How to Read Harmonica Tab

Harmonica tablature tells you which hole to play, whether it’s a blow or draw note, and whether a bend or other effect is required. In the system I use with my students, plain numbers are blow notes and numbers with a minus sign are draws.

Blows & Draws
1 means blow on hole 1
-1 means draw on hole 1

Double Stops
1,2 means blow on holes 1 and 2 together
-1,2 means draw on holes 1 and 2 together

Bends
-3′ means draw on hole 3 with a half-step bend
-3″ means draw on hole 3 with a whole-step bend
-3″‘ means draw on hole 3 with a step-and-a-half bend

Same idea for blow bends, except the number won’t have a minus sign.

Chromatic Harmonica
For chromatic harmonica, parentheses tell you to push the slider button:
(-1) means draw on the first hole while pushing the button.

Overblows and Overdraws
On the diatonic harmonica, I use parentheses to indicate overblows and draws:
(4) means play an overblow on hole 4.
(-7) means play an overdraw on hole 7.

There are a number of harmonica tab systems out there, but I prefer this one because it uses only ASCII keyboard keys, which makes it easier to type up songs and transmit them online. Other systems use up and down arrows, or circles around the numbers to communicate blows and draws.

Rhythm & Your Ear
Simple tab systems don’t give you rhythm instructions, so they work best to get you started on songs you’re already familiar with. It is possible to learn new songs using tab, but you’ll need audio examples to demonstrate how they’re supposed to go. It’s also not a bad idea to get used to listening closely to songs, tapping your foot, and singing along with melodies to develop your ear.

Standard Notation
I’m all for learning to read traditional music notation, since it communicates rhythm and articulations better than tab, and in the long term it’s a great investment in your musicianship. In the short term though, it’s probably more important just to get started playing music immediately, so you can get thoroughly hooked on playing your harmonica. In my experience, numeric tab requires less translation by your brain and gets the basic idea across more quickly.

38 Responses to “How to Read Harmonica Tab”


  • please send tab readin info

    • Hi Jon, this article covers the system I use, but there are other systems out there, using arrows or circles around the hole numbers to indicate blow/draw. This page should help you with the materials I offer on my site. Good luck!

  • What is a “Bend”?

  • Hello, would you be so kind to record a video or sound of “The parting glass” following the tabs that you posted? Sorry I am a beginner and found it hard to follow the tabs. Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Matthew, good idea. I’ve made demos of several of the other Irish tunes on the site (Dirty Old Town, Schooldays Over, etc), so until I get around to this one, try them out! Here’s one: http://www.wildflowerharmonica.com/tabs/ewan-maccoll-dirty-old-town/

      If you need help reading the tab numbers, there’s a tutorial linked at the top of each song.

      For “The Parting Glass,” bending is required on 3 draw, so as a beginner, you might want to look at tunes that don’t require bends. Bends are indicated by ‘ or ” after the hole number.

  • what means -2bb

    • I’m not sure, that sounds like a different tab system than I use. Perhaps it means 2 draw, with a double bend -> you can bend to two different notes on the 2 draw. I’d write the same thing like this: -2″. On a C harp, the 2 draw is a G, the first bend is to an F#, the second bend is to an F. -2″ is an F.

  • whats a ‘Draw’?

  • Great beginner site, consistent and easy to follow

  • I have played other instruments, I find that really helps room a rhythm and time perspective!
    Thanks for the tabs ! They help but the rhythm notations really would make a major difference.
    Thanks for your good works.

    • Hi Maarvin, I agree, the rhythm notation is important. If you’re already a music reader, you can skip the tabs and just learn the actual note names on your harps. Practice reading using fiddle tunes or flute / oboe study books. On the other hand, tabs can be a good quick start for non-readers and they require you to check an audio reference; i.e. listen to the song, sing it to yourself, and use your ear to help you learn the song.

  • What exactly is a half bend? Or a bend and a half?

    • “Bending” refers to lowering the pitch of a note on your harmonica by changing your tongue position and the shape of your oral tract in order to resonate at the desired pitch. Some draw notes on the harmonica are able to bend farther than others. For example, the 3 draw on a C harmonica is a B note. You can bend that B down a half-step (B to B-flat), a whole step (B to A), or a step and a half (B to A-flat).

    • you put your cheack on 1 and 2

      • I don’t recommend using the cheek to block out holes. I think it’s better either to isolate a single hole by making a circle with your lips (“pucker” or “lip block” or “lip purse” technique), or by opening the mouth wider and using the tongue to block 3/4 of the opening, then playing through the remaining 1/4 opening in the corner of the mouth (“tongue blocking” technique).

        • Once you have clear single notes, you bend by restricting airflow – tongue hunches up in the middle to the roof of your mouth, like sucking a peppermint, or like saying the letter K – and then maintaining the restricted airflow and moving tongue SLIGHTLY BACKWARD to drop the pitch.

  • Ewan –

    I have really enjoyed looking over this site, as I have picked up the harmonica in hopes of playing better than I did when I was nine. Your explanations of the tabs are easy to follow, except for all the bending, double stops, and all the overblows and the like. I just wanted to thank you for giving us so much of your time. Hopefully – one day – I’ll be able to play half as good as you. Have an incredible day, and I’ll keep looking for your instructions.

    Thomas

    • Thanks for your note Thomas! Keep playing and having fun with your instrument. If you need help with single notes or bending, there are written and video tutorials at the Resources and Store pages.

  • -5 means to blow in right? why? the sound will be la right?

  • What does a Half step bend, a whole step and step and a half mean?

    • A bend is a downward change in pitch which a player executes by changing their tongue position and throat shape while maintaining steady air. Here’s more info – http://www.wildflowerharmonica.com/downloads/bending-lesson. Larger or smaller bends are possible, depending on the difference in pitch between the blow and draw reeds in a particular hole. A half-step bend is the standard small bend, a whole step and a 1.5 step bend are larger bend intervals.

  • this is great am gonna teach ma student

  • Hello admin.. I have 24 hole hero harmonica.. can u plzz guide me numbers for its holes n basic lessons for it..

  • Whats ~3 ? Its in a song that I want learn.

  • I keep seeing * in tabs, what do they represent?!

    • Hi Indu, I don’t use * in my tabs, and I’m unfamiliar with its use, sorry. It could be referring to a change in breath direction – maybe numbers WITHOUT * are a blow and numbers WITH a * are a draw (inward breath). Or maybe a * refers to a bent note. But again, I don’t use * in my tab system, so I don’t know. Thanks for visiting.

  • I am new learning how to play. I don’t do bad except for note bending. I try positioning my tongue, I have no bottom teeth. Does that matter or am I just doing it wrong?

    • Hi Don, note bending is difficult for all beginners. I don’t think lower teeth are required, since the tongue can restrict airflow and change pitch without contact with the lower teeth. Can you whistle? Try whistling lightly on the inhale and listen to the pitch changing when your tongue moves forward or backward. Draw bending works the same way as inward (inhale) whistling. Only difference is, for draw bends you restrict airflow by hunching the middle tongue to the roof of your mouth to restrict airflow – this is what Winslow Yerxa calls the “K spot,” similar to the place on your tongue where you say the consonant K.

  • I found tabs that say something like 6..-66.. and so on… what do the dots mean? Do they mean the same note, or mke it last for however many counts?

    • Hi Parker, sorry, I don’t know what the dots mean in that tab system. There are several informal harp tab systems out there. Maybe the website where you found that tab has a tutorial on how their tab works? Usually, tab tells you what hole to play, whether it’s a blow or draw, whether there’s a bend (or button note for chromatic), and possibly how deep to bend the note. Tab usually doesn’t tell you how long a note lasts. But again, I don’t know every tab system out there. Good luck.

    • Hi Parker, sorry, I don’t know what the dots mean. There are a number of informal harmonica tab systems out there – perhaps the website where you found that song has a tutorial? Harp tab usually only communicates physical info about playing the instrument, like which hole to play, blow or draw, unbent / bent / overblow / button. It usually doesn’t tell you musical info, like how long the note lasts. Good luck!

Leave a Reply