Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Hello! Today we're looking at bending notes on diatonic harmonica. This is a must-have technique if you want to get that wailing, bluesy sound.
Ever wondered what makes the harmonica sound just so bluesy? It's probably down to bending notes. Learn to bend and you'll have a whole new level of soulfulness and emotion in your playing. This is a step-by-step guide to bending for absolute beginners.
Why learn to bend notes?
What is bending and why is it so important? The diatonic harmonica (blues harp) is built to play simple folk melodies, so it's actually missing a lot of notes. But fear not! We can fill in some of the gaps by using our mouth and tongue to 'retune' existing notes to create other tones that aren't naturally available. This is called bending. We can bend notes down but not up. There are two ways these bends can expand our playing:
Inflective bending: emulate the human voice or other instruments by adding a wail in or out of a melodic note. This is crucial for the blues!
Melodic bending: this gives us the notes that wouldn't naturally be available on the harmonica. This helps expand our melodic range and is great if we want to get "blue notes" that stop the instrument sounding overly major or happy.
Why is bending possible?
It's an odd quirk of the harmonica that allows us to bend notes. Each hole of the instrument contains two reeds: one usually plays when you blow, the other when you draw. When both reeds are vibrated at the same time (through bending technique), it produces a tone which lies between the individual notes of those two reeds. This means the extent to which a hole will bend depends upon the interval (the pitch distance) between its two reeds. It's like filling in the missing keys if we had a broken piano where some of the keys didn't naturally work.
Which holes will bend?
We can bend holes 1-6 draw, and 7-10 blow. Each hole will bend a different amount depending on the relationship between the blow and draw reed in that hole. It's normal to start learning to bend the draw notes first, so that's what we'll focus on here. Usually the 4 draw is easiest.
Before you try bending
You will need to be able to play clean notes before attemping your first bend (the rest of this lesson assumes you are lip pursing as taught in the linked tutorial). This will make sure you have a good seal around the hole and the bend can be activated more easily. Also make sure you are breathing naturally and not forcing the air too much, otherwise your problems will be even worse when you try to bend. Finally, be prepared to fail! This is a difficult technique and you probably won't get it straight away. It can come and go as you are learning it, but over time you'll get more consistent and find that you can use it more and more in your playing. It may take a lifetime to master this!
How to bend notes
Bending notes is all down to what is happening internally: your mouth, tongue and airflow will combine to make the note move. The technique to achieve this can be split into three parts which need to be combined in order to get a bend:
Mouthshape: Try gradually shifting your mouth from an 'AH' to an 'OO' as you play a 4 draw note.
Air pressure: Imagine you're sipping milkshake through a straw. I think of it as 'slurping' the air. Don't pull hard, it's more about adding a little bit of tension than using brute force.
Tongue position: You need to 'hump' your tongue. That is, it needs to be lower at the front. Try dragging it back along the base of your mouth from the tip to bring up the middle and rear of the tongue.
You're listening out for the note moving down (probably only moving slightly at first). If you get no movement, horrible sounds, or no sound at all, stop, slow down the movements and try to pay close attention to what you're doing.
Hole 4 is usually easiest, but feel free to try all of holes 1-6 draw. Generally, bending lower needs requires a bigger mouth cavity (so the tongue is back further in the mouth to make room).
Other tips for bending notes
Struggling with the bend? Here are some extra tips that might help you to get it.
Whistle backwards: Bending technique is very similar to changing the pitch of a whistle, so try doing just that (without the harmonica!) and pay attention to what you're doing. Whistle a high note and try sliding it lower. If possible, try it on an inward breath since we're learning to bend the draw notes. Then apply the same mouth and tongue movement when playing the note on the harmonica.
Freeze your mouth: Consistency of embouchure (mouthshape) is crucial so if you get the note to move, try to freeze in that position and work on memorising that exact shape. Even a slight movement can throw the bend off entirely. Frustrating, I know!
Think it lower: It may sound wish-washy, but thinking the note lower can really help. This is because of the close connection between the vocal cavity and the note achieved. If you're thinking lower, you're more likely to be moving your mouthshape unconsciously to the correct shape.
Imagine starting your car: If you drive a manual (stick) car, you have to balance the clutch and the gas to find the "bite point" when the engine engages and you can pull off. There's a similar bite point (I call it the sweet spot) with the bends. If you miss the bite on your car, you'll stall. If you miss the bite on your harmonica, you'll lose the bend. Be vigilant in recognsing that bite point when working on the technique. Pause at that bite point and you will maintain the bend.
Common bending mistakes
Hopefully you're getting the note to move right away, but it's normal to find this difficult at first. Here are a few common mistakes to consider:
Breathing too hard: when something doesn't work, it's tempting to tighten up, dig in and try to force it. You need to do the opposite. Loosen up, relax your shoulders, take some breaths to steady yourself and focus on the three points above. There is a sweet spot combining all three that will give you a bend.
Rushing the changes: if you try the mouth, air pressure and tongue movements too quickly, you may be skipping the bend. If you slow this down, so you're practising "in slow motion" then you're much more likely to find the sweet spot. Patience is the key!
Using a bad harmonica: now I agree that a bad workman blames his tools, but the cheapest harmonicas on the market are very difficult to bend. If you're using the harp that came free with a teach yourself book, it ain't gonna cut it. I recommend the Hohner Special 20 harmonica. It's a good quality harp that won't break the bank.
Don't know if you're bending?
You should be able to hear the note move, so if you're not sure then you're probably not bending! If you need to check, it's worth using a chromatic tuner or an app like Bendometer which will show you visually when you get a bend.
Thanks for studying with me today. I hope you enjoyed the lesson! You might also enjoy The Bending Course which is a full course all about bending.
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