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

-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.

14 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:

      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.

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