Bending on a harmonica creates a richer sound and expresses passion in the instrument no other technique can match.
We sometimes bend notes to create those not present on the diatonic harp. Other times, we bend out of expression. Much of the emotion that comes from the blues harp originates in the wails and cries created from bending of notes.
While note bending is a technical skill, there’s also a certain level of feeling that comes into play. Here we’ll look at what bending means and then cover some specific techniques and best practices for learning how to bend.
What does “bending” on a harmonica mean?
Bending on harmonica is a technique where you change the shape of your mouth to pressurize the airstream and lower the pitch of a note. In doing so, you’re able to play semi-chromatically (half-steps) on an otherwise diatonic harp. For example, you can’t reach a C# on a C diatonic harmonica without bending.
Some other instruments allow for bending notes as well. For example, guitarists can physically bend a string up or down to raise its pitch.
Draw (inhale) bending works on holes 1-6 and blow (exhale) bending on holes 8-10 of the diatonic harmonica. Let’s look at the specific techniques for bending in more detail.
Techniques for draw bending notes on harmonica
When I first started playing, I just used a form of vibrato learned from playing other woodwind instruments to bend my harmonica notes. It turned out I was missing some basic 10-hole diatonic harmonica features that would have made my life easier.
Draw bending is generally easier than blow bending on harmonica, so we’ll start there. Most students also find that either the 4-hole draw or the 1-hole draw is easiest.
Tilting the harp
Hearing how a bent note sounds will help you understand when your attempts at bending are successful. And the easiest way to do this is by simply tilting the harmonica as follows:
- Start by playing a 4-hole draw—drawing air through the fourth hole to play a single note. Most harmonicists consider bending on the 4-hole draw to be the easiest starting point.
- Slowly begin tilting the rear of the harmonica (the far end) upward.
- As the harmonica tilts past 45°, gradually push your bottom lip out to accommodate the harmonica and maintain airflow.
- Once the harmonica is basically perpendicular with the floor and flat on your face, you’re reached the low point in the bend. Continuing drawing and slowly tilt the harmonica back down to the original position.
You’ll hear the pitch gradually bend down and then back up if you’re correctly using this technique.
Tilting isn’t a bending technique you’ll want to continue using when you play ordinarily—though many harpists will naturally tilt their harmonica at a slight angle when playing (related: How to Hold a Harmonica). It’s just not practical to tilt that much once you start playing faster licks.
But tilting can be a helpful exercise to show you what bending a note should sound like before you move on to more advanced techniques.
This next draw bending technique is basic but helps you begin correctly forming your mouth to bend without tilting the harp. Be conscious of where your tongue is as you mimic these mouth movements. Here are the steps:
- Stretch your mouth wide as if you’re making an exaggerated “eee” sound.
- Hold the harmonica to your lips and play a 4-note draw.
- While drawing air in, slowly narrow your mouth as if changing an “ooo” sound. Your tongue should retract deeper in your mouth and up toward the roof of your mouth, lowering the pitch of the note.
- Once you reach the low point of the bend, change your mouth shape once more back to the “eee” position, returning to the original clean note.
The key action with this technique is your tongue moving back and up. While the tip of your tongue remains down in your mouth, the back of your tongue should rise, closing the gap with the roof of your mouth. This restricts the space for airflow, increasing its speed and lowering the pitch of the note.
The whistle or “koh” technique
This last draw bend technique builds on the previous two and requires you to change the form of your mouth once more:
- Whistle normally without using the harmonica. Practice raising and lowering your pitch and switching between drawing and blowing. Notice how your mouth changes each time.
- Keep a similar shape to your mouth as you play a single 4-note draw. Don’t whistle through the harp. Just try to mimic the same form, as if sucking a milkshake through a straw.
- Retract and lift the back of your tongue so it begins to restrict the airflow between the roof of your mouth. The front of your jaw should drop with this movement as the note bends.
- To return to a clean note, drop your tongue and slide it back forward to the starting position, widening your airway.
Another way to view this bend action in step three is to mimic a “koh” sound like the one Darth Vader makes with heavy inhalation in the Star Wars films.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of this technique, you should feel your soft palate—the soft tissue at the back roof of your mouth—start to rise with each bend. This is the same motion you feel when you yawn.
Continue to practice draw bending on harmonica until you’re comfortable with it. Then you’re ready to advance to blow bending.
Blow bending notes on harmonica
Blow bending is relatively difficult at higher pitches. That’s why it’s best to learn this technique on a lower-key harmonica, such as a G harmonica. It’s also easier to learn to blow bend on hole 8 before moving to the more difficult holes 9 and 10.
Blow bending uses a similar technique to draw bending. The main difference, apart from airflow direction, is that you’ll feel more tension in the front of your mouth. You may also need to blow more forcefully to get your airflow creating the right sound. Here are the steps:
- Try blow whistling without the harp and practice lowering the pitch.
- Keep the same mouth form and now single blow on hole 8 in the harmonica. Again, you don’t want to actually whistle here. Just maintain a similar mouth shape while blowing the clean note.
- While you’re blowing, slowly raise the back of your tongue, pinching the airflow. The “eee-ooo” method can work here but may require more forced blowing to successfully bend. It may also help to close your jaw a bit, narrowing your mouth.
- Once you’ve reached the bend, lower your tongue once more to return to playing a clean note again.
Repeat this process with hole 8 until you’re consistently bending. Then do the same with hole 9. And once you’re able to blow bend on hole 9, you’re ready to work on hole 10.
Holes 9 and 10 are less forgiving and more sensitive to subtle changes in mouth shape and positioning. Following these steps slowly will help you catch the precise positioning for this technique.
General steps for improving at bending
Being able to bend harmonica is one thing. Being able to do it consistently well, and on demand, is something else. Here are a few practice steps you can take to progressively improve with bending once you get the basic techniques down:
Start with a clean note and bend as low as you can
You’ll likely struggle initially just to lower the pitch with each attempt at bending. But check a tuner or harmonica map like those pictured here to see which notes you’re aiming for with each hole. This should help you start to get a clear sense of when you’re hitting the lower notes.
Bend and hold a note
Bend down to a note and hold it. Then keep your mouth shape and positioning and blow (or draw) intermittently—blow-stop-blow-stop. The purpose here is to further train your muscle memory to each note. You’ll find that even slight changes in your mouth between blows will throw off your technique.
Bend without starting from a clean note
Being able to hit a bend without “bending” gradually from a clean note is the final step to mastering this technique. When you can dependably hit the note straight away, you’ll know you’ve really internalized how to bend.
Most people’s problems come from just skipping through those steps far too quickly… People will come to me and say they can draw bend, for example. But they can get the note to move, so they’ve got step one, or they’re halfway through step one, and they’ve certainly not got step two or step three. And only once you’ve got all of those, will you be able to use these bends in any meaningful way in your playing.
Liam Ward, LearnTheHarmonica.com
Whether you want to play the blues or just want to take your playing to the next level, learning to bend on harmonica is essential.
The hardest part about bending notes on harmonica is finding the right way to position your mouth and control your airway. But you should pick it up with a little consistent practice over time.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can start bending your notes more for expression. And that’s when your harmonica playing will really come to life!