Bending Notes With The Harmonica

If you play the main blow and draw notes available on a diatonic harmonica, you’ll be able to sound seven different notes (or 19 different pitches, if you count the notes that repeat). The complete chromatic scale contains 12 different notes, which means that the standard diatonic harmonica is “missing” five notes. A special technique called bending makes it possible to play some of the missing notes of the chromatic scale on any ordinary diatonic harmonica.

Blows and Draws

Blow bends: Notes you can sound by bending the blow notes of holes 8–10

Draw bends: Notes you can sound by bending the draw notes of holes 1–6

How Blow Bends and Draw Bends Work

The physics behind blow bends and draw bends is rather complex. The quick explanation for how bends can possibly produce notes that “don’t exist” on the harmonica is this: By altering the flow of air through the blow reeds and draw reeds at certain holes, you can make both reeds vibrate at once, which in turn allows the “missing” notes to sound.

Why Use Blow Bends and Draw Bends?

You would use blow and draw bends for two main reasons:

To play “missing” notes: If a song or melody you want to play calls for a note not normally available on a diatonic harmonica, the only way you can sound that note is by playing a bend.

To add accents to solos and melodies: You can use bent notes to add some flash to the melodies or solos you play. The dissonance created by playing a note outside the harmonica’s diatonic scale can add a bluesy feel to your playing, which explains why bends are used most often in blues- and rock-style playing.

The C Harmonica’s Five Missing Notes

The 12 notes of the chromatic scale, starting on C, are: C–C#–D–D#–E–F–F#–G–G#–A–A#–B–(C)
The final C (in parentheses) is one octave higher than the C that starts this chromatic scale. The notes followed by the # sign are called sharps. Each sharp note can also be written as its equivalent flat note, which is the next highest note in the scale followed by “b,” the symbol for flats. For instance, C# is also Db. Though they go by two names, these notes (C# and Db) are exactly the same. The chromatic scale’s five sharp (or their equivalent flat) notes are the “missing” notes on the C harmonica: C# (Db), D# (Eb), F# (Gb), A# (Bb). Playing blow bends and draw bends will allow you to sound most, but not all, of these five notes.

Half Steps and Whole Steps

The notes that make up musical scales are all either one half step or one whole step apart. All the notes of the chromatic scale are one half step apart, so C and C#, for instance, are one half step apart. The “distance” between any two notes in the chromatic scale, such as F and G, is one whole step. By bending the notes of a diatonic harmonica, you can sound notes in half-step increments below the normal blow or draw note. So, for instance, bending the hole 4 draw note (D) will sound the note one half step below D, which is C#. Without using the bending technique, it’s impossible to play C# on a C diatonic harmonica.

Draw Bends

Draw bends allow you to play notes one half step lower than ordinary draw notes. But draw bending only works on holes 1–4 and hole 6 of the diatonic harmonica. On holes 1 and 6, you can draw bend just one half step below the normal draw note of the hole, whereas on hole 3 you can draw bend three notes in half-step increments below that hole’s normal draw note of B—A#, A, and G#. The diagram below shows the complete selection of notes you can play in half-step increments by using draw bends.

Note that you can play two of these notes (F and A at holes 2 and 3) elsewhere on the C harmonica by drawing hole 5, 6, 9, or 10. You might use the draw bend versions of these notes to avoid having to move from hole 2 or 3, or as a way to add ornamentation to a solo, such as by alternating between the other draw bend notes at holes 2 and 3 (F# at 2, G# and A# at 3).

How to Play Draw Bends

Playing draw bends requires you to move your tongue and your throat muscles to control how air flows through the harmonica’s holes when you inhale. If you’re sceptical that moving your tongue can change the airflow into your mouth, try whistling by inhaling. As you whistle, move your tongue up and down—the note that your whistle sounds will change as your tongue moves. Draw bends work in much the same way. The easiest harmonica note to bend is the hole 1 draw. Follow the steps below to sound the draw bend at hole

  1. Use the single-note embouchure to draw the note. You can use tongue blocking, but most beginners find it easier to learn bending by using the single-note embouchure.
  2. As air flows into your mouth, lower your tongue toward the base of your mouth and expand the opening to your throat. Perfecting the right combination of lowered tongue and throat muscle control is the key to draw bending notes effectively.
  3. Though you might feel inclined to draw in air harder to bend the note, resist the temptation. Drawing harder actually makes it more difficult to sound a draw-bend note.
  4. As you lower your tongue, you’ll hear the pitch of the note change—it should sound slightly lower. If you’ve done the draw bend on 1 correctly, this note will be C#.
  5. Repeat steps 1–3 until you can consistently alternate between the draw note (D) and the draw-bend note (C#) by lowering and raising your tongue as you draw.

Though you can bend the draw note at hole 1 using just your tongue movement, other bends are achieved by flexing the larynx muscle in your throat. Every bend note requires a different throat position, which you can only achieve by learning to control your larynx muscle. As air passes into the throat, flexing the larynx muscle causes the throat shape to change, thus altering the airflow and forcing the note to change pitch. You can get a sense of this muscle movement by saying the word “peel” very slowly. As you say “eel,” your larynx will change shape, mimicking the position required for bending.

What if You Can’t Play Draw Bends Properly

The tongue and throat control that draw bending requires is challenging, so don’t despair if you can’t bend successfully the first time you try. To help you practice, cover with masking tape all the holes except the hole you’re trying to bend—apply the tape to the side of the harmonica opposite the holes. This way you can focus on perfecting your bending technique rather than worrying about playing the right isolated note. The best way to test whether you’re playing the proper notes when you bend is by playing those notes on another instrument, such as the piano, and comparing them to the ones you play on the harmonica as you bend. If you don’t have another instrument on hand, you’ll just have to play it by ear.

Draw Bending Notes Lower than One Half-Step Below the Regular Draw Note

Holes 2 and 3 allow you to draw bend notes up to three half-steps below the hole’s regular draw note. You can sound these notes by controlling the depth to which you lower your tongue in your mouth and adjusting your throat muscles to the proper position. In general, the deeper you lower your tongue, the lower the note. For instance, to play the note one half step below hole 2 draw (the F# below the G at hole 2), lower your tongue about half as far as you can possibly lower it in your mouth. To sound the note one half step below that F# (or one whole step below the G), lower your tongue as far as you can. With practice, you’ll get a sense of how low your tongue needs to go in order to sound each note.

Blow Bends

Blow bends enable you to play notes in half-step increments below ordinary blow notes. Blow bends work on holes 8–10 of a diatonic harmonica. The four notes that you can play by blow-bending are D, F#, A#, and B.

Harmonica blow bend notes

How to Play Blow Bends

Blow bends work like draw bends: by changing the position of your tongue and controlling your throat muscles while blowing, you’ll alter the flow of air you exhale through the harmonica and in turn change the note that you sound. There are two main differences between blow bending and draw bending.

To blow bend, you move your tongue upward, not downward. In addition, to play blow bends, you must constrict your throat muscles tightly, almost closing off the air pathway to change the pitch. This difference in particular makes playing blow bends considerably more difficult than playing draw bends. To practice playing blow bends, start by blowing hole 8 (D to D#):Use the single-note embouchure to blow the note.

Again, you can use tongue blocking, but beginners often find it more difficult to do so. As air flows out of your mouth, raise the back of your tongue toward the roof of your mouth. Pulling your jaw in toward your neck can help make raising the tongue easier. As you blow bend, you’ll feel your throat constrict a bit—this is normal. As you raise your tongue, the note should change from D to D#. As with draw bends, there’s no need to blow harder than you normally would. Repeat step 1 until you can consistently alternate between the blow note (D) and the blow bend note (D#) by raising and then lowering your tongue as you blow.

How to Blow Bend Notes Lower than One Half Step Below the Regular Blow Note

Only hole 10 will enable you to blow bend more than one half step below the hole’s ordinary blow note (C). As with draw bends, you can blow bend in half-step increments by carefully controlling the positioning of your tongue. Blow the note at hole 10 and, as you raise up your tongue to blow bend the note, listen for the point at which the C lowers to a B and then to an A#. With practice, you’ll get a feel for this point and will be able to alternate among all three notes (C, B, and A#) by controlling the height of your tongue.

Overbends are a special type of bend that enable you to sound notes that are higher in pitch than the ordinary blow and draw notes of certain holes on the harmonica. These notes, called overblows and overdraws, make it possible to sound even more “missing” notes on the harmonica, but there’s a catch—they require an extreme degree of tongue, throat, and breath control that usually takes years of practice to achieve. To learn everything you have ever wanted to know about this technique you should visit     

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