Harmonica of Wonder
Mel Melton still remembers the first time he ever saw Stevie Wonder play, 40-some
years ago. Melton was 14, just a bit older than Wonder himself, who was one of
the opening acts on a bill headlined by James Brown -- and the kid pretty much
stole the show.
"Here comes this kid in a white tuxedo and a red shirt, playing 'Fingertips' on
a chromatic harmonica," says Melton, who leads the area blues group Wicked Mojos.
"I'd been playing for fun, just a regular harmonica. But seeing Stevie inspired
me to get a chromatic harmonica.
"Of course, I couldn't play it for a long time -- let alone sound anything like
In that regard, Melton has lots of company. There is much to admire about
Wonder. One of the past century's all-time great musical masterminds, Wonder is
a virtuoso singer, player and songwriter responsible for dozens of classic
songs, covered by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Durham jazz singer
But most of all, Wonder has a signature harmonica style that might be the most
recognizable sound in all of popular music. If you could hear a smile, you'd
hear Wonder's wailing harmonica.
it takes is a few notes and you know it's him -- an exuberant sound as bright as
a cloudless spring day, joy personified. Remarkably, Wonder had a fully realized
style worked out by the age of 12, when he recorded the chart-topping
"Fingertips -- Pt 2" for the aptly titled album "The 12-Year-Old Genius."
Wonder's harmonica has also graced hits by Chaka Khan, Elton John, Eurythmics
and Sting, among others. But if you were to try to duplicate that sound
yourself, good luck.
For one thing, Wonder's primary harmonica is a chromatic rather than the
diatonic harmonica typically heard in blues (although he occasionally plays
diatonic, such as on 1974's "Boogie on Reggae Woman"). Chromatic has up to 16
holes compared to the 10 holes on diatonic harmonica, so it offers a wider
ranger of sounds. But chromatic harmonica is also significantly harder to play.
"Chromatic has a scale set up like a piano keyboard, where regular harmonica is on a
diatonic scale," Melton says. "So chromatic is a totally different monster, a
lot harder to play. It takes a lot more oxygen. You really have to learn
Circular breathing involves breathing in through the nose and storing air in the
cheeks to blow through the mouth. Once you have that down, you can start working
on the particulars of the Wonder sound -- which owes more to jazz than blues and
is almost impossible for mere mortals to duplicate. But it helps to know a few
Harmonica master Randy Singer says one key is in how you manipulate the
chromatic harmonica's slide, which raises each hole's pitch by a half-step.
"One of Stevie's big characteristics is to jab the slide forcibly," Singer says
by phone from his home in Florida. "He's also basically singing, but using a
harmonica to sing with, putting vibrato on it. And if you do that and bend the
note at the same time, you get a shifting effect. I think the last thing is he
gets a sort of fluttering effect with his tongue. Combine all that and you get
this, a Steve thing."
Singer puts down the phone and demonstrates a more-than-decent approximation of
Wonder's solo on the 1968 hit "For Once in My Life."
"Using the slide with a jab, that's the secret," Singer concludes.
But, of course, you can diligently practice all that and you probably still
won't sound anything like the master because ... well, he's Stevie Wonder and
"It sounds stupid to say he's a genius because it's so obvious," says Rick
Estrin, who plays harmonica in the California blues band Little Charlie & the
Nightcats. "He changed all of music probably as much as anyone other than James
Brown, and his harmonica sound is very original. Nobody sounded like him before.
He's an original. Unequivocally, without Stevie Wonder, music today would be
This article by David Menconi appeared in the News & Observer News Media on November 23 2007.
The following are interesting responses to Stevie Wonder's Harmonica playing.
Everyone recognizes his playing and I think I attribute that to the keys he plays in most
of the time. You see, most chromatic players use the slide to add sharps and
flats. They embellish starting with the slide relaxed. Stevie Wonder plays many
songs with the slide pushed in as "home" and he releases it to embellish the
notes. that makes his "sound" quite different from the crowd.
I watched him sit down at the piano on some reality show last week and sure
enough his hands went right for the black notes on the piano as soon as he
touched it. It would make it easier to feel the keys.
-- Mark Panfil
Stevie's sound on the chromatic harmonica is unique. Even when he plays a
single note, his way of approaching or leaving it with a slide in pitch, similar
to his singing approach, his vibrato and his tonal coloring make him both
instantly identifiable and widely imitated by other players.
His melodic vocabulary is also tuneful, relatively simple and therefore easily
recognized, as is often the case with famous instrumental soloists whatever
instrument they may play. Details of how he uses the mechanics of the
instrument, such as the ornaments he adds with the chromatic slide, add to his
highly personal and easily identified style.
-- Winslow Yerxa
My introduction to Stevie's harmonica playing was "For Once In My Life," and it's
still my favorite example. The solo in this song is mind-boggling; he is bending
into and/or out of every note, at lightning speed but with plenty of long and
soulful notes too. He isn't playing the melody but rather creates a new melody
that is just as interesting as the vocal one. His harmonica is reminiscent of
the human voice, but it does things and reaches pitches that even Stevie's
amazing voice cannot achieve. Like the best guitar solos, you can almost sing
along with this harmonica solo, and even though it gets away from you at some
point, you will come back into it when you can because it's irrestistible. You
can experience this same phenomenon in "Alfie" from the "Eivets Rednow" album,
which is my second-favorite Stevie harmonica piece.
-- Jonathan Metts
Stevie has recorded memorable solos in D ("Fingertips"), E ("Isn't She Lovely"), F ("Creepin'"),
G ("Please Don't Go"), F# ("For Once In My Life"), C ("Got to Spend A Little
More Time with You," from James Taylor's "Hourglass," incidentally a wonderful
recording from start to finish), and even Eb using an Ab diatonic harp ("Boogie
On Reggae Woman"). On the list above, only the key of F# is played on the
chromatic mostly with the slide in. This is by no means a complete list, and
even this short list shows that Wonder is instantly recognizable in any key,
even on the diatonic harp, which has no slide at all. So I think we can safely
say that it's not the keys he plays in that make him distinctive.
It's true that Stevie uses the slide in a distinctive way, but that's not about
the key he's playing in. It's also true that many harmonica players have
imitated Stevie's slide work, which is pretty easy to imitate, without being
able to sound like Stevie for more than a few bars (which is enough for most
studio work, of course, but not enough to fool an audience for long). And like I
said above, the slide thing doesn't explain why "Boogie On" is so distinctively
There are a few things that make Stevie so unique:
1) His harmonic sense. Stevie always seems to choose notes that bring out the
highlights in the chord changes he plays over. His harmonic sense comes through
even more strongly on his compositions, where the chord changes tell amazing
2) His tone. Like Toots Thieleman, Stevie has a very personal tone (though
nothing like Toots's, of course). A personal sound is something that great
players achieve, regardless of their instrument. Eric Clapton has a personal
sound; Lester Young had one; Stevie's got his. Asking "How does a player get
that personal sound?" is like asking how the player got to be the person he or
she is. In other words, it's easier to appreciate it than to explain it.
3) His attack and release. Stevie tends to play his notes marcato, meaning
slightly separated, and he often ends his notes with a trailing vibrato that's
4) The way he constructs a solo. Stevie goes for a big finish on his solos. "For
Once In My Life" is an obvious example -- it ends on a screaming A# at the top
end of the harp, after a series of phrases that go higher and higher.
I could go on, but those are some of the highlights.
Summary: Stevie is so distinctive because he has a unique, remarkable musical
conception. His harp playing is one of the things that he uses to express that
conception, along with his singing, his compositions, and his orchestrations in
general. Let's not forget that in the 1970s and 1980s Stevie also practically
defined the sound of synthesizers in pop music. In those decades, there was
hardly a musician in the world that wasn't listening closely to Stevie Wonder. I
still laugh when I think about Paul Simon accepting the Grammy for "There Goes
Rhymin' Simon"; his first words to the audience were "I'd like to thank Stevie
Wonder for not making a record this year."
-- Richard Hunter
Stevie feels the music in his own wonderful and unique way.
The way he plays and the technique he uses is important, sure, but what he feels
and express through the notes is simply unbelievable and really unique.
The solos have a structure and a progression very different yet very similar.
Think of “Stay Gold”, “I guess that’s Why they call it the blues (Elton John)”
and many more: they start calm and then change and then with fast fraseggio go
higher and higher where only Stevie seems to go with no problem...
When it comes to melodic songs i.e. Give me time (Minnie Riperton) he has a
feeling and a way to express those feelings which has no equal. You could do
that with sax or piano or guitar... And it could be he same effect BUT THE
DIFFERENCE is that Stevie conceives, embellishes and plays, that solo
from deep within.
-- Bruno Striano