Trills, Rolls and Trains

What’s a trill?

Chicago toolkitIt’s when you alternate (move back and forth) rapidly between two adjacent holes. Trills can be achieved by puckering or tongue blocking. I find puckering best for control, but remember seeing an interview with James Cotton in which he cites Little Walter’s tone when playing tongue-blocked trills as totally ground breaking.

Technically trills can be achieved between two adjacent holes anywhere on the harp; across draw or blow reeds respectively – but not really between a draw and a blow note. Most often trills are played across draw holes 3-4 or 4-5; this produces that signature effect on the harp everyone loves.

It can and is used elsewhere though. On one version of ‘Walter’s Boogie’, Walter Horton extends down to a trill across blow holes 1-2. On other blues tracks players trill across blow holes 8-9 at the top end of the harp – sometimes moving into a blow bend across both holes and back to a straight blow.

The ability to bend into, and during, trills is something else you’ll need to master, as it lends an extra dimension to the finished effect. It’s something you’ll hear used on no end of harp tracks. Visit our Glissando and Portamento page for further information.

Whichever technique you adopt, the lateral movement is very slight. You are passing the air-flow back and forth across a bridge dividing two adjacent holes to create a trill or ‘quivering’ sound. The finished effect is a classic harp sound that appears in countless films and on numerous recordings. When you’ve refined it, it will become a central piece of your toolkit. Treasure it and don’t over use it!

Standard trills
The lateral movement necessary to achieve a trill is often referred to as a roll. This normally comes from moving your harp and hand grip laterally as you play using puckering or tongue blocking technique. Perhaps this should be called a ham roll.

Head rolls
A trill can also be achieved by rolling or shaking your head from side to side while puckering or tongue blocking. This is a head roll. It looks great on stage or in front of a mirror, but doesn’t promote accurate playing in my opinion. And it’ll give you a headache if used too vigorously!

Tongue Roll
Finally you can try a tongue roll – sometimes referred to as a U block. It is an unusual technique and something I am new to, but it is a valid technique nonetheless. Place the end of your tongue just under the bottom cover plate or just below the mouthpiece of your harp, with the target hole above. Push your tongue slightly forward and relax the sides so they are pushed in, and supported, by the inside of your cheeks. Now draw (or blow) your target hole. You should produce a clean note and feel air cooling the surface of your tongue.

Pull from the back of your throat and move your tongue laterally to transfer control into the adjacent target hole. At the moment I find I move my jaw and tongue when it comes to the trill. Perhaps with practice it will get easier. Mick Kinsella has tongue roll tracks in his excellent beginner’s blues module – Blues Harp From Scratch (ISBN 0-7119-4706-6). Sadly however, he doesn’t really explain how it works. I hope the above helps.

How to do it – the Harp Surgery way
First hold the harp as you would normally, but in one hand only. Your mouth should be right round the harp – no numbers showing – and the knuckle of your index finger should be nudging right into your philtrum. Dig into the harp and take control!

Now let the harp do the work. By this I mean avoiding head rolls at this stage – you can experiment with them later. Instead, try to develop muscle memory in your forearms and wrists while controlling the harp from an accurate, even and balanced sideways movement of your hand grip. Work the bridge between the two target holes.

Start your trill from, and end on, the lower note preferably. It sounds better musically as it lends itself to resolution. Weight each note evenly, keeping your delivery symmetrical. Listen to yourself and decide whether you are emphasising one side or the other. If you are, slow down and regain your balance. Control and balance are everything. Ensure you give both sides of the trill equal measure. Snatch it one way or the other and you have an ‘asymmetrical’ twitch rather than a balanced trill.

At all cost avoid the ‘toothbrush’ trill. This involves holding one end of the harp and shuttling or jerking it rapidly in front of your lips – like you’re brushing your teeth. My inebriated aunt can do this and it’s just not pleasant. Yes she still has her own teeth. Did Lee Brilleaux really do that? Well at Harp Surgery we don’t care – he always declared he wasn’t a harp player anyway; but look what he (and the Feelgoods) did for kicking the arse back into British and world music… I digress.

Now start your trill evenly and slowly. Pick up the tempo but keep control. Take it to top speed and then slow right down again, emulating the decay of a bouncing basketball. Doesn’t it feel far more complete? And no need to reach for the Colgate!

When to do it
9 Below Zero’s take of Rocket 88 shows it can be used as much or as little as you like – across the right chords. Alternatively it’s just an effect and quickly becomes boring or predictable. Better to judge it musically and play over the right chords or at the optimum point of a phrase. Mick Kinsella’s Southern Jive takes you round the chords beautifully, with optimum use of trills. Incidentally, he takes you around the chords on all his tunes – with and without bends. I really recommend his Blues Harp From Scratch book for beginners as it promotes best musical practice and avoids nasty comfort zones (one or two typos in the tab Mick, but hey…).

Further reading

Using Your Head (Or Your Hands)