Wilbur's Intermediate Harmonica
How to "Bend" Notes on the Harmonica
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
Which Notes on the Harmonica Bend?
First...there are four different types of "bends" on a diatonic harmonica.
This tutorital will concentrate on the standard "Draw" bend.
Standard draw bends are the most commonly found and generally the most
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.
- Draw bends
- Blow bends
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.
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......
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.
- 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.
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.
- Start by playing a single, clean, draw note.
- Push your lower jaw forward just a tiny bit.
- Push the tip of your tongue against your front bottom teeth.
- Arch your tongue towards the roof of your mouth..
(but don't arch so much that you cut off your ariflow).
- 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".
- Do 2,3,4, and 5 as close to simultaneously as possible.
- Listen for the change in pitch...(the "bend").
- Congratulations !!!!
- 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.
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
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
- Say the vowel "e" ("yeeee...") while drawing.
- Change your mouth and tongue position to say the vowel "u" ("eyuuu...").
(This should lower the pitch of your tone).
- 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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