How to Add Ornaments to the Melody on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

Ornaments are decorations you add to a melody. Sometimes you use ornaments on the harmonica to emphasize certain notes and outline the melody more clearly. Sometimes you use ornaments to make a simple line more elaborate and create interesting patterns. And sometimes you use ornaments simply for special effects.

On most instruments, you create ornaments by briefly playing additional notes before or after a melody note. However, some tongue-blocking effects (such as slaps, hammers, rakes, and shimmers) serve the same functions as ornaments, so you can consider using them as such.

Shakes

When you do a shake, you rapidly alternate notes in two neighboring holes. The two notes in a shake are both either blow notes or draw notes. Instead of a plain harmony, you get a texture created by the rate of alternation. Shakes are used a lot in blues and have spread from blues to rock and country music.

Some players do shakes by holding the harp still and moving their heads from side to side. Other players do them by using their hands to move the harp. Moving the harp gives you more control and is less likely to give you neck pains or make you dizzy.

When you do a shake, you usually treat the hole on the left as the main note and the hole on the right as the added note.

Use your right wrist to rock your hands and the harp one hole to the left; then let your hands spring back to their original position. You can play a shake so that the two notes are distinct or you can blend them together for a sort of textured chord sound.

Here’s a simple melody line that you can play on the harmonica with shakes on each note in the line. In the tab, the little stack of diagonal lines next to the hole number indicates a shake.

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Rips, boings, and fall-offs

You can approach a note by sliding into it from several holes to the left or right. When you do that, you hear a cascade of notes that makes a sort of ripping sound leading up to your landing note; this move is called a rip.

You can also play a note and then rip away from it in a way that doesn’t lead to another note; it just trails off. When you rip away from a note by moving to the right, the pitch goes up, which gives an impression a bit like a ball bouncing; this move is called a boing.

When you rip away from a note by moving to the left, the pitch of the trailing notes falls. So, naturally, this move is called a fall-off.

Rips, boings, and fall-offs on the harmonica are used in jazz and sometimes in blues, rock, and popular music.

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Grace notes

You can emphasize a note in the melody by starting with a different note — the grace note — in a neighboring hole just before it’s time to play the note you’re going for. You play the grace note for just a split second, and then you hit the main note. The quick motion from grace note to main note on the harmonica creates a percussive texture that emphasizes the main note.

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In Celtic music, several types of grace notes are played on instruments like fiddle and flute. Most of these grace notes are played using the neighboring note in the scale because that’s the easiest note to use. On harmonica, playing the note in the neighboring hole is the fastest, smoothest way to produce a grace note, even though the notes involved aren’t usually neighboring notes in the scale.