How to Play Variable Splits on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

On the harmonica, you can reinforce a melody note with another note that’s several holes to the left, played as a harmony. But how do you keep the holes in between from sounding? You block them out with your tongue and leave space at the left and right corners of your mouth to direct air to the holes you want to play.

Because you’re taking a chord and splitting it apart into two harmony notes, harmonica players often call this a split.


If you move around on the harmonica with a four-hole locked split and play both draw and blow combinations, you may notice that the blow-note combinations always form an octave, while the draw-note combinations produce a variety of different intervals. What if you want to play a melody line in octaves using both blow notes and draw notes? That’s where the variable split comes in.

When you use a variable split, you change the number of holes in your mouth and also the number of holes blocked by your tongue. This enables several cool effects:

  • You can hold one note steady while you vary the harmony note.

  • You can play both blow notes and draw notes in octaves or other intervals that remain consistent as you move from one note to another.

  • You can mix different harmony notes to create a desired effect.

Playing high-register octaves with variable splits

Here, you can see the variable splits you use to play octaves in the high register. In Holes 7 through 10, you play blow-note octaves by using a four-hole spread, while draw-note octaves require a five-hole spread. As a result, to play a scale in octaves, you need to alternate between the two spread sizes while finding the correct combinations of holes.

[Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith]

Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith

However, it’s not as hard as it sounds when you know how to follow some simple procedures. Here’s how to get started playing octaves using variable splits in the high register.

  1. Start with a four-hole split covering Holes 7 through 10.

    This will play a blow octave.

  2. As you prepare to inhale:

    • Keep the right corner of your mouth on Hole 10.

    • Widen the opening in your mouth so that you have a five-hole spread.

    • Make sure your tongue also widens to cover Hole 7, isolating Hole 6 on the right.

    When you need to block three holes with your tongue, such as 7, 8, and 9, you may find that the tip of your tongue can’t cover all three holes. A good alternative is to point the tip of your tongue downward and use the wide top surface of your tongue to cover the added width.

    You can alternate between using the tip of your tongue for two-hole blocks and the top for wider blocks.

  3. Inhale for a clean draw octave in Holes 6 and 10.

  4. As you prepare to exhale:

    • Keep the left corner of your mouth on Hole 6.

    • Narrow your mouth opening to a four-hole spread, with the change occurring on the right side so that the right corner of your mouth is on Hole 9.

    • Make sure your tongue block also narrows so that Hole 9 is clear to receive air.

  5. Exhale for a clean blow octave.

Mastering this exercise will give you a lot of control over octave splits on the harmonica.


Playing a drone note with variable splits

You can keep one note playing in the left corner of your mouth while you vary the note on the right by widening and narrowing your split. (You can hold the note on the right steady while you vary the left, but varying the right is more common.) The note that you hold while the other notes play is the drone note, like you hear on bagpipes.

Blow 3 and Draw 2 play the same note, allowing you to use that note as a drone with any blow note or draw note that you can reach while playing that note.

To make full use of drone notes — and splits in general — you benefit from being able to use your tongue to block one, two, or three holes. To vary the size of your block, try these moves:

  • For a two-hole block, place the tip of your tongue directly on the holes.

  • For a three-hole block, point the tip of your tongue down and use the broad top surface of your tongue to block the holes.

  • To play a one-hole block, point the tip of your tongue up and use the underside of your tongue to block the hole.

Inside a three-hole spread, you can play a split, but you can also play two-hole chords by blocking two holes and moving your tongue to the right or left side.

[Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith]

Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith

Try this harmonica exercise to play splits within a three-hole spread. Play it slowly and carefully so that you can get clean pairs of notes in each of the three tongue positions.


Are you ready to put your new split skills to work? “Greeting the Sun,” is a short piece that will sound great with all the harmonies and drones you can play.