Tongue blocking

Charlie Sawyer asked if I could try one more time, so I'll give it a shot.
Trying to express various harmonica tones and effects in writing is close
to absurd, but I'm game up to a point

I'd been playing around with the harp for about four years when I ran into
Paul Oscher. James Cotton was my original inspiration; I first saw him in
1968. I saw Butterfield for the first time that year, too, and I loved his
show--he had the big band then--but there was something about Cotton's sound
that seemed a lot bigger to me. Butterfield's sound really cut, and it was
perfect for rock blues or whatever you want to call it, but Cotton sounded
so huge to me. Oscher was the first guy I actually got to know personally
who had a sound anything like Cotton's, so I stuck to him like glue for a
couple of years.

Up until I met Oscher, I was strictly a single-note puckerer. The first thing
Oscher showed me was the head to "Juke," and how the last four notes were
really octaves. So I spent a couple of frustrating months learning how to
get my tongue to make an octave. But Oscher totally demoralized me, because
he tongue blocked 100% of the time: for all the bends, on the 1 and 2 holes--
all the time. Frankly, I was too lazy, and I finally came up with a hybrid
style, where I'm usually puckered on the 1, 2, and 3 holes and blocked
the rest of the time, except for some effects, like that sour 5 hole draw
that Sonny Boy liked so much. I've since met a lot of other people who use
a similar approach. I've never been able to be as quick or have as facile
bends on the bottom holes blocked as I could puckered. So I'm not one of 
those players who says you're not a real man unless you block all the time.

I've always felt that the harmonica has a tendency to sound shrill and
thin. One player who posted today noted that he could get a tongue-blocked
sound by opening his mouth wider when he puckered, and this is true--that's
what I shoot for when I'm down on the 1, 2, or 3. But when you tongue block,
your mouth automatically widens to get those four holes instead of just the
one, and I find that this gives you a bassier, less bright sound, sort off
like the difference between a cornet compared to a trumpet. And of course,
when you play octaves you beef up the higher melody note by getting at least
a hint of the note an octave lower. In this sense, playing single notes is
sort of like playing right-handed piano--it's perfectly valid (and a lot of
keyboardists these days don't have much of a left hand), but it's nice to
through in that other dimension.

One big payoff for me with tongue blocking is in using a tongue slap to
differentiate between notes. This is a lot heavier and punchier effect than
breathing in bursts, which is how you do separate the notes when you're
puckered. And when it's amplified, the tongue slap is a very powerful thing.

Playing puckered is actually a fairly new phenomenon. From 1825 until
the 1950s, most harp players played tongue blocked. Just listen to DeFord
Bailey's cuts from the 1920s to discover just how brilliantly some of those
old-timer used their tongue--DeFord can get two or three completely distinct
rhythm things going. Butterfield really popularized the pucker style for
rock and blues.

It depends to an extent what kind of music you want to play, but there are
heavy tongue blockers in all styles, including bluegrass. But for the tongue
slap and octaves, if nothing else, everybody should play around with it.

Charlie, I think a lot of the fat-to-thin changeups you hear in blues harp
is done with the hands. It's most obvious in acoustic playing, but the
next time you catch Kim Wilson, for instance, watch what he does with his
hands on the mike. Kim's a genius for mike technique.

--Kim Field

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