top of page
  • Writer's pictureandreahywong

ICCCH Episode 4-5: Harmonica Advanced Techniques

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

So these two episodes are focused on some harmonica advanced techniques! I don’t know if I’d ever get a chromatic harmonica and try these out myself but it’s still interesting to see what’s involved “behind the instrument”! (Also, this is unrelated but… have I mentioned how I love the intro music and video editing?)

The Secret of the Hidden Tongue Work

This is related to playing polyphonically on the harmonica. A personal note before the lesson notes: I’ve definitely played with a diatonic harmonica before and I think it’s actually rather difficult to play very specific notes intentionally. Especially if there are other notes/holes in between the ones you want. Typically, I always sounded like I was playing chords – C chords (CEG on blow) and some Dm6 or B half diminished chord (DFAB on draw) – since I didn’t know you could isolate notes. There’s probably a way to do it so let’s see!

1. Pucker and Tongue Block

Pucker: form the lip in the shape of a mouthpiece on the harmonica (like drinking from a straw)

Tongue Block: widening the lips to cover multiple harmonica holes, using the tongue to block targeted holes

Differences: the different mouth shape leads to subtle tonal differences

Pucker heard at 1:39 of video; Tongue Block can be heard around 1:42.

I found the Tongue Blocking technique produces a sound that is brighter, perhaps with more higher frequency data, resulting to something sounding more striking.

2. Double Stop

  • playing two holes at the same time (not just adjacent holes due to tongue block)

  • can play up to 6 holes blocking the middle 4 holes (up to intervals of 13ths!)

Adjacent Holes:

Up to 6 holes apart:

Examples of Double Stops with only Blow notes on a C Chromatic Harmonica

  • 3rds: CE

  • 5ths: C-E-G

  • 8ves: C-EG-C

  • 10ths: C-EGC-E

  • 12ths: C-EGCE-G

  • 3rds: EG

  • 6ths: E-G-C

  • 8ves: E-GC-E

  • 10ths: E-GCE-G

  • 13ths: E-GCEG-C

  • 4ths: GC

  • 6ths: G-C-E

  • 8ves: G-CE-G

  • 11ths: G-CEG-C

  • 13ths: G-CEGC-E

An aside on chords on the harmonica:

It’s possible to play chords on the harmonica without the tongue blocking the holes. But all chord components/notes have to be produced in the same category of playing – 1 of the following 4: Blow, Draw, Slide-Blow, Slide-Draw. On a C chromatic harmonica, these would include chords with the following notes by category:

Blow: C E G

  • C: C E G

  • Em6: E G (no B) C

Draw: D F A B

  • Dm: D F A

  • Bhalf-dim: B D F A

Slide-Blow: C# E# G#

  • C#: C# E# G#

Slide-Draw: D# F# A# B#

  • D#m: D# F# A#

  • B#half-dim: B# D# F# A#

I noticed there are some #enharmonic #equivalents between these different categories, which is neat to know as it means there are different ways to produce the same pitch! For example: an E#/F can be played via Slide-Blow or Draw, and a B#/C can be played via Slide-Draw or Blow.

3. Broken Chord: an advanced technique – requires simultaneous altering of the size of both the lips and tongue

4. Switch Corner – for musical passages with large leaps

- traditional method: stable lip width, moving tongue applying tongue-blocking technique

- alternate method (more effective): stable lip width, stable tongue (as a pivot, less mobile), moving hands (laterally) == much easier!

This means that “leapy” passages can be performed legato with ease, and harmonica players can also execute large leap tremolo effects.

Episode 5 coming here soon!

Episode 5 – Advanced Technique Vol. 2 []

Three Advanced Techniques of Harmonica

1. Trill: rapid alternation of adjacent notes (semitone or whole tone apart)

- not all trills are of the same difficulty. Some will require more coordination which is harder to sustain!

  • There are 2 types of semitone trills

i. by pressing the slider button, requires basic technique: slide control

ii. by alternating with the semitone above, requiring coordination between: inhale/exhales, lateral movement, slide control

  • There are 4 types of whole tone trills:

i. by lateral movement only

ii. by alternating inhale/exhales only

iii. by lateral movement with alternating inhale/exhales

iv. by lateral movement with alternating inhale/exhales, and slide control

2. Vibrato: can be created by hand, diaphragm, or tongue

  • Hand – there’s a bit of a wa-wa effect as the and prevents/allows more of the sound to diffuse in the air

  • Diaphragm – this sounded more like a tremolo to me with the wavering in amplitude. It seems similar to how vibrato is down on a flute!

  • Tongue – by alternating between a “normal” and bended note. I wonder how much you can bend the pitch with your tongue! 50 cents? a semitone?

3. Sound Effects - some other sounds harmonicas can make!

  • pressing the slide halfway – there’s a beating effect here? Definitely two close and and simultaneous pitches.

  • wow-wow effect – this seems like the wa-wa seen before using a hand vibrato – very expressive!

  • shake – a tremolo with tongue vibrato as above

  • abrupt dissonance chords – it may be just me but this didn’t sound very dissonant in the video – is it a rapid blow-draw alternation? It still seems possible to blow or draw multiple notes and press the slide halfway because there was certainly dissonance in the first effect!

  • tremolo – is this a faster form of tongue vibrato? The previous seemed like a very measured pulse, and perhaps this is the not-measured equivalent?

  • tremolo with E & G – this sounds very bluesy!



bottom of page