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How do you bend notes on harmonica?

Updated: Apr 1

Today’s harmonica lesson is all about bending! I will explain what bends are and how to play them on your harmonica.

5 tips for bending notes

  1. Move your mouth from an 'AH' to an 'OO' shape

  2. Drag your tongue back into a humped shape

  3. Say 'KUH' as you play a note

  4. Slurp the air instead of allowing it to travel freely

  5. Imagine an inward whistle that's getting lower

What is a bend?

Bending allows us to play notes that wouldn't be available otherwise. Diatonic harmonicas have several missing notes (tones in the musicial scale that don't appear naturally on the instrument) so bending helps us to fill in these gaps. Bends are a distinctive part of the blues sound. Bending works by making both the blow and draw reeds vibrate simultaneously to produce a note which sits between the pitch of each indivudal reed.

How do you get a bend?

Bending requires a change to the oral cavity (space in your mouth) to allow a lower note to resonate. This can take some getting used to. It feels silly at first, but practising moving the shape of your mouth from an 'AH' or 'EE' to an 'OO' shape is a good place to start:

Man shaping his mouth in a u shape
Practice your mouth shape when learning how to bend on the harmonica

Now try sliding the tip of your tongue directly back in your mouth to create a humped shape. This helps angle the airflow so that both the blow and draw reed vibrate.

Diagram of tongue making a humped shape
Create a hump shape with your tongue when learning to bend on harmonica

Finding the 'sweet spot'

The two steps above are all that's needed to achieve a bend, but it can take a frustratingly long time to make this work. You need to experiment with slow changes of shape and position to find the sweet spot where it comes together and the note moves. When this happens, stay where you are! A couple of other ways to conceptualise the technique are (a) to say 'KUH' as you play a note, and (b) to think of playing an inward whistle which gets lower and lower.

Which notes will bend?

Holes 1-6 will bend on the draw notes. Holes 7-10 will bend on the blow notes. We tend to learn the draw bends first as they often come more easily (you'll probably find hole 4 will work first). As you progress, you'll learn to control these bends and use them as melodic notes. Here's a diagram of the bends available on a C harmonica:

A diagram showing the notes that will bend on harmonica
Helping you bend notes on the harmonica: a diagram showing the notes that will bend on harmonica

Note that each hole (and each key of harmonica) will feel different so you will need to adapt your technique to each situation. Good luck!

Conclusion - how to bend notes on harmonica

Bends are a a great way to add expression and emotion to your harmonica playing. They can be very difficult at first, but it's well worth it!

Thanks for reading this! Let me know how you're getting on in the comments below.

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