Good Tone in Amplified Harmonica Playing

Good Tone

What it is and How to get it.

To the beginning harmonica player it seems painfully obvious that the artists on his favorite records are playing an entirely different instrument than he is. The beginner hears his attempts as reedy and breathy whereas artist from Little Walter to Charlie McCoy have a deep horn like quality reminiscent of a saxophone.

Beginners buy different harps, experiment with microphones and guitar effects boxes and old tube amps, yet tone can remain elusive. Although the harp and the way it is amplified can enrich a good tone they can't create the tone to begin with and it is true that the tone comes from within. You have to practice tone the same way you practice clear single notes, bends and trills.

My own experience is that tone started to come all by itself from listening to records and jamming along. I found a few simple things contributed to the tone. The following is not meant to be a lesson, but a simple guide.

Tone comes from the interaction with the reeds and the shape of the resonating chamber. The chamber is your mouth, nasal passages, throat and lungs. The same way you alter the shape of your mouth to make bends, you also alter the shape of the resonating chamber to echo and reverberate the sound of the harp.


Step 1: Stand up!
If you are sitting down your chest mouth-throat-chest passage is folded over. You can't use your diaphragm to breath and you are not going to make any useful noise. ALL harp players play better standing up. When you get good, you can breath from your diaphragm when sitting down, but it isn't easy.

Step 2: Breath from your Diaphragm.
You use two different sets of muscles to breath. The muscles in your back and chest can cause the rib cage to move up and down, expanding the chest. These are your 'Superman' muscles which you used to expand your chest when you were a kid to show how strong you were. These muscles are used for simple shallow breathing. If you are timid or new to the harp, these are the muscles you are using to move breath through the harp.
The Diaphragm is a curved muscle under your lungs which moves in such a way to pull the lungs down towards your stomach, filling them from the bottom and then pushes up expelling air from the bottom of the lungs. This muscle is used for deep breathing. It feels as though you are breathing from your abdomen.
By breathing with your diaphragm you are creating a much larger volume for your resonating chamber. Breath the notes, don't suck or blow them. The first time that you do it right, your whole air chamber vibrates, tickling your innards, causing you to cough. Once you stand up and play with breath from your diaphragm you will notice an immediate improvement in tone.

Step 3. Open your mouth.
The most important air chamber is your mouth. The mouth is the passage to the lungs and nasal passages. Open your jaw. Don't play with your teeth clenched. Play with the jaw as open as you possibly can make it.
It should feel like you are yawning. This will expand the opening at the back of your throat and also open up your nasal passages. If you are like me and have problems with low grade allergies so that you are nearly always congested, harping will have the therapeutic effect of opening your nasal passages and causing them to drain. Carry nasal spray and tissues in your gig box - you will need them.

Step 4. Don't bend with your mouth.
This is a little hard to explain, but beginners use their cheeks and tongue shape to cause a bend. This works fine with the 3 and 4 draw if you don't bend it very far, but there is a limit to the bend you can make like this. The 3 draw has 3 half steps in it and then a little more. It's difficult to hit all of these notes unless you bend from deep down in your chest. The 2 draw is the most dramatic and 'bluesy' sounding bend. It is a full two half steps and a little more. It is one of the most important notes you can play and you really can't do it unless you stand up and bend it from your gut.  If your cheeks hurt after bending you are doing it wrong.
A good two draw bend comes from the bottom of your feet. When you do a good two draw bend from deep down inside it has all of the tone of a pipe organ and it rattles you all through your chest. When I do a 2 draw full bend with a G harp I still feel like coughing because of the tickle it causes.

Step 5. Shape your notes.
Just like an opera singer, you have to make pear shaped tones. A harp player has much in common with an opera singer. Your vocal chords are made of a secret brass alloy, but the way you get the sound out of the reeds is the same way that an opera singer gets the tone out of his or her vocal chords. You have to play the harp as though you have a horny hat and a tin brassier. Shape the notes by articulating the sounds, shaping them so the audience can almost see the O-O-O-O's coming from your harp.
Sounds to make: DAH, TAO, DUH, HOO, WAH, WOW, YOW, YEE, TEE, TOE, etc. Don't just push air back and forth across the reeds. Make each note a syllable. Try TUT, TOOT, TUTTA-TUTTA-TUTTA and other shapes for fast runs and staccato (sharp as a tack notes). Each note has a beginning, a middle and an end. Be like Frank Sinatra and concentrate on the shape of a phrase and each note in it. Frank's voice is a little weak now that he's older, but the sound of the music has benefitted from the maturity. He shapes his music like no one else can.
The beginning of a note can be sharp and sudden or round and open. You can slide into a note like a violin or bark it out like a tuba. Sustain notes as long as needed and don't cut them off too soon. Move on to the next note, either by sliding into it or cutting off the current note and jumping immediately to the next note. Don't just play toot toot toot. You have to string together the notes as though you were singing the song. You should create internal ebb and flows, defining the rhythm of the phrase.

Step 6. Relax - Don't force it.
You can 'choke' the reeds if you push too hard. Bends and tone are relaxed and natural. Try playing chords for a while. It is much easier to get a good tone from the 3,4 and 5 holes together than from each separate. You want that deep organ like sound. Imagine that your respiratory system is a large golden pipe organ that only needs a whisper of breath to set it off. It is a myth that you need to play hard to get good tone. Good tone comes from getting that wisp of a breeze to reverberate in your body, building on itself until it fills up the room. Make believe that you are the bass man in a 50's a cappella group. Get that DOO-WAH deep bass and include it in your music.
It is particularly hard to relax and get good tone when using the high end of the harp as in 'Jimmy Reed' style blow bends. These notes aren't that hard to do when you get the hang of them. What is hard is to keep from playing too hard. You bend these notes by articulating SUE when blowing. These bends seem to come from the shape of your cheeks as opposed to the draw bends which sound best if they come from the chest. Try it with a 'G' harp or Low 'F' and work your way up. I find them difficult and unpleasantly shrill starting at the 'C' harp. If you are doing it right you should be able to play the draw notes in between the blow notes and blow bend notes. These notes choke easily if your are too tense. You have to coax the notes out. Try to play the draws and blows at the same level and you will find the happy medium where the notes come out naturally loud, clear and full of tone. You will notice that you are not actually using much breath to do this.

Step 7. Play Octaves and Intervals.
This is a different kind of tone. It's a naturally tone filled sound that results when you play octaves. Substitute an octave for of a single note on the 1 5 and 6 blows. Other notes can use intervals and chords to make deeper tone filled sounds. Octaves are made by placing your tongue on a post (the piece of the harp between two holes). This blocks two holes on either side of the post. The holes on either side of the tongue then can be played and the lips block off any other holes. On most blow notes this is an octave. On draws it produces some interesting and not so interesting intervals. Experts can block one, two, three or more holes in this way, but the beginner should go for the post and make a nice blow octave.
The octaves sound best with a 'tongue slap'. This is done by blowing a 4 note chord such as 2 3 4 and 5 holes and then slapping the tongue on the post and forcing all of the air to be diverted through the 2 and 5 holes. The first time I did this I was amazed at the beautiful tone it got and I then spent a year trying to do it again. I am such a sloppy player that octaves and slaps are difficult for me but I am finally getting to the point that I can do them on demand. (it is not a bad thing to be sloppy, harp is fun and sloppy can sound cool).
By the way, I am tongue tied, which means that the little string under my tongue is tied too tight. I can speak just fine, but using my tongue for a long time makes my mouth sore. I use the lip block method. I don't like to tongue block on the harp and women are often disappointed with me.

The Paul Butterfield Honk

Paul Butterfield played every song too fast, too loud, and too intense. I love it. He has a characteristic honking tone to his music which many people want to emulate. It is not that hard to do, but it may require an old Reverb style amp to get the full effect.
I was working on a computer install at the Boston City Hall building. I have arguments with people as to whether this brick and cement monstrosity is the ugliest building in Massachusetts, New England or the U.S. of A. I think that there may be uglier buildings as close as New York City (although I have yet come up with an example.) Some friends don't think that you can find an uglier building anywhere. The insides are full of echoes and dead spaces so normal conversations are difficult. After working through the night, I took a break and walked around in the building. At 3 O'Clock in the morning the place is deadly quiet and a harmonica sounds fantastic.
I was experimenting in a stair well, playing short staccato bursts and then listening to the echoes when I accidentally played a Paul Butterfield Honk. This is it: I played the 2 draw unbent. It was a short note articulated as TOOP or DOOP. I pulled very hard on the note as though I was going to make it bend (I wanted to make it loud enough to echo well), but I didn't let it bend. The 'T' in TOOP started to bend but sprang back to the unbent state immediately. The tension between the bent and unbent states seemed to create the honking sound that Paul wis known for. I experimented a little more and found that I could do this bent or unbent, sustained or staccato. All I had to do was put stress on the reed by over controlling it. The natural reverb effect of the building added the rest.
To sound exactly like Butterfield you have to have some tasty reverb in addition to the honk from the harp (a great band helps!). Even without the reverb it sounds distinctly like Paul's signature honking.



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I began collecting data about the microphones used by blue harp players before there was an internet. I began organizing it into in the late 1990s. I accumulated more stuff than I remember. This is some of it.

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