I loved harmonica from the moment I played it. The sound was the coolest, it was small enough to fit in the pocket and my hands, and I could play it right away. But the sound that kept me in the game was Paul Butterfield’s throat vibrato. It was deep, sobbing, guttural and sorrowful and I had to have it! It didn’t come right away but, through work and experimentation, I created a vibrato that satisfied me as much as Paul’s.
Wanna Sound Pro? (The 3 Techniques)
In my opinion, there are three techniques that matter to sound like a professional harmonica player.
There are many types of vibrato but, to me, the holy grail is the throat vibrato. Vibrato means a quick alternation in pitch so the sound quickly moves from low to high repeatedly. Tremolo is its cousin, which is a quick alternation in volume.
Therefore, vibrato can only be achieved in the breath direction capable of bending. Therefore vibrato occurs in holes 1 through 6 on the draw notes and holes 7 through 10 on the blow notes. Although holes 7 through 10 CAN create a throat vibrato, 1 through 6 draw is where the SOUND lives.
In this video above, I explain my method for throat vibrato.
The 4 Elements of Vibrato
I break my method down into four elements.
- The pulse
- The tongue in the bend position.
- Directing the airflow up and down.
- Opening and closing the hands (optional).
1. The pulse must not be thought of as repeated inhale breaths. You must play one long inhaled note and then create a pulse like waves on a river. The sound I use is hoo hoo hoo; it sounds like a monkey! Once you develop the basics, download a free metronome on your phone (I like pro metronome) and start pulsing to the click. Then, divide that into two even pulses, then three, then four. Being able to assess the beat of a song and subdivide your pulse into a relationship to that beat makes you sound more professional.
2. Place the tip of the tongue on the floor of the mouth about a centimeter behind the bottom gum line. Raise the back of the tongue as high as possible in a humped arc. Do not be concerned about altering the position of the tongue as the pitch rises and falls.
3. Place your palm up in front of your belly. Blow away the imaginary feather. Place the feather above your nose. Keep the feather up in the air. This directs your air up and down. As you pulse with your vibrato, raise your air up and down. The timing of the pulse will likely be quicker than the timing of the alternation from air up to air down. That is fine, but try and create a steady rhythm for both.
4. Mute the harmonica with your hands. Open and close the hands to alternate between loud and quiet. The timing of the pulses, the alternation of the air direction and the hand opening can all be three different rhythms, but all of them should have a steady, consistent rhythm.
Remember this is just MY method.
Know that vibratos are deeply personal and no two sound alike. I remember when JP and I lived in the same city, we both expressed vibrato envy over the others’ sound. Explore and come up with a sound that hits you in the heart!
I hope you enjoy this video.