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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Lip Pursers vs Tongue Blockers
Lip Pursers vs Tongue Blockers
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5 posts
Feb 16, 2008
12:01 PM
From what I have heard to date, it sounds like most of the greats used combinations of both methods, or favored tongue blocking (I could be totally wrong, since my knowledge is limired, but growing!)

Are there any GREATS that were predominently LIP PURSERS?

Seeing that I'm a beginner, and this is the stage I'm at, I would be interested in listening to some who have predominently played in this style.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge!
7 posts
Feb 16, 2008
5:16 PM
John Popper mostly uses the lip pursing style. I have rarely, if ever, heard him use tongue blocking. I like the soud of both styles. I mostly use lip pursing, not because i like it the best, but because i cannot bend the lower notes of the harp using tongue blocking. I say use both depending upon the situation.
4 posts
Feb 17, 2008
6:48 AM
Yes, Paul Butterfield was primarily a lip purser, but he did use tongue blocking for octaves and split intervals.
5 posts
Feb 18, 2008
8:50 AM
Off the top of my head, Paul Butterfield, Magic Dick, Charles Musselwhite, Lee Oskar, Jason Ricci, Charlie McCoy, Howard Levy, Mark Ford, Tom Ball.

Even the most famous tongue-blocker of our day Dennis Gruenling puckers from the 2 hole down. According to Little Walter biography 'Blues With a Feeling', he U-blocked for single notes and tongue blocked for split chords and octaves.
3 posts
Feb 18, 2008
3:27 PM

I'm not sure about several of those names. Musselwhite definitely tongue-blocks some of the time, and I'm sure Magic Dick does, too--some of the time.

I'd offer a slightly different list of great players who were or are, to my knowledge, mostly lip-pursers:

Paul Butterfield
Sonny Terry
Sugar Blue
Charlie McCoy
Tom Ball (I'm agreeing with you, based on his sound)
Howard Levy
John Sebastian
John Popper
Phil Wiggins
Carlos del Junco [edited to read: actually, Carlos TBs a fair bit]
Madcat Ruth (?)

When I shared a little stage time with Jason Ricci at the Bean Blossom clinic, I discovered that he and I agree on the core issue, since both of us play lots of overblows and fast legato high note lines. We move freely between tongue blocking and lip pursing and think that each technique offers specific sounds and advantages in different circumstances. Tongue blocking enables you to work counter-rhythms, for example, and get a thicker sound in some ways, lip pursing frees your tongue to articulate in "dit" fashion in ways that it can't when it's also responsible for blocking.

I don't think harp players need to choose, or should. Although I began mostly as a lip-purser, my sound was greatly aided when I began to add tongue-blocking technique to the mix. So I'd never claim that somebody should AVOID tongue-blocking. To do that is to miss so much. By the same token, I'd never claim that somebody should ALWAYS tongue-block. I'm quite sure that Magic Dick's triple-tonguing late in "Whammer Jammer"--di-di-dit! di-di-dit!--is made while he's lip pursing. Or at least that's what I hear.

Last Edited by on Feb 18, 2008 4:44 PM
9 posts
Feb 18, 2008
3:52 PM
Yeah, I meant predominantly lip-pursers. Generally, all pro's use each technique to a certain degree.

Even Jason strictly tongue-blocks on Chicago blues songs like Blues Penitentiary. But I would still consider Jason and you lip-pursers.

I know for certain Tom Ball exclusively lip purses as he states it on his Little/Big Walter licks CD. He even shows how to do fake tongue-slaps and other techniques to get the rhythmic sound of tongue-blocking.

For some reason, I didn't know Sonny Terry was a lip purser though! I would have never guessed that for some reason.

Last Edited by on Feb 18, 2008 3:54 PM
4 posts
Feb 18, 2008
4:39 PM
I can't speak for Jason, obviously, but I'm really not primarily a lip purser. It really depends on the song. Yes, when I play fast lines on the upper octave, I'm lip pursing. When I overblow, I'm obviously lip pursing. But when I play the head to "Watermelon Man," for example, I'm tongue-blocking half the time. I constantly switch back and forth between TB and LP--so much that there's a sort of clacking-sound that the harp makes as I relax my LP embouchure and allow the harp to clack against my teeth as I move into TB. That's another of my quirks: when I TB, I usually have the metal coverplates against my teeth.

When I played with Mr. Satan, his sound was huge and overwhelming; I compensated by using TB as often as I could while comping. My rhythm part to "What'd I Say" was 85% TB.

The one thing I almost never do is bend notes while tongue blocking. That's where I draw the line with somebody like Dennis Gruenling or Joe Filisko. Those guys are great at that technique. I'm lousy at it. Occasionally I'll slide to a blue third while TB, but that's it. I'm a lip-pursing bender through and through.

For the "big sound," though, TB technique is ultimately a must, I think. Certainly it was for my teacher, Nat Riddles; I'm a tongue-blocker because he was a tongue-blocker and he had such a great sound that I just couldn't NOT add a significant amount of TB to my arsenal after hearing what he did with it.

Last Edited by on Feb 18, 2008 4:41 PM
5 posts
Feb 19, 2008
11:50 PM
I say learn both, start with Lip Pursing and try to duplicate the sound with tounge blocking. Some techniques are easier in one form or another but I suppose its up to the player...I especialy love the Big Walter Riffs that are tounge block heavy.
20 posts
Mar 08, 2008
11:02 AM
Adam, in my book I still consider you a lip purser. I tongue-block octaves a lot also. But whenever I can lip purse, I will always revert back to that style of playing as my primary mode. And it seems to me that even songs that are often tongue-blocked, you almost always try to transform those songs into lip pursed versions if possible.

To claim you're a lip purser doesn't mean you can't and do not employ tounge-blocking.

It simply seems you (and myself) only employ tb'ing when you *have to*. When the majority of you're playing is lip pursed, it seems logical to claim that you're a lip purse player. I tongue-block probably 30-45% of the time - but I still consider myself a lip purser.

Obviously we're splitting hairs here on a fairly irrelevant harp-nerd topic, lol. : )
17 posts
Mar 11, 2008
1:42 PM
One thing you definitely can't do lip pursing is play hands free harp like Rick Estrin of Little Charlie and the Nightcats does in "Hurry Up and Wait".

I think Sonny Boy Williamson II used to do the same trick...
3 posts
Mar 17, 2008
10:41 AM
I am learning to play harp. In adamsĀ“s words I am an intermediate beginner. In my modest opinion (I tongue-block) to be a good harmonica player, it is necessary to be able to manage both techniques to a certain extend. In the Magic dick interview, he talks about this. He says exactly what I am saying and I think he is right. I started tongue blocking because I saw it in a book, and it is much easier (at least for me) to go from there to lip-pursing instead of from lip-pursing to tongue-block. Big Hug to all from london. Charlyharp.
7 posts
Mar 19, 2008
10:30 AM
Hello guys!

TB or LP,that's the big question for many guys. I think this question is pretty much like saying to a soccerplayer: is it best to use left or right leg? Some soccerplayers are fantastic with their left leg,but can't make a pass with the right. Some are the opposite.. They can become good players. But to become a great soccerplayer you have to be able to use both feet. But still,you will have one foot that's slightly better. And this goes to playing the misery whistle as well:) to become a great harpist you have to be able to TB and LP. I think it's important to admit this because there are some guys out there who are TB-nazi's. I took lessons with a TB-nazi-guy. I HAD to TB! No lipping allowed at his house! I think that make you miss out on a lot of the possibilities that you have using both styles. So I found out that guy wasn't for me. And as I drove home,a bit disappointed,I realized that I don't need to take lessons from a TB-nazi,I have probably the best instructor and mentor I can possibly get. His name is Adam Gussow. You might have seen him on Youtube;) A damn good player and really funny and inspiring guy! I guess you could say he has a reed loose up in his head sometimes,but the guy is amazing:)
25 posts
Mar 19, 2008
11:02 AM
One day I hear Big Walter and think "yeah, the massive rhythmic TB sound is definitely better". Then I listen to Jason Ricci the next day and it's like "nah, lip pursing is infinitely more versatile."

Both, both, it will always be both.
19 posts
Mar 20, 2008
1:33 PM
As far as I'm concerned, you HAVE to be able to do both.
I'm primarily a tongue blocker, but there's no way I can do a blow bend on the upper holes TBing. Of course I can play the notes straight TBing, but I have to switch to pursing to blow bend. (Essential in 1st position harp.)
Also, I'm still stuggling to learn overblows, which I know have to be LPed.
21 posts
Mar 23, 2008
5:11 PM

With all due respect, you're wrong about what kind of a player I am. I'm neither mostly a lip purser nor mostly a tongue-blocker. I am somebody who spent the early part of his career as lip purser, although I very occasionally tongue-blocked. But I didn't really know the technique of tongue blocking as I later came to know it. And I didn't realize how essential it was.

In 1985 I met Nat Riddles and saw the light. I got BIG WALTER WITH CAREY BELL and began tongue blocking for real. "Whammer Jammer," "Creeper Creeps Again," the playing of Carey Bell...all that stuff turned me on, but mostly Nat's playing turned me on, and he showed me dozens of riffs that required tongue blocking. My pre-tongue-blocking style sounded wimpy compared to everything I did after I added tongue blocking. I sounded like a wimpy hippie in pre-TB days. I went around sneering at players who didn't tongue block. I didn't tongue block EVERYTHING, but I tongue blocked a lot of things.

Then, in 1987, I began playing with Mr. Satan and discovered that unless I tongue blocked in the middle part of the harp, I simply couldn't be heard.

I LOVE tongue blocking. I use the technique a lot. I use it in the middle part of the harp for the "big" sound when playing solos, and I use it 90% of the time when I'm comping, regardless of the position I'm playing in. The opening riffs in my only famous composition, "Thunky Fing," are impossible without tongue blocking. I use tongue blocking when I want a big octav-y sound on the upper holes of the harp.

You may think of me as whatever you want, but you're mistaken if you think of me as primarily a lip purser. I'm not. Nor am I primarily a tongue blocker. Both techniques are an integral part of my style.

"The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare."

--Juma Ikaanga, marathoner

Last Edited by on Mar 23, 2008 5:15 PM
28 posts
Mar 23, 2008
7:01 PM
Ditto, Adam. Pulling from a couple isolated comments from your videos regarding lip-pursing, I put together the wrong impression of you. You're the only reason I started to tongue-block, lol. Regards. : )
23 posts
Mar 23, 2008
8:41 PM
Same Here
1 post
Apr 07, 2008
5:54 AM
IN my humble opinion, I think most people start off lip pursing - but that's not to say that you're ALWAYS a 'lip purser.' Both techniques have their advantages and I think that boxing yourself into either style only serves to constrain you.
I only really started playing along live with other instruments a few weeks ago, and it wasn't until then that the magic of the 'tone' of TB made sense to me - any time I LP'ed, I basically disappeared from the band!
14 posts
Apr 25, 2008
4:24 PM
Just to stray off the debate for one second, I notice Shane that you're based in Belfast. We have organised a new Blues Jam night starting in Bangor on 6th May in the Imperial Bar. Would you be interested in coming along? All are welcome!!

Our myspace site:

17 posts
Apr 29, 2008
12:55 PM
Hi guys - good to hear of some harp-suckers a bit closer to home for a change!

Thanks for the invite -I'm a student in Belfast so hopefully ill be able to make it over - meanwhile, I've just added you's on Myspace so I shud be keepin in touch...
17 posts
Apr 30, 2008
10:27 AM
Good stuff!
11 posts
May 19, 2008
9:47 PM
Recently I was told by a potential harmonica instructor that even the great Gindick has softened his support of puckering or pursing and supports tongue blocking to a degree. I'm signed up for an intro class so it should be interesting to hear the comments on the two techniques.

I started TBing then switched to puckering when watching the old Gindick VHS tapes I got from the library. This is when Jon had blond hair, wore tie dyed shirts and was a bit thinner. AW I can understand TBing when your in and out of the octaves a lot. I can't move my mouth fast enough to go from TB octave to pucker and back to TB octave.

In support of puckering I find it difficult to hit a hard bend when TBing particularly when doing a lot of them fast.

Anyone been to a recent Gindick Jam Camp?

I guess the consensus is you have to learn both.

Practice, practice, practice
31 posts
May 23, 2008
5:19 PM
You all forgot "Lung Blocking"

That's when you blow so hard trying to get that Magic Dick 10 hole Blowbend..

It's closly related to "Purple Pursing" which is the effect you get trying to sustain that number one hole overblow on a Low F harp for 45 seconds as the lead guitarist quickly tries to replace that broken B string...

Have a great Rememberance Day!
82 posts
Feb 26, 2010
8:11 PM
good civil thread on TB and LP.

8 posts
Feb 26, 2010
9:15 PM
I missed this somehow -

@ Jeff - I don't pucker on hole 2, but occasionally do on hole 1. On hole 1 I sometimes pucker, sometimes TB to the left, sometimes TB to the right.

Straight from the horse's (or BadAss's) mouth...

- Dennis Gruenling
2436 posts
Feb 26, 2010
9:17 PM
this thread is from 2008
1261 posts
Feb 26, 2010
9:20 PM
It probably got bumped up the other day when that spammer posted on a few threads.
9 posts
Feb 26, 2010
9:29 PM
oops...thanks jon, that explains why I missed it I guess! It was nice to see a civil (albeit old) thread though.

And it was also nice to see Adam say this - "For the "big sound," though, TB technique is ultimately a must, I think."

Can I quote him on that? ;)

- Dennis Gruenling
191 posts
Feb 26, 2010
9:40 PM
Just a quick correction: From what I've heard, Sugar Blue actually TBs everything he plays. I was surprised when I found this out, because I just assumed he LB/LP all that fast high end stuff. In a couple of Jason's videos he talks about how it is possible to play just as fast in the middle and upper registers while TB (as evidenced by Sugar Blue), but he has yet to see anybody who can TB and do the type of speed stuff on the bottom end that he does. This is because it requires it requires a lot of bending and fast articultation, and you simply can't get that type of super fast articulation and bending while TB (at least he hasn't seen anybody do it yet).
85 posts
Feb 26, 2010
9:43 PM
I bumped it to get back on topic so to speak. The archive is a great resource (-:
192 posts
Feb 26, 2010
9:50 PM
Oi vey, I hate when these old threads pop up and I post without realising how old it is.

"And it was also nice to see Adam say this - 'For the "big sound," though, TB technique is ultimately a must, I think.'"

I wonder if Adam is talking about the tone of the individual notes, or if he's refering to the fact that using TB allows you to play slaps and octaves etc., which gives you a bigger sound than simply playing all single notes. Adding those effects(slaps, octaves) does give you a "bigger" sound, but I'm still not convinced that TB gives individual notes a bigger richer sound than LB(when it's done correctly that is), like many people claim.
194 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:02 PM
Dennis, do you think that tongue blocking is more relaxed than lip pursing embouchure wise? This is the reason I switched to playing 100% everything tongue blocking. For lip pursing I have tension in the corners of my mouth, for tongue blocking there is none. It IS easier to learn O/blowing lip pursing initially, but now I find that tongue blocking when overblowing is very relaxed as well. This might have something to do with the extra space on the side where the tongue is blocking naturally contributing to back pressure, where when lip pursing, the pressure and air is in a direct stream. Of course everyone has their preferences, but to me it simply makes sense that when incorporating things like octaves into ones playing, the shortest distance between two points is simply a lateral (left or right) tongue motion away. As opposed to a forward/widening motion from lip pursing to tongue blocked octaves. As far as articulating with a "dit" sound for lip pursing with the tongue, yes that is a benefit of lip pursing. BUT, with practice VERY fast articulations can be done simply through glottal stops. Just watch Hanz Chmel articulate. He claims that almost all of his fast passages are done with glottal stops.

Also, for Adams technique of lifting your lip up off the harmonica to let air out, with tongue blocking, this can be done when playing single notes. As far as sound differences lip vs. tongue, I won't go there.
1262 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:11 PM
Not to step on the third rail, but I think open backed vs. narrow backed harps makes a big difference in tone too. Open backed harps may project sound better, but I've got a couple cheap harps that have narrow backs and it gives them a great tone. If you are holding your mic it's really hard to do much to shape the sound with your hands. I can get a warm tone on an open back harp if I'm standing back from the mic, but if I'm right on top of the mic the closed back actually seems to help.

Even little things like how you move your fingers can change your tone. Look at Sonny Boy Williamson here at about 3:20. He does his thing with his fingers. I tried it, and especially on an open back harp, you can hear the difference.

edit- Oops, forgot to embed the video.

Last Edited by on Feb 26, 2010 10:23 PM
90 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:16 PM
I think that nacoran is correct in that what he's describing is the compression you get from SP20's and similar harps. Amplified, I think the problem with this is that you lose some of the cut you get from the brighter marine bands.
195 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:26 PM
Also, you can look to different instruments that use lip pursing essentially. They have no problem getting a huge sound and the use of the tongue for articulation is essential.

1264 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:33 PM
MAL- They've got a little bigger resonating chamber though!

You always see pitch charts but it would be interesting to see a unamplified volume-off contest. You could set measuring devices at different distances and have a representative of each instrument play a scale as loud as they could. It wouldn't all be for fun either. Seeing how the different notes carried and how the loud the instruments could be could actually be very useful. But lets face it, it would be fun... like those hollering contests. For wind powered instruments my bet would be on something from the brass section, but I could be wrong.
196 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:37 PM
Yes, but they also have bigger reeds to vibrate so it's roughly equal.
197 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:41 PM
I think ultimately it shouldn't matter what the "greats" did because technique is a very personal thing. What feels good to you? What is naturally relaxing to you? What are comfortable with?

On clarinet, some people have a embouchure with teeth on the mouthpiece, some have a double lip embouchure. Either/or, the technique is developed to play music and technique should allow you to play in the most natural way. Start with a technique comfortable to you and work on producing the sounds you have in mind within the comfort of that technique. Then, adjust accordingly.

Last Edited by on Feb 26, 2010 10:42 PM
933 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:48 PM
I tongue block everything including overblows except 8, 9, 10 blow bends. Which I'm working on changing to tongue blocking as well.

I learnt to tongue block from day one so it's more natural and comfortable to me than lip blocking/pursing.
1265 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:49 PM
My first instrument was the baritone tuba. I tried picking up trumpet last year, but I've got a slight crack in one of my front teeth. It doesn't bother me on most things, but the brass mouthpiece pushes up against it, combined with the buzzing and I just can't practice enough to get any good.

Living in an apartment doesn't help either. I'm a night owl and when I want to play music it's usually not a good time for a trumpet, but I can get away with a harmonica.
91 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:53 PM
I think ultimately it shouldn't matter what the "greats" did because technique is a very personal thing.

It should only matter as much as it matters with regard to any other instrument. Which is to say, it matters.

It's okay to disregard the established methods, I suppose, as long as you don't end up sounding unmusical.
1175 posts
Feb 26, 2010
10:57 PM
Nacoran, I sent you the locking banner per mail. In case it is of use. GH

germanharpist on YT. =;-) - Resonance is KEY!
1084 posts
Feb 26, 2010
11:15 PM
I wouldn't want to enter into a subject as volatile as this can get--and I sure as hell don't presume to be qualified to correct Adam--but I couldn't help but notice two names on his list of lip pursers where I humbly disagree with of course the great possibility that I am wrong:

Sonny Terry. I took a day-long class on Sonny Terry from Joe Filisko at a Masterclass last year and was surprised to learn that Joe says, unequivocally, that Sonny was primarily a tongue blocker--in the class he taught enough ST effects with TBing to convince me that he is probably right.

Phil Wiggins. I was privileged to study with Phil last summer at the Centrum Blues Festival in Port Townsend, WA. I took four two hour classes from him. Phil says he cannot bend while TBing or while doing real fast single note runs--other than that, he TB's most all the time. He teaches a very cool exercise called "TB Shuffle" which I'll play for everybody sometime, if I can master it.

I think Phil or Sonny could go either way and play the shit out of the harp--but I don't think either of them is "primarily and lip purser."
934 posts
Feb 26, 2010
11:27 PM
Sugar Blue apparently is also predominantly a tongue blocker.
198 posts
Feb 26, 2010
11:35 PM
@ Ev630

"It should only matter as much as it matters with regard to any other instrument. Which is to say, it matters.

It's okay to disregard the established methods, I suppose, as long as you don't end up sounding unmusical."

The harmonica is unlike most instruments in that it is very small and the shape of the persons hands/natural mouth shape pretty much create the instrument, which WIDELY vary. For instruments like guitar and clarinet/sax/violin and most instruments it is about digital manipulation. Thus, of course, there is a certain efficiency of movement that can be attained. For mouth shape/personal feel though, the very WIDE array of shapes and sizes allows and demands a very personal development of technique to create the same sounds. For instance, Adam is able to emulate many sounds lip pursing that many greats did tongue blocking. This is because of what I described above.
93 posts
Feb 27, 2010
1:00 AM
I play clarinet and let me tell you there is a huge difference between some guy in an orchestra and Pete Fountain - and it isn't down to dexterity.
270 posts
Feb 27, 2010
3:59 AM
Who's Pete Fountain?


OH, he can play that thing.
271 posts
Feb 27, 2010
4:13 AM
There is a list of the Great Lip Pursers up the top. Who can put up a list of the great Tongue Blockers?

Number to beat is - 11 - ( sugar & ST ) = 9 Great LP'ers.
939 posts
Feb 27, 2010
4:22 AM
Well since you asked.

Dennis Gruenling
Big Walter Horton
Rod Piazza
Gary Smith
Mark Hummel
Kim Wilson
Steve Guyger
William Clarke
Sugar Ray Norcia
Gary Primich
Jerry Portnoy
RJ Mischo
David Barret
James Harman
Mitch Kashmar
Andy Just
Mark Ford
Sugar Blue - Edit -I forgot to add him in

All of them as far as I'm aware are predominantly tongue blockers. Not that it matters in the slightest of course.

Last Edited by on Feb 27, 2010 4:30 AM
169 posts
Feb 27, 2010
4:43 AM
What about Junior Wells? I was never sure whether he was TB or LP, although I leaned towards assuming the latter, especially on Hoodoo Man Blues with all the tongue effects. Anybody know?

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