What is Octaving?

Octaving is playing two notes an octave apart in unison. It is a great way to reinforce a note by playing its adjacent octave simultaneously. The result is a ‘bigger’ sound, but a clean one as there are no harmonic notes involved. The good doctor sometimes calls it double-barrelled harpin’.

A good example is the opening to Little Walter’s ‘Juke’. The run up passes through draw 2, draw 3, draw 4, blow 5, and twice on blow 6. Or does it? Actually try draw 2, draw 3, draw 4, blow 5, and twice on blow 3-6 octave. Like this:

Owing to the layout of the reeds, some octaves are four holes apart, while others are five holes apart. We normally start by learning the four-hole octaves as these are easier and more widely used. Once we investigate 3rd position playing, five-hole octaves come into their own.

How do you do it?

Let’s start with holes 1-2-3-4. You should find your mouth sits comfortably across all four holes. Gently blow all four at once. This is the major chord in the key of your harmonica. Now draw the same four holes. This is the major chord one tone above the key of your harmonica. In each case, the notes in the 1 and 4 holes are the same, only an octave apart. So you need to block the middle two holes and just play 1 and 4.

Gently place the tip of your tongue against the bridge between holes 2 and 3. No need to ‘poke’ your tongue, keep it relaxed and square-on. Now allow the corners of your tongue to touch the 1-2 and 3-4 bridges at the same time. Holes 2 and 3 are now covered. Push your lips forward slightly to close down the corners of your mouth and avoid catching holes outside your targets 1 and 4. At the same this will help your tongue to plug the middle two holes. Now breathe out, or in, gradually keeping an ear on the result. No need to push or pull hard – stay relaxed. If you achieve a ‘clean’ result – two notes in unison – you’ve found your octave. If not, adjust your chops to eliminate the unwanted tones.

Now try transferring from blow 1-4 to the next octave, blow 2-5. Ignore draw notes for the time being, and continue working up the blow reeds: 3-6, 4-7, 5-8, 6-9, and 7-10.

Can I Octave anywhere on the harp?

No! This is why I suggested staying with the blow reeds in the exercise above. You can octave the length of the harp on the blow reeds, as they are arranged uniformly in arpeggio.

The draw reeds are arranged differently and are not in a uniform pattern. You can octave draw 1-4 as we know. However 2-5, 3-6, 4-7 and so on will give you dissonant note combinations.

To octave draw holes 3 upwards, you have to replicate Chromatic Harmonica octaving by spreading your chops across 5 holes! This is wide-mouth frog territory. In simple term you now place the central tip of your tongue in one hole, let the corners overlap into the holes either side, purse to close down the corners of your mouth and carry on as before. In this way you can octave holes 3-7, 4-8, 5-9 and 6-10.

Advanced players can switch readily between 4 hole and 5 holes octaves. Check out David Barrett’s ‘Exploring 3rd Position’ tutorial book (ISBN: 0-7866-6107-0), exercise 4.46A as a great example of this technique.

What other benefit does Octaving have?

If you normally pucker, it’s an excellent way to start using your tongue. On a four hole spread, the next step is to block all three lower holes instead of just the middle two. Carry on playing the top hole in isolation. Now you’re tongue blocking!

And finally…

Going back to those dissonant 4 hole draw spreads. A couple of these can prove very useful as Country or Cajun effects. Try sliding through draws 3-6, 4-6, 3-6 and out on blow 3-6. By changing the beat and exploring around these combinations you can soon get countrified and even branch into a little Zydeco… et toi! Enjoy.