If you want to master single notes on your harmonica then this article has 4 tips that reveal the not so obvious secret! Having a solid single note technique is critical to your being able to play harmonica with a beautiful, crystal clear sound. First check out my intro video here, then read the rest of this page to get more on the nitty gritty for playing single notes…
If you’re having a challenging time hitting your single notes with accuracy, you’re probably not using the lip-blocked single note that is explained in this article below.
After 25 years of teaching harmonica, I can confidently say that though there are other great single note techniques, learning the lip-blocked single note will be your quickest route to sounding great on the harmonica.
When you start playing the harmonica, you will notice that it is easy to play two or three holes at the same time. But hitting one clean single note can be challenging. This is because the holes on a harmonica are so small and close together! In this lesson, I’m stoked to help you develop a solid foundation that will ensure you don’t get stuck or frustrated.
There are primarily two ways to play single notes:
The Deep Relaxed Embouchure for Single Notes
The mouth position that we will be using to play single notes is the “Deep Relaxed Embouchure”. Here’s a quick review of this technique:
Step 1. Place your harmonica deep in your mouth.
Step 2. Tilt the harmonica 30 degrees down into lower lip so that the lower lip “unfolds.”
Step 3. Keep the upper lip relaxed and deep.
Keeping the upper lip relaxed is very important. My experience of teaching thousands of harmonica students has taught me that those who tightly pucker their lips will be unnecessarily challenged. We only use the lower lip to block out the undesired holes and the upper lip remains TOTALLY RELAXED (seals the air and goes along for the ride):
Playing a Single Note
Let’s try playing a single note on hole 4 blow:
Step 1. Put the harmonica in your mouth, with a deep relaxed embouchure (explained above).
Step 2. Slightly pucker your lower lip by bringing the corners of your lip closer together. The idea is that your lower lip should block out holes 3 and 5, while only playing hole 4. The upper lip should be completely relaxed.
Step 3. Take the harmonica out of your mouth and look in a mirror. Your lips should look like the photo in “Tip #2” below…
Cannot Get a Clean Sound?
If you are having difficulties getting a clean single note, here are some tips that would really help you out:
Tip #1 Increase the tilt angle - Increasing the angle of the harmonica sometimes makes it easier to get single notes. When you tilt the harmonica up, the natural curve in your lower lip will automatically block out the undesired holes while leaving only one hole unobstructed. You will have to experiment with the tilt angle to find the sweet spot. Once you get the knack of it, try reducing the angle.
Tip #2 Bring the corners of your lower lip closer together. Again, the idea is to increase the curve in your lower lip so that it blocks out the undesired holes.
Tip #3 (Step 1) Unfold your lower lip and tilt the harmonica up until your lower lip completely blocks all holes. You shouldn’t be able to get any sound through the harp because your lower lip is blocking all the holes.
Tip #3 (Step 2) Gradually reduce the tilt of the harmonica. At a certain point, only one hole should sound while the others will be obstructed by your lower lip.
Tip #3 (Step 3) If this does not work, bring the corners of your lips closer together (as described in Tip #2) and repeat this exercise.
Tip #4 Experiment with your embouchure and position of the harmonica until you get a clear, sweet single note.Once you are comfortable getting single notes, try moving randomly from one note to another (both blow and draw notes).
The Tricky 2 and 3 Draw
Holes 2 and 3 draw are notoriously difficult for beginners to play single notes on. When you try playing them, it is quite likely that you will get a weak sounding airy note. Don’t worry, nothing is wrong with your harmonica. These holes are usually very easy to bend, and so you can accidentally bend them while trying to play a single note. For more on how to remedy this, read on…
Why Do My Harmonica Notes Sound Bad?
It’s very unlikely that your 2-draw, 3-draw and upper register reeds (8, 9, and 10) are faulty. The odds are very high that your harmonica is working fine. All you need to do is make a small adjustment in your technique. Here are your three main goals:
Drop the jaw (so your teeth are as far apart as possible)
Open wide on the inside of your mouth by simultaneously yawning and saying “ahhh” (like the doctor says, “open wide and say ahhh”)
Maintain the Deep Relaxed Mouth Position so you can still play a single note (Often times when students drop the jaw they loose their single note. You need to learn to be able to play a single note while your jaw is dropped. So ultimately, you will find a mouth position that enables you to have TOTAL FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT OF THE JAW while still easily being able to play a single note. Remember! The key is to angle the harmonica into the lower lip, so that lower lip obstructs the undesired holes (see this page for more info on the Deep Relax Mouth Position)
So what are you doing that’s not helping? I’ll take a educated guess. The problem is that you’re teeth are too close together and you’re probably lifting the back of your tongue and it’s creating a slight jet stream with pulls the reeds into a bent position. This is a very normal problem and it happens to over 90% students in the beginning.
Practice going from a Blow note to its corresponding Draw note:
And Back Down Again…
I’m going to reiterate the above three points in hopes of being more clear:
Try adjusting the position of your tongue. Experiment with moving it into a variety of different positions to see if this helps. My suspicion is that you are raising the back of the tongue and you need to open your mouth wider. The reason I am bring attention to “the back of the tongue” is because students often think they are dropping the back of their tongue but they are only dropping the front of their tongue.
Try OPENING WIDE, DROP THE JAW and say “ahh” or “ohh”.
In order to drop the back of the tongue, it is very helpful to DROP THE JAW. Open as wide as you can while still allowing the lips to maintain their seal on harmonica. If when you drop your jaw you can no longer play a single note, check to make sure you are still angling the harmonica into your lower lip or go back and make sure you are properly using The Deep Relaxed Mouth Position.
Dropping the jaw is the key
I would also recommend that you play at a moderate volume. A lot of times students suck (and blow) too hard when they are first learning and this only makes the problem worse. Try playing more softly and see if this helps.