How to Bend Notes

bending-300x298Download my 45-minute video lesson on bending

What Is Bending?
Speaking poetically, bending on the harmonica is the wailing, moaning voice of the blues. Speaking technically, bending is a downward change in pitch. It’s an effect produced by the interaction of the blow and draw reeds together, and it’s regulated by your tongue position.

The K Spot
Winslow Yerxa coined the term “the K Spot” in his book “Harmonica for Dummies.” The K spot is the part of your tongue you use to make a “K” sound. Say “K” a couple of times to find it. You form a “K-Spot” by raising that part of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and restricting the airflow slightly.

How to Use the K Spot
For draw bends (holes 1-6), the K spot pulls backwards, creating a larger chamber inside your mouth between the harp and your tongue.

For blow bends (holes 7-10), that K spot pushes forward, creating a smaller chamber between harp and tongue.

What we’re really doing is tuning your mouth to the note you want to resonate on your harmonica.

Try It Out
Experiment with draw bends on holes 1-6, and be sure always to maintain CLEAR SINGLE NOTES. On hole #1 draw, you may have to open your jaw slightly as you bend. Experiment with blow bends on holes 7-10. You may have more luck using a lower pitched harp for blow bends, like an A or a G.

Effortless Bending
You don’t have to play hard to bend. Breath support is important, but mouth position trumps it. Your mouth will feel a change in vibration when a note bends: try to pursue that feeling while remaining relaxed.

2 and 3 Draw
It’s not the harp, it’s you. Just hang in there. Lots of folks have trouble playing 2 and 3 draw clearly, with or without bending. Go easy, use gentle breath, and make sure to maintain your single-note pucker and align properly on the hole you’re aiming for.

Am I Bending?
Do you hear a change in pitch? You may hear a change in timbre before you actually get a pitch change. Bent notes often sound a little pinched. If you hear any change, you’re on the right track.

Take Your Time
Bending may come easily to you, but more likely it will take persistent experimentation. This can become frustrating! If you’re able to, try giving yourself a pass: you’re allowed to take as much time as you need to learn this. You may find that accepting the process will cause you to relax and learn to bend faster!

Audio Demos
I’m playing a C harmonica for these bending examples. Remember, holes 5 and 7 don’t have much wiggle room, so go easy on them.

Bending 1 draw

Bending 2 draw

Bending 3 draw

Bending 4 draw

Bending 5 draw

Bending 6 draw

Bending 7 blow

Bending 8 blow

Bending 9 blow

Bending 10 blow

Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are five-note scales that sound good over just about any kind of music. Rock, country, blues, folk, and world music all make extensive use of pentatonic sounds. And because they use fewer notes than the standard 7-note scales, pentatonics make it easier to play in multiple keys on one harmonica. You’ll find each new position has different sweet spots, which is great for getting you out of artistic ruts. You’ll also learn to use the entire ten-hole range of the harmonica. We’ll use a C harp for all the examples below.

Let’s Get Started
To start with, I’d recommend playing the riff from “My Girl” over and over in C. Remember the old Motown song by The Temptations? It’ll teach you the basic scale pattern and help you remember the sound of the major pentatonic. Here it is:

My Girl

C     D E G  A C
4    -4 5 6 -6 7

You play the root, pause, then continue up the scale. Start on 4, make your way to 7, start over. There are five different notes – hence the Greek word root “penta” – then you get a repeat of your starting note. Got it? Five different notes, then you start over.

Next, we’ll look at the scale in all three octaves. When you play in the key of C on a C harmonica, we call it playing in “first position.” Also, there’s a bend in the low octave, watch for it!

C Major Pentatonic – 1st Position

C  D  E  G  A  C

1 -1  2 -2 -3" 4

4 -4  5  6 -6  7

7 -8  8  9 -10 10

Other Keys
On a C harmonica, you can also play a pentatonic major scale in G and also in F. Just as above, there are bends in the low octave, and even one in the high octave, but in each key there’s at least one octave that can be played without bends.

G Major Pentatonic – 2nd Position

 G  A   B  D  E  G

-2 -3" -3 -4  5  6

 6 -6  -7 -8  8  9

 9 -10  10'

F Major Pentatonic – 12th Position

 F   G   A   C  D  F

-2" -2  -3"  4 -4 -5

-5   6  -6   7 -8 -9

-9   9  -10  10

In the keys of F and G, we run out of notes in the top octave, so we don’t get to finish the full five-note sequence.

Pentatonic Music Theory
The major pentatonic scale takes the seven different notes of the standard major scale and leaves out two of them. Here they are, side by side.

C   	D   	E   	F   	G   	A   	B   	C
Do 	Re 	Mi 	Fa 	Sol 	La 	Ti 	Do

Do 	Re 	Mi      	Sol 	La     		Do
C   	D   	E        	G    	A      		C

If you think of Do as Note #1, Re as Note #2 and so on, then we can define the Major Pentatonic scale as 1,2,3,5,6,1. We leave out Note #4 and Note #7.

Relative Major and Relative Minor
Each major scale has a relative minor. They use the same set of notes, but instead of starting on Note #1, they start on Note #6. In effect, the Note #6 of the major becomes Note #1 of the relative minor.

Note #               1 2 3 5 6
C Major Pentatonic - C D E G A

A Minor Pentatonic - A C D E G
Note #               6 1 2 3 5

Following this approach, we get three pairs of scales:

C major = A minor

G major = E minor

F major = D minor

Two For One!
So if you learn to play C major pentatonic, you now also know how to play A minor pentatonic. Two for the price of one! And if you learn the other two major pentatonics, you get their relative minors, too. Absolutely free!

So here are the minors. Notice that the 5 notes are the same as the major pentatonics above, you just start from a different note.

A Minor Pentatonic – 4th Position

 A  C  D  E  G   A

-3" 4 -4  5  6  -6

-6  7 -8  8  9 -10

E Minor Pentatonic – 5th Position

E   G   A   B   D  E

2  -2  -3" -3  -4  5

5   6  -6  -7  -8  8

D Minor Pentatonic – 3rd Position

 D   F   G   A   C   D

-1  -2" -2  -3"  4  -4

-4  -5   6  -6   7  -8

-8  -9   9  -10  10

Filling In Gaps
As mentioned earlier, you can play the major and minor pentatonic scales across all ten holes, but for the sake of clarity, I’ve started each of these scales on the note that names it. In the process of learning C/Am, G/Em, F/Dm, you’ll start to fill in the blanks.

Take a simple idea, a 5-note scale, and learn it in C, then G and F, and you’ll get command of major and minor across all ten holes. Powerful stuff! It’s tricky, learning the skipped notes in each position, and it’s a challenge to land directly on your bent notes and have them sound in tune. Just take it a little bit at a time, starting with the C major pentatonic and build from there. Take one bite-size piece, maybe the C major pentatonic from hole 1-10 and back, and start using it musically, improvising and learning songs. And they bug you about not having long-term goals!

Tip of the Hat
My basic concept for this essay is very Lord of the Rings – “One Scale To Rule Them All!” I’ve found that idea really helpful in simplifying my thinking on harmonica positions, and I want to thank Richard Sleigh for the inspiration in his booklet and CD set “Train Rhythms & Pentatonic Scales,” which also offers some truly useful and fun tools for building your breath control and sense of rhythm. Pick it up!

Minor Scales

It’s actually not that hard to play in minor keys on a standard major diatonic harmonica.

D Minor – The Dorian Minor

-4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8
 D E  F G  A  B C  D

Dorian Minor is the sound you hear in folk songs like “Scarborough Fair.” You can also find it in rock songs like “Riders On the Storm” by The Doors and Santana’s “Oye Como Va.”

A Minor – The Aeolian or “Natural” Minor

-6 -7 7 -8 8 -9 9 -10
 A  B C  D E  F G  A

Aeolian minor is the sound of “Black Magic Woman” by Santana, the riff for “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s, and it’s also used in the Christmas Carol “O Come Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

Modes of the Major Scale
How are we playing in different keys on the same harmonica? It’s a long story, but here’s the basic idea: each note in the major scale can be used as the starting point to produce a slightly different-sounding scale with a new name. There are seven of them, and together they’re called The Modes of the Major Scale.

There are actually four different minor modes but Dorian and Aeolian are the most commonly used in Western music, so they’re a good place to start if you’re interested in rock, blues, and American & European folk music.

Harmonicas Other Than C
If you switch harmonicas, these positions will continue to give you Dorian and Aeolian but the letter names will change. On an A harmonica, you’ll get B Dorian and F# Aeolian. On a G harmonica, you’ll get A Dorian and E Aeolian. Look up a note chart for your harmonica and whatever the note name is for your 4-draw, that’s your Dorian key. Likewise, the note name for 6-Draw will give you your Aeolian key.

Major Scale Exercises

The major scale is a great way to practice your single-note technique and learn to move around on the harmonica. We’ll look at the basic scale, and then two exercises.

The Major Scale

4 	-4 	5 	-5 	6 	-6 	-7 	7

7 	-7	-6	6	-5	5	-4	4

Exercise #1: Leapfrog

4	5	-4	-5	5	6	-5	-6

6	-7	-6 	7	-7	-8	7

And let’s play it back down…

7	-6	-7	6	-6	-5	6	5

-5	-4	5	4	-4	-3	4

Exercise #2: Groups of Four

4	-4	5	4

-4	5	-5	-4

5	-5	6	5

-5	6	-6	-5

6	-6	-7	6

-6	-7	7	-6

-7	7	-8	-7


and back down…

7	-7	-6	7

-7	-6	6	-7

-6	6	-5	-6

6	-5	5	6

-5	5	-4	-5

5	-4	4	5

-4	4	-3	-4


Cross Harp Blues

Cross harp, or second position, is what you get when you play in the key of G on a C harmonica. Cross harp is the sound of blues and American roots music, and it’s all about bending accurately.

The Blues Scale

-2 	-3' 	4 	-4' 	-4 	-5 	6

6 	-5 	-4 	-4' 	4 	-3' 	-2

The low notes:

-2 	-2" 	-1 	-1' 	1

1 	-1' 	-1 	-2" 	-2

A couple of things to think about:

1. Getting a clear, strong, UNBENT 2 draw.
This is a tricky draw note to play clearly. Either the note won’t play, or it’s too breathy, or it bends when you don’t want it to. Make sure you’re isolating only the 2nd hole with your pucker, and experiment with playing long, slow notes. Try it at different volumes: loud, medium, quiet.

2. Third Hole Draw – Bluesy or Sweet?
Listen to good traditional blues harp players. Notice when they sound bluesy and when they sound sweet. Bluesy usually means their 3rd hole draw is bent a half-step. Sweet usually means they’re edging toward an unbent 3 draw. They might swoop up to it from below, but notice where the swoop up concludes – is it bluesy or sweet?

New York Times Interview

Originally posted in 2012. About a month ago, I got a phone message from a New York Times writer doing research for a piece on webcam music lessons. Seems my website for turned up when she Googled “Skype harmonica lessons.” A few days later I chatted for about forty minutes with the writer, Catherine Saint Louis, and tried not to sound too starstruck. She didn’t end up quoting me in the final article, but it was still a cool experience. You can read the article here.

And I do have openings for new webcam students, if you or someone you know lives far away from Keene, New Hampshire and would like to take some Skype harmonica lessons.

Which Harp To Get?

10-Hole Diatonic Harmonica
Generally speaking, I’d recommend any 10-hole diatonic harmonica that costs at least $30. That’s the pocket-sized, basic blues harmonica. I prefer harps with a plastic comb and removable screws, not nails. These features will make it infinitely easier to clean and maintain, and often they also reduce air leakage, which will make the harp more responsive and easier to play. Here are some harps with those features.

$35 – $45:
Hohner Special 20
Lee Oskar Major Diatonic
Seydel Blues Session
Suzuki Harpmaster

$50 – $60
Seydel Session Steel
Suzuki Manji

Hohner Crossover
Seydel 1847

Why Spend More Than ____ for a Harmonica?
Any harmonica is better than no harmonica. However, super cheap harps are harder to play and don’t sound as good. A better harp will be easier to play and sound better. Get the best you can afford within your budget, keeping in mind that you’ll probably end up getting harps in several different keys, over time.

What’s the Cheapest Harp That Works?
Depends on how you define “works.” The $5 Hohner Blues Band is the best budget harmonica I’ve played, and it’s no problem to replace if lost. However, it’s leaky and not always very well tuned. The cheapest harp that won’t slow down your progress will probably cost $30+.

What Keys To Get?
Start with a C, and when you’re ready to expand your collection, get an A, D, and G. The key of A is good for jamming with blues guitar player friends, and it’s pitched lower than the C, so any melodies you play up on the high notes will be easier to play and more mellow-sounding. The D gives you experience playing a slightly higher harp, and provides the second most common blues key, and G is just about the most common key for non-blues guitar strummers. G also has the distinction of being the lowest-pitched harmonica widely available, and you’ll enjoy it as a contrast to your higher harps.

Value Kits
A number of manufacturers make sets of 7 or more inexpensive harmonicas in a variety of keys, often in a handy travel box. The Hohner Piedmont is one such kit. If you’re starting to jam with more people and are learning songs in lots of keys, a kit is a good option which will quickly open a lot of doors. You can replace them with better harps gradually, as you get around to it. Just remember, you get what you pay for, and cheaper, leaky harmonicas are harder to play.

Hohner, Lee Oskar, Suzuki, and Seydel are probably the biggest names in the US. Bushman and Hering are also out there, but less available. Most US stores carry Hohner and Lee Oskar only, if they carry harmonicas at all. You’ll probably end up buying online if you buy a lot of harps. I like to shop local, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Intermediate-level are $35-50. Professional-level instruments start around $60, but beginners won’t be able to tell the difference. Even more refined models are available for $70 to $150 and up, if you want to treat yourself. That might seem a lot, but $100 is actually reasonable for a really good musical instrument. In my opinion, a $100 harp is the same value and quality as a $1,000 guitar. Just remember, you’ll eventually want harmonicas in all 12 keys!

My Gear
Because I’m mostly a single-note melody player and improvisor, I mostly play Hohner Golden Melodies, which are tuned to Equal Temperament, which favors melody notes. My Special 20s have a compromise tuning that sounds a LOT better than the GMs when I chug on chords. Lately I’ve also been learning about doing reedwork to improve performance, and that’s helped a lot with developing my bending and overblow technique.

I played a Suzuki Firebreath in C for about three years, learning overblows, but I’ve since replaced it with my own customized Hohners.

For Irish fiddle tunes, I have two Suzuki Promasters in D and G set up by Brendan Power. They’re half-valved and in Paddy Richter tuning. Valves allow more bending possibilities and made the tone reedier, more like a sax or uillean pipes (great for Celtic). They don’t allow overblowing, but I do like how responsive they are. Paddy Richter tuning is the same as standard harp tuning, with the three blow tuned up a whole step to avoid having to bend when playing fast.

Other altered tunings I mess around with: Spiral, Dorian, and Natural Minor, plus a bagpipe drone tuning I learned from James Conway.

Custom Harmonicas
There are a handful of technicians who modify stock harps professionally for high-end players. In the US, the biggest names are Filisko, Sleigh, Spiers, and Gordon. Additional techs are out there who do this work as well. Good luck placing an order with the top 4 customizers, since they usually have long waiting lists, but I’ve heard their harps are worth it if you have the time and money, especially if you’re serious about the overblow technique.

My advice: learn on a good stock harp and learn to do a bit of reedwork yourself as it becomes necessary.

The Big Picture

Sometimes it helps to have a roadmap.

1. Breathing comfortably.
2. Single notes.
3. Bending.
4. Tongue, Hand, and Breath Effects.
5. Overblows.

Breathing Comfortably
Just by breathing in and out and sliding back and forth, the harmonica makes musical sounds. I mentioned this in the What You Need post. You’re allowed to just mess around and make sounds. Play long notes, play short notes. Make “Tah-tah-tah” sounds with your tongue. Explore. Enjoy it! By the way, even without single notes, you can play recognizable songs. Just aim approximately for the hole numbers on the tab page and you’ll be able to hear the song start to emerge. Good enough. We’re here to have fun, you know.

Single Notes
As you learn to play clear single notes on the harmonica, your melodies will sound better and better. Play scales and scale patterns, too, they’ll help your basic technique a lot. Single notes represent a really exciting stage, since there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of melodies you can play which don’t require anything more than single notes on holes 4-10. You still have to develop your ear – it helps to sing along to your melodies and learn to tap your foot.

Bending notes will give you bluesy sounds and fill in the missing notes from holes 1-4 which some melodies require. To bend, you gotta have your single notes nailed. If you’re trying to bend but you hear two notes coming through, your air is being cut in half and it becomes a lot harder to control the reed you’re aiming for. Generally, you want to get your draw bends down (1-6) and then your blow bends (7-10).

Tongue, Hand, and Breath Effects
I’m talking here about cupping your hands to make a “wah-wah” sound, touching the comb with your tongue so you play one hole out of each corner of your mouth, flicking your tongue to switch between notes, and pulsing your breath and bending slightly to get a vibrato effect. You can actually start on some of this stuff earlier than this, I’ve just listed it as #4 since Breath, Single Notes, and Bends are, in my opinion, more important in the long run. But these effects are really fun and sound cool, and are necessary for traditional blues styles.

Overblows are an extension of your bending technique, and they fill in the rest of the missing notes on the diatonic harmonica. You have to be able to bend consistently and accurately in order to play overblows, and there’s a small adjustment we’ll need to make to the reeds, bending them slightly closer to the reedplate so they’ll choke more easily. Whether or not you even NEED overblows is a question for another day. They’re not terribly hard to play if you can bend accurately, but they do require some reed adjustment, and you’ll probably need to learn some music theory.

The Big Picture
We haven’t talked here about repertoire, but let’s just note: this list is about technique. At each stage, you’ll want to be learning songs, playing with others where possible, and using your new skills to make music.

If we’re talking about The Big Picture, the real point of technique is to broaden your ability to make sounds, and then use them in your music to express yourself and connect with listeners.

How to Read 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.

How to Play Single Notes

single_notes_icon-300x272Download my 58-minute lesson on single notes.

To play clear melodies, you need to learn to isolate one hole at a time. There are several useful embouchures or mouth positions, but I believe the simplest and most flexible one for beginners is a pucker.

1. Push your lips out and make a vertical oval.

2. Place the harmonica between your lips and press in slightly.

3. Keep your pucker firm!

Blow into the harmonica and listen. Are you getting a clear single note yet? If not, adjust VERY SLIGHTLY left or right while keeping the harp in your mouth. Remember to press the harp in a little bit and keep your pucker and your cheeks firm.

Experiment with this and you’ll get it. Once you have a clear single note, try alternating between blow and draw on the same hole, then doing the same thing on the next hole over. Have fun!