Popper embouchure

Hello Guys!
This is Emerson and I am totally new to harmonica…I did not even have one! I am just starting to learn for fun. I have never been so interested in harmonicas because it is so associated with blues and I need to be honest I am not soooo fond of blues (I like it but it is not my primary choice). I know some blues people will say a lot about this but I mean no harm, and respect anyone’s choice…I just don’t like it too much, sorry. As always, we need a spark to start something; for me was John Popper. After watching some (and listening to) of his music I understood that it is possible to play harmonicas in different styles like pop, rock, and country which due to my lack of info I thought wouldn’t be so pleasing. Anyway, I am a bass player and started a long time ago but as a self-learning guy, I developed a lot of “bad habits” on bass so I want to avoid this kind of stuff since I am learning a new instrument from scratch. So my question is about embouchure. Since my goal is to play Popper “pop style” and more pop/rock songs, I am just wondering about which type of embouchure. I know Luke teaches and uses the mouth purse technique (which deep relaxation mouth) and I believe it is what Popper does as well so is it a no-brainer. The question though gets more complicated when actually it is “expected” as a harmonica player to play some blues (which I am totally fine with, and I am open to this) but if you want to play some old blues you definitely need to play with tongue blocking because it is only possible with that technique. I know the answer is simple: just learn BOTH techniques right? but one argument from a tongue blocking guy is that it is really hard to keep changing techniques in the same song so in this way makes more sense to learn tongue blocking since you basically can do everything that lip pursing can but not the other way around. So now you know my goal is to play like Popper, play more pop songs style but at the same time some blues. Which embouchure should I start (or keep on) learning? sorry for the long text!!


Hi @Emerson_Tanaka !
Welcome to the forum !
Personnaly, I started with the lip-pursing embouchure, because I saw it as a much easier way to play clean notes (without involontary “bends” : when the note is slighty altered, just like bass or guitar bends).
For a pop-rock style, I think it’s the most used embouchure, so maybe you should give it a try.
But if you want to try blues, you might sometimes have to do “tongue-blocking octaves”, which are quite frequent in this genre. But the technique is a little bit different of the “tongue-blocking embouchure”, so I think it won’t bother you if you don’t learn the “tongue-blocking embouchure” to do it.


Hello @Emerson_Tanaka !


Great to hear you are picking up the harmonica - it’s going to be a fun journey! I’m not a huge blues player myself, I’m typically playing folk and country genres, though I’ve incorporated a lot of little blues techniques into my style.

Ultimately everyone’s path is different and everyone learns differently, so whatever works best for you and if you are having fun with it, is probably the way to go! But since you asked specifically, I describe what I did and why.

I asked myself the same question as well when deciding how I would jump in, which to learn first? I played around a little bit trying both styles before settling in. Well, I chose lip pursing. I found the following to be true by learning lip pursing first:

  1. Learning harmonica fundamentals ( scales, hole locations, bending, breathing, etc. ) using lip pursing is much easier, and fundamentals are power! :slight_smile:
  2. Tongue blocking all the time can be tiring - especially if you aren’t used to it. So it’s something that I did a little at a time. It was my metaphorical “harmonica leg day”. :laughing:
  3. Learning tongue blocking second caused me to weave it in and out more naturally, falling back on pursing as my “home” per say - it of course can be tricky but like anything else it will eventually become second nature.

That was my experience with learning lip pursing first. Hope it helped a little bit!

Again, welcome and glad to have you here!


Thank you LostSol and HappyHarpist (looking at your name I think you are pretty happy with your choice!) yes I “tried” both and it looks like lip pursing is intuitively “easier” so I may go to that route…just wanted to question here because I am at the very beginning so starting in the wrong way could be damaging in the future…thanks again guys!


I’ve only done some basic testing on tongue blocking, but don’t really like how slobbery everything gets.

I too primarily have learned playing first position pop type of songs which are easy to play in my head. With that said, I think I understand why so many people prefer 2nd position, which is mainly used for the blues, because there is so much more expressiveness down there on the draw notes and draw bends.

As a challenge, take a pop song you play in 1st position and try and play it in 2nd position. The flavor of the song changes completely.

Meantime, I’d say deep mouth, relaxed and lip blocking is the way for most beginners to go :+1:


Hello @Emerson_Tanaka,
I too would like to say welcome to us.

Yes, I agree with you, it doesn’t always have to be the blues! :rofl:
I learn and play the songs I like! Different genres, release dates, it doesn’t matter if I like the song and my development is such that I can play it.
Not only do you have to play well-known songs, but is it also fun to improvise or compose your own song?
Could you use your bass guitar as an accompaniment? Since I often lack the accompaniment to the harp, I am currently learning to play the keyboard and read music notes in parallel to the harp.
All this just for fun!

At the beginning I dealt with all the techniques, including the tongue block. It got better after three tries, but I rarely use it.

Astrid wishes you lots of fun, relaxation and patience :woman_in_lotus_position:


Thank you Astrid you are absolutely correct! no fun what’s the point? I am still struggling with playing just 1 clean note…first wind instrument is really hard… strings instruments I believe are easier for me!


Hey Emerson - I’m with you on loving John Popper. When “But Anyway” came out I had JUST started learning harmonica and I was like, “what the HECK IS THIS!?!?!?” IT BLEW my mind, and DEFINITELY inspired me.

I have some lessons on that song and Runaround on my Funkyharp YouTube channel, BTW, but I’d recommend that you work on some fundamentals before tackling that Popper stuff LOL!

Yeah man John Popper is a lip blocker (except for octaves.) John Popper got inspired to play the harmonica in part from the Blues Brothers movie, and then to really understand where is style comes from look no further than the great Sugar Blue - his main influence on harmonica.

I believe he said a lot of his phrasing ideas come from Jimi Hendrix (who was also richly steeped in the blues.)

Anyways, all that to say: Learning some blues will serve you well for learning to play like Popper, since he started with the Blues.

If that’s you goal, I wouldn’t even worry about tongue blocking (except for octaves at all.) Ronnie Shellist is a guy who really BEAUTIFULLY exemplifies how you CAN switch back and forth between lip blocking and tongue blocking to stunning effect.

So my advice: forget the tongue-blocking nazi’s who say “it’s only blues if it’s tongue-blocking.” More precise would be: “it’s only regurgitating Little Walter licks note-for-note if it’s tongue blocking” - and I don’t think the blues is equal to regurgitating Little Walter riffs (no disrespect in anyway to one of the greatest masters of the instrument!)

I played tons of blues gigs for decades only doing lip-blocking (and octaves) as have thousands of other players.

I only started learning tongue blocking like 5 years ago, and now when I play live I switch back forth all the time. Point here is, you can always learn it later, but it’s really not necessary to the path that you’re describing that you want to go down.

Hope that helps!


Hi Luke
Great! that’s what exactly I would like to hear! my main goal is not to play as fast as him but more about playing the kind of musical style he plays: pop/bluesy/funky/some slow-tempo songs…if I don’t need tongue blocking for that, I am pretty much in the right direction…thanks!!!


I vary mine, depending on the sounds I want, also keep your nose open it can help control the sound, it also helps keep sinuses open. You can go down soft and still bend if air is free to go in and out the nose. Also there are pentatonic harps out there for a more pop style.


thanks, great advice!


I don’t recommend the pentaharp personally. Standard tune harmonicas are so much more versatile. Rock on.

1 Like

I wholeheartedly agree with this. I’m primarily a lip purser and a few guys tried to make me switch to all tongue blocking because I would have “more control over my instrument”. One guy even said he can do three bends on the 6 draw, which is physically impossible unless you tune your 6 draw up a whole tone. Another thinks I’m lazy for not learning to tongue block (even though I can play octaves and slaps) because he strongly believes that Terry McMillan was a tongue blocker (which he isn’t). Just learn to play both and make your own style of embouchre whether it’s lip pursing only, tongue blocking only, U blocking only, or a combination of the three.


Yeah I differ with you only in that I’m a bit hesitant to recommend U-blocking just because I’ve had some students who could ONLY isolate notes U-blocking and weren’t ever able to really bend well.

Having said that, I’ve heard Norton Buffalo was a U-blocker and he certainly could play his ass off! So, to each his or her own. But I recommend:
1.) Lip blocking - the easiest and fastest way to learn how to isolate notes
2.) Tongue blocking - for splits if for nothing else, but also for slaps, chord vamping, flutters, shimmers, and doing large intervallic jumps quickly and accurately

And then BEST OF ALL, a hybrid approach to maximize expressiveness - Ronnie Shellist always comes to my mind as a player who so beautifully and effortlessly switches between the two.

Also, I should mention in my experience there are a RARE FEW who ACTUALLY find tongue blocking easier than lip blocking - and my advice to them - especially if they’re Chicago Blues aficionados - GO FOR IT!

But for 99.9% of beginners, LIP BLOCKING is the easiest and fastest way to learn how to isolate notes. And @KeroroRinChou has done a great job of highlighting Terry McMillan and Tod Parrot as just a couple of many many many harmonica players who have had stellar careers as primarily lip blockers (using tongue blocking for splits of course almost all pros do.)

Finally, I think as a harmonica community we do beginners and future beginners a great service to dispense with the “pursing” and “puckering” words as they conjure up incorrect images of the technique. I advocate that we refer to the techniques as Lip Blocking and Tongue Blocking or simply Lipping and Tonguing.


Totally agree U blocking (if this means making your tongue a U curvature) is even more complicated because it is genetic…some people can not do it at all…if it is not meant that sorry…still trying to learn all these terms LOL…


The rest of the harmonica community tends to disagree and call them lip pursing and puckering anyways. To me, it’s all just different words with same definition. Also I think we shouldn’t word police other harmonica players. Let harmonica players use whatever terminology they’re comfortable with and go on with your day.


Yeah not trying to be a police here, just trying to encourage people to think about what kind of images the words they use create because there are SOOOOOO many beginner harmonica players - some having played for years - who have the most terribly weak tone and will never be able to bend because they’re perfectly “puckering.”

Words do actually have the power to create as well as destroy. I believe you agree with me here? And I think we do beginners in future generations a disservice when we tell them isolating notes is achieved through “Puckering.”

Just trying to be kind to the children, because like Whitney Houston I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way… :rofl:


Words create realities from our imagination :thought_balloon: :memo:

Relaxed Deep Mouth seems to give the right imagery to get to where we wanna go with nice resonating notes rather than weak, wobbly ones achieved through “Puckering” :+1:

But each to is own, what matters in the end is what we do and how we sound :wink::notes:


I have been told many times to change my words because it benefits the community, like the many times I was told to say “I’m autistic” instead of “I have autism” or that I’m an “autistic person” instead of a “person with autism”. Word preferences can be a blessing or a curse as you can be free to express yourself in whatever language you want, but could potentially be hounded on for not using the “correct” language.
I tried the half-pucker “lip blocking” method that JP Allen used, but I couldn’t create a single note at all. The way I create single notes is through lip pursing (more specifically a choir vocal technique of using a rounded “ooh” to create my metaphorical “pucker” as it isn’t too tight or too loose) and I have a full, but bright tone because of it. It could be I achieved it because of my choral background, but it benefited me in the long run. This is why I don’t like to police word preferrences in my harmonica spaces.


Before I had the tone I have nowadays, my tone sounded really deep but squeezed when I wanted a really bright tone. It’s okay to have a bad lip pursing tone in the beginning, we all aren’t perfect musicians. I was self taught and didn’t have a debit card back when I first started so I tried many tutorials to get it right. None were helping but, but Adam Gussow’s video on single notes was the one that got me learning how to lip purse.

I later develop the choral “ooh” to my tone. Then I followed Will Wilde’s tutorial on how to get a brighter tone by using an “ee” shape. And finally it was Todd that told me to use an “aw” shape. He prefers the term “pucker”, but he doesn’t describe the shape as puckering for a kiss, whistling, or drinking through a staw. He describes the “pucker” as a fish lip shape and keeps his lips soft and squishy.