How to Pulsate Notes on the Harmonica with Vibrato

By Winslow Yerxa

When you play a sustained note on the harmonica and make it pulsate at a steady rate, you’re adding vibrato to the note. When you pulsate a note, you use a series of gentle pulses to create a subtle ripple or undulation in the sustained sound. You do this using the same motions as when you start and stop notes, but you do it more gently.

On the harmonica you can produce vibrato in three ways:

  • Making the pitch of the note move up and down, usually by dipping slightly below the regular pitch of the note and then bringing it back up. Pitch variation is the only way that string players can create vibrato, and many harmonica players insist that this is the only true vibrato.

  • Varying the volume, or intensity, of the note, making it alternate at a steady rate between slightly louder and slightly softer.

  • Varying the tone color between bright and dark.

Listen to diaphragm vibrato, throat vibrato, and tongue vibrato on the harmonica.

Diaphragm vibrato

Diaphragm vibrato creates variations in loudness without changing the pitch or tone color of a note. You do it by bouncing your diaphragm as you breathe in or out. However, instead of articulating a series of separate notes, you sustain your breath flow between bounces, so that you make a continuous sound that pulsates with each diaphragm bounce.

Try using your diaphragm to pulse a note, following these steps:

  1. Take a deep breath.

  2. As you start to exhale, begin with an abdominal thrust.

  3. Continue to exhale, but do a series of gentle thrusts without stopping the flow of breath.

    This breath should sound like one long note with evenly timed pulses rippling through it. It should sound like “HaHaHaHaHa.”

  4. Try it with a harmonica, playing long blow and draw notes in Hole 4.

    Hold each note long enough to let the rippling effect occur.

Throat vibrato

Throat vibrato can vary both the loudness and the pitch of a note.

When you pulse a note with your glottis, you don’t stop the airflow; instead, you just narrow the air passage. Pulsing a note with your throat sounds different from pulsing with your abdomen. When you pulse with your throat, the sound throbs.

To get the hang of glottal pulsation, do this:

  1. Prepare by whispering “!Ah!Ah!Ah!Ah!Ah” on a single breath.

    Each “!” represents a glottal stop.

  2. Next, try connecting all those puffs so that air continues to flow, even while your glottis narrows.

    Do this as gently and as silently as possible, and aim for a continuous, uninterrupted flow of air.

  3. Now pick up a harmonica and try to use your glottis to keep a continuous note sounding while you massage the air with your glottis in a series of pulsations.

While you practice this, make sure your abdomen moves smoothly without pulsing — all the action is in your throat.

Tongue vibrato

Tongue vibrato can change both tone color and pitch. To get the knack of making subtle tonal changes with your tongue, try these steps:

  1. Without a harmonica, say, “Ung-Ung-Ung-Ung” using one continuous breath.

    When you make the “ng” sound, the part of your tongue about halfway back from the tip rises to the roof of your mouth and stops the airflow.

  2. Now try raising that part of your tongue, but not far enough to block the airflow.

    It should sound like “Ayayayaya,” with the “y” part produced by your rising tongue. Notice a few things about the “y” sound:

    • The sound brightens when you raise your tongue.

    • You should hear a slight hissing of air, and the sound will be halfway between “y” and “g.”

    • When you raise your tongue, you’ll notice air pressure that presses your tongue away from the roof of your mouth.

  3. Now try it with a harmonica.

    Try to create a subtle pulsation without too much of a vowel change.

    • When you use tongue vibrato on blow notes, you’ll notice air pressure when you raise your tongue. Use this to develop the pitch part of the vibrato.

    • When you play draw notes, you’ll notice suction when you raise your tongue. Use this to drive pitch change during vibrato.

Hand vibrato

Hand vibrato changes the tone color of a note but can also change its volume. The more you move your nonholding hand, the stronger the change in tone color. You can use the elbow swing to create a highly colored vibrato, which can sound great in some music but can be too strong and even sound corny in other styles.

The squeeze vibrato

Try using both hands to completely enclose the harmonica. Play a sustained note and slightly press the nonholding hand into your holding hand. Then release the pressure while still keeping the harmonica enclosed. Note how the sound pulsates as you press and release.

The pinkie vibrato

Start by playing a sustained note with both hands enclosing the harmonica. As you play, raise the pinkie finger of your nonholding hand to create a tiny opening between the hands. Raise and lower your pinkie to pulsate the sound.

The wrist rock

You can rock the wrist of your nonholding hand to create a small opening between your hands, either by opening the edges of your palms or by making an opening between the heels of your hands. The bigger the opening, the more pronounced the change in tone.

When you master this technique, you can use it to create a broad range of pulsations.

If you move your hand carefully, you can find the point where the note gets louder as you tune your hand shape to the note. If you center your vibrato on that point, you can vary both tone color and volume together.

Listen to the full range of hand vibratos on the harmonica from subtle to colorful.