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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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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