Exclusive tongue blocking sounds

Sounds exclusive to the Tongue block embouchure

There are certain sounds one can only get when using the Pucker Embouchure as well as a totally different set of sounds one can produce when using the Tongue Block Method. There are clear advantages for both, but for the Chicago Style of playing Blues harmonica, the T block is the clearly superior choice.

T Blocking occurs when we place the tip of our tongue on to the left side of the harmonica, while letting a small hole remain open on the right side. This allows us to get a clean single note out of the right side of the mouth. The tongue should be maintaining contact with the harmonica most of the time as a set default. We should aim to have only three or four holes of the harmonica in our mouth and our tongue should always cover the holes furthest to the left. Example block hole 1, and 2 to get hole 3 open on the right. (We will always cover the hole to the left except when playing hole 1. This is the T switch that we will discuss later.)

We can lift the tongue rhythmically or non rhythmically- to get our first sound exclusive to the T Block Method. We call this technique Vamping and is also referred sometimes as Slapping. There are two distinct types of Vamping.

“Vamping/Tongue Slapping”

  1. Chicago Style Blues Vamping/Rapid Vamping- explosive, loud, punchy and crunchy sound found in classic Chicago Blues recordings.
  2. Folk Style Rhythmic Vamping - a much more subdued and nuanced sound that can create the illusion of two separate instruments playing at once. Gentle, soft, controlled and rhythmically precise. It is found much more in Old Timey and Country Blues.

“Ghost Chording/Soft Shuffle”
Using the tongue to create a Full Block (holes 1,2,and 3) and quickly lifting the tongue and then returning it back down into the full block. A quintessential sound in Chicago Blues Harmonica. A rhythmic “Chordal Effect” that can be used for fills as well as accompaniment playing. (Usually played in a two breaths in and two breaths out pattern.)

“Tongue Shakes”
Moving the tongue side to side quickly to get a warbling sound akin to the head shake, but much more nuanced and slippery.

The act of putting the tip of the tongue in the middle of the harp and playing with an open hole on either side of the tip of the tongue. This allows to actually double the sound of the harmonica and also play “True Octaves.” A much bigger sound than single notes and quite powerful when used on the high end.

“Dirty Notes/Double Stops, Dirty Splits, Dirty Shakes”
One can definitely get more than one hole open in the mouth at one time when Puckering, but being able to “Dial In” the amount of desired dirt is much more effectively controlled when using the Tongue. Dirt creates a “Difference Tone” and also adds another layer of sound that can build blues horsepower and overall sound. We can play Shakes and Splits both Clean or Dirty. It’s a choice. A Clean sound is usually a more”pretty” sound and adding dirt adds grit and intensity (blues horsepower).

“Pull Slaps” or “Super Vamps”
The most explosive type of Vamp that adds the absolute most “Crunch” to single notes. This is a Rice Miller technique that is not easy to pull off at first and might take some time to truly master. The technique involves creating suction with a “Full Block,” (blocking all the holes on the harmonica) and releasing the tongue while at the same time timing the breath very carefully.

“Tongue Switching”
TS is the act of taking the tip of the tongue and moving it to the other side of the mouth or “switching” the open hole to the other side. In Blues playing we usually only use the T Switch for hole 1, but there are players such as Sugar Blue who would famously and expertly switch up and down the entire harp. Very wicked fast playing is possible using this method. James Conway plays incredibly fast Irish Fiddle Tunes on the Diatonic using this method. He learned it from Sugar himself working the door at Rosa’s Lounge for many years.

In conclusion, I hope I showed you some of the cool stuff you can do using your tongue to play the harp. These sounds CAN NOT be made unless using the tongue! There is no short cut. Just start slow. I recommend using a Tongue Block Trainer and a Mirror to check your embouchure. You can find them for purchase on Filiskostore.com .

TB can be used on any type of harmonica. Diatonic, Chromatic, Tremolo, Base Harps, and Chord Harps all benefit from players using their tongue. All the greatest classic Chicago blues players (with the exception of perhaps only Butterfield) used T blocking. It can clearly be heard in their recordings if you know what to listen for. This really is not up for debate as most of the informed and experienced experts all agree.

So “Get Your Tongue In The Game! “ (Dennis Gruenling)……and remember

“When in Doubt Inhale! …The Blow Notes Are Not What They Seem.” (Joe Filisko) You won’t regret it. I promise.



I thought you’d find it interesting that a life-time non-tongue blocker finds it most fulfilling to listen to the tongue-blocking style. It’s my personal favorite harmonica sound, style and approach to listen to. I grew up listening to that style. And thank you for offering all these details and thoughts. They are very valuable and important and certainly you have put years of thought into this. For some artistic reason (though I loved the sound of tongue blocking) I focused entirely for 60 years on single note playing for my music. That’s what I preferred to play. I enjoyed it. It was ecstatic. What are your thoughts on that? I just want to make sure that no one is intimidated or feels they “must” play the tongue blocking technique - though I would recommend it for anyone wanting to play blues and learning the instrument. I just want people to be clear that “any” approach is a great thing. i.e. whatever works. What are your thoughts on that? - thank you.


Agree 100% that everyone needs to find their own way. All embouchures are different and have an exclusive range of sounds they can exclusively produce. Not trying to intimidate, just educate. Want people to know what’s out there. I appreciate the question and the ability to clarify. :blue_heart:


Perfect David! thank you.

And by the way, love you singing and playing. :slight_smile:



Oh thank you Corky. That means so much. :pray:t4::blue_heart:

Your book and workshop changed everything for me when I was just starting out and really helped me. Skip brought me and I was hooked!



Thank again you David.


Hi David … Thanks for that post - really interesting and informative… I took pretty naturally to tongue blocking and am comfortable (tho not fully accomplished) with most techniques you describe. But I find it much harder to bend accurately when using TB than when puckering/lip blocking. As a result I seem to switch back and forth between the two. Is this a common issue or just me struggling?


Lots of us struggled with switching back and forth but the sooner you do everything TB the better. The bending will happen deep in the back of the throat and tongue. It matters not if you are T blocking. Get me?

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I really needed that quote. Being told constantly all the time from pure tongue blockers that “lip pursing is limiting”, “tongue blocking adds more expression”, and “you need to play like Little Walter” sent me up to the ceiling and I felt like for years that I wasn’t a good enough harmonica player because of it. I tried TB-bending but I couldn’t make it past 3 draw, nor could I growl consistently or play my usual bluesy country stuff on it.
I was tired of bending over backwards for people who are not in my target audience. I always knew that I would rather be a versatile player than be a copycat of somebody who’s famous, but I felt like I didn’t have a good support system to get me through the troubles I was facing. Every attempt that I tried to play my Terry McMillan songs with 100% tounge blocking just didn’t feel right to me. Not only did tongue blocking his stuff 100% not give me most of the expression that I needed, but it just didn’t feel right as my tone was very thin and muddy trying to TB single notes compared to my powerful and bright lip pursed ones. I don’t want to end up as just another Little Walter or Charlie McCoy copy, I just want to play how I want to with no compromises added.


I’m glad you found it positive, we all need to do what works best for us. We must not let others stifle or hamper our passion either. What works for one might not work for another. Don’t let others get you down. Don’t let them steal your joy.