The harmonica is a wonderful instrument for a novice musician. It’s small, portable, inexpensive, and easy to get started on. Advanced techniques make it as challenging, and as rewarding, as any wind instrument. One of these techniques is “bending.” It’s the method that gives the distinctive wailing sound that became a trademark of the electrified blues of the ’40s and ’50s, heard in the work of Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry, and Little Walter. To get that great bluesy sound, you need to understand a few simple rules and bit of aerodynamics.
Bending means you are lowering the pitch of the harmonica’s reeds. The best pitch changes occur on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th holes of a standard diatonic harmonica in the key of C major (the best choice for beginners). A bend on the draw (or breath-in) note of the 2nd hole, for instance, lowers it from G to F. Bending notes on the 1st and 6th holes is harder, but still possible. It’s tough to bend notes on the 5th and 7th holes on a standard harmonica, and only tricky blow bends are possible on holes 8 through 10.
FIND OUT HOW A HARMONICA WORKS
To get started, you need to form the correct embouchure. Make sure your lips are moist and that they form an airtight seal around the holes. To play clean notes, you must breath through the instrument rather than sucking on it. The physics of bending are simple. You are changing the airflow pattern over the reeds, causing them to vibrate more slowly, producing a lower note. Although tilting the harmonica works, it’s better to change the shape of the mouth so air flows over the reeds at an angle. To form the correct bending shape, say the word “yaw” while breathing in.
The chart below shows what pitch you are aiming for as you bend the draw notes on holes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 of your C major diatonic. Bending adds more notes to the harmonica’s repertoire, so that it resembles a chromatic instrument, with flats that give it the range of a piano’s 12-note octave. The more you practice the more you’ll be able to hit the “sweet spot” of each reed. Air should hit the reeds of different holes at slightly different angles to achieve the correct bends. Now you know the basics, you’re ready to wail the blues to your heart’s content!
—For more tips on harmonica playing, visit www.harmonicalessons.com and www.harmonicacountry.com.
Struggling to play clean notes?
Playing a single clean note on the harmonica without bleed from adjacent holes is one of the most important skills to master at the beginning of your harmonica journey.
If you struggle with this, just click here for my lesson on it.
Click here to get the tab and audio…
Beginner Series…10 videos to help you get started on Chromatic Harmonica…
It’s not enough to practice…you must practice the right things the right way. David Kettlewell explains how the Pyramid will affect your progress on chromatic harmonica…it is the KEY to success on chromatic harmonica.
ADVANCED TECHNIQUE CHROMATIC HARMONICA
Multi-Dimensional Music is a new artform created by Italian composer Andrea Antonello Nacci and American improvisational artist David Kettlewell. The 1st video explains the musical art form.
Here are the notes you can play on a C harp. The top row shows the C major triads you get from blowing, and the bottom row shows the G9 chord you get from drawing.
By blowing and drawing on the C harp, it’s very easy to figure out certain major-key folk tunes. “Oh Susanna” is the canonical beginner harmonica song. You can also play Brahms’ Lullaby, and even (if you’re very enterprising) Bach’s “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring.”
Effortless though it is to play I and V7 chords on the harp, you quickly run into its limitations. Playing the major scale in sequence is a challenge because of the idiosyncratic arrangement of the notes across the holes. Also, you can’t really play the IV chord (F major in the key of C.) You can fudge it by drawing holes 5 and 6, but that isn’t the full chord, and it feels unsatisfying.
You’re likely to experience even more frustration if you want to play blues, or rock, or many flavors of country, or really anything else descended from the African-American tradition, since the plain-vanilla major scale just does not have the notes you want. To get that blues sound, you need to play in a style called cross harp.