Hello! In today's harmonica lesson I'll teach you to tongue block on harmonica. You might also want to try my full step-by-step tongue blocking course.
What is tongue blocking?
Tongue blocking is just a way of getting clean single notes, which are the most basic building block of creating music. We all have to choose one or another way of getting clean notes. Most people start with puckering (also called lip pursing) because it's the most intuitive. But tongue blocking is a great way to get extra textures with your playing, and for this reason it's favoured by lots of experienced blues harmonica players.
How do you tongue block?
To achieve a tongue-block, you need to get your mouth a lot wider than you’ll be used to. Your mouth must cover four holes. When you get your mouth this wide, you will find that blowing (and drawing) gives multiple notes, all playing at once. The key to tongue-blocking clean notes is getting the tongue in the right position to make sure only one of these notes actually sounds at any one time. We'll start by trying to play hole 4 (you can try blow and draw with the same shape).
You need to place your tongue on to the harmonica, slightly left of centre, so that you're covering the three holes on the left hand side of your mouth (see below).
Tongue blocking takes a lot of practice so please be patient! You will need to experiment to get the right shape. The biggest mistake people make is to force the air too much, which won't work well (for tongue blocking or any other mouth shape). Blowing harder won't help - remember that it's all about the position of the mouth and tongue.
(Note: the four hole shape above may be adapted for the lower holes - see below for more details.)
Tongue blocking practice exercises
Let's do some tongue block practice. First, try playing the C major scale:
C major scale: 4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7
Take it slowly and correct any notes before you move on. You need to make slight adjustments as you go and use your ears for feedback because you won't be able to see what you're doing with your tongue.
Next try a basic song, such as When The Saints Go Marching In.
You can also try any other lick, scale, or song to a tongue block shape. For example, the blues scale:
Blues scale: -2 -3/ 4 -4/ -4 -5 6
Can you bend notes while tongue blocking?
You may have noticed that the blues scale contains a couple of bends. So can you bend while tongue blocking? Yes, you can definitely bend while tongue blocking! First you need to get your basic tongue block shape really solid and confident. You can then learn to adapt the bending technique from your pucker shape to suit the tongue block. Click here for a full lesson on bending with a tongue block.
Tongue blocking every note
You don't have to tongue block every note, all of the time. Some people only block from hole 4-10, others move in and out of different mouth shapes to suit the song. But if you want to tongue block every note, you have to consider different shapes for different areas of the harp.
When playing holes 4 to 10, we use a four-hole width and cover the lower holes with our tongue. The right-hand side of the mouth is the space where the air flows through. This is the 'standard' shape described above.
Holes 2 and 3:
To tongue block holes 2 and 3, you can narrow your mouth down so you're still blocking the lower holes, but only one or two (depending if you're on hole 2 or 3). This is a sort of 'narrow tongue block' shape. Keep nice and relaxed while doing this - don't let yourself tense up or you'll lose the tone and accuracy.
To tongue block hole 1, you will need to switch your tongue! Slide the tongue over to the right-hand side so that the air flows out of the left-hand side. This is a mirror image of how you play hole 4. This can seem daunting at first, especially if you've just memorised the standard shape, but if you keep your breathing relaxed and practise this new shape diligently then you should be able to play hole 1 without any problems.
Tips for tongue blocking success
One great way to get started with tongue blocking is to try tongue blocking some songs you can already play with a lip-pursed shape. This way you won't be wasting energy on learning the tabs. It simply gives you a safe space to practise the new mouth shape. Because you know the song, you'll also be a good judge of when you're getting it right or wrong. Remember to play the song slowly and move on to the next note only when you have played the last note cleanly.
Getting a Tongue Block Trainer is another great way to develop your tongue block shape. The Tongue Block Trainer was developed by Joe Filisko and allows you to check in the mirror if you're getting the right shape. You can find out more about the Tongue Block Trainer here. You could also make your own out of paper if you'd prefer.
Even with the Tongue Block Trainer, you'll have to practice the real thing sooner or later, at which point you won't be able to see your tongue. This means you need to develop your listening skills. Practise really paying attention to what you're playing and be your own worst critic. If it isn't right, why not? What can you do to improve the sound? Learning to be mindful in this way will make your time more efficient and help you to improve a lot quicker.
With any form of practice, it's really useful to record yourself. Then you can go back and focus on what you played, since it's very difficult to analyse the subtleties while playing. These days it's usually as simple an opening the voice memo app on your smartphone.
Finally, you have to be willing to take it slow. You are a total beginner to tongue blocking, even if you're an awesome pucker player. Be willing to take time on the basics and - paradoxically - you'll actually improve a lot quicker.
Tongue blocking to the next level
So what's all this hard work for? Well, tongue blocking opens up a lot of textural possibilities, such as slapping, octave splits, flutters and sweeps. These are amazing sounds that will really expand the range of textures in your playing. Sound good? Check out the link below to learn more in my full tongue blocking course.
Take the full tongue blocking course...
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