Wilbur's Intermediate Harmonica
How to "Bend" Notes on the Harmonica

 

Introduction

For many harmonica players, "bending" is not a skill they feel the need to acquire. There is a whole world of harmonica players that live quite happily without ever "bending" a note. (this includes diatonic as well as chromatic players). On the other hand, if you want to play the blues and/or get more notes out of your diatonic harmonica than the 12 blow/draw holes will provide...then you may want to learn to "bend".     Bending is definitely NOT a Beginner Harmonica technique, so.... If you are a beginning harmonica player and if you have not already looked at the   Beginning Harmonica Lessons and Tips page on this web site...please do so now. You must be able to adequately perform the basic harmonica playing techniques before you start trying to do "bends".
Learning to "bend notes on the harmonica is arguably the most difficult technique to learn. It can also be one of the most satisfying. I've heard it said (by harmonica pros and amateurs) that anyone who really wanted to learn to "bend" notes...could learn to do it. That's the good news.     The bad news is that it may take you a while to learn.

Learning to "bend" notes on the Harmonica


What Is A Bend?
A "bend" (or "bending" a note) on the harmonica is nothing more than simply changing the pitch of the note you are playing. For example, if you start out playing D and you "bend" the note downwards until you end up playing a Db (D flat)...you have "bent" the note. The Physics of what happens when someone "bends" a note on the harmonica is truly dazzling, complex.....and mostly irrelevant (unless you just want to know this sort of thing). There is however ONE thing you really need to know about the Physics of note bending.
To "bend" a note on the harmonica, you must CHANGE the direction and intensity of the airflow across the reed.
When you play clean single notes, the airflow is parallel to the reed and cover plates. When you change the angle of this airflow, you put more pressure on top of the reed and cause it to vibrate more slowly, thus lowering the pitch.     This is what happens during a "bend".

Straight notes are played with air flowing parallel over the reed...."bent" notes are played with the airflow starting out parallel with the reed...but then you change the airflow and more of the airflow hits the top of the reed slowing it's vibration.     When you change the angle of the airflow over the reed, you should try to mentally visualize that you are drawing the air from the back of the harmonica, up on top of the reed instead of straight through the harmonica parallel to the reed.     This sounds simple enough in theory, however in practice it can be difficult to make the mouth, tongue, jaw, and breath control changes...all at the same time and in the correct way to get a good "bend".

One last general statement on bends. Generally speaking, "bends" work better on diatonic harmonicas than on chromatic harmonicas. While it is possible to "bend" notes on a chromatic harmonica, this type of harmonica often has "wind saving valves" that makes bending difficult.




Which Notes on the Harmonica Bend?
First...there are four different types of "bends" on a diatonic harmonica.
  1. Draw bends
  2. Blow bends
  3. Overblows
  4. Overdraws.
This tutorital will concentrate on the standard "Draw" bend. Standard draw bends are the most commonly found and generally the most useful overall.   Standard "draw bends" (and also blow bends) always go down in pitch....that is the "bent" note sounds lower in pitch than the note you started on. The most common and useful draw bends are done on the #2, #3, and #4 draw holes. Draw bends can also be done on holes #1 and #6 on a standard diatonic....but generally speaking most blues, rock, and country music concentrate on the bends on #2 draw, #3 draw, and #4 draw.
NOTE: You should avoid doing bends on   hole #5 draw. Bending this note will not give you any new notes (like the other holes do) ....AND... bending hole #5 draw tends to ruin the #5 draw reed.     The same thing holds true for #7 blow...

Different holes on the harmonica allow different amounts of bending. Below you will see a list of DRAW "bends" for holes #1 thru #4. Each example give the starting note, the ending note, and the number of steps/notes that can be "bent"     If you click on the sound icon associated with each hole...you can hear what a "C" harmonica sounds like performing that bend.

  • Hole #1 bends 1/2 step (1 note) from D down to Db.     WAV
  • Hole #2 bends 1 whole step (3 notes) from G down to F.     WAV
  • Hole #3 bends 1 1/2 steps (4 notes) from B down to Ab.     WAV
  • Hole #4 bends 1/2 step (1 note) from D down to Db.     WAV
    (NOTE: hole #4 is the same note value as hole #1 draw but up one octave)

  • Hole #6 draw will bend from the note A down to Ab.
From the list above you can see that the ability to "bend" notes accurately and quickly adds notes that are missing from the standard draw/blow note charts on the diatonic harmonica. Using basic draw (and blow) bends you can get fairly close to playing chromatically (all 12 different white and black keys on a piano) on a diatonic harmonica.




How Do I Actually DO a Bend?

Before you try to "bend", make sure you can play a CLEAN single note. If you can't consistently play (and hold) good single notes, you will have a lot of trouble learning to play "bends".   Since the most commonly used blues bends are on the low notes of the harmonica, you MUST be able to play these single notes cleanly and well.   Unfortunately, the lower DRAW notes are also the most difficult for beginners to play well.....so make sure you can play these before starting.     If you need practice..go back to the Beginning Harmonica page

You can do quick "sound check" on your draw note skill by comparing the sound of the #2 draw to the sound of the #3 blow. Both the #2 draw and the #3 blow are EXACTLY the same note note on any standard tuned diatonic.... and you should get the same pitch on both notes.
If you can consistently play clean draw notes, then let's start learning to "bend".

Playing "bends" using the TILT Method
Start with the #4 draw...(you can pick any note to start with but the general consensus seems to be that #4 draw is easiest).   Remembering that you must change the angle of the airflow over the reed to "bend" the note ....so let's cheat a little bit and alter the angle of the harmonica rather than alter the airflow angle by changing your mouth, tongue, and throat.     Hold the harmonica by the ends and then while playing a CLEAN #4 draw,   Tilt the back of the harmonica up towards your nose . Make sure that when you tilt the harmonica up that you continue to draw the air through the harmonica though you hadn't tilted it up.
- DO NOT let your head, mouth, and tongue follow the angle of the harmonica with your airstream, or you negate the effect of tilting the harmonica in the first place.
- REMEMBER....you must Change the angle of airflow across the reed to make the note bend. This trick of physically tilting the harmonica up, will create the same change of angle that you must eventually learn to do with your mouth, tongue, and embouchure.   If the harmonica pops out of your mouth, start over and make sure you have the harmonica placed far enough into your mouth so that it won't pop out.
- TILTING TIPS:   The reed in each hole requires a different angle to achieve a bend. Generally speaking these angles look like......
  • Hole #4 draw takes about a 45 degree change of airflow angle.
  • Hole #2 draw takes almost a 75 to 90 degree change of airflow angle
    to get it to bend down a whole step.
  • Hole #3 draw takes an angle somewhere in between 45 and 90 degrees.
Experiment with the tilting technique until you get a change in pitch. When you start getting a "bend" stay with it until you can make a noticeable change in pitch. If you just can't seem to get #4 draw to "bend"....go ahead and try a different hole. If one practice session doesn't yield any "bends", call it a day and come back tomorrow. But whatever you do....DON'T GIVE UP.


Playing "bends" without Tilting the Harmonica
After you have reached the point of being able to get "bends" using the tilting method, its time to start learning how to get the same sound without tilting. Tilting is OK to get the idea of "bends", but you won't be able to play very many songs if you're constantly tilting the harmonica around.   You now must learn to change the shape of your mouth and tongue to simulate the same change in airflow that you got by tilting the harmonica. This is the most difficult harmoinca technique to describe in words...(and different people describe the same process differently)....but here goes.
  1. Start by playing a single, clean, draw note.
  2. Push your lower jaw forward just a tiny bit.
  3. Push the tip of your tongue against your front bottom teeth.
  4. Arch your tongue towards the roof of your mouth.. (but don't arch so much that you cut off your ariflow).
  5. Draw (pull the air) a bit harder to compensate for the sharp airflow angle caused by your jaw and tongue changes.
    Caution: Don't draw too hard or you will move past "draw bend" to "overdraw bend".
  6. Do 2,3,4, and 5 as close to simultaneously as possible.
  7. Listen for the change in pitch...(the "bend").
  8. Congratulations !!!!
  9. Immediately after the "bend"...relax you jaw...relax your tongue....
    return your tongue to it's regular place (at the bottom of your mouth)
    continue the draw...and the note should return to it's usual clean single note sound.

OK...there you have it. "Bending" a note only requires two things...good breath control and the ability to "shift" or change the airflow.



More Tips for Bending Notes.

  • ANGLED AIRFLOW:   Angled airflow is what makes a bend.   It is often this SAME angled airflow that makes the #2 and #3 draw so difficult for beginners. If you remember you probably got a few weird sounds from the #2 and #3 draw when you first started. Chances are very good that your beginning technique was a little sloppy and you accidentally "angled" your airflow through these holes. That means that you probably "bent" a note without knowing it. The trick of course is go back and do it again..only this time on purpose and with a better sound.
  • BREATHING:   You MUST have good breathing technique before you can do good "bends". Your lungs and diaphram should handle the air pressure..your mouth, lips, and tongue should handle the shape of the airflow. Visualize youself breathing "through" the harmonica with your lungs and diaphram rather than "sucking and blowing" from the front of your mouth and lips.
    One more time:     The more you suck the air through the harmonica instead of drawing/pulling the air through the harmonica the harder it is going to be to bend a note. When you play a draw note and when you "bend", you should Inhale using a long DEEP, breath.     FEEL your lungs and chest expand on the inhale...breath deeply from your diaphram.
  • Bend Tip #2:   Several people find that using vowel sounds while bending a note, seems to help.
    1. Say the vowel "e" ("yeeee...") while drawing.
    2. Change your mouth and tongue position to say the vowel "u" ("eyuuu...").
          (This should lower the pitch of your tone).
    3. Take another breath and do it again...alternate back and forth between the "e" and "u" sounds while drawing the note.
  • Bend Tip #3:   While you draw air through hole #1, roll the harmonica downward so that your upper lip covers half of the hole and then continue drawing air through the narrower slot. You should hear the sound drop lower than the original sound. It may require some trial and error to find the right spot...but it will work.
    NOTE: This is a variant of the "tilt technique"....but not quite the same, because here you block about 1/2 of the hole whereas in the "tilt technique" above you left the hole unblocked but changed the airflow.



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