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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > my throat vibrato odyssey
my throat vibrato odyssey
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8 posts
Mar 24, 2024
9:39 AM
So, I had a miraculous breakthrough last night I thought I'd share for anyone it might help.

I'm 51, have played harp since my teens, and have never been able to do throat vibrato. Oh, I've covered it with a variety of tremolo-based workarounds, I even pretended I didn't care. But of course all along I coveted that pulsing, wave-like throat vibrato we all know and love.

Recently I made another stab at it. I went nuts. I watched every vibrato video on youtube (and that's no small number). I gotta commend Adam, Will Wylde and Michael Rubin, all of whom have great vibratos and interesting insights on how they get them. However, in the end, none of it worked for me. I could make my tremolo a bit more fluid, but it remained a tremolo. And it seemed to require a ton of concentration to do right.

Until last night. When suddenly, out of nowhere, I could do it and do it perfectly and effortlessly.

However, I now truly appreciate the difficulty of *explaining* it, because it's very hard to actually isolate what I'm doing different now. It seems to just be... happening.

My theory is this: I think I exercised my vocal chords or glottal muscles or whatever the heck those things are in your neck that move when you do throat vibrato right - I think I finally just worked them enough that they started to sort of... spasm or vibrate.

So, if, like me, you've struggled with this one, here's what worked for me. It was a combination of two things:

One is the standard method espoused by the above guys who teach you to cough inwardly and rhythmically. This practice led to no more than a tremolo for me on its own, and the internet appears full of others who are similarly frustrated.

However, once you can do a reasonably rhythmic tremolo using the "cough' or "guh guh guh" method (figure triplets to "Help Me"), leave that be for now - it's time for the second part.

This assumes you have bends pretty well under control. Bend the 3 draw down to wherever it's comfortable for you (for some people it's the first bend, for others maybe the 2nd bend) and then practice holding the bend in place and moving the pitch very slightly up and down.

You'll notice that a kind of automatic mechanism kicks in that makes the pitch oscillation very rapid and effortless, almost like it's moving of its own accord. The trick is then to train your body to do this when NOT bending a note. I feel like you're on the right track if, when you first do this, your throat feels super sore, like you're working muscles you've never worked before.

By doing nothing but practicing that bent 3 draw vibrato for the better part of 3 days (I'm talking 8/9 hours a day) when I went back to 2 draw and did the old tremolo technique... miracle of miracles, something ELSE happened this time that had never happened before and seemed to be happening somewhat magically. It was that PULSE.

Perhaps simply doing the tremolo cough repeatedly would have led to this eventually, but I feel like the working of my throat with the bent note broke those muscles (or whatever they are) in super rapidly. I don't fully understand the physical aspect of what has occurred but now it seems that merely by inhaling I can make those vocal chords vibrate. It's like curtains that used to be absolutely still and heavy are now waving in the breeze.

Anyway, just thought I'd post this FWIW just in case it's helpful to anyone struggling with throat vibrato. If you are, I just gotta say: keep at it because it's TOTALLY worth the hassle.

My playing has now completely transformed. I LIKE listening to myself now! Everything I play sounds musical – even if it's not complicated melody-wise. Just the freaking SOUND of my 2 draw now makes me grin like a damn monkey. I keep recording myself, then playing it back and laughing hysterically because it sounds so good.

Talk about old dog/new tricks. Sheesh, I feel 15 again!
3712 posts
Mar 24, 2024
11:14 AM
Throat vibrato is quite similar to the way you do it as a vocalist, actually. It's super important to be 100% fully physically relaxed for anything you do on a harmonica or doomed to making things incredibly difficult for yourself and that's one of the drawbacks of teaching yourself how to play, unfortunately. A vibrato is the wavering of two pitches approximately 1/4 step apart. Now the next thing to learn is to be able to control the speed of the vibrato, which will take a lot of woodshedding to accomplish and the really slow stuff by players like Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Howlin' Wolf is not easy to duplicate without a helluva lot of woodshedding.
Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte
9 posts
Mar 25, 2024
12:55 PM
"It's super important to be 100% fully physically relaxed for anything you do on a harmonica or doomed to making things incredibly difficult for yourself and that's one of the drawbacks of teaching yourself how to play, unfortunately. "

Yeah, Bob - you speak the truth! Relaxed is definitely the key. Tightening up in any way constricts the air flow and changes the lovely pulsing wave sound to a choppier, more Butterfield-esque sound. Which is cool, too - it's just a different color. But it's fun to be able to do both.

To get a bit metaphysical for a moment, I'm really starting to see what has happened for me as the harmonica equivalent of the opening of the throat (or 5th) chakre, which, spiritually speaking, would mean accessing your authentic expression without effort or "forcing it". It's always more about "Allow" than "Control" in the end: *allowing* the spasm or vibration, allowing your "true" voice to come forth from the divine source, so to speak.

Interestingly, accessing this vibrato at last has also magically cleared up my other two issues, harp-wise, practically overnight.

One is related to breath. For some reason I can't really fathom, opening my throat in this way has put an end to my breath problems. Every since I started playing harp I've struggled with breath management, often running out of breath by the end of a phrase or not having enough wind to really make the notes as full as they can be.

I could never understand how dudes like Kim Wilson could just play an endless stream of notes without seeming to pause or breathe... now that is weirdly easy for me - I seem to have an endless amount of breath available to me all of sudden.

The other interesting side effect is that apparently the muscles or whatever used to produce this effect are the same muscles that one uses to bend notes while tongue blocking, because suddenly that is super easy as well. I could already bend somewhat passably while tongueing but rarely employed it while playing live because it never felt as effortless as bending while lipping. Now - again, seemingly overnight - that issue is also resolved. Mysterious and fascinating.:)
3713 posts
Mar 26, 2024
8:28 AM
One of the biggest problems with most self taught players is breath control and from experience in teaching, I can tell you that 98% of beginning players and 50-75% of intermediate players right out of the gate tend to use way too much breath force in everything they're doing AKA playing way too hard all the time. I remember as a teenager working a job in a fast food hamburger joint that the manager who was training me at the time had said, "People often eat with their eyes first, and if what's presented to them looks like crap, they're gonna assume that it's gonna taste like crap." Later on, a pro musician told me that many people actually, in kind of a similar way, "listen more with their eyes than their ears more than anything else." Now if it doesn't make sense to you, many people think that if you move around, and gyrate all over the bandstand, move up and down, stomp your feet, etc., people will get EASILY FOOLED into thinking that you're playing really hard and the truth is that those are all basically timing mechanisms and the majority of the very best players tend to play VERY SOFTLY, and because of doing that, you should almost NEVER be out of breath, and then on top of that, everything else sounds a lot bigger and fatter, and the economic boon to that is that you will blow out harps far less frequently.

One thing to remember when you tongue block is that for one thing, it's really necessary to be physically relaxed because you're always going to be constantly making subtle adjustments all the time, and this will also make you a better pucker player as well because it will add flexibility plus a wider variety of tonal colors to your playing. You always have to remember that the tongue must always rest VERY LIGHTLY on the instrument plus the instrument is also deeper in the mouth and a more open embouchure helps things along with that. With more woodshedding, you will soon be able to go back and forth seamlessly between the pucker and the tongue block, which will be quite advantageous and quite a lot of pros do that as well.

BTW, once you get more comfortable playing with a much softer breath force, it will soon become easier to actually control the speed of the throat vibrato to the point that you can even get the tough, slow ones like Cotton, Wells, and Wolf and then faster ones without any problems.
Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte

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