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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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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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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