What Speed Do You Do Vibrato?

This was a genuine and very welcome question asked during a session at the Harp Surgery today.

Before answering, a smile grew on the Good Doctor’s face. His thoughts flashed back to a time when he first noticed how other harp players’ vibratos seemed faster, more appealing or more perfect than his own. He recalled the thrill of graduating from a struggling player with no vibrato, to one who could emulate that special throat vibrato he’d heard time and time again on recordings by Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. It was a coming of age. It was fulfillment. Blow bends followed and brought with them the same sense of arrival.

‘Do you know’, answered the Good Doctor, ‘I do my vibrato at my own speed. I have tried to do it faster. I have tried to do it better. But it’s the vibrato I was born with. I have learned that it is my vibrato. It doesn’t need changing.’

Glottal Stops

OK so you’re following some harp tab, or working on a toon, and you encounter repeated notes. Let’s take the start of Amazing Grace as our example. You can start either from Blow 6 – Blow 7 – Blow 7 or, for the more daring, Draw 2 – Blow 4 – Blow 4. New students will often articulate the repeated note using the ‘stop-start’ approach. They quite correctly sound the first of the repeated notes with a soft blow, stop, then blow again to play the repeated note.

While this approach is perfectly fair, for the Beano and Dandy fans amongst us, it’s for softies. It’s too polite. We need to use the Dennis the Menace method and attack it with a hefty glottal stop.

What’s that? Imagine yourself in the cast of East Enders. Try saying ‘Better get some better butter’ with a cockney accent. You’ll need to use four glottal stops to get through and make it sound authentic. Still not clear? Don’t pronounce the t’s. Notice anything? Right – you’re not stopping and starting like a softy, but punctuating from the glottis (the space between your vocal chords). Welcome to Bash Street.

And it’s the same when playing those repeat notes. Breath flows continuously out from, or in to, your lungs but is interrupted by glottal stops from the back of your throat. For an extreme example, check out Junior Wells with Buddy Guy on Hoodoo Man. On the vinyl recording you can probably hear more glottal stop than harmonica! It’s an example of amplified ‘power harp’ playing….and yes I concede it is a classic.

If you find the glottal stop doesn’t come naturally, persevere. It’s actually a simple technique, but one you will have to master to improve your playing. Especially since it is closely related to that elusive throat vibrato we all want to find when we start out.

For the full tab to Amazing Grace click here