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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Practice Frequency and Duration

I have previously written about what I consider good rules for practice and how you can practice without the harmonica. This time I want to touch upon what frequency and duration of your sessions mean for your progress.

Practice well and often

First of all I want to distinguish between practicing and playing. If you simply play stuff you already know, you are not practicing. To actually practice you need to work on techniques and songs you don’t already know, at least not fully. That being said, playing songs you already know definately has value but it is more rehearsing than practicing.

To get maximum benefit you should be practicing every day. The cycle of challenging your abilities followed by rest where your brain can optimized what you worked on is key. If you are interested in learning more about this I recommend the “Learning how to learn” course on Coursera. It is not focused on learning music but is still very interesting.

If you cannot fit a session in your daily session at all (I think you can), then at least make sure you have a fair periodicity of 3-4 times per week.

Duration

If you practice every day some of your sessions can be short for sure. This is the trick behind fitting daily sessions into a busy schedule. If you can only fit two minutes in some days then chose an exercise like train imitation, it will add up over time.

The optimum duration is around an hour I would say. That gives you enough time to work on both techniques and song repetoir. If this is too long then go for half an hour as the standard duration with at least one hour long session per week.

For the days you cannot fit 30-60 minutes in, then do what you can and try to be smart about what you practice. Work on your weaknesses first.

Summary

To progress as fast as possible one hour each day is what I recommend you shoot for. If this is too much then go for one hour 1-2 times per week, half an hour 2-4 times per week and do at least a few minutes the rest of the days. Let me know how it works out for you!

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Tongue Blocking vs Puckering

From time to time I see the tongue blocking vs puckering debate flare up. Ever since I first heard of tongue blocking I understood that it is a topic with a lot of feelings involved. In this article I will outline how I have developed my own technique over the years in realtion to this.

My beginning

I was 14 years old when I got my first harmonica, a Hohner Pro Harp. With it there was a little piece of paper with short instructions. The instructions were for tongue blocking. It seemed like a very strange way to play, I tried it briefly but could not make any sense of it. Instead I started playing puckering. Ay this time it was very hard to get hold of any instructional material at all. However I did find a booklet about how to play blues harmonica. In the first chapter there was a passage that was something like this:

With your harmonica you receive a small piece of paper that tells you to play tongue blocking, throw it away! Tongue blocking is impossible and nobody plays that way

This suited me perfectly as I now had “proof” that I was doing the right thing. This was the only way I knew until 2005.

My introduction to the tongue blocking vs puckering debate

When I started playing with a group of harmonica players in Malmö under the guidance of Dick Sjöberg in 2005 i heard terms like “tongue slap” and “octave split” for the first time. When the others explained what they were doing I started understanding why I couldn’t replicate a lot of the sounds I was hearing on older recordings. It wasn’t special ahrmonicas or special microphones, it was technique!

This was a big revelation for me, I understood that I at least had to give tongue blocking a chance. Unfortunately it turned out to be much harder than I expected. All the years as a pucker player had cemented my technique.

The next step

In 2007 I attended the Harmonica Masters Workshops in Trossingen for the first time. This event was a big eye opener for me and gave me lots of inspiration. I took Steve Baker’s class and part of what we were learning involved tongue blocking and vamping. This was the booster I needed to really dedicate myself to learn to tongue blocking.

During tthe event I also discovered that the tongue blocking vs puckering discussion was sometimes heated.

Where I am now

Today I am very happy that I took the time to learn tongue blocking. Much of what I play today is really dependent on that embouchure. I do play puckering from time to time, especially things I learned pre 2007.

When I teach I teach beginners tongue blocking, when I teach people who already have some repetoire and is playing puckering we decide together if tongue blocking is worth the effort or not. I believe you need to consider what sound you are after when choosing your path.

My recommendations

I strongly believe that tongue blocking is the best embouchure for me and what I want to do. I also believe it is the best embouchure to teach beginners, it will gice the most options long term. That said I also generally stay out of the tongue blocking vs puckering debate. Even you are unsure of where you stand I would recemmend you to try it.

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Guitar Harmonica Duo – Getting Started

In order to progress we must challenge ourselves. As harmonica players, getting in front of an audience is an excellent way. However, even though I am very interested in harmonica music I find that other people don’t have the same interest as I. After a couple of solo harmonica instrumentals most people lose interest. a better way then I find is starting a guitar, harmonica duo.

Why not a full band?

The reason I recommend a duo (or possibly a trio) is that finding one person with a similar interest and drive is much easier than 4-5 people with the same interest and drive. The more people involved the less common ground you usually have. Another thing you may not have considered is that scheduling rehersals with a full band can be a nightmare. To me a guitar harmonica duo is the perfect setup to begin with.

Getting started

I suggest you follow a path something like this:

  1. Gather a library of music you want to play
  2. Find a potential duo partner, maybe a friend. If not then advertise on forum such as Bandfinder.
  3. Discuss what you want to do, make sure your goals are not too far apart.
  4. Try a few rehersals together, start with easy songs you are both familiar with.
  5. Build your repetoir together. You probably need about 10-15 songs before you do your first gig.
  6. Find your first gig. It can be a friends party, a café, pub or why not go busking in the street? Don’t be afraid to ask to get paid but be realistic.
  7. If it all works out, continue building your repetoir get more gigs.

A few additional pointers

Make sure that either you or your guitarist sing, pure instrumental music is harder to find gigs for in my opinion. Consider taking up singing if neither of you sing to begin with! Be prepared for that you will not be the center of attention on all gigs. Some people rather talk than listen, jsut get used to it and focus on the people who do listen. Make sure your set list contains varielty, it will keep people interested for longer. If you are adding a song you are not too sure about then put it between two songs you know you will nail. Make sure to put a little bit of talking in between the songs, script it if necessary.

My own path

I don’t play in a guitar harmonica duo myself, it quickly turned into a trio for me. Duo or trio is not that important actually, it is the act of making music together and the challenge that matters.

guitar harmonica duo or trio
Rehersal with Worn Out Soles.

Go do it!

I hope this inspires you to start a guitar harmonica duo (or trio) nad that you get out in front of an audience. Why not start looking for a guitartist today?

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