Splits, Octaves, Split-Chord Tongue Blocking, Flutters, Shimmers, Split Shakes, Rapid Chord Vamping

Alright, in the world of harmonica, Splits, Octaves, and Split-Chord Tongue Blocking are all different names for the same basic technique of playing 2 non-adjacent notes, which is accomplished by placing the tongue on the harmonica and playing out of either side of the mouth at the same time.

At the time of this writing, I like the Term “Splits” because it accurately depicts technique, and it’s easy to say. “Octaves” isn’t always an accurate description, because there are may different intervals you can create besides octaves using this technique. Split-Chord Tongue Blocking is just too long too say. I’m too lazy for that. Also, technically a chord is 3 or more notes played at the same time, and splits can be 3 notes, but most often are 2 notes played at the same time.)

Splits are named by how far apart the 2 holes are that are being played:

A Split-3 is playing, for example, holes 1 and 3 simultaneously while blocking whole 2 with the tongue.

A Split-4 would be playing holes 1 and 4 simultaneously while blocking holes 2 and 3 with the tongue.

A Split-5 would be playing holes 1 and 5 simultaneously while blocking holes 2, 3, and 4 with the tongue.

Of course you don’t have to stay on hole 1, I’m just using that as an example. You get the idea. I’ve heard Joe Filisko play Split-7’s, and he told me that George Harmonica Smith would do Split-8’s.

In my experience, the most commonly played of these are Split-4’s which on the bottom half of the harmonica are mostly playing the interval of an octave:

14 is an octave
-14 is an octave
25 is an octave
-25 is not an octave, but a minor 7th
36 is an octave

Once you move above these notes, some of the octaves require Split-5’s and some are Split-4’s, but the ones that I’ve listed here are the ones that you hear MOST FREQUENTLY played in the Blues.

The ones I listed here are the only splits I played most of my life, until recently. When I first learned them from my friend. he called them “octaves” and so I always called them “octaves” for most of my life (even though I knew the -25 wasn’t actually an octave) but now that I’ve learned so much more about the technique, I’m being intentional about calling the technique “splits.”

On a quick aside, we do future harmonica players a service when we refer to techniques by names that accurately describe the technique. For example, “Lip Blocking” (or just “Lipping” for short) is what we should all call the technique of isolating notes rather than “Pucker” which makes beginners want to do the wrong thing. Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now…

This is a good introduction to the subject of Splits. Of course I have a whole module dedicated to teaching these in my Beginner to Boss course.

And I even teach some related techniques called “Flutters” which is a rapid on/off movement of the tongue allowing the blocked notes to sound on and off while the outside notes are played continuously. This technique is a subset of a technique called “Rapid Chord Vamping.” Rapid Chord Vamping describes any technique in which the tongue is coming on and off of the harmonica quickly.

And finally, “Shimmers” which I prefer to call “Split-Shakes” Split Shakes are a side-to-side movement of the tongue so that, instead of playing the 2 outside notes at the same time, you alternate them. The tongue moves left so that just the right note sounds, and then the tongue moves right so that just the left note sounds.

These can be played “clean” in the way I just described, or they can be played “dirty” which allows all the notes in the middle of the split to be audible as the tongue makes its side-to-side motion.

This side-to-side motion has been a lot more awkward for me to learn than the on/off motion. But, the rewards are great because you’re not limited to trilling between two adjacent notes. Now you can alternate rapidly between non-adjacent notes and that opens up a whole new palette of creative expression.

Alright, are you dizzy yet? This was probably waaaaayyy more than you ever wanted to know about these harmonica techniques. LOL. But, still, it’s actually only scratching the surface!

So LMK if you wanna geek about any of these or related techniques. Do you agree or disagree with me? Do you have any questions?

Rock on,
Luke