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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Lip Pursing and Tongue Blocking
Lip Pursing and Tongue Blocking
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63 posts
May 07, 2017
9:36 AM
Hey guys, coming at you with another question! :)
So I started to learn a bit of tongue blocking and to my surprise, I find it pretty easy and intuitive - of course my lip pursing is still better though.
Now when I come across songs that, for some parts, require tongue slaps and split octaves - techniques that you can only do tongue blocked - I wonder: Should I try to learn the whole song with tongue blocking, or should I use lip pursing (the style that I am more familiar with) and only switch to tongue blocking for the parts of the song that have tongue slaps, octaves, etc.?
I know there are people that only tongue block and other guys that mostly lip purse (like Adam), but I am interested in your approach.
2336 posts
May 07, 2017
10:37 AM

That's my approach anyways. I started (like you ) only using TB for effects. Octaves, flutters, tongue warbles, etc. And those things are pretty natural feeling. And they get you used to using your tongue aswell as switching back and forth between pucker and tb (this is very important when using both because I often switch back in forth multiple times in a run. ) But I think you ll find that once you start to push tongue block a little further (trying to do faster runs and bending .. etc.) It gets a little tricky.

However I feel as if both embochures have their strengths and weaknesses. So using both gives you options on how you want to portrait everything you play. Certainly each will fit best in different contexts.
I also use TB alot for jumps. You can go from 2draw to 4 draw by simply stamping your tongue down. 6 blow is not much of a move either. It really depends on what I'm playing. Playing Horton I will favor TB alot more and even slap the 2 draw TB. If I'm playing to something like Ronnie Shellist I tend to play slightly more lip pursed. The point is you have choices.

Weather you choose to stick to both or choose to go TB only .... if your going to play blues, I think tongue block is a requirement. I've really enjoyed getting better at it. I've still got a ways to go before I'm as good at TB as I am at lip pursing, but .... it's a whole lot of fun and adds some really great sounds and dynamics to your playing.

I've just kept adding things a little at a time and eventually it becomes second nature. Try to remember the ways that helped you learn to play lip purse effectively. You have to go back to square 1 a bit. Working on clean clear notes ... then keeping those clean notes at speed while moving around the harp etc.

Last Edited by Killa_Hertz on May 07, 2017 10:50 AM
2099 posts
May 09, 2017
11:09 AM
I tongue-block everything from hole 1 to 6. I'd like to tongue block all the way to 10 but my tongue blocked blow bends and overdraws aren't good enough yet.

I find switching back and forth awkward, but I do agree that it's useful to be able lip block, tongue block and U-block.

There are lots of example of great players who mostly relied on any one of those three so it really is up to what works for you.

Last Edited by timeistight on May 09, 2017 4:11 PM
4685 posts
May 09, 2017
2:39 PM
Yep I tongue block everything. I didn't start out that way, and when I started using tongue it was mainly on the high end to get better articulated sound. I accidentally played a 3 draw bend one time, which eventually led to asking a pro player about it. The guy told me I was looking at a dead end and to forget about tongue blocking 1-3, because 'nobody does that'.
So I stayed with just tongue blocking the top end.
I couldn't blow bend at that time, I was just playing non-blues tunes on the top, like turkey in the straw, Dixie, yellow rose of Texas. I dunno the name for that sort of thing but it went with more of a snap if I used my tongue to slap those repeated notes and glissando parts. So that's how I got used to using my tongue.
Around 2009 or 10 I found dave Barrett and straight up he was saying tongue block everything including all bends.
Took me a couple weeks to get the draw bends but I've been tongue blocking the whole thing since then.
I can lip purse but I just find tongue blocking so much more natural and easy that I need a very good reason to go there, consequently I just don't do it.
It took a bit more work to get blow bends but Jimmy Reed is the way to go with learning that, and if someone doesn't want to play a jimmy reed solo or two to learn how to play the upper Octave, 'more fool them' is all I have to say. I resisted for a decade because I couldn't stand Jimmy reed. Just get over it, Jimmy reed was the business.
I'm envious of those who can switch embouchure easily.
I expect it's like anything else, if you feel motivated to do it you'll work at it and achieve it. I don't have anything driving me to use mixed embouchure so I just play it all tb
2100 posts
May 09, 2017
3:40 PM
I just thought of something:

There are great players who mostly U-block and there are great players who never U-block.

There are great players who mostly lip purse and there are great players who never lip purse.

There are great players who always tongue block but there are no great players who never tongue block.

Therefore, you need to learn to tongue block no matter which embouchure you prefer.

Last Edited by timeistight on May 09, 2017 4:12 PM
2367 posts
May 10, 2017
8:34 AM
Timeissught... Absolutely. Some level of tongue block is Absolutely necessary.

As far as switching embochures. If your a lip purse player that uses octaves/effects only ... you have to switch. Ya know? And that's how I started so after a while I learned to switch pretty effortlessly.

Maybe it's just because I'm not that good at TB yet, but I get two distinct sounds from doing single notes tb vs single notes lp. So I use both because it gives me a wider palate to work with as far as sounds. Lp sounds cleaner and tb notes sound a tad muffled.

There are quite a few great players that play lp 1-3 and tb 4and up. Ronnie Shellist and Jerry Portnoy both play this way and Only bend lip pursed. This WAS good enough reason for me to leave my tongue blocking style at that. Never playing the 1or2 tb and bending lp.

However, after listening to alot of Walter Horton.... I was no longer satisfied with that. I HAD to get that 2 draw slap sound that walter has. And I might aswell learn to bend tb while I'm at it right?

Tongue switching is the thing that just kills me. I just can not play blocked to the right. So I go down to the left side of the comb for the 1. But I ll get it eventually.

Anyways the point is. .... just go were it takes you. Learning things just to learn them seems silly and probably makes it harder. When you find a good reason to learn skills ... that's when they come more easily and become fun to learn.

Last Edited by Killa_Hertz on May 10, 2017 8:37 AM
62 posts
May 10, 2017
1:20 PM
That's a great point Killa about learning things. It needs to fun, otherwise, what's the point of it all!
I have taken the very same approach.
I was originally more than happy to play lip pursed/pucker but after time I wanted to fatten up my sound and now incorporate both into my playing.
2254 posts
May 10, 2017
3:04 PM
Timeistight - is that correct? I'm sure I read that Paul Butterfield only used U-block. That's hearsay though.

I watched a live interview with John Nemeth and as I remember he said he only used U-block. He explained that when and where he was learning (pre internet) there were no other harp players to learn from, so he did it from the records, and used a embouchure that worked, without knowing about the other options.

Personally I think it's a good idea to learn some TB.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on May 10, 2017 3:06 PM
2102 posts
May 10, 2017
9:20 PM
Nemeth uses the underside of his tongue to get octaves. That's still tongue blocking to me.

Butterfield played a lot of octaves and of course he tongue blocked to get them. He teaches tongue-blocked octaves in his Blues Harmonica Masterclass that he made for Homespun Tapes. He never mentions U-blocking on that tape but Levon Helm appeared to suggested that Butterfield taught him to U-block.
2256 posts
May 10, 2017
11:44 PM

Although I've only got to find one counter-example to prove the statement wrong, whereas you have prove every case lol :)

Actually I expect you're right - although it seems to me there are artists/styles/songs you can replicate without TB. Little Sonny for example? I don't know what he did, but it always sounds to me like chords and single notes on his songs. Of course you can play these with either embouchure - but I mean it's not the slap-pull-octave sound of Walter Horton.
2368 posts
May 11, 2017
5:22 AM
Yea horton and even rice miller. There are those certain sounds that you simply can't get lip pursed. Some people don't really care to play that way, but to me is what the blues harp IS and it haunts me ... lol.

Hank Shreve went live on Facebook the other day. It blew my mind. It has since become my new obsession ... lol. I've watched it about 100 times trying to figure out exactly what he's doing to get those sounds. I had a talk with him, told him how much I loved it and asked about his techniques. But it'd just to much for someone to tell you in a message. He gave me a clue or two as to the direction to head in. But anyways, the point is .... these are the type things that drive you to learn new skills. You hear something that just ..... wow.

Heres the link. Check it out. Hope you like it as much as I did. I may have hyped it up too much. Lol.

51 posts
Mar 28, 2018
9:42 PM
We all know that you can't get the Chicago sound without tongue blocking. And if you can't get the Chicago sound ... well let's face it, you aren't really a harmonica player. But the flip side is if all you ever do is tongue block, then there are things you can't do - like play in the style of Jason Ricci or Howard Levy. I think the 100 percent tongue blockers out there have made a choice about what they want to play on the harmonica, namely to recreate the sound of Chicago blues from the 1950s. And there's nothing wrong with that - it's the golden age of blues harmonica. On the other hand, if you want to try play something new - whether it's jazz or funk or whatever - there will be times when you have to lip purse, because you just can't get that articulation by tongue blocking. It's like a violin play who only plays legato - playing runs of notes without changing bow direction - but who can't play staccato or pizzicato - quick detached notes. You wouldn't call such a person a complete violin player. Likewise, to be a complete harmonica player, you have to be able to do both tongue blocking and lip pursing - unless perhaps all you want to do is recreate music of sixty years ago.

Last Edited by FastFourier on Mar 28, 2018 9:43 PM
5349 posts
Mar 29, 2018
12:38 AM
Interesting. Why do you think tongue blocking prevents playing in a modern style? I didn’t quite catch that reasoning.
52 posts
Mar 29, 2018
9:10 AM
I shouldn't have suggested that tongue block prevents playing in a modern style. What I meant was that when I see players like Jason Ricci or Howard Levy, who do a lot of lip pursing, I have to think that they are doing using that technique for a reason. Certainly tongue blocking does prevent you from using your tongue in other ways, like playing short staccato notes *without* the extra effects that come with tongue slapping. Can Whammer Jammer be played entirely tongue blocking? I don't know. Another question: are there 100% tongue blockers out there who are playing other styles than Chicago Blues, and if so, who?

Last Edited by FastFourier on Mar 29, 2018 10:34 AM
208 posts
Mar 29, 2018
11:51 AM
I'm about 90% there with the tongue blocking...anything from Sailors Hornpipe to Mack the Knife doesn't much matter.

mostly it getting to be if I can hit the Whammer Jammer high bends TB style..but then again that is a blues tune.
Let's see..Paper Moon, Blue Skies, King of the Road, Swinging on a Star, Mary had a little Lamb...etc etc.all tongue blocking, it's the go to position for playing songs.. for me at least
..but did notice I'm not TBing on Rock Around the Clock....hmmmmm
5352 posts
Mar 29, 2018
2:49 PM
You didn’t say ‘modern style’, to be fair. You said in the style of levy or Ricci. I said modern style because I was trying to work out what you meant.
I don’t even understand the argument. What is 100% tongue blocking. I guess it means resting your tongue on the comb to obtain single notes. So when you lift it to create an articulation, that means you play multiple notes briefly, and I suppose in that moment you would be lip pursing, but this would not disqualify a person from being a 100% tongue blocker.
Or does it mean you can obtain bent notes while you’re tongue is resting on the harp, rather than behind your teeth? I’m not sure why that would preclude a person playing any particular style of music, be it written today, 60 years ago or from so long ago that people forgot who wrote it.
Or maybe it’s to do with over bending. If you can’t play overbends with tongue sitting on harp then yes you would need to lift it off and use a different way to obtain the narrowing required to play the single chamber. Presumably now you would not be 100% tongue blocking, but if you took your tongue off the harp to play a chord this would still potentially constitute 100% tongue blocking.
The only single note technique I know which people who rest their tongue on the comb say they can’t do while resting their tongue on the comb, is the diddle diddle diddle articulation as used by the Chicago blues player jr wells ( for instance).
So it seems perhaps you can’t play Chicago blues as a 100% tongue blocker.
I don’t know who is a tongue blocker and who isn’t. I believe Jason Ricci uses a lot of tongue block technique. I know chromatic players are often highly skilled with tongue technique. I know Dennis Gruenling likes to stir the pot, saying things like if you ain’t blocking it, you ain’t rocking it. I don’t see the discussion as particularly helpful but committing to obtaining single notes through tongue blocking can be helpful in acquiring the techniques of bending with tongue resting on harp and learning those chordal articulations which contribute textures which often feature in some of the famous records. Once you have the techniques, do what you want.
54 posts
Mar 29, 2018
8:49 PM
@SuperBee You win. You know a lot more about the harmonica than I do. I actually learned a lot from your comment.
I used the term 100% percent tongue blocking because I have read comments on this forum that refer to tongue blocking all the time, versus combining tongue blocking and lip pursing. And I have heard Dennis Gruenling and others say you should tongue block all the time. So I took that literally. I thought that if you take your tongue off the comb to play a single note, that meant you are lip pursing, even if you are using your tongue to alter the sound. I realize now that I was wrong, and that perhaps 100% tongue blocking is not a meaningful term.
I played the violin growing up, and have known many musicians throughout my life, both professionals and amateurs, who play classical, jazz, and many other types of music. Of course they all talk about techniques - like finger picking versus flat picking for guitars. Usually, it's a positive conversation, and not a dispute. But of all debates I have listened to between musicians about instruments and techniques, I have never heard any that rise to the level of acrimony as when harmonica players debate tongue blocking versus lip pursing. It is like listening to people debate over religious ideology. Who needs it?

Last Edited by FastFourier on Mar 30, 2018 6:21 AM
5355 posts
Mar 29, 2018
10:31 PM
Yeah exactly. I believe you’re exactly right in the way you’ve interpreted what people argue about. That’s why i said that stuff about lifting the tongue to play a chord; just trying to demonstrate how silly the whole discussion is. When i said I don’t understand the argument, that’s the argument i meant, not what you were saying.
I don’t really know how it all got started or how long its been going on but i do think there are a lot of people who play harmonica who play it in a fairly rudimentary way and like to argue the toss about things rather than work on their game. This extends to technique, equipment, harp brands...
The really funny thing is the number of threads where people decry this behaviour much as I’m doing here, and absolutely no one is taking a contrary position
I think folks like Dennis derive a reasonable part of their livelihood from teaching, so there’s possibly some incentive for him in playing up these discussions.
My take on this is that if you are playing a texture-rich style, which makes use of lots of chords, splits and othe tongue effects like flutters, it probably is just easier to have your tongue resting on the harp most of the time. I sometimes try to do it another way and its ok but it feels more like hard work. I’d think if you’re using lots of overblows for instance and fast tongue articulation invilving the roof of the mouth or teeth, you’d probably want to go the other way and only apply your tongue to the comb for special effects.
I just get exasperated by the silliness of it sometimes.
210 posts
Mar 30, 2018
4:27 AM
Is it a greed then that people play using t blocking regardless whether it blues or not...there seemed some confusion there.
I have an old hohner booklet 1957 I think it is..t blocking is the method shown.
I assume T blocking has been around since the instrument was invented...long before jazz an blues came into being.
2246 posts
Mar 30, 2018
8:19 AM
"are there 100% tongue blockers out there who are playing other styles than Chicago Blues, and if so, who?"

Sugar Blue is a Chicago-based blues player, but I wouldn't call him a traditional player.

James Conway, also Chicago-based, is a great Irish player.

Nashville's Jellyroll Johnson is a wonderful player of both country and jazz.
5356 posts
Mar 30, 2018
1:55 PM
When I began using tb, it was in Americana type tunes. I wasn’t playing tb the way I do now, but I was learning to articulate certain passages, mainly the top of the harp. I think the first song I played with what people call 100% tb was Benny Bell’s ‘shaving cream’. It those days I was just humming and whistling then trying to get those sounds from a harp. I didn’t really start playing ‘Chicago-style’ (really west coast style at first) until 2010, and at the time it was more a means to learn more about technique than an ambition to play that style of music. I just happened to fall in with a bad crowd and now I’m in that kind of scene
13 posts
Apr 16, 2018
5:31 AM
I thank all who contributed to this subject. After reading this I made a sincere effort to tongue block (which I have had problems prior) and got the easiest bend I've ever tried.

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