Harmonica/Advanced techniques

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Overbending[edit | edit source]

Overbending, commonly referred to as overblows and overdraws, is a difficult technique to master. The physics are simple to explain: In an overbend, the opposite reed as in normal play is brought to vibrate - in an overblow, the draw reed is made to vibrate upon the blow airflow, and in an overdraw, the blow reed is made to vibrate upon the draw airflow. For this reason, overbending cannot be done on a harmonica with windsavers.

Because the opposite reed commonly acts as a buffer for excess air, this is easier said than done. The sound is also harsher, similar to the sound of a hard pressed organ key.

Overblowing is done the same way as a bend in the upper register - by tightening the jaw, bringing the tongue up slightly, and trying to sound the desired harmonic. To improve the overbending capability of a harmonica, one can make the gap between the reeds and the plate smaller.

On a chromatic harmonica, overbends can be done from hole 8 to 12. On a tremolo, they can be done on every hole.

Ornaments[edit | edit source]

Approach[edit | edit source]

Also known as grace notes, this usually involve playing a note a half-step lower/higher real quick and then play the actual piece. if nt indicated, this is usually fine in blues, rocks, and jazz. On a harmonica, you can use one of the following:

Slide jab[edit | edit source]

The technique is for a slide-in note. One will approach a slide-in note with the slide out, then jab it in quickly.

Reverse jab[edit | edit source]

The technique is for a slide-out note. One will approach a slide-out note with the slide in, then release it in quickly.

Bend grace note[edit | edit source]

use bending to bend the note half-step lower briefly, before playing.

Glissando[edit | edit source]

  • Start with a chord right next to the actual hole, then quickly go to the actual hole and block out the rest with a tongue slap.

Tremolo vs Vibrato[edit | edit source]

Just like guitar's misnamings, Tremolo and vibrato on a harmonica is also misnamed. So let's set it straight, as per music theory:

  • A vibrato is a fluctuation of pitch, usually accompanied with synchronous fluctuations of loudness and timbre, of such extent and rate as to give a pleasing flexibility, tenderness, and richness to the tone.
  • A tremolo is a rapid fluctuation of intensity (loudness and sound pressure) without changing the pitch.

While all kind of musics use ornaments, remember, play it only when it is musically appropriate. Sometimes, it's best not to do any ornamentation, especially if it's not how one would play in this style (e.g.: Canon in D played in classical style is very different from playing in blues style)

Tremolo[edit | edit source]

Hand/Finger Tremolo[edit | edit source]

A hand/finger tremolo is achieved by rapidly opening and closing the cupped hands around the harmonica to adjust volume.

Vibrato[edit | edit source]

Shake[edit | edit source]

Shake is also known as warble. A warble is an alternation between two notes. Many players confuse them with trills, but trills sound dissonant due to their combination of notes. Warbles, on the other hand, sound harmonious and smooth.

In warbles, the left note is the main note while the right note is the added note. When playing warbles, make sure you select two holes and sustain your breath for the whole sequence.

To alternate between two notes, use one of the following four techniques:

    • Jaw flick: Flick your lower jaw from side to side.
    • Tongue flick: Select two holes with your lips and flick your tongue from side to side.
    • Head shake: Shake your head from side to side.
    • Hand warble: Move the harmonica from side to side with your hands.

To do a hand warble, follow these steps:

  1. Hold the harmonica like you would normally do.
  2. Play the main note, sustaining your inhaled breath for the whole sequence.
  3. Unbend your right wrist slightly. When you do this, the right hand presses your left hand and the harmonica to the left, sliding the left hole out of your mouth and the right hole into your mouth. Notice that when you unbend your right wrist, your left wrist bends slightly backward.
  4. Allow your right hand to release the pressure, letting your left hand spring back and carry the harmonica back to its starting position.

Remember to sustain your breath. Let your right hand drive the motion and let your left hand respond like a spring. Work on this move slowly until you can accurately move just one hole by nudging the harmonica gently and then releasing the pressure with your right hand. When you get the hang of this move, try repeating it at a steady rate, first slowly and then faster and faster.

To vary the sound of the warble, you can combine the warbling techniques described above. You can change the pace of the warble. Also, you can bend the note down and then release it while you sustain a warble. Normally, you target the left note as the bending note. The exception is when you do a warble on Draw 5, the note to the right, Draw 6, bends more readily and contributes more to the bending effort. Allow the two notes to bleed together for wet warbles. Keep them separate for dry warbles.

To play a dry warble (or sometimes called a clean warble), start with the left note isolated and then move far enough to isolate the note on the right. Both notes are never played at once.

To play a wet warble (sometimes called a dirty warble), sound both notes simultaneously at least part of the time. To do this, start by playing the note on the left and then move to the right far enough that you include the right note but not far enough that you exclude the left note. You can change between the two kinds of warbles, either gradually or suddenly.

When practicing passages with warbles, get the hang of the passage without warbles. Then add the warbles.

Slide Shake ("Trill")[edit | edit source]

What traditionally called as a trill on a chromatic is not a trill. As it involves moving the slide in and out rapidly, it is more appropriately a type of vibrato.

Flutter tongue[edit | edit source]

A flutter tongue is different on chromatic harmonica as it actually mostly involves the throat. It is achieved by making a sort of snoring sound in the back of the throat, both inhaling and exhaling.

Tongue vibrato[edit | edit source]

You make vibrations inside your mouth with your tongue (depends, back and forth, up and down, or some mixed motion) as if you were trying to bend the note using the tongue motion.

In simple words you just move your tongue back and forth very fast as if trying to whistle exhaling and inhaling the air. Don't use your throat or lungs for breathing for a while, just use the amount of air in your cheeks. Move the tongue really fast. In this case the trajectory of the air stream is not straight and pressure on the reed is somewhat mixed causing some kind of turbulence.

This effect is very impressive when used on a bent note with at least half of the tone room above and below. The best use of it in my opinion is by getting the deepest bent note, say, 2 draw 2-step bend and then do what was described above by adding some air pressure.

In fine, when you vibrate your tongue the note fluctuates from the 2-step deep bend to almost pure 2 draw - with larger increment of time devoted to the 2-step deep bent note and smaller increment of time devoted to the unbent note or I would say to transition from 2-step bend to unbent note and back. That is, you are to hear the bent note almost constantly with transitory vibrato effect along the possible bending range. All this happens during the tongue vibration.

Throat Vibrato[edit | edit source]

Throat vibrato is one of the most important harmonica techniques to master. It adds color and variety to your notes in the same way that it does for a singer, and it is intimately associated with good tone. There are several different ways of achieving various vibratos on the harp, including diaphragm vibrato, hand vibrato, and throat vibrato. Diaphragm vibrato and throat vibrato are closely related, while hand vibrato is achieved by opening and closing the hands to vary the air seal cup at the back of the harp.

Diaphragm vibrato primarily makes use of the diaphragm for altering the amount of air flowing through the harp, which provides a rhythmic pulsing of volume from softer to louder to softer. Throat vibrato may be the most emotional of the vibratos by making use of pitch changes as well as volume changes.

The key to throat vibrato is a smooth oscillation of both pitch and volume. Done poorly it sounds chunky, and not smooth. Done well it sounds smooth and natural and wonderful. Strive for a sine-wave type continuous smoothness, with consistent pitch and volume changes. Rhythm is an important part of the vibrato. You can do vibrato at different speeds, so you choose a speed that fits with the rhythm and feel of the music. The pulses of the vibrato should be made to divide the notes into even intervals to add to the rhythmic content of the music.

The classic way to get throat vibrato is to imitate a rapid fire machine gun (eh eh eh eh eh), like when you were a kid. Then do it inhaling instead of exhaling. It's the same throat motion that gets the throat vibrato. Work on it until all the chunkiness is gone, and it sounds as natural in your play as it does in a singer's voice.

A good way to get the feel is to put vibrato on the 3 draw 1/2 step (or even less) bend. Your throat is involved getting the bend initially, so there's some feel there before you go for the vibrato. Breathing from the diaphragm will help control the vibrato. There's always an interaction between the throat and diaphragm when doing a vibrato, since each is involved in controlling the air stream. For throat vibrato, obviously the emphasis is on the throat--but you'll probably notice some involvement of the diaphragm as well.

Try it amplified, but play softly. Practice very soft draw bends. At some point you'll notice what feels like a direct connection between your throat and the note. Every little nuance of throat motion is reflected in the sound. Work on playing the 3 draw 1/2 step bend softly. Then put some vibrato on the note by pulsing the air stream with your throat. The pitch will change up and down because you've got a hold of the bend with your throat. Keep at it, it's worth it!

Combo vibrato[edit | edit source]

This is a combo of diaphragm, tonque and jaw technique while bending the note. The diaphragm is working a quick vibrato, while the tonque/jaw are doing a pumping action to enhance and speed up the vibrato even more. Also, bend the note as you do this.

Split intervals[edit | edit source]

Unlike other wind instruments, the harmonica can play numerous notes at once. Aside from intervals made up of adjacent notes, a player can play split intervals by blocking the holes between the ones needed with his tongue, thus playing only the two outmost notes.

While the principle is simple, in practice, this is very difficult. Most people, when they do tongue block, can only do one side (and usually can only block the holes on their left). Thus, when they are trying to move their harmonica left and right to sound the reed, they will either make no sound, or make a wrong sound. Furthermore, most people have difficulties stretching their mouth wide enough.

Rake[edit | edit source]

To do a rake, place a few holes in your mouth and rake the tip of your tongue across the holes, so the combination of holes in your mouth is constantly changing. When you do this, make sure you feel your tongue's edges tapping the corners of your mouth as your tongue flicks from side to side. By reaching the corners of your mouth, you know you are raking all the holes in your mouth. Most tongue-blocking techniques in harmonica playing are best done with the tip of the tongue tucked away, for rakes, use the tip of the tongue as it's easier to glide and define which holes are blocked at any given moment.

Shimmer[edit | edit source]

A shimmer is a corner switch played quickly and repeatedly. The effect is similar to a rake, but you play fewer notes and you can be more selective about which notes you play. When you play a rake, you play about four to five notes and not all notes will sound good with the background chord. With shimmers, you can select only the notes that fit with the chord. You do this by keeping the tip of the tongue on the harmonica and cover all holes except one -- either the rightmost hole or the leftmost hole in your mouth. To alternate between corners, nudge your tongue slightly to the right or left and also move your jaw slightly, just enough to shift the opening in your mouth between the left and right corners.

Octave[edit | edit source]

If a player stretches the mouth wide enough, and block out a certain number of holes in the middle such that only two notes that are octave apart (e.g.: C1 and C2) will sound, they will form a octave.

For chromatic, that means stretching out across five holes, and then block out the 3 holes in the middle with your tongue.
For diatonic, stretch out across four holes and then block out the 2 holes in the middle. Note you can only form a true octave on the blow, and just a few draw notes.

Slide bump[edit | edit source]

As player play a slide-out note, immediately bump the slide in and let it out quickly, which let it rise up a bit.

Slide dip[edit | edit source]

As player play a slide-in note, immediately let it out and press it back in quickly, which let it lower down for a short while.

Getting started: Why should I Play Harmonica? | Types of harmonica | Anatomy of a Harmonica | Harmonica Purchasing guide
Playing the harmonica: Basic Holding and Playing a Harmonica | Tablature | Basic Chords | Bending
Additional techniques: Advance Chords | Advance techniques | Self accompaniment
General harmonica theory: Chromatic Harmonica | Positions | Tremelo | Ensemble Playing | Music Style | Learning Songs | Improvising | Recording | Playing with Amp
Cleaning and maintainence: Basic Maintainence and Care | Advance Maintainence |Harmonica Modifications |Tuning
Appendices: Harmonica Layouts and Alternate Tunings| Harmonica Positions Chart | Blues | Writing Songs