5. How To Play

Basics

You usually hold the harmonica with one hand, and cup the back of the intrument with the other. The chamber you make with your cupping hand acts like the soundbox on a guitar or violin. Breath deep - from down in your chest - and don’t rely on your lips and tongue to do all the work. It’s like singing - breath control is essential if you want to be able to play for a long time and make a great sound. That's why we use the word draw instead of suck - you draw the breath deep down inside you.

Single Notes

There are two techniques for playing single notes on a harmonica: the so-called pucker or whistle, and tongue-blocking. Most players employ a combination of the two.

Pucker

This is the simplest way to play a harmonica. Simply pucker or purse your lips over the hole you want to blow or draw, so that no other holes can play. It takes trial and error to find the shape that works for you - everyone’s mouth is different - but it’s the best place to start.

Tongue-blocking

Here, you use your tongue to block the holes next to the one you want to blow or draw. On a standard Richter diatonic, this gets more difficult in the lower register; players generally use tongue-blocking from hole 4 upwards.

Chord Accompaniment

To play chords, simply blow or draw two or more holes together. For more rhythmic accompaniment, you can tap your tongue against the holes - making a kind of “duh” sound - or click it against the roof of your mouth. In fact, there are as many ways to affect the tone and rhythm of your playing as your mouth will allow. The harmonica is the most vocal of instruments.

Accompany Yourself

If you can master the tongue-blocking technique, you can actually learn to accompany yourself on the harmonica. As you play the melody, briefly release your tongue to allow the blocked holes to play. You get a bouncy, rhythmic accompaniment that adds an extra dimension to your playing.

Bending Draw Notes

This is the missing link for Richter players, and adds expressiveness to all playing. To bend a draw note, you need to alter the shape of your mouth slightly, lifting the back of your tongue - the front naturally drops lower - and moving your jaw forward a little. As with all aspects of harp playing, however, there has to be some trial and error; you have to find a way of bending that works for your mouth. With care, you should be able to get two or even three extra notes out of draws in the lower holes; draw bends get more difficult in the higher register because the reads are shorter.

Overblowing

Overblowing - and overdrawing - describes a technique where you blow the draw reeds and draw the blow reeds. This creates a rise in the pitch of the note, allowing you to play full chromatic scales on an ordinary Richter diatonic harmonica, and can also be used to get additional notes from chromatic and other harps. As always, trial and error is the key; you use a similar method to a normal bend, but you’ll need strong breathing technique and great control to make it work properly for you.

Effects

The harmonica springs to life when you introduce extra effects, using your hands and mouth to colour the tones you produce. You can use vibrato techniques to create subtle shifts in pitch that expand your musical possibilities and give great expressiveness to this simple instrument. The beauty of the harmonica is that the hands, the mouth and the chest all contribute to the tone that’s created, ensuring that every player sounds unique, and giving great flexibility to the quality of sound you make. A slight shift of the tongue, a movement of the hand, and the whole character and mood of your performance can change.

Hand Vibrato

A rough and ready technique, this involves gently vibrating the harmonica itself up and down as you blow and draw.

Throat Vibrato

Usually used for draw notes, this is a way of varying the tone by adjusting the air flow. Make a kind of “H” sound towards the back of your throat as you draw.

Tongue Vibrato

Probably the easiest vibrato technique, this is achieved by going “yuh-yuh-yuh” with the tip of your tongue. As always, it depends on the shape of your tongue, but experimentation will quickly find the way for you. A note on vibrato - albeit a wobbly one - don’t overdo it. Too much vibrato quickly gets irritating and diminishes its expressive power. But a long, sustained note, finishing with a flourishing vibrato, can be spellbinding.

Tremolo

Vibrato techniques adjust the pitch of the note. Tremolo involves interrupting the air flow. Hand tremolo is the basic tremolo technique. By moving the cupping hand, you can interrupt the flow of air to create the tremolo effect. Varying the speed of the movement makes the effect still more colourful. Slightly more demanding is breath tremolo. Try going “uh-uh-uh” as you draw and blow - it sounds more dignified than it looks written down - but try to do it way down towards your diaphragm to get a really rich effect.

Trills

A key characteristic of blues playing, this involves moving the harp rapidly from side to side, so that adjoining holes sound their notes in quick succession. The trick is to ensure that each note is clear and even with a fast trill. Do it by moving the harp, not shaking your head as some harpists seem to do. You get more control, and your head doesn't hurt afterwards!

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