Harmonica Tremolo or Vibrato?

When people talk about different techniques I often find there is a bit of confusion when people don’t agree on definitions. The part where I hear and read this most often is regarding harmonica tremolo and vibrato. In this article I will give you the definitions on how I think about these techniques.

Harmonica tremolo definition

The tremolo effect means that the volume goes up and down periodically. You can do this either with your breath or by cupping and opening your hands. This can be used either on single notes, dirty notes or chords. Sometimes people call shaking their head and going between holes tremolo but I prefer to call that a shake to separate it from a “proper” harmonica tremolo. The shake can of course be done with a tremolo but they are not the same thing.

Vibrato definition

A vibrato on the other hand changes the pitch of the note(s) rather than the volume. However sometimes people think they are continously changing the pitch when in fact they are changing the volume. This is where some of the confusion arise. As with the shake the vibrato can be combined with a tremolo.

Making it more complicated

Actually, the shake technique where you moreve between two notes or between dirty notes belong in the vibrato group rather than the tremolo group since the frequency content changes. Some people may also argue that the a harmonica tremolo done by hand technique changes the frequency content of what you hear and then it could be placed in the vibrato category. All in all Iike to think about what my intentions are and call it a harmonica tremolo if I am actively changing the volume, a vibrato if I am actively changing the pitch and a shake if I am shaking my head.

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Octave Split on the Harmonica

Playing single notes on the harmonica is an important skill but is not always the coolest sound on the harmonica. Fortunately tongue blocking offer a number of ways to get more out of your tones. One of these ways is to use the octave split to get more sound out of the harmonica.

What is an octave split?

Octave split is quite simply playing two single notes one octave apart simultaneously. To the listener it will not necessarily sound like two notes (if the harmonica is properly tuned that is). Two notes played at once will be louder than one note and that will definately help when you are playing notes in the high range.

How to do it

In principle, splits are very easy. You simple play one note out of the right corner of your mouth and another note out of the left corner of your mouth. Your tongue will block the holes between them. To do this you need to control your tongue so that it is just wide enough to cover the holes between notes. You will also need to make sure that your mouth has the right size to block out any holes outside the holes you are aming for. Once again I will mention the Filisko Tongue Block Trainer which is a great tool for practicing this.

Not all splits are created equal

To get a proper octave split you will need to know where to find it. The exhale notes are quite easy, simply block two holes to get an octave. 1+-4+, 2+-5+, 3+-6+, 4+-7+, 5+-8+, 6+-9+ and 7+-10+ are all true octaves.

For the draw notes it is another matter. On the lower end some octaves are true octaves when blocking two holes and some are fake octaves. Going up higher you will need to block three holes to get true octaves.

True octaves:

  • 1-4 (two holes blocked as for the exhale notes, know as a 4-hole block)
  • 3-7 (three holes are blocked, known as a 5-hole block)
  • 4-8
  • 5-9
  • 6-10

Apart from the 1-4 all other 4-hole blocks are fake octaves. The 2-5 is quite common and is a root note (2) with a minor seventh on top (5), a very bluesy sound. The other 4-hole draw blocks can be used, just be careful about if it is the sound you want.

The fact that you need to adjust from 4-hole to 5-hole blocking can be quite challenging when playing the upper range. However it is well worth the effort to get the extra power in your notes.

Make it your own!

If you are not already using octave splits I suggest you start praticing it to get the most out of your upper range and add to your sound.

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Teaching Harmonica as a Beginner

When people think of teachers and instructurs I feel they often think of very experienced teachers. There is of course nothing wrong with this but I think there is value to be teaching harmonica even as a beginner, or rather a slightly more advanced beginner. In this article I will outline my thought on the benfits for the student and the teacher when the teacher is not very experienced.

Drawbacks of an inexperienced teacher

Let’s start with some obvious drawbacks. An inexperienced teacher will of course be unfamiliar with some of the more advanced techniques. If the student want to progress very quickly he or she may feel held back. Also the teacher may feel inadequate when teaching harmonica as a beginner. If this is enough to discourage the teacher or the student is a matter of personal preference.

Advantages for the teacher

I find that one of the things that is most valuable to be as a teacher is that I need to explain what I do. That extra effort you need to put in to explain what you recently learned to explain to somebody else can be really beneficial for your own learning. Teaching is also a great driving force to keep developing yourself. If your student(s) are not that much more inexperienced that you, this can be a strong driver.

Advantages for the student

Learning from a seasoned pro can be intimidating for some people. A less experienced teacher can definately be a plus if you feel that way. The fact that the teacher was learning the same thing not long ago can also work in favor of the student. It is easier to remember what was hard when the experience was not that far back. The teacher can be seem more as a fellow explorer of the instrument.

What about a combo for teaching harmonica?

It is of course up to each and everyone to decide who to learn from. However I feel that the idea of beginning teacher should not be too easily discarded. Especially when you live in an area where there are no experienced teachers. The combination of a slightly more advanced beginner teaching harmonica in combination with online teaching such as Bluesharmonica.com can be a powerful combination. This is also good for the teacher as you can get great material that way (both need to be members of course).

I hope you see that there can be value in both teaching as a beginner and being taught by a beginner.

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Side Pull Technique

This week we continue looking at techniques that change the presentation of the notes played. Tongue blocking offers quite a few techniques. In this article I focus on the side pull technique.

Side pull description

The side pull technique is very simple in principle but can be difficult to execute. As the name implies the tongue is pulled sideways to let air into the harmonica. More specifically part of the tongue is pulled sideways to go from a full block to a standard tongue block position.

The main difference to a tongue slap or a pull slap is that the tongue never leaves the face of the harmonica. It is simply the position and/or width of the tongue that change. This means that there is no chord played as part of the technique giving it a less aggresive sound.

Performing the technique

To peform the technique you start by fully blocking the harmonica and apply breathing pressure. Move your toung or change the with of your tongue on the right side to open up the hole to the right of your tongue. You will need to be in very good control of your tongue to do this correctly as the movement is very small. Use a tongue block trainer to practice. See the two steps below.

The result is a single note that start very abruptly as the air pressure has built up behing your tongue. All that air is now forced passed a single reed on the harmonica.

When to use

You can basically use the side pull technique any time you would consider a tongue slap or a pull slap. It is especially good to use if you feel the other two techniques sound to harsh or aggresive.

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Practicing Riffs

I have written before about expanding your riff bank to have more tools in your improvisation tool box. However simply memorizing a new riff is not enough. They way you are practicing riffs have a big impact on how useful they become.

Make it stick

There is no way around repetitive work to commit it to memory. However you can add to your learning by introducing variations in your practice. Practice on different key harmonicas, practice with a metronome, practice at different tempos and make sure that you can recall the riff without the need for notation. Also try using different techniques to color the sound.

Practicing riffs in context

The real killer when practicing riffs though is to put it into context. You will never just play one riff and then be done with it. You will play it as part of a bigger whole. To do that effectively you need to understand when the riff sound good and when not to use it.

A great way of getting context is to pratcie with different patterns of repetition. Repetition is an important tool to let your audience know that what you play is important, use it!

Put the repetition in relation to the 12 bar blues and practice with a jam track. The simplest form is to repeat the riff for as many times as you can over a chorus. If it is a 2 bar riff you can repeat it 6 times. Listen to how it sounds over the chord changes, where does it fit best? Maybe it is great over the I-chord, OK over the IV-chord but sounds horrible over the V-IV-I transition.

Try changing between the riff you are practicing and other riffs, play the riff over bars 1 and 2, then play a fill over bars 2 and 4. Repeat the riff again over bars 5 and 6 and another fill over bars 7 and 8. Repeat the riff over bars 9 and 10 and finish off with a turnaround riff.

Listen to how other players are using repetition and emulate what they do in your practice. David Barrett calls this chorus forms and have included a number of these patterns in his books. It is all based on what the old masters used to do. It is wise to do the same.

Summary

Simply comitting a riff to memory you need to be practicing riffs in context and basing that context on different patterns of repetition is a great idea.

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Dirty Notes on the Harmonica

When playing harmonica which notes you play are of couse important but how you play them is just as important. In previous articles I have described techniques such as tongue slap and pull slaps which are ways of presenting the notes differently from the simplest form of presentation. In this article I will introduce dirty notes which is a technique that can be used by both tongue blocking and puckering players.

Short definition

Dirty notes are simply notes that are colored by another note which is not the pitch you intend to play. This gives it a grittier, dirty feeling that works very well for blues. If you think that a riff sounds too clean, then this technique may be just what you are looking for.

How to create dirty notes

The principle behind dirty notes is very simple. You simply play the note you want to play and widen your mouth ever so slightly to let a little bit, maybe 20%, of the upper adjacent hole in. So, if you play hole 4 you widen your mouth to the right and let a little bit of hole 5 in. I like to think that I smile a little with the right side of my mouth. You can use a tongue block trainer to see what goes on.

TBT - Tool for learning harmonica techniques such as dirty notes
Tongue Block Trainer

The result should still sound like hole 4 but with a bigger dirtier sound. Remember you are not aiming for a two hole chord, hole 4 must be dominant. Listen below for an example.

Hole 4 on a C harp going from clean single note to dirty note back to clean single note.

How to develop the technique

To develop the technique I suggest you play hole 4 inhale and the very slowly and conciously widen your mouth to the right. When you hear the effect happening, experiment with how much of it you want. Too much will spoil the effect. It should sound dirty, precise and intentional. It is not just sloppy playing, it is a deliberate choice!

When to use

Dirty notes can be used very freely when playing blues, especially when playing something aggresive. To make the effect stronger it is a good idea to play some clean notes every once in a while. Also of you are going for a smooth sound then dial back on the dirty notes.

Now I suggest you try it out for yourself and hear how much bluesier you can sound. Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles!

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Expand Your Riff Vocabulary

For most blues harmonica players a riff vocabulary is an important part of their improvisation arsenal. You could argue that improvisation should be 100% spontaneous and not built on things you have learned before. A nice thought maybe but I would argue that making something new out of “old” material is as valuable as making up new riffs nobody has played before. Famous riffs are famous because they sound great and not using them can really hamper how you sound. In this article I outline methods you can use to expand your riff vocabulary.

Online search

The first method that spring to mind is to do google searches. There is a whole bunch of sites out there with loads of riffs. You can also be a bit more old school and buy books, almost all harmonica books out there contain at least some riffs. I have published a number of articles before with beginner riffs, build up riffs and V-IV-I riffs. For subscribers I also provide extra riffs (see below).

Extract from songs

When learning a new song either from tabulature or if you transcribe it yourself you have a gold mine a new riffs. This is probably one of the most unused sources for learning new riffs. Many players feel that they are stealing if they extract riffs from songs. What you should do is pick out riffs you are especially fond of and try them under new circumstances. Different, tempo, different key or a different groove can transform a riff and I can guarantee you that very few people will complain. There are of course riffs that are very connected to certain songs such as “Mannish Boy” and maybe these hooks are best left for covers of that song.

Moving between positions and ranges

When you search for riffs online you will most likely find second position riffs. If you are a beginner this is likely where you want to start but if you want to try third position for example you may feel a bit limited. You can of course search for third position riffs but you can also use your second position riffs to expand your riff vocabulary for third position. I have written about how to do this in a previous article. Not all riffs are suitable to tranfer to another position but it can give you good ideas for riff variations.

Another thing that is underused is transposing a riff from one octave to another. If you have a riff you like in the holes 4-6 range you can try playing it in the 7-10 range instead. This is a great way of learning to use the upper octave more.

Summary

As you can see you have quite a few ways to expand your riff vocabulary, how much time you spend on this is up to you.

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Pull Slap Technique

Expanding your vocabulary of techniques is a great way of creating more possibilities for your self as a blues harmonica player. In this article I will explain the pull slap technique. I feel it is a great addition to let you shape the sound you get out of your riffs.

Pull slap vs tongue slap

The pull slap is building on the tongue slap technique and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between them when listening to a recording. The sound will be a little bit sharper and a bit more staccato than the standard tongue slap. The reason for this is that the air flow is fully blocked and an internal pressure is built up before the tongue slap is performed. This pressure is the reason that the chord part of the tongue slap is a bit sharper and very pronounced. The staccato feeling comes from when the holes are first fully blocked before the pull slap is completed.

As you can understand from the explanination above it is a very good idea to first pratctice tounge slaps before mving on to the pull slap. It is also a quite simple extension as the only thing you do is covering all holes with your tounge first.

When to use

You can basically use the pull slap whenever you would use a tongue slap and can be a great way of slightly varying the sound. Sonny Boy Williamson II was a master of this technique. You can hear it in “Born Blind” for example.

I suggest to add this technique to your arsenal begin working it into your riff vocabulary. You can never have too much technique!

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Practice Session Plan

I have previously written about how often you should practice and for how long. In this article I will outline what my practice session plan looks like. With a little bit of planning you can progress a lot faster. Depending how the duration of your session different setups are suitable.

Short sessions

If you only have time for a very short session, say 2 minutes, I recommend you spend that on train imitations. The reason for this is that you get a complete musical workout in the shortest possible time. Especially if you practice with a metronome and keep your ears open. It is also a good idea to start slow, accelerat, maintain the speed and then slow down slowly. This will give you good control over changing your tempo. This is the simplest form of practice session plan for up to 5-10 minutes.

Medium length sessions

If your session is between 10-25 minutes your practice session plan has room for a few more elements. My suggestion is a setup like this:

  1. Warm up with train imitation
  2. Scale practice or riff practice with metronome
  3. Rehersal of one song, this means playing a song you know and want to keep fresh

Longer sessions

When your sessions are longer than 30 minutes your practice session plan should be even longer. You should take advantage of being able to work on several things as well as switching your focus to keep your mind alert. I recommend something like this:

  1. Warm up with train imitation
  2. Scale practice with metronome
  3. Technique study
  4. Riff practice, use the riff you are studying during different parts of the 12 bar blues. You can also utilize the technique your are currently developing to vary the riff(s)
  5. Repetoire building. Study 1-2 songs you currently cannot play fully. Pick out the parts that give you the most problems are work on them.
  6. Song rehersal of 1-2 songs.

Summary of practice session plan setup

As you can see it is pretty natural to have a longer more elaborate practice session plan for your longer practice sessions. The goal is to keep it fun, engaging and challenging. We don’t just want to play, we want to practice! Now try it out for yourself and let me know how it goes.

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Tongue Slap Technique

One of the things I like about tongue blocking is the variety of different techniques available. For me it the embouchure that gives me the best ways to sound bluesy. One of the first techniques to learn as a tongue blocker is the tongue slap. In this article I explain how it is permormed and the sound to expect.

Basic tongue slap

The tongue slap technique can most easily be explained as a short chord played immediately followed by the highest note played as a single note in the tongue blocking embouchure.

To do your first tongue slap follow these steps:

  1. Place your mouth over holes 2,3 and 4. You can include hole 1 if you like.
  2. Place your tongue over holes (1), 2 and 3. Now you are in position to play hole 4 in the tongue blocking embouchure. To make sure that you have positioned everything correctly you can try inhaling or exhaling. You should now hear only hole 4.
  3. Without breathing lift the tongue from the harmonica.
  4. Initiate an inhale chord by breathing in.
  5. Quickly place your tounge back over holes (1), 2 and 3 blocking them completely. You should now hear hole 4 on its own.

Going from step 4 to step 5 should be extremely quick. You do not want to hear it as a chord followed by a single note. You are looking for a single note that is preseeded by a sharp heavy push. This is extra prominent when playing through an amplifier. You can use the Filisko Tongue Block Trainer to see what goes on inside your mouth.

Below is a simple riff played both with and without tongue slap.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Boogie Inspired Rhythm Tongue slap can be used
Boogie inspired 2-bar riff
Original, without tongue slaps.
Same riff but with tongue slaps.

When to use

The tongue slap technique is great to use to spice up very simple riffs, it will make them sound bigger and more interesting. I would say that you can use the technique quite extensively but make sure to mix it up with at least a few “unslapped” notes. Too much of the same thing makes it uninteresting.

If you are not already using tongue slaps I suggest that you incorporate it in your playing for that extra punch in your sound.

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