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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Help with making your tongue slap more percussive
Help with making your tongue slap more percussive
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122 posts
Jul 13, 2018
9:35 AM
Hey guys,
been rather inactive on this forum for the past few months, luckily I haven't stoped practising :).
As the title suggests, I'm looking for help with regards to my tongue slap - I feel I can make it sound rhytmic, but it doesn't sound nearly as percussive as I would like it to sound. To give you an idea what I am aiming for, check out this video (and especially the sound the guy gets on the 5 hole) at the timed I have marked:

In contrast, here is my attempt at the same pattern:

I can't figure out, what I am doing differently. Here are some ideas I have:

1. I think I slap a big chord when it comes to the 5 hole (2,3,4,5 involved) - maybe he only does 3,4,5 - even when I try to do only 3,4,5, it still doesn't sound like him, but it appears to be closer

(Here's my try at that: https://instaud.io/2qCG).

2. Maybe it's a breathing issue, I'm still working on keeping the back of my tongue down while tongue blocking.

3. Maybe he's doing something else altogether.


Last Edited by SkullKid on Jul 13, 2018 2:37 PM
2566 posts
Jul 13, 2018
1:52 PM
Yours sounds about right I think (recordings a bit quiet is all).

I wonder if the issue is about 'slaps' vs 'pulls' - actually I can't remember what the agreement was about the difference, but I think it's around how much time the chord sounds vs the single note. In these examples, your supposed to keep the sound going all the time, it's either the chord or the single note sounding. A quick on/off with the tongue gives a more percussive sound, a more relaxed on/off gives a gentler effect.

You should talk to Bee - he's concerned that his attach is too percussive and harsh.
5480 posts
Jul 13, 2018
5:30 PM
Ha yeah exactly. I saw this last night and had same thought but wasn’t in a position to listen to the video. Shall do that right now
5481 posts
Jul 13, 2018
6:12 PM
Mm, yes I’m with mtg on this I think. I’m not really hearing a problem.

On the question of slap or pull, it’s often somewhat moot in context but in isolation a slap starts with the chord and narrows to single note (or double stop I suppose) whereas the pull begins with tongue on harp and so is the sound of lifting the tongue away. It’s helpful to think about it at times but I find it can also be unhelpful and distracting to think about beyond a certain point.
Over years of noticing people struggle to learn various aspects of tongue block technique it’s often occurring to me that there is sometimes a tendency to make it more difficult than it needs to be. I get this sometimes watching Dave Barrett teach, even though I credit him with teaching me most of what I’ve assimilated as a tongue blocker. There just comes a point where thinking about it trips me up. Yes, sometimes I have to think whether I’m articulating with breath in the right direction but that’s about it. The articulations are generally quiet and around the lower 3 holes it’s sometimes a bit of a technicality whether to blow or draw as the sound is technically a chord but practically inaudible or kind of the equivalent of a glottal stop, but that’s a digression.
More and more I realise my approach is to chase a sound and there is some initial thinking and experimenting to get it but i never had a lot of success chasing concepts like ‘bending with the throat’ or ‘flattening the back of the tongue’. I’m not quite sure how the latter is even possible or at least how it’s possible to tell, but I’m not saying others can’t do it. It just isn’t an idea I’ve ever been able to make progress with. ‘Opening the soft pallete’, closing the nose etc, are things I can get a grip on but beyond keeping my tongue tip anchored and rolling the hump back and forward I can’t get much action trying to think about my tongue. I can’t curl it or even get much of a side to side flutter. My son and daughter can turn their tongues upside down but I haven’t got the connections. Their mother could do that so I’m tempted to think it’s an inherent ability. I can tie a knot in a jelly snake using only my tongue though and neither of the kids can do that.
I know you don’t need to know that but just saying from my point of view there’s a point I just let go and go with the flow and maybe that’s just because I’ve been playing (badly) for so long that I now recognise the point of diminishing returns.
I did that thing with the vibrato which Adam advocates, you know, persist with what you’ve got and just keep at it. I did it for weeks at a time, year after year, got hardly anywhere. Made more progress in half an hour with Jimi Lee than in 5 years trying to do that ‘keep trying’ thing.

So with that perspective of what a long term loser I am, here is my advice. Take what you’ve got, which sounds pretty good to me, and listen to it and feel it. Feel what you’re doing and how it sounds, and play around with little variations on what you’re doing and note any changes in sound and when you hear it going in a direction you like, try to replicate it and you’ll get the feel of it and once you ha e the feel , you’re on the right track, and you’ll be able to deliver the sound you want just by thinking of the sound
5484 posts
Jul 13, 2018
9:45 PM
Also, in part it’s about coordinating your breath with the tongue movement.
I probably put too much air through the harp at times but if you see that video Joe Spiers made years ago about setting gaps (YouTube account ‘choppa joe’ or similar) he does a thing where he uses his tongue ‘like a piston’ as he says. There’s something about that. I thought that’s what I was doing to get the percussive thing but it’s a combo of that and like a cough. It’s not a cough but it’s a sudden puff of air, a lot of which goes out my nose.
And if you’re using hands you can get a big impact there too
So, breath force and timing, tongue speed of movement and coordination with breath and maybe hands
5485 posts
Jul 15, 2018
12:29 AM
I’ve been worrying about these posts I made above. I feel I’ve come over as dismissive or something like that. I don’t mean to be. I’m just expressing my personal feeling but I don’t mean that is a superior approach. It’s more about my personal priorities and I could probably do to review those.

I’ve been learning to play harp so long that I’ve just grown to accept ‘this’ is how I sound.

I’m sure a more reasoned and studious approach is worthwhile and will bring much better results.
2567 posts
Jul 15, 2018
2:15 AM
I can't see any problem with what you've written there. Sounds like good advice: take what you have now, vary it and listen to the effect. From the recordings, sounds like SkullKid is getting a good TB slap sound, so it's probably basically OK and just needs some tweaking to taste.
5486 posts
Jul 15, 2018
4:57 AM
Oh I got to dwelling on the flattening the back of the tongue thing, I see I did say originally that I wasn’t trying to say it was a waste of time but because I took that approach personally I think I was left with a vibe that I’d put that across.
Glad it didn’t come over that way.
Skullkid, I have seen you’ve made very strong progress in a short time and I’m sure your diligence will pay dividends.
123 posts
Jul 15, 2018
9:46 AM
Hey MTG and Bee, thanks for your replies!

@ Bee: First of all, the thought of your post being dismissive or anything other than insightful never crossed my mind - on the contrary, I especially value the extensive and frank manner in which you share your experience and opinions!

Regarding slaps and pulls: I've learned quite a bit of tongue blocking from David Barrett's material also and from what I understand, the guy in the video is definitely doing slaps - I guess you are right in that I should keep experimenting to get it more percussive, although I agree with both of you that my slap isn't bad or wrong in any way. I just realized that many of the great players have a more percussive sound and I want that. :)

On the flattened tongue: In my experience, flattening your tongue to the maximum really fattens your tone when playing puckered, which is why I've been spending quite a lot of time on trying to keep it flat even when playing really fast. At the same time, I noticed that my TB tone is sometimes not that great even though it should be at least as good as the puckered tone - after inspection, I realized that my tongue is blocking the mouth cavity quite a bit when I tongue block; however: When i attempt it consciously, I can flatten the tongue in the middle and the back of the mouth when playing TB (David Barrett also demonstrates this in one of his beginner videos on the website) - How can I tell? I play in front of a mirror and remove the harp without changing the mouth setup.
Still, I believe your approach of experimentation by listening and trying to recreate the sound is key - I've been focussing mostly on learning proper technique and getting good tone in a vacuum so to speak. Now, with some basics I feel I should listen more to tracks I want to learn and try to reproduce the sound and licks by ear to progress.

I mostly agree with you on your opinion on Adam's vibrato exercise. I wasn't getting anywhere with that either. What really helped were of course the videos that Killa_Hertz made, but the real breakthrough for me came with Barrett's super simple explanation: The tremolo is the motor for the vibrato and the latter is produced by doing the tremolo and relaxing your tongue in a semi-bent position. Once you get the vibrato, however, I feel that Adam's exercise is helpful for practising it and smoothing it out.
I have practised vibrato for like 1,5-2 months like a madman, btw. Even now I must stop myself from doing just vibrato for an hour, the sound is just so cool and addictive (I remeber Jason Ricci saying that when he first got the vibrato, he went into the bathroom and did it for 8 hours straight).

Here is my first attempt to put tremolo/vibrato into the context of a song, if you're interested - getting off topic but whatever :).
4 draw tremolo isn't great here, but I think the 2 draw vibrato already sounds okay



PS: Thanks for your kind words in your last post!

Last Edited by SkullKid on Jul 15, 2018 10:24 AM
2568 posts
Jul 15, 2018
2:05 PM
Vibrato, yes that's it. The technique sounds right, with the wobble nice and stable in time with the beat. And I like the way you've used it too, with straight note, then hand wahs then vibrato. You should be pleased with that.

My own personal gold standard is from Grey Owl, that's the best vibrato of that type (there are other types) that I've heard a recording of anywhere. I'd recommend comparing yourself to him and if it matches - you'll know you've cracked it for ever :)
126 posts
Jul 17, 2018
1:06 PM
Thanks, MTG
I agree, Grey Owl's vibrato is great - I can get somewhat close with the sound I think but it's still too fast for me. Gotta work on that!
5492 posts
Jul 17, 2018
3:08 PM
A lot of this stuff is muscular and takes a little time to develop.
Not only coordination but that is a big part. When you first identify the action and how to activate that muscle in the appropriate way, there’s every chance it will fatigue very quickly. I’m going through this with vibrato right now and also with developing my blow bends. The blow bending is more a calibration thing perhaps but it’s also an embouchure strength issue. It takes time to get strong enough to be relaxed and apply the embouchure without tension. Which is achieved with regular short applications, just as if one was in the gym working on strength, speed and endurance.
You can’t improve speed if you approach the exercises when you are too fatigued to hit top speed; you need to recover fully from the previous sprint.
It’s similar in some way with the harp, when working on these techniques. Once form is lost, stop. You won’t achieve anything by training with poor form.
Once the muscles are in good shape though, the progress can be very quick.
My personal approach is to spend about 3 weeks of regular short repetitive practice on a particular technique. Well, that’s my concept at least. When I do that I’ll definitely achieve substantial progress, and beyond that I’ll just be tired of that thing, and I can maintain the progress by incorporating it in my general play
I’ve just realised something I’ve been emulating playing for years as a tongue technique is probably actually a throat/diaphragm technique so I’m working on that. I’ve been using throat and diaphragm for years but not in an application quite as prominent and sustained as this so it’s very interesting to observe my body try to adapt.
I’d recently been copying a William Clarke thing, first solo chorus of daddy Pinocchio, which is easy with hand wah but I expect he is using throat and a bit of hand on the mic, so it’s a great exercise in both mic technique, throat vibrato and coordination of the 2. It really didn’t take long to start noticing the strength improve but also the endurance.
With blow bending I was following Michael Reuben’s recent ‘meatball’ series and he mentioned why the 10 hole blow was so challenging compared to 8 and 9.
I’d never thought of it this way but I was frustrated by feeling so good about holes 8 and 9 on an A harp, while still trepidatious aboutbthd 10. I knew my 10 hole bend was often shaky, it was 50/50 whether it would come off when needed. Michael showed how much higher 10 is than 9. I’d never thought of it that way, but the 10 hole on an A harp is like bending the 9 hole on a D harp. I’m not very good at bending on a D harp. When I try the 9 hole on a D, yeah that’s touch and go too.
So Michael suggested building up to it. Practice bending 8 and 9 on a Bb, and when that’s comfortable, move to a B or C, and eventually a D or the 10 hole of an A
Immediately he was criticised for comparing it to weight training, wise people pointed out it was not about strength but technique.
I thought ‘calibration’, this is about fine-tuning the movement. I still believe that but actually I do think it’s also strength. Not as in being able to blow hard, but about holding the mouth inthe right shape while applying just the right amount of pressure, and it takes time to build up to that.
So that’s my current 3 week project. Just in the morning while I warm the bathroom for my shower, I’m breaking out an old Bb marine band and playing exercises using 8 and 9 hole bends. Songs and Jerry Portnoy’s triplet exercises. I’m hoping to be much better at the 10 hole on my A harp soon.
I know that’s kind of a long digression on a thread about slaps but I think the principal is there. The tongue and associated musculature will grow stronger and better coordinated over time and as you incorporate these techniques in your general play it will naturally get stronger. Occasionally spending short periods of focus on particular facets of technique will bring continual improvement. It’s ok if it isn’t fully developed all at once; some things just take time because the body has to make physical adaptation and this can’t be rushed, just encouraged.

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