Little Child: The Harmonica in Beatle Music


It's 1962. The Beatles are playing the Cavern Club regularly (twice a week...)

And "Hey Baby" by Bruce Channel is a big hit in both England and America, annoyingly compelling, despised by adults, incredibly catchy. This song influences John Lennon immensely, and his harmonica playing is about to become a major factor in the early Beatles' success on record.

At the time, the harmonica carried several connotations/ suggested uses: the blues tradition with a lead singer wailing bent notes straight into the microphone. The folk style of melodic lines played by an acoustic guitarist on an unwieldy rack contraption to hold the harp somewhat steady while keeping the hands free. The lonesome cowboy playing "Tumbling Tumbleweed" to his horse on the wide prairie. And, of course, the prisoner, wearily lamenting his lack of space and oversupply of time.

The harmonica has more to recommend it than these cliches. For one, it's cheap, especially compared to other instruments. Next is a short learning curve; it's not that difficult to get decent on the harmonica in a reasonable amount of time, and you are pretty much guaranteed to get a note out of it in key, unlike the flute, horn or violin. It's portable and don't take up much space. All in all, harmonica is a great shortcut to musical variation, especially for a group with limited time, money, and technical grounding. Perhaps the only cheaper, more portable, easier to play source of variation is the echoed handclap, another early reliable.

The word "harmonica" isn't even indexed in any of the four major Beatle/Lennon biographical works I consulted; it just goes from "Hard Day's Night" to "Harrison, George." Since I've been fooling around with the instrument lately, I started looking at the Boys' oeuvre from the instrument's point of view, and since there wasn't anything else written that I could find, I decided to write it up myself and with Doug's encouragement to inflict it on y'all.

Early Stirrings (pre- and early 1962)

Neither the early Quarrymen 1960 tapes nor the Decca auditions feature the harmonica at all, so there is no documentary or other evidence (that I can find) of the Beatles using the instrument as of January 1, 1962. It's most interesting that the Quarrymen sessions with their interminable twelve-bar jams have no harmonica at all. That is pretty close to conclusive proof that the Beatles weren't using it then. Similarly, the Decca auditions were another situation where one would assume the Boys would deploy it if they had it in their arsenal.

The first recorded instance I can find is a rehearsal at the Cavern Club in early 1962, and it's "I Saw Her Standing There" of all things. In this clearly early attempt, the song is in the key of E and Lennon plays what can fairly be called the "blue approach." That is, rather than imitating the melody of the song, he emphasises what are called "blue" or flatted notes, and plays an instrumental line unrelated to the song's melody. He probably uses an A harmonica rather than E (a fourth up), the traditional method to specifically get the blue note D which forms the flatted seventh of the root E and a flatted third of the dominant B and characterizes this playing style. It's also possible to get those notes on a G chromatic harmonica; more on that later.

Prominent also in this take is that the playing takes up John's hands, so there's no rhythm guitar. The playing is rather simplistic and droning, syncopated during the verse parts "She was just..." etc., dropping out for the verse part "How could I... Since I..." and so on. It comes off decently but not impressively, and no further efforts at adding the harmonica to this song have come to light so far. The choice of a prominent, A-grade original, one of their most recorded early songs, an album opener and pivotal B-side, is revealing. It would seem to indicate that the Decca experience, and the general lack of interest in their originals to this point, led them to try to add something that would put them over the top. Right idea and instrument, but the wrong song...

First Fruits

It took a trip to Abbey Road, the help of George Martin, and an original song written with the instrument clearly in mind, to work the harmonica into the act productively. "Love Me Do" was the song, second Abbey Road session, September 1962. The instrument is a chromatic harmonica, that is "one with the button" in the key of G. This is the only song where the harmonica is played live on the basic track, unlike the rest of the released canon which uses overdubs (exception needed for radio cuts and live performances).

A chromatic harmonica is required because the song uses three consecutive chromatic notes (F, F# and G), a combination unavailable on your standard G Hohner Marine Band or blues harp. The button switches the airflow to a differently tuned set (half step sharp) of reeds, allowing the player to access all the notes of the chromatic scale, change key, and in the case of "Love Me Do," mix blue and folk styles of playing.

Which brings us to the question of terminology. John Lennon, speaking on the BBC, calls the simple version, no button, a "blues harp" and the one with the button as on "Love Me Do" a "harmonica" (and calls it the "big one," true in comparison to the standard type). My Hohner G with-a-button calls itself a "chromonica," eliding the fuller description into one of those lovely marketing neologisms. The liner notes for "With The Beatles" state that John plays "mouth organ" on "Little Child." Webster states that "harmonica," "blues harp," and "mouth organ" are all synonyms for the same thing. As if that isn't enough, I have a little framis that you blow into which features a mini-keyboard and a harmonica-like sound, which my mother bought for the kids and called a "mouth organ." Until I'll identify where the chromatic one is possible or necessary, and the rest of the time assume use of the simpler harp/harmonica.

On "Love Me Do" the harmonica mit-dem-button is fully integrated with the song; it's the first thing you hear, provides a "hook" to ease instant recognition of what song you're hearing; fills in with the words during the break; and takes the instrumental solo in the middle. Because of the sheer quantity of playing and the button-pressing needed to get the F note, there is no rhythm guitar; though it's a Lennon song, McCartney had to take over the lead vocal so the harmonica could be played without overdubs. Triplets (three notes played evenly over two or four beats), a bedrock of Lennon style, appear here as well, in the second phrase of the hook part.

Of course, the song is the A side of the first single, and provides the Boys' breakthrough into the British charts. Neither this song nor the B side, "P.S. I Love You," has a guitar solo.

The follow-up single in November 1962 took the Fabs to the golden #1 singles chart position with "Please Please Me," the original they decided to ship, in a reworked faster version, instead of "How Do You Do It." There are several noteworthy aspects here: the harmonica starts the song as in Love Me Do, but plays straight melody in the folk style with no blue notes in the intro and ending coda. The song and harmonica are in the key of E. The harmonica part is essential to the song, again providing an easily recognizable "hook" to ease recognition. Like the B side, "Ask Me Why," this song has no solo in the middle.

The next and fairly comical harmonical occurrence is at the Star Club on "I Remember You," of all things, in December of 1962. This has in some ways the same feel as the previous effort ("I Saw Her Standing There") to find a place for the instrument, and try to get some real practice on it, while not quite getting there. Since it's Paul doing a granny song, one could also speculate that it was an attempt by John to somewhat distance himself from, and even disrupt, the proceedings. Some of the playing is decent, but there are some truly bum notes probably from not enough practice (on the harmonica, if a phrase starts with an exhale and you inhale on the first note, or the reverse, it is easy for a beginner to get completely lost). The effort here is more ambitious, probably trying to make up for the lack of rhythm guitar by playing the harmonica all the way through; in addition to the usual between-the-vocals approach, there is a sustained attempt to try and stay with all the chords, or at least one note from each, throughout the song.

Summarizing 1962, then, we see that an early experiment led quickly to integrated, prominent placement of the harmonica on the first two "important" singles, all in the space of perhaps ten months or so. It seems to have taken improved compositional and arrangement skills, as well as some technical practice on Lennon's part, to advance matters to this point, but the payoff is impressive indeed: Two singles, two A sides, one a #1.

Heyday (1963)

This was the year the Fabs laid the foundation of their incredible success in two ways -- by building a strong base in Europe and the UK, and by producing consistently strong, catchy, innovative material. The use of the harmonica as the primary alternative to the guitar is most pronounced in this year, and key to many of their most successful early material.

The fabled February 1963 "Please Please Me" marathon album session added two more harmonicuts to the lexicon. In both cases, the paradigm is like that of "Please Please Me:" the harmonica as filler instrument for the introduction and transitions.

In order of album occurrence, first comes "Chains" from the Brill Building's Goffin-King and released in America by the girl group the Cookies ("Don't Say Nothin' Bad About My Baby"). In many ways this is a BBC-esque cover cut, filler that both compensates for not having enough good originals and provides recognizable material to sate the public appetite for familiarity. The harmonica part here is unique in that it concentrates on the fifth, fourth, and third notes of the key of B flat, a key not very frequently used in rock and roll, especially by the Fabs, and not particularly friendly to harmonica players. I've been able to easily and accurately reproduce the part on a G chromatic harmonica, and it's safe to assume that's how it was done.

"There's a Place" is next, in E again like "Please Please Me", with a totally in-key melodic part precisely doubled on lead guitar. As clearly revealed on the numerous available outtakes and edit pieces, we're again overdubbing "dead spots" in the introduction and coda, probably at George Martin's direction. The part is similar in feeling to "Love Me Do," covering the same type of intervals (three notes that form a minor third with ninth, though actually the sixth, seventh and root notes of E), with a triplet hidden in the timing as well. The same part, interestingly enough with a slightly different harmonic backing, appears in the middle of the song right after "when I'm alone."

There is certainly material for another article on the composition of this song, its placement on the album right before the closer "Twist and Shout," and the lyrical content which indicates the direction of much of Lennon's future work. This little number is by far the most sophisticated harmonically and textwise of all the originals recorded at that session. Compare these lyrics to those of Paul's for that same session, you know what I mean? This cut got a strong placement on the album, was a B side in the US with "Twist and Shout," an EP cut in the UK. The Beatles' first two UK EPs feature no less than five harmonica tunes among the eight songs.

Add the appearances of "Please Please Me" and "Love Me Do," and the harmonica appears four times on the first album. Besides what are clearly some George Martin piano overdubs, it's the only other instrument to appear beyond the core of two guitars, bass, and drums. And it is Martin's influence as arranger/musical guru that is probably responsible for the instrument's prominence at this point. The lines played, the choice of where to play them, the rise in frequency after arrival at Abbey Road; clearly Martin's involvement and some compensation for his weaknesses as mixer/producer (fill in your favorite complaint here).

Our little harmonicaravan moves to the next set of sessions at Abbey Road, most prominently with "From Me To You" (March 1963), the third big hit (and second #1) in a row to feature the instrument. The song is in C, and probably played on a harmonica in that key to make for the most friendly inhale-exhale schema. You can play it on a G instrument, but it is harder and the E notes are weaker on the inhale. The part is closely based on the melody, and takes an actual solo in the middle for the first time since "Love Me Do." It's also doubled on guitar as in "Please Please Me" and "There's A Place," creating the color of a third instrument by overlapping the two. Strangely enough given its success so far, this is the last A side to feature the harmonica.

From the same sessions, "Thank You Girl" takes a "Chains"/"There's A Place" approach, using the instrument to fill in on the introduction. The part is incredibly simple, only two notes (E and D) that could be produced on instruments in any of several keys. The bent, blue nature of the first note, produced by slightly constricting the airflow mit der lippen, like zis), suggests an in-breath and a harmonica in D or G. Since we know that Lennon had a G harmonica for "Love Me Do" and could have used it in a couple of other cases, that's probably the one used here. Note also that there is a variant version of this tune with some cloying answer phrases during the break, which notes again suggest D or G as the instrument key. This song was released as the B side of "From Me To You," giving us four harmonica tunes of the six on the first three singles.

That release plus concern about the lyrics as stated during the "Get Back" sessions, probably killed the early version of "One After 909." The songs are in different keys but the introductory two measures are basically identical, and the intro to "909" before the vocal starts is exactly the same thing as one repeat of the outro of "Thank You Girl." All of the available "Get Back" takes of "909" do not use any of the old introductory material. While "909" with its railway theme and bluesy feel would seem an ideal harmonica candidate, the song is in the strange for them key of B (presumably to accomodate the vocalists, C being deemed too high and A too low at some point in time I'd guess) and I don't think they even MAKE harmonicas in that key. 'Spose he coulda played it blue in E, but for whatever reason, didn't.

At this point, Fab harmonica has hit its peak, both in the singles and album cut realms, and begins a sudden and steep decline to near nothingness. All the more interesting because it's been little more than a year since they started using it, and it's closely associated with their earliest successes.

The last UK single cut to feature the harmonica is "I'll Get You," the B side of "She Loves You" from July of this same year. Perhaps most noteworthy about the playing on this cut is how the instrument is actually used to play chords through most of the song, especially during the "climb" or transition part from the verse to the hook ("it's not like me to pretend" etc.). We haven't seen this approach since "I Remember You." The song is in D but the in and out breaths suggest the G harmonica again, most likely Lennon's favorite one and the one he played the best.

Of the first four UK singles, a total of five sides feature the harmonica, three As and two Bs. And there are no guitar solos at all.

Digression on Live Performances

On our way downhill, we may as well discuss the instrument in performance. The harmonica is a problem in this context, with no available extra person to play it (or fill in on rhythm guitar) in concert or during no-overdub radio appearances. The instrument is generally omitted from live performances throughout the Fabs' career, even when recreating major hits in the peak years of Beatlemania. For example, we have the Stars of 1963 Swedish concert, "From Me To You," using the guitar to fill in. The Royal Variety show and all the BBC cuts I can locate of songs that used the harmonica in the studio omit it and let the guitar or nothing fill in: "From Me To You" again, "Thank You Girl", "I'll Get You", just to mention a few I've looked at. We can probably deduce from this that Lennon's guitar playing was considered more essential to the live sound, and that the rack (epithet apt for the torture inflicted on the wearer) used later for live performances of "I'm a Loser" was not yet available.

Two cover tunes from the BBC era do feature the harmonica, and prefigure the next occurrence on an officially released original. These are the "I Got to Find My Baby," from a June 1963 appearance, and "Clarabella" from July. Both songs are in the key of G, with a distinctly bluesy feel and an F natural note that leads us to identify the fourth-above approach and an instrument in the key of C. The solos are similar to one another and suggest material we'll hear later on originals, specifically "Little Child" and "I'm a Loser." The major difference is that there is a lot more steady playing in "Clarabella" from the introductory stops and all the way through.

One exception to this live/radio trend is the October 20 "Easy Beat" performance of "Love Me Do." As noted in several sources, the song was rearranged (John's guitar eliminated, swap of John and Paul vocal parts) to enable them to play it live with the harmonica and only four players. That comfort level seems to have carried over into this performance, which is fluid, virtuosic, totally comfortable, better than the record.

"Little Child," from the September 1963 "With the Beatles" album sessions, recycles previous themes with gusto. The intro is suggestive of "Love Me Do" and musically (backwards...), but again has more of that bluesy feel. We get the whole wad here, the striking intro, the chordlike backing throughout the song, and the most out-there, rave-up solo of the released canon. The key is E but we are in a very bluesy mode, all the while having to respect the diatonic notes because of the continuous playing. What key is the instrument in, then? Could be an A, or an E with a button, even the old reliable G chromatic would do here and might be the strongest candidate. It's quite possible that two were used, given that Lewisohn documents the released version as having harmonica parts (fills and solo) from two different takes (15 and 18 respectively).

Fadeout (1964)

End of the beginning and visa versa for the harmonica. This is the last year to feature more than one song with the instrument. The year begins (February) with the only proper "movie cut" to feature harmonica, "I Should Have Known Better." The two approaches here are the nearly obligatory strong intro, and the steady, chordlike drone that's been a staple since "I'll Get You." This one is in G, as is the instrument used. While the heyday of single cuts with harmonica is long gone, this one is an EP cut in the UK and a prominent B side in the USA, backed with the title tune about a long day's night or something like that. Note that the guitar, the 12-string, plays the solo while the harmonica drones an accompaniment based on the chords.

Our penultimate released cut is the wonderful "I'm A Loser" (August), an EP cut in both the USA and UK. This one's in G, but the blue harmonica used for a solo that is repeated at the end is in C. I first heard it on "Shindig" during an Eppie segment, Paul with a broken tooth and John strapped to the torture rack contraption. The presence of the harmonica, and the lyrics likely led to the Lennon-Dylan comparisons, given that Dylan had by then enjoyed several AM hits with similar instrumentation and imagery. The part played is similar to that in Clarabella etc. but interestingly for a blue-approach song it follows the melody pretty closely; the reason it works is of course the modal nature of the chords, which feature an F natural that grooves right in with the blue harmonica.

This one hit the road. Besides "Shindig," there is a live performance while on tour in Paris from June, 1965. The performance attempts no more than to replicate the record. He seems to miss it in the early part of the solo but recover for the rest of it and the coda, delivering the line cleanly. Typical of playing with the rack, which makes it hard to see the thing and ergo easy to start on the wrong note.

Our story nearly ends here. Only one released song and one unreleased attempt feature harmonica in the rest of the Beatles' career together. A quick rise from almost nowhere to total prominence is followed by a fadeout nearly as rapid and pronounced. Why? I don't know but that's never stopped me from yakking on...

First, by late 1964 there was no longer any need for a simple, cheap, portable, easy-to-play instrument. The Boys were EMI's cash cow and money appeared for incidental instruments and musicians who could afford and carry their own. So on "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" (the "Help!" candidate for a harmonica song if ever there was one), there's a flute instead. The don't-imitate-Dylan factor is a possibility on that specific song too. In other cases, a similar-sounding instrument (harmonium on "The Word" and "We Can Work It Out," Hammond organ on "I'm Looking Through You") is substituted. Touring was over, overdubs were practically unlimited, no need to even try to arrange a song for live playing and account for the number of players and instruments.

Secondly, the instrument is limited. Some of the more interesting riffs of the "middle period" would be somewhere between technically impossible and ludicrous on the harmonica, for example things like "Ticket To Ride" and "Day Tripper," though I assume there is probably some convict in Arkansas who could do it while gargling a goldfish or something. It's hard to skip large intervals on the harmonica, and hard to change keys easily during a song. They could have feared locking in a "sound" and inhibiting themselves. Plus didn't they always change tack when things got predictable?

Third, George got better technically as a player, got a better instrument (the Rickenbacker 12-string) got better at composing and delivering solos and fill riffs. Amplification, coloration, and recording techniques advanced rapidly, with volume pedals, fuzz boxes, and the like. The harmonica wasn't needed to compensate for weak-sounding guitar lines any more, whether the weakness originated from playing technique or poor equipment.

Fourth, there may have been a rivalry issue here, specifically with Bob Dylan. The Beatles were always trying to "top" the groups and individuals they perceived as peers, such as Dylan and the Beach Boys. Given Dylan harmonica tunes like "Like A Rolling Stone," "Positively Fourth Street" and so on it may have occurred to the Boys and Lennon specifically to leave the instrument to him and proceed in a different directions.

Fifth and finally, there was a natural and general increase in the Boys' musical sophistication. One of the major harmonica-substitutes in the middle years was undoubtedly backwards masking. For example on "Rain" and "I'm Only Sleeping," a signature of the Psychedelic period, the Boys either invented or exploited, but certainly made famous. In the "innovation years" of 1965-67 ("Rubber Soul," "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper", and the intervening singles) the Beatles remade themselves as studio virtuosi precisely by fixing what wasn't broken and branching out, and the dropping of the harmonica is just another case in point.

The Fabs' harmonica heyday did leave its mark on pop music in general. Just as "Hey Baby" influenced the Boys to use the instrument, so the Beatles' success opened up space for the harmonica in the pop charts that others could fill. Besides the Dylan other gems in this vein include "My Boy Lollipop" by Millie Small (meditate on that title awhile; there's a nice solo in there very much like "Little Child"), "Laugh Laugh" by the Beau Brummels, and don't forget all the nice stuff Stevie Wonder did like "I Was Made To Love Her," his cover of "We Can Work It Out" which underscores an earlier point, and "Boogie On Reggae Woman." For Wonder fans, I don't mean that Stevie got the idea from the Boys. He was already an established player with "Fingertips" back when he was Little Stevie before the British Invasion. The Beatles' harmonica singles themselves quickly entered the "standard" space as all-time oldies that will grace the airwaves for as long as humans use them to broadcast. One of life's enduring pleasures is hearing those first few clear, sweet notes coming through the radio. If all of this is about anything, it is about that feeling, no more, no less.

1965 (November)

Meanwhile back at the chronology ...during the "Rubber Soul" sessions, the desperate-for-material-to-fill-the-LP Boys assayed the famous "12-Bar Original," something of a precursor to "Flying" and the return to rock and roll emphasized on the "White Album" and in the "Get Back" sessions. While this number is fun to listen to now and again, with its odor of "Green Onions" and endearing garage-band simplicity, it's also clearly not in the league and style of the rest of "Rubber Soul" and woulda protruded wounded-digitally from that LP.

The song is itself in the key of E, but the playing is extremely blue. Solo passages alternate with chordal-accompaniment efforts. The predominant placement of G and D notes indicates an out of key harmonica, possibly the G chromatica given that we've seen how comfortable Lennon was with that instrument. Could be A too, or E with a button, similar to "Little Child."

A Quick One (1967)

The instrument appears twice in this year, a mere shadow of its former prominence. For "Sgt. Pepper," we get those hidden harmonicas in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." There are no discernible lines played, and the instrument plays the role of a color in the collage of sounds and images. This new direction doesn't get explored, so further songs in this genre ("I Am the Walrus," "Mary Jane," "#9" etc.) don't feature it.

More discernibly, "All Together Now" from "Yellow Submarine" does use some actual fills, in a call-and-response mode during the choruses. The song is in D and one can assume a diatonic, major key harp was used, since there are no bent or blue out of key notes. While in "Kite" the sound is buried, in this case the song is buried, a minor but cute piece on a poorly selling album that is only half Beatles. It never charts and doesn't get heard very much, so we are down to...

1968

One last past gasp, after a hiatus of nearly three years. "Rocky Raccoon" is the last John on harmonica, on a Paul song of all things. Things have deteriorated so far that the instrument is used more for comic effect than anything, quoting Western movies. The playing combines the follow-the-chords style with a few fills between the words, but nothing really memorable or whistlable. The song is in G, the playing strictly in key, probably a C or G harmonica. If you've been keeping count, you'll note that G is the big winner in key of composition, with the C and G harmonicas used primarily throughout the years, and this cut is no exception. E is in third place, and you have a possible A too. The split is pretty even between blue and in-key playing, with a trend toward the blue style as time goes by.

There's no harmonica during "Get Back" sessions at all that I can find. Unsurprising, given the attempt to do everything live and the track record of not using the instrument any more; yet in a way symbolic of how the Beatles were indeed unable to "Get Back" to simpler earlier days. And they had a fifth member for awhile there in Billy Preston. One could speculate that Lennon was so far out of shape on it, and generally uninterested in being a Beatle, that he didn't even try. Of course the highly polished and orchestrated "Abbey Road" album didn't use the harmonica, especially given the availability of the synthesizer and Hammond organ to provide the same fills a lot more easily.

To this day, though, there is something compelling about how the Boys and Martin used the instrument, something essential and simple that comes from the combination of human breath and reeds. Perhaps Hildesheimer said it best: "The sweetness of melancholy." Yeah, that's it, the sweetness of melancholy. The rest is slyness. "Was I meant to be playin' then?"