2002 P.Missin - Details

Does tongue blocking give you a better tone than puckering?

Many experienced players maintain that the only way to get really good tone is to use a tongue blocking embouchure, rather than puckering to get single notes.

First of all, "better" is a very subjective thing. A tone that you might like, might not be to someone else's taste, nor is it going to be appropriate for every style of music. Secondly, there have been many fine players who rarely use (or used) tongue blocking - Paul Butterfield, Toots Thielemans, Sonny Terry, Lee Oskar, etc. None of these players have what you would call a weak tone.

When I was learning to play harp, there were no other harp players around where I lived. In many ways, this actually worked to my advantage and one of those ways was that there was nobody to tell me that my pucker tone was "supposed" to sound weaker than my tongue blocked tone. Each embouchure has its advantages - puckering frees up your tongue to allow certain punctuation effects and I find it easier to get good intonation on my overblows using a pucker; tongue blocking allows octaves and other double stops, as well as various textural effects such as tongue slaps and toungued trills which are very hard or impossible to reproduce with a pucker embouchure. Without ever making a conscious effort to work on it, I found that I was effortlessly switching back and forth between embouchures whilst maintaining a reasonably consistent tone. When I do workshops, something that I demonstrate very often is holding a single note whilst switching embouchures. Many people can hear the switch itself, but most agree that my tone remains constant on either side of the switch.

Here is a demonstration of switching embouchures on a single note. I have exaggerated where I change from one embouchure to the other, but listening to this myself, I am honestly not sure which embouchure I am using at any point in the clip.

A lot of players find that when they use a tongue block embouchure, their mouth naturally assumes a relaxed, more open position, whereas when they pucker they tend to pinch their cheeks, producing a weaker tone. The key to good tone with a pucker embouchure is the same as with a tongue block - the right balance of tension and relaxation, a nice big resonant cavity in the mouth, good breath control and careful attention to the sound you are producing. With practice, you should be able to produce pretty much the same tone with any embouchure. However, part of certain blues styles as as much about textural effects as the actual timbre of the notes and these effects are often lumped together under the heading of "tone". Although you can fake such things as tongue slaps to some extent whilst playing with a pucker embouchure, there are many tricks which are really only available to the tongue blocker. Tongue blocking also makes large intervallic leaps much faster and smother, as well as helping find where your are on the harp. For these reasons, I'd advise everyone to learn both puckering and tongue blocking. There is also a third basic embouchure called U-blocking. Also called the groove-tongue embouchure, this involves rolling your tongue almost into a tube and applying it to the harp as a 'U' shape to isolate a single note. It is used to great effect by Norton Buffalo, although I'm not sure that it offers any advantages that you can't get from either tongue blocking or puckering. I find that on the occasions when I demonstrate it, it gives me a very thin sound, but that is probably due to the fact that I so rarely play using this technique.


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