Start Tongue Blocking

One of the most infected debate in the harmonica world is the pucker vs tounge blocking debate that has been going on for ever. This article is not meant as fuel for that debate although I am a tounge blocking advocate since a number of years. What I would like to do with this articel is giving you a good foundation start tounge blocking for single notes. I find that some people stay with puckering just because they don’t know how to change.

Defining tongue blocking

First of, let’s just define what tongue blocking is. It is the embouchure where you place your mouth over three or four holes on the harmonica and then use your tongue to block the holes you don’t want to play. What you end up with is one (or more) holes that gets all the air throught the corner of your mouth. You can actually play out of both corners for the octave split but let’s save that for later.

First, no air

To get a good a start tounge blocking you need to be able to control your tongue. This is quite hard for most people as we use our tounges sub-consiously every day. I find that the best way is to start by blocking all the holes at once so that no sound comes out at all. It may sound counter intuitive but it is actually a very useful technique as a base for more advanced techniques. To effectively block all holes you will notice that the tip of the tounge is not wide enough, point the tip slightly downwards and let the top of the tip block instead.

Start tounge blocking, full block demonstration

Block all holes with the top of the front part of the tongue.

Slight leftwards slide

The next step is to open the air flow for one hole. You do this by ever so slightly slide your tongue to the left. This will open up a hole in the right corner of your mouth that will allow air to pass through one of the holes. Don’t worry too much if you get more than one hole to begin with but spend some time finding the sweet spot where you only get one hole. Basically that is it, this is how you start tounge blocking. The sound you hear should be unobstructed and relaxed, no bend in the pitch a full tone. Use the process I outlined before on how to learn new techniques.

Start tounge blocking, tounge position demonstration

Slide the tongue to the left to allow air to pass through.

Common problems

Here are a few problems people run into and how to remedy them

Unable to block all holes

You are probably using too much of the tip of the tounge, curve your toung downwards a bit more to use more of the top of the tounge. It is also a good idea to tilt the harmonica slightly downwards to more easily meet the top of your tounge. You may also be opening your mouth too wide, try narrowing it a bit to cover three or four holes. No more now.

Harmonica tilted against the cheek

In this case you are likely blocking with the side of your tounge, focus on holding the harmonica directly in front of your mouth no tilt. It is also likely that you have tried compensating for not curving your tounge downwards enough by tilting the harmonica. Go back to practicing the full block until you can hold the harmonica with no tilt.

Unable to control the tounge

If you feel that you are unable to control the tounge it is probably because you have no visual cues to build a picture of what is going on. In this case practice blocking all holes without the harmonica standing in front of a mirror and then sliding your tounge to the left. Seeing what you are doing will help you control your tounge and understanding how it should feel.You can also get the Filisko Tongue Block Trainer to get a more complete picture of what is happening.

Put it all together

Once you start tongue blocking I would recommend you to try to play as much as possible with this embouchure. You may need to relearn some songs you have played before but I think it is well worth the effort.

Harmonica Techniques – How to Learn

Extending your riff vocabulary and adding more texture to your playing is very important as a new player. Hower what might even be more important is knowing how to learn new harmonica techniques and riffs. In this article I will take you through a simple step by step process that will show you how to learn in the most efficient way. With this knowledge you will be able to progress much faster and also retain more of what you learn. The process is also useful outside blues harmonica practice, a nice little bonus.

How to learn with chunking

At the core of learning advanced harmonica techniques and concepts is a concept known as chunking. Basically it is the process of binding small pieces of knowledge into a new automatic movement or piece of knowledge. The reason this is important is that our short term working memory has limited space. Think of it as a box with around seven compartments and each compartment can fit one chunk.

How advanced a chunk is doesn’t matter, one chunk takes up one compartment. This is why new techniques require a lot of effort before they become second nature. To do a tounge slap before it is a chunk is individual movement you make is a chunk of its own. Your working memory is filled up quickly. I learned about chunking in the Coursera course “Learning how to learn” which covers quite a bit of other concepts as well. A very interesting course.

Breakdown of the how to learn harmonica techniques process

When explaining the process I will use the 3-hole block technique as an example (holes 6 and 4 played simulatenously while hole 5 is blocked). It is a technique I had to put a lot of effort into learning when I was studying Jerry’s Cajun Blues.

Get a mental image of the goal

In order to know if you have succeeded with what you are trying to learn you need a mental image to compare against. In the case of the 3-hole block I made sure I knew what it was supposed to sound like. You either do this by listening to an instructor, a recording or you make the sound yourself on the harmonica. Since I couldn’t do the technique properly to begin with I had to cheat a little bit. I basically covered the holes around the three holes I was working on with my fingers and used my tounge for the middle hole. If you want to, you can use scotch tape to block off the any unwanted holes.

Cheating is definately OK in this step as you are only aiming to hear what the finished product should sound like. This step is a high level step where you focus on the end result and not how it is achieved.

Break down the technique

Now we go from a high level perspective to a very practical low level perspective. Now we start thinking about how we can achieve the mental goal image, in this case the sound. We already know that we want to plat holes 6 and 4 at the same time while hole 5 is silent. We don’t want any sound from holes 1-3 or 7-10 either. With a little bit of thinking we can figure out that the opening in our mouth need to be small enough to only cover holes 4, 5 and 6. Our tounge needs to be thin enough to only cover hole 5. When we know this theoretically we need to transfer this to the harmonica.

Transfer mental image to the real world

A great way to do this is by using the Filisko Tounge Block Trainer in this case. It allows us to see what is happening with our embouchure. When it looks right using the TBT we make a mental note of how it feels. The next step is to tranfer this feeling when using the harmonica instead of the TBT. When it feels right we try breathing and check the sound against the mental image we formed before. If it does not sound right we make adjustements to try to replicate the sound we are after. As soon as it sounds right it is time to make a new mental note of how everything feels.

TBT - Tool for learning harmonica techniques

Tounge Block Trainer

Practice

There is now getting aroudn making repetitions to learning harmonica techniques. When it sounds right we practice over and over until it sticks. This is where most people stop. Unfortunately we are no where near finished. Even though praticing the technique in isolation is an important part of the process it is not enough. We have to know how to get to the position.

Setting harmonica techniques in context

One of the most important part of the process is getting context into the mix. A technique is never used in isolation. We never have unlimited time setting everything up and then play repeatidly. We are always coming from somwhere and we are always going somewhere. This means that we always have to practice moving into and out of the harmonica techniques. The beat way to do this is to put the technique we practice into a riff. In the song I was practicing I needed to move from a 7-4 split (4-hole split) to a 6-4 split (3-split). This became my riff.

More practice

When the riff sound right it is time to practice that as a riff or even as an individual technique. The embouchure and technique has become a chunk and moving between from the 7-4 split to the 6-4 split is the new chunk to form. The mental image also needs to be adjusted to take this movement into account. To make this practice even more effective we can add a second riff here where we move into the technique from another starting point. In my case this became another part of the song where I needed to move from 6-3 split exhale to 6-4 split inhale. Another chuck was practiced and formed. The brain then takes advantage of two similar chunks being formed in making the neural pathways as efficient as possible.

Widening the context

The next step is sort of obvious, set the technique in a wider context. When we get a short riff working we expand it. For me it was playing 4 bars instead of one of the song. When the 4 bars worked smoothly I then moved on to playing a whole chorus. All the time focusing on being as close as possible to the sound of the technique.

Spaced repetition

In the sections above where practice is mentioned, spaced repetition is an imortant concept. What it means is that you need to practice the same thing on separate occasions. The process of practicing and then resting allows your brain to make form the best neural pathways. You may even find that you can do the new technique better after you have had a pause for a few days. It is because your brain has optimised the neural network and pruned then unnecessary parts during sleep. To make this even more efficient it is a good idea to end practice on a positive note. Let the last repetition be a good one! This is part of the Hertzberg’s Rules of Practice.

The process in practice

Reading all of this may have you questioning if it is worth it. It may sound like a lot of work to learn new harmonica techniques. I know it sounds like a lot of work but no progress is for free. Also, as soon as this becomes a part of your practice strategy you will not eevn think about doing it. It will all come very natural to you. New techniques will be added to your repetoire as a part of your normal practice routine.

Let me know how this works out for you. If you have other tips or insights I would be very interested to hear about them. If you already ahven’t signed up to the newsletter you can do so below.

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Blues Harmonica Music Theory

Last I touched upon some arguments about music theory. This week I will give you a quick primer of the blues harmonica music theory you need to know to become an even better player. As you will see it is not very complicated and the benefits are well worth it.

Structure and chords of the 12 bar blues

The most common form of accompaniment you will come across when playing blues is the 12 bar blues. The picture shows the 12 bar blues outline with roman numerals and writing it like this means it can be used in any key.

Blues Harmonica Music Theory 12 bar blues outline

12 bar blues outline in roman numerals

  • I is the tonic chord of the key, based on the first note of the scale
  • IV is the sub-dominant chord of the key, based on the fourth note of the scale
  • V is the dominant chord of the key based on the fifth note of the scale

More on chords

A chord is two or more tones played together taken from a scale and the chords in a major key are based on the tones of the major diatonic scale. A G-chord is made up of notes from the G-major scale, a C-chord is made up of notes from the C-major scale and a D-chord is made up of notes from the D-major scale. What is often referred to as a chord is the first, third and fifth note of the scale played together. Stacking every second not of the scale is usually how it’s done (we won’t dive super deep into this). There is one exception however and that is that the seventh note of the scale i flattened when it is included in a chord. This makes the chord sound more interesting.

For the key of G (second position on a C harmonica) these are the chords:

  • I is G (found on a holes 1-3 draw on a C-harmonica)
  • IV is C (found on a holes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 exhale on a C-harmonica)
  • V is D (not found as a complete chord on a C-harmonica, root note on 1, 4, 8)

Chord tones

To be able to use the knowledge of the chords further, it is a good idea to know where to find the chord tones on the harmonica. This blues harmonica music theory knowledge is second position specific and carries over when you change key as you then change the harmonica as well to stay in second position. Knowing the chord tones is especially important for the V-chord as few of the chord tones are in the blues scale (covered below). For each chord the cord tones are (key of G, although best to think of them as root, third, fifth and flat seventh):

  • I-chord G, B, D, F (root, third, fifth and flat seventh)
  • IV-chord C, E, G, Bb
  • V-chord D, F#, A, C

For the I-chord (read about harmonica tabs here):

  • G (root note) 2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • B (third) 3, 7, (10+’)
  • D (fifth) 1, 4, 8
  • F (flat seventh) 2”, 5, 9

For the IV-chord:

  • C 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+
  • E 2+, 5+, 8+
  • G 2, 3+, 6+, 9+
  • Bb 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)

For the V-chord:

  • D 1, 4, 8
  • F# 2′, (5+o (overblow)), (9+’)
  • A 3”, 6, 10
  • C 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

The notes on parenthesis are overblows and blow bends and if you do not master those techniques just ignore them.

Blues scale

The blues scale is probably the most common piece of practical blues harmonica music theory that people do learn. It gives a safe path to a bluesy sound over the 12-bar blues. The blues scale is based on the I-chord and the minor pentatonic scale connected to that chord. In addition to that scale the minor fifth is added which is a note that creates a lot of tension. It is known as tritone or “the Devil’s Interval”. The blues scale is made up of the following scale degrees:

Root, minor third, fourth, minor fifth, fifth, minor seventh

or

R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7

On the harmonica this translates to:

1+, 1′, 1, 2”, 2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+, (6′, 6,) 7+, 8, 9, 9+’, 9+, 10+”, 10+
4, b5, 5, b7, R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, R, (b2, 2,) 4, 5, b7, R, b3, 4

Note: The holes and tones in parentesis are often added to make the scale more flowing as the b3 and b5 are missing between holes 6 and 9. This adds a little extra bluesiness to this range.

To make it a little bit more readable, here is the scale between holes 2 and 6.

2, 3′, 4+, 4′, 4, 5, 6+
R, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, R

Blue notes

Blue notes are notes that create nice bluesy tension towards the chord. These are b3, b5 and b7. The blues scale contain these notes for the I-chord but also knowing them for the IV-chord and V-chord gives you nice option to play over those chords.

For the I-chord:

  • b3 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)
  • b5 1′, 4′
  • b7 2”, 5, 9

For the IV-chord:

  • b3 8+’
  • b5 2′, (5+o (overblow)), (9+’)
  • b7 3′, (6+o (overblow)), (10+”)

For the V-chord:

  • b3 2”, 5′, 9
  • b5 3”’, 6′
  • b7 1+, 4+, 7+, 10+

Benefits of blues harmonica music theory for soloing

Playing solos that completely stay within is absolutely fine but using chord tones and blue notes to follow the chords and mark chord changes for example can really create awesome solos. Especially how you handle to V-chord can set you apart from the rest of the pack. Here knowing the chord tones is cruical.

Benefits of blues harmonica music theory for accompaniment playing

When playing accompaniment playing you have a few options on what to play. However you chose to play it is your job to play something that is musically appropriate. You can for example play a bass line together with the bass player and then you will definately need to know where the chord tones are. Another option is to create tension against the chords and then you need to use blue notes and stay away from the chord tones. However you chose to play, know the theory will help you.

Putting it to use

I hope I have convinced you that learning blues harmonica music theory is a good thing and you want to make use of it. What you need to do now is take each of the concepts in this article, comit it to memory and start using it. The best way to do this is to concentrate on one single thing and have that as a focus when practicing playing solos for example. If you want to get to know the chord tones then play a lot of solos just using chord tones, when that starts becoming natural start using a few blue notes and so on. Before you know it this will become second nature.

Should you want to learn more general music theory I can recommend “Music Theory for Dummies” as a good starting point or you can take music theory classes on Skillshare (take advantage of the Premium membership offer).

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Music Theory – Pros and Cons

Music theory may not be at the top of your mind when you start playing blues harmonica. Some people even argue that knowing theory is bad. When I started playing I didn’t study any theory at all but during the last couple of years I have discovered the benefits. In this article I give you some counter arguments to arguments against knowing music theory.

Arguments against music theory

I have come across a few arguments against music theory for blues haromica players and I just want to make a few comments.

The masters got by without knowing theory.

Although it might be true that the masters of the early and mid 20th century were not classically trained in music theory, they certainly had a good intuitive grasp of it. They were learning from each other and other musicians and learned what sounded good. They learned it in practice. Most of us don’t spend as much time practicing and gigging as many of the early masters did. Learning theory is a way for us to leapfrog some of the trial and error.

I just play by ear.

Playing by ear is great and training your ears is a great thing. However theory will not hurt your by ear playing, it will just increase your understanding.

I don’t want to know music theory.

This argument I have the most difficulty understanding. I think it comes from a view that learning to play purely by ear is more noble and that music theory will hamper creativity. I would say that knowing theory increases creativity. You have to know the rules before you can break them with good effect.

It will stop me from being creative.

Actually I would say that knowing more allows you to be more creative. It allows you to utilize riffs and musical passages that you never would have thought of if the theoretical connections hadn’t been there.

Music theory pros

Understanding more of what you do is always a benefit in my opinion. More knowledge changes how we see things and we often end up enjoying it more. We also get a new vocabualry that we can use when communicating with other musicians. It is definately beneficial to be able to communicate with a musicians vocabulary in a open stage situation or if you gig with somebody you normally don’t play with.

Music theory cons

I don’t really see any cons with knowing a bit of theory. The only thing might be that when you pratice to internalize it you might feel like you have taken a step back. Don’t worry, it is just temporary.

What next?

Next week I will continue this topic and outline the few things you need to know as a blues harmonica player. You will see that it is not all that much and not very complicated. I will also tell you more about the benfits of knowing a little bit of music theory. Sign up below so that you don’t miss when that article comes out!

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