Harmonica/Bending

Bending notes is, without a doubt, the most important technique in harmonica playing. It adds that special bluesy something to your play, and allows you to play semi-chromatically on a normally diatonic instrument - especially in second position.

However, due to the unique, soulful sound generated by bending, you should learn how to bend notes even if you're playing a chromatic harmonica. On a chromatic harmonica, all holes that have windsavers can bend in both draw and blow; typically, this means all holes except for the higher octaves (hole 8 to 12), which can only draw bend on hole 8-11, and blow bend on hole 12.

On a diatonic harmonica, hole 1-6 can draw bend, and hole 7-10 can blow bend.

A player can bend the pitch of the higher tuned reed down toward the pitch of the lower tuned reed in any given hole. In other words, on a diatonic harmonica, on holes 1 through 6, the draw notes can be bent, and on holes 7 through 10, the blow notes can be bent. Hole 3 allows for the most dramatic bending: On an C harmonica, it is possible to draw bend hole 3 from a B down to a G#, or anywhere in between. The physics of bending are quite complex, but amount to this: the technique "pinches" the air and thus changes the pressure of the airflow.

How to do a bend:

  • Draw: This can be done by lowering the jaw, while raising the back of the tongue, focusing the air flow at the back of the tongue. If you want to, let the tip of the tongue touch the spot where the tenon meets the bottom of the mouth cavity.
  • Blow: This is done by lowering the jaw, while raising the front of the tongue slightly, focusing the air flow at just slightly behind the teeth.

Bends are essential for blues and rock harmonica due to the soulful sound they add to the instrument - the famous "wail" of the blues harp typically requires bending. Luckily, this can be done on all kinds of harmonicas; as Stevie Wonder has shown, one can even do it on a chromatic harmonica.

Those that want to be able to use any harmonica as a chromatic instrument, should also learn to overbend.

Last modified on 22 February 2011, at 03:16