Chromatic for Diatonic Players: Hand Cupping & The Slide – Part 1
By Winslow Yerxa
Cupping your hands around a harmonica has several benefits—you can use it to create a subtle vibrato (favored by classical players), to create a darker tone color, and to create the sort of vocal effects such as a “wah” sound.
On the chromatic, using the slide can complicate your attempt to incorporate cupping, and that’s what this article is about.
When you open and close a hand cup, one hand holds the harmonica steady, while the other hand may move to manipulate the cup or operate the slide. (I’m going to use the terms “right” and “left” to refer to the grip illustrated below. If you use the opposite hands, exchange these terms. If you hold the harmonica in a completely different way, you may have to adapt and translate what follows to your particular grip.)
A typical way to hold the chromatic is shown below. The harmonica is held in the left hand, between thumb and forefinger as shown below, while the right hand both forms the cup and operates the slide button.
Here’s where things get complicated. Your right hand now has two separate jobs—operating the button and manipulating the cup. They can be difficult to coordinate, and this may one reason that you don’t hear a lot of “wah” type action on the chromatic when the slide is used. There are additional reasons: holding a microphone can make hand manipulation awkward or simply ineffective (true for diatonic as well). Also, some chromatic players may feel that “wah” sounds are a cheap trick not worthy of a serious instrument. But hey, if some of the greatest jazz trumpeters found plunger-mute effects worthy, then why not chromatic harmonica players?
So why not try a few simple exercises to strengthen you ability to coordinate slide action with cup action?
The Physical Stuff
Let’s look at the body parts that act when you move a hand cup or press in the slide.
When you open and close a hand cup, you leave the right hand formed in the cup shape, and simply move the cup to change the sound by creating a larger or smaller gap between the hands. You can make a small opening to create a subtle pulsation, or a larger opening to create the “wah” effect. The more you open a gap between the hands, the bigger the effect.
To do the small pulsation, keep your thumbs together, as shown in the photo at the beginning of the article. Keep your right hand formed into a cup shape, and simply move the cup a small amount by rotating your hand from the wrist.
To do a wah, you still keep your right hand formed into a cup, and make a bigger opening by rotating the wrist farther. The greater wrist rotation will also move a larger amount of the forearm. To make the wah even bigger, move the entire forearm from the elbow. This will remove your right hand entirely from contact with the left hand.
Slide Action – Neutral, Squeeze, or Push
Moving the slide happens three different ways, depending on whether you move the harp. If you stay in the same hole, the harp doesn’t move, but if you change to a hole to the left or right, slide action combines with moving the harmonica.
If you move the slide without changing the hole, you hold the harmonica steady with the left hand while you wiggle the button in and out by pressing on the button with your right forefinger. This is true whether or not your right hand is cupped around the harp.
Squeeze action is where you press the slide and the harmonica body together, then pull them apart. If you’re moving between two holes and the slide-in note is on the left, then you use squeeze action.
Let’s say you move between the note E (Blow 6) and C# (Blow 5, slide in). While you play E (Blow 6), you’ll have your index finger on the button, but you won’t press it in.
When you move to C# (Blow 5, slide in), you move the harp to the right. This presses the slide button into your index finger—your index finger doesn’t need to move. It’s like you’re squeezing the harp and slide in towards one another—hence the term squeeze action.
When you go back to E, you move the harp to the left and the slide is released, again, without having to move your index finger.
(Moving from C# to E and back to C# is the same series of actions, just starting at a different point.)
Push action is where you push the slide in with the index finger, and at the same time push the body of the harmonica to the left. With push action, the slide and the body of the harp are moving in the same direction at the same time.
Let’s say you’re moving from E (Blow 6) to G# (Blow 7, slide in). When you play E, you’ll have your index finger on the button but you won’t press it in.
When you press the slide in, you also push the harmonica to the left. This action puts Hole 7 in your mouth with the slide in, giving you G#.
When you release the slide, you also release pressure on the harmonica, and the natural resistance of your left hand springs the harmonica back to the right, putting slide-out Hole 6 (E) back in your mouth.
Next time we’ll place what you’ve learned into the context of music, so practice up!
Recommended Book—Basic Blues Chromatic
Please visit http://archive.harmonicasessions.com/feb05/ChromaticTab.pdf for a notation key.