not all of our set list worked well for a Harmonica. It sounded great - because this guy was really good - that is, until he demanded a full cut for only working half the night. I think not!! :rolleyes:

EDIT: we did pay him a partial cut for his time…

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