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Which Notes Will Bend on Harmonica?

One of the coolest and most impressive sounds on the harmonica is bending. You are probably familiar with the rich, wailing, soulful sound of harmonica bends, even if you didn't know that's what you were hearing.


Bending allows you to reach notes that are not available in the harmonica's natural scale. Understanding which notes will bend and how to execute these bends is crucial for any harmonica player looking to explore the full potential of their instrument. Let's dive in and explore the harmonica notes that it's possible to bend.



Will Every Type of Harmonica Bend?


Lots of types of harmonica will give you some form of bends - diatonic and chromatic harmonicas will both bend, and it's possible to get bends on tremolo harmonicas as well - but the most popular, accessible and expressive bends can be achieved on a standard 10-hole diatonic harmonica (also called the blues harp). These are the bends we're going to look at today.


Check my intro guide to Different Types of Harmonica to learn more.


Understanding the Layout of a Diatonic Harmonica


A standard 10-hole diatonic harmonica is based around the major scale, with each hole allowing for both blow (exhale) and draw (inhale) notes. This layout provides a complete major scale across the middle part of the harp, but there are some missing notes in the lower and upper area of the instrument. However, with clever techniques like bending you can access additional notes not immediately available. This fills out the major scale at the bottom and top, and can also give you even more notes to make your harmonica closer to a chromatic instrument. This makes it versatile and useful in a wider range of genres.


Blow and draw notes for C harmonica
Harmonica note layout (key of C)

The Basics of Bending


Bending a note on the harmonica involves changing the shape of the mouth and throat to alter the airflow and pitch produced. This technique is not about changing how hard you blow or draw, but rather how you direct the air. Bends drop the pitch of a note, making available the microtones and semitones between the standard notes.


To learn more about how to bend, check out Bending for Beginners.


Draw Bends on Holes 1-6


Draw bending is more commonly used and easier to master for beginners. It allows players to lower the pitch of draw notes on holes 1 through 6. This is particularly useful in blues and rock music, where the expressive, wailing sound of a bend is often used for emotional effect. The extent to which these notes can be bent varies depending on the hole:


Hole 1: half step (semitone) bend

Hole 2: whole step (full tone) bend

Hole 3: step-and-a-half bend (three semitones) bend

Hole 4: halfstep (semitone) bend

Hole 5: minimal (microtone) bend

Hole 6: halfstep (semitone) bend


Blow Bends on Holes 7-10


Blow bends are typically more challenging to execute than draw bends and are found on holes 7 through 10 of the harmonica. Like draw bends, they lower the pitch of the natural note. They require precise control of breath and mouth shape to achieve the desired pitch change. When mastered, it's possible to produce a sweet and expressive texture to your music. The extent to which these notes can be bent varies depending on the hole:


Hole 7: minimal (microtone) bend

Hole 8: half step (semitone) bend

Hole 9: half step (semitone) bend

Hole 10: whole step (full tone) bend


Note: blow bending is different from overblowing. To learn more, check out my Blow Bends vs. Overblows lesson.


Full harmonica chart with all bends


Key of C harmonica note layout including bends
10 hole diatonic harmonica notes including draw bends and blow bends (key of C)

Note: you won't see bends written for holes 5 and 7 because they only produce a micro-bend (this means there is no additional melodic note, just a slight flattening of the natural note).


Why Learn to Bend Notes?


There are two main reasons bending is so great.


  1. Emotionality. Altering the pitch of a note adds depth of emotion, effectively simulating the human voice and other instruments. This allows you to wail or cry on the harmonica... perfect for playing the blues!

  2. Chromaticism. Bending allows you to play notes that wouldn't otherwise be there. This means the range of notes is expanded, so you can play melodies across the whole instrument, or explore varied and complex styles of music.


In reality, bending is the secret to getting an authentic bluesy sound on your harmonica. Bending notes will add a whole new level or emotionality to your playing, in a way that just isn’t possible with single notes alone.


Tips for Bending Technique


1. Start Slowly: Begin with slow, controlled breaths, focusing on the feel and sound of each bend.


2. Use Your Ears: Listen carefully to the pitch changes as you practise bending. Developing a good ear is crucial for controlling bends accurately.


3. Adjust Your Mouth Shape: Think of saying the vowel "ee" as you inhale and transition to "oo" as you manipulate the airflow to bend a note.


4. Practice Consistently: Like any musical skill, consistent practice is key to mastering bending on the harmonica.


Conclusion


Bending notes on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica expands the instrument's capabilities, allowing musicians to express a broader range of emotions and play more varied musical genres. By understanding which notes will bend and practicing the techniques for both draw and blow bends, players can unlock the full expressive potential of the harmonica. Whether you're aiming to play the blues, rock, country, or any other style, mastering bends is an essential step in your harmonica journey.


I hope you enjoy this lesson. Please get in touch if you have any questions.

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