Hello! In today's harmonica lesson, I'll teach you how to play clean notes on the harmonica by isolating single holes. We'll look at three different methods: lip pursing (puckering), tongue blocking, and U-blocking. I hope this lesson helps you to find the right method for you.
What are single notes?
Without any technique or knowledge, you'll get more than one note when you breathe through the harmonica. This can be useful in some contexts but most of the time you need to play individual holes so that you can play clean and clear melodies.
To hear what a clean note sounds like, find hole 4 and block the adjacent holes with your fingers. When you blow, you should hear the clean sound of a single reed vibrating. On a C harmonica, you're listening out of a C note. If it sounds messy, you're still getting more than one note.
Of course, you can't do this every time you need to play a note, so we're going to look at three methods for getting accurate single notes - without using your fingers!
The three techniques
The three methods we'll look at today are as follows:
1. Lip pursing - also called puckering, this is usually the easiest technique for beginners.
2. Tongue blocking - this method allows for great expressive textures, but can be tricky for beginners.
3. U-blocking - this is popular with folk musicians because it can help with quick passages, but it requires a curved tongue which isn't possible for some people.
Method 1 - Lip Pursing
Lip pursing (sometimes called puckering) is the most common technique for playing clean notes, and it's the method that beginners usually find easiest. It's intuitive because you're trying to narrow your lips so that you isolate a single hole, avoiding the holes either side of the one you're aiming at. You should aim to keep your mouth narrow but without adding any tension with your tongue, cheeks or throat muscles because this can affect the sound of the note.
Put the harp to your mouth and aim for hole 4. Breathe out (but don't force the air). On a harmonica in the key of C, you are aiming for the C note. The sound should be clean and clear and only one note. If it sounds like more than one note, your mouth is too wide. Stand in front of a mirror to really see what you’re doing, taking the harp in and out of your mouth and trying to adjust each time. However, make sure to resist the temptation to make your mouth really small and tight; it might help you to get a single note in the short term but it is a bad habit which will give you poor tone.
Method 2 - Tongue Blocking
Tongue blocking can be a bit more awkward for beginners, but some do find it works well for them. However, it's an important technique if you want to get extra textures like slaps, flutters and octave splits. It's also an integral part of the classic blues sound.
To give it a go, make your mouth the width of four holes.
Put the harp to your mouth to check the sound; you should hear roughly four notes at once. Take the harp away from your mouth and practise putting your tongue forward and to the left. Put the harp to your mouth again and search for hole 1 with the tip of your tongue. You are aiming to play hole 4 out of the right hand side of the mouth. Again, it should be a clean, clear note with no other tones creeping in.
Method 3 - U Blocking
U-blocking is a sort of combination of lip pursing and tongue blocking. You need to narrow your mouth - but not quite as thin as with lip pursing - and then use your curved tongue to give you the accuracy of a single hole. (You may have noticed that this technique is not open to everyone - sorry if you can't roll your tongue!) This is popular with some folk harmonicists as they can move quickly between holes to play accurate triplets and other fast runs.
So that's the three ways to get clean notes on the harmonica. I hope you enjoyed the lesson. Let me know which method works best for you!
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