It's easy to
find books on playing chord changes, sight reading,
transcriptions of famous solos etc... but it's harder to find
books on tone production, on just improving your sound.
That's too bad, considering how much we obsess over it. Perhaps
the lack of material on the subject is a reflection of how difficult
it is to discuss. Tone is an emotionally charged topic for harmonica
players. One that takes on mystic properties. A common view
on practicing tone goes something like "your tone
is your soul, and either you have SOUL or you don't. It's certainly
not something you can learn or practice."
I disagree, issues of "soul" aside, you can learn
to do things that improve your and to add variety to the way
you play the notes. You can practice effects like throat vibrato,
and learn to beef-up your tone. When we discuss a players
tone I believe we mean more than just timbre.
I intend to use the term tone in it's loosest meaning, as a
players overall sound. Tone as used here includes all
the details that attend the notes such as vibrato, articulation,
ornamentation, and phrasing. It's that quality that makes great
players of all instruments easy to recognize within a measure
Take Miles Davis, and Dexter Gordon for example, in addition
to the distinctive timbre of both player's notes, there are
other features of their respective sounds that identify
them. Miles intentional lack of vibrato, or his use of a Harmon
mute are aspects of his tone that make him immediately recognizable.
Dexter's inimitable sound comes as much from the way
he plays behind the beat as the rich timbre of the notes
pouring out of from his tenor. The subtleties in the way these
two geniuses shape the notes are amazing. "The devil is
in the details". Still, which details make for a pleasing
sound seems to be in the ear of the beholder.
I feel that a variety of timbre with other shifting details
make for a memorable solo. My favorite players come across "3D"
to me. Let me take three contemporary masters as an example-Take
Paul Delay, his solos are full of diversity. The subtle way
he opens "the cup" of his hands lending a shrill bite
to the end of a phrase, just as his vibrato gets more choked
etc... Or how Stevie Wonder's scoops into a note and sets it
into an driving rhythm with rich ornamentation. Or Brendan Power's
ability to decorate his notes with endless variation. Can you
learn to do that? well..... no (just kidding... sort of). You
can learn some of the features of their respective sounds
though. In doing so you can sound a lot like them, or just borrow
(steal) the details you like, and craft your own sound.
"In european (art) music a standard timbre is aimed for-
that is, there is an ideal violin or trumpet sound that the
player within narrow limits, aims for. in jazz timbre is highly
personal and varies not only from player to player but from
moment to moment in a given passage for expressive purposes,
just as european players swell or diminish a note to add feeling.
in european music each note has a fixed pitch (some slight variation
is permitted the leading tone) that can be measured by
a machine. in jazz pitch is flexible to a considerable degree,
and in fact in some types of jazz are invariably and deliberately
played "out of tune" by european standards."---Nat
Hentoff (the making of jazz). By "european" i'm believe
Nat Hentoff meant, as opposed to african. "european"
being so called western "art" or "classical"
music. Jazz is obviously a marriage of the two. Also, there
are of course many fine traditions of improvised music with
large tonal variance outside of jazz and blues, and many fine
jazz and blues artists that are european, etc... anyway...
How do we go about working on our tone, making it more "3D"?
i think the best place to start is with our ears. We need to
learn to appreciate diversity, and open our ears to the subtleties.
By truly perceiving these details, by hearing the differences
in these various features of tone, we make our first
One effective tool you can use to facilitate perception of
these sonic "differences" is called Binary Opposition.
"binary opposition is simply the idea or the perception
of two things being antithetical to one another, 180 degrees
apart. yes and no are binary opposites. so are black
and white, on and off, day and night
etc..."---Bob Ors (home recording magazine).
Here a few examples of how to appropriate this concept for
I. Play a note with the thinnest possible timbre
you can muster up, with no vibrato or bending etc... just one
very clean and really thin note, now play one that's
as fat as you can. Then go back and forth between the two of
them (thin, fat, thin, fat, etc...). Really listen to
the difference between the two notes. Once you've done that,
try to play a note between them. Then try to play as many timbres
at points between the two extremes as you can hear. Treat the
exercise like you're using an effect pedal. Imagine a virtual
pedal that you're turning the knob on. Be conscious of what
your mouth, throat and jaw are up to, but above all listen to
the sound, hear the
II. Play a note without any vibrato, then play a note with
vibrato that's as close to say five beats per second
as you can. Now use binary opposition to vary the rate at will.
Do the same thing with pitch. (i.e. Treat your own throat vibrato
like a virtual vibrato pedal).There are two aspects to vibrato
i recommend listening for:
A. the rate (how fast it's beating), and
B. the depth (how much the actual pitch is changing within each
beat). (playing at a rate of two or three beats per minute is
hardly vibrato at all. it's more an exercise in staccato, and
rhythm, but valuable none the less.)
Now try it with other components of your sound (e.g.
articulation, duration, dynamics, "du" to "wah"
hands etc...). take articulation as the final example- pick
a short phrase play it very legato, now play the same phrase
very staccato... apply binary opposition.
The goal of Binary Opposition is to hear the difference,
and widen your own ability to play those differences. That way
you can make choices in these various minutia of your sound
more consciously. With practice you can sculpt a phrase of music
in a more 3D way. You could become a more authentic traditionalist,
and /or create your own unique approach. At the very least it'll
add to the appreciation to your growing record collection. Speaking
The next tool for adding depth and variety to your tone
is Attunement. This is an easy exercise. In fact, you're probably
already doing it. To become more Attuned to an idiom
or player-- lounge around and listen to lots of good records
of that player or style. That way you "put it in your ear"
(another excuse to buy more CDs!). I got the concept from an
excellent jazz educator Jerry Coker (practicing jazz). He wrote
"attunement to anything depends upon our exposure, attentionality
and personal preference for the subject." That is to say,
if you want to become Attuned to the sound of
blues harmonica you need to listen to a lot of blues harmonica,
and love it. Which segue ways nicely into-
A more specific listening skill is Active Listening.
It's the "attentionality" of attunement. Pull-out
a recording of a player you admire, and listen to his playing.
I mean really listen to them, down to the details. Very carefully
pick out what is going on with his playing. First listen to
the production. How is harp mixed? How is the level- is he louder
than the rest of the band? (doubtful, unless it's his record).
What about effects- is there a ton of reverb or delay on the
harp, a quick "slap" echo or is the track dry? Just
listen to the amp sound?
Now just listen to the harmonica playing. Listen to the acoustic
features of his tone, separate from the amplification,
effects and production. Does he use a lot of vibrato- the whole
time or just at the end of a phrase? How does he phrase things-
Is he playing on top of the beat- or way behind? are his phrases
long or short? How is his articulation- does he play consistently
very staccato, or legato, with a particular repetitive internal
phrasing? How about ornamentation- does he use the same couple
of mordents, trills and/ or tremolos- or a variety of ornamentation?
You get the idea. Without taking the magic out of a treasured
record, try to hear the details. Then try to play them. The
overall effect of a given record may still feel "greasy"
but now you know why.
Playing Long Tones is a standard practice for other
horn players. There is probably a lot written about it already.
Here's a simple way to get started. Play one long note with
as big a timbre as you can. Set your jaw, throat and hands to
maximum fat. start softly, slowly get as loud as you can, while
keeping that big timbre, and then let the note grow soft again.
Think aboutyour tone, not about how bitchin' the chicks will
think you look with your new pompadour, or how delicious another
beverage would be (that's a tough one for me). Just the tone.
In addition to these exercises and conceptual games, I'd like
to add a bit about the instrument and yourself.
Good Posture is so important, and my biggest problem.
Try to sit up straight or stand when you play. It's hard to
play well, or even take a deep breath when you're hunched over.
It's more difficult yet to concentrate on the "details"
when your back hurts.
Make sure that you have a Decent Harmonica. It will
save you a lot of trouble trying to get a good sound, and it's
just more inspiring to lay. If you can afford it, I recommend
having a custom repairmen go through your harp. Either way,
you should learn Harmonica Repair.
It's important that you get Good Compression. It'll
be very difficult to get a good sound on a leaky ax. Your harmonica
should be as airtight as you can get it. The alignment,
and gapping should be set-up just so. That is
set for your style of playing. Chromatic players- be aware of
your lever finger. Make sure you don't rest it
on the button too heavy. You could be slightly depressing the
lever, and getting a dreadfully leaky harmonica. The windsavers
should be laying flat (I recommend voodoo).
There are a number of resources these days to learn about repair.
If you want me to recommend a good book or repair person feel
free to write me. Sure it seems like a lot of effort, a lot
of time, and/ or money but it could be worse, you could be an
oboe player, and have to cut your own reeds or a drummer and
have to haul your kit around. Hell, the heaviest thing we have
is the guilt we carry when we are packed and leaving, and the
drummer is unscrewing that first wing-nut.
The last thing i'd like to say about tone is well.... just
Play Often. The more hours you log behind the harmonica
the better. Play with others as much as you can. Working on
details like your mic technique by yourself important, but it's
also valuable to work on it in a live situation.
These should be fun exercises, not dry intellectual abstractions
that kick the life out of a nice practice session. Basically,
sit-up straight, and play a decent harmonica. Listen to lots
of good records carefully and with love. Try to be conscious
of you own tone, and add variety to the details with binary
opposition. By being conscious of these details you'll gain
an appreciation for the variety of fine tone in others. With
practice you can sculpt your own unique sound. I believe this
will all add depth, and dimension to your appreciation of music,
and to your own playing.