There must have been many thousands of harp players who first took up the instrument after hearing John Lennon play that warbling harp riff that introduces The Beatles' "Love Me Do". But just how did he play it?
The first part is simple enough; so simple that it is difficult not to play it! 5 draw, 5 blow, 4 draw, 2 draw on a C diatonic - possibly the simplest cross harp riff there is. You don't even have to play clean precise single notes to make it instantly recognizable to anyone who has been near a radio in the last forty years. However, is this how Lennon played it? In a word - no!
As I said, the first part is simple enough, but when it comes to the part of the song where the lyrics are "Someone to love..." things become a little more complicated. The harmonica plays the notes A A G F#, but on a standard C diatonic the notes A and F# are not built into the instrument. True, with good bending technique you can play these as bent notes, however it doesn't sound like Lennon is doing that on the record. With no disrespect intended, Lennon's playing was not exactly up to Howard Levy standards at the time of this recording. He even has some difficultly hitting single notes cleanly, so it is very unlikely that he would be able to play bent notes with such a precise pitch and even timbre as the notes in this section. It is possible that he could have played the opening riff on a C diatonic, then swapped to a G diatonic to play the "Someone to love..." part. However, if you slow down the tune and listen carefully, there is such a tiny gap between the last note of the opening riff and the A at the start of the other riff that is it very hard to believe that he could have swapped harps so quickly. I suppose it is possible that a G harp had been overdubbed, but there is no evidence of that either.
A quick search on YouTube or Google Video will turn up a video of "Love Me Do", featuring some black and white footage of the Beatles performing their first hit. If you look closely, you will see that John appears to be using a diatonic harmonica. However, if you look even more closely, you will see that the video does not match the audio - specifically, Lennon is not moving his hands in any way that corresponds to the wavering hand effects on the recording. The audio track is the original single version and either they were miming to that recording, or some live footage of the band has been roughly synched to the audio. It is interesting to note that the "Someone to love..." part of the song is accompanied by stills of the band, rather than showing Lennon with his harmonica.
However, Lennon himself once described which harmonica he used. In a 1978 episode of the South Bank Show (a long running UK TV arts show) entitled "Lennon's Jukebox", there is a recording of Lennon saying:
"Brian Jones came over and said "Are you playing a harmonica or a harp on "Love Me Do"?" He knew I'd got this bottom note and he suspected I was... I said a harmonica, you know, with a button... which wasn't real funky blues enough I suppose, but you couldn't get "Hey Baby" licks on a blues harp and we were also doing "Hey Baby" by Bruce Chanel at that time."
Clearly, Lennon is using the term "harp" to denote a diatonic harmonica and "harmonica" to describe the chromatic harmonica.
So... it was a chromatic harmonica, but a chromatic in what key? In his article Little Child: The Harmonica in Beatle Music, Greg Panfile suggests that Lennon used a chromatic in the key of G. Well, it is possible to play both riffs on a G chromatic - of course, it is possible to play these notes on a chromatic tuned in any key. However, Lennon definitely did not use a G chromatic. At a few points during the opening riff, he stumbles a little and plays snatches of notes next to the note he was intending to play. In particular, when going for the first note of the opening riff (an F natural) he hits the next note above it. Slowing the piece down on a computer, it is possible to identify that note as an A. The next highest note to the F on a G chromatic would be a G, so that rules out a G chrom for this piece. A chromatic in the key of C would seem to be the most likely option and this is confirmed by a couple of slight slips when Lennon is playing the G note and accidentally hits a C along with it. Final evidence is the fact the F# is the only note in this tune that would require the button of a C chromatic to be pushed in - when he plays the second "Someone to love..." riff in the middle of the song without the vocals, you can hear a slight bump at the start of the F# note, sounding very much like a fractionally late button push. It might also be significant that the F# is the only note which lacks that characteristic warbling hand vibrato that almost all the other notes have if they are held for any length of time. I suspect that Lennon's hand was otherwise occupied by pushing the button!
There are a few other Beatles tunes where Lennon's choice of harmonica might not be obvious. The signature riff of "Please Please Me" is almost as distinctive as the intro to "Love Me Do". The riff is squarely in the key of E major and the phrasing of the notes fits perfectly with a diatonic in the key of E. However, if you were to play this riff on a standard E diatonic beginning with 7 blow, it would come out an octave too high. If you were to play it starting on 4 blow, you would need to bend three draw by a wholetone to get the C# - and Lennon clearly isn't bending any notes on this riff. So how was it played? Well, it could have been a chromatic harmonica in the key of E - the Hohner Super Chromonica was certainly available in that key back then. Again, of course, one could play these notes on a chromatic harmonica in any key, but there is no evidence of any button work in the playing and the phrasing of the riff really does seem to fit the blow/draw pattern of an E scale instrument. Another possibility and perhaps a more likely one, is that Lennon used the 12-hole Echo Vamper. This was the European market version of the Marine Band 364 and was available in all 12 keys back then. The key of E Echo Vamper was tuned an octave lower than the standard 10-hole E harp, so this would fit the bill. Because the harmonica and guitar blend so seamlessly on this riff, it is hard to be certain whether it is a chromatic or a low tuned diatonic just by listening.
Another readily identifiable Beatles riff is the one that introduces "From Me To You". As with all those classic Beatles hooklines, the riff itself is very simple - C D E D C D D A. However, if you play it on a standard C diatonic starting on hole 4 blow, you have to bend to get the low A and again, that note is much too cleanly played for Lennon to have bent it. You can play it easily starting on 7 blow, but then the riff is an octave higher than on the record. Another alternative is to play it on a G harp starting from 5 draw. This way all the notes of the riff are available without needing any bends, but did Lennon do it this way? No. Again, he makes a tiny slip that those with a Columbo-like perseverance and attention to detail can use as conclusive evidence. A couple of times when playing a D note, Lennon hits the next highest note by accident - that note is an F, identifying the harp as one in C major if we rule out the very unlikely possibility that he is playing a key of B chromatic with the slide held in). So, to get the A note cleanly, he must either be using a chromatic in C, or he is playing it on a low C diatonic starting on 7 blow. The Hohner Echo Vamper 12-hole in C was pitched an octave lower than a regular C harp, so this is a likely candidate
"All Together Now" features some call and response interplay between the vocals and the harmonica. The song is in the key of G with simple chordal patterns played on a G diatonic. "Rocky Raccoon" is in the key of C and Lennon contributes some squawky fills on a C harp.
For the remaining Beatles tunes featuring diatonic harmonica, Lennon uses a second position or cross harp approach. "I Should Have Known Better" is in the key of G and Lennon is using a C diatonic; "I'm a Loser" is also in the key of G and also played on a C harp; "Thank You Girl" is in the key of D and is played on a G harp; "I'll Get You" is likewise in the key of D (although the recording seems to play slightly flat) played on a G harp; "Little Child" is in the key of E, with Lennon playing an A harp.
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" from the "Sgt Pepper's" album uses harmonicas as part of the swirling background sound. It is virtually impossible to make out what sort of harmonicas are being used, although there is a picture from that period showing John Lennon and George Harrison playing bass and chord harmonicas. They may actually have played these on the session, or it is possible that this was merely a publicity photograph.
Finally, a couple more tunes featuring the chromatic harmonica. "Chains" is in the key of Bb and the harmonica plays a simple introductory line of F Eb D F Eb D. The harmonica is obviously a chromatic in the key of C, as the first time Lennon moves from the F (hole 6 draw, with the slide out) to the Eb (hole 5 draw, with the slide in), he accidentally hits the F# (hole 6 draw with the slide in). It is possible that he could have made this same mistake on a Bb chromatic (starting the phrase on 6 blow) but if he were playing it on a Bb instrument, he wouldn't need to push the button at all, but could play the line much more easily by playing the Eb notes as 5 draw/slide out, rather than 5 blow/slide in. In this case, if he had slipped and hit the next highest hole, he would have got a G instead of the F#, so I think it is safe to conclude he used a C chromatic.
"There's A Place" had me puzzled for a while, but I recently got hold of a better quality recording of the song which just so happens to have the harmonica isolated in one side of the stereo mix almost by itself as the track fades, allowing me to identify it as a C chromatic. The song is in the key of E and features the harmonica playing the simple line D# E D# C#. This would be very easy to play on a diatonic harmonica in E, but as is the case with "Please Please Me" a regular E harp would require a bent note to get the C# in this range. However, at the end of the track Lennon's mistakes give him away once again. In the very last occurrence of the riff just before the track fades completely, he makes an error that can only be done on a chromatic. As he is about to move from the D# (5 draw slide in) to the E (6 blow, slide out), he lets out the slide a fraction early and a D natural escapes. There are also a couple of other mistakes that could only happen if he were playing a C chromatic: pushing the button a little early and hitting an F instead of an E (6 blow slide in, instead of 6 blow slide out), getting the wrong hole and playing the F# instead of the D# (6 draw slide in, instead of 5 draw slide in), etc. These are hard to hear at normal speed, but using the computer to slow the piece to 1/8th of its original speed makes them quite obvious.
Those of you with a strong interest in the music of The Beatles would be well advised to invest in a copy of "The Beatles Complete Scores". As the title suggests, this huge book contains notation (very accurate, for the most part) of all the vocal and instrumental parts for almost all the official releases from The Beatles. Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk.
If you are just interested in the harmonica parts, a considerably less expensive option would be to visit my good friend Wanderin' Wilf at www.harpsurgery.com for his tablature for "Love Me Do and some other Lennon harmonica riffs:
Love Me Do - The Beatles
More Beatles Harmonica
I should also note that the "dissections" of the above tunes were done using the wonderful Transcribe! program, from Seventh String Software. I highly recommend this program to anyone trying to figure out what's going on on a particular recording. Get more information on this software.
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