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Bending Tips

Bending is a basic diatonic harmonica playing technique used to produce notes not otherwise available in the basic tuning of the harp, and they are also used to provide various sliding-note effects.  Bends are, in large part, what give the diatonic harp its unique character, and are intimately related to the blues tradition.

Bending, whether draw bends or blow bends, produce notes lower in pitch than the natural, unbent note.  The amount you can bend a note depends on the pitches of the two reeds in the hole.  The higher pitch note in the hole can be bent down to just below a half step above the lower pitch note in the hole.  For example, the notes on a C harp in hole 2 are: blow-E, draw-G.  The higher G note can be bent down to Gb and F--and just a little lower.  It is best to only bend down to the desired note, and not further, in order to minimize stress on the reeds.  You can use a piano, guitar, pitch pipe, or electronic tuner to check that you're hitting the correct pitch.

Bending is not something that is easy to describe how to do--and it is difficult to show because all the movements are hidden inside the mouth and throat.  It takes practice to be able to do bends at all, and lots more practice to do them well.  There are draw bends available on holes 1 through 6, and blow bends available on holes 7 through 10, each of which require different playing techniques.  To make matters more challenging, different key harps require different bending techniques, depending on the pitch range of the harp.  Lower key harps (e.g. A, Ab, G, and low F) require more mouth/throat/tongue movement than the same holes on higher key harps (e.g. C, D, E, and F).

Bends are intially quite challenging--but they are quite fun, and eventually become second nature.  Learning your bends not only gives you more notes and effects, it gives you more control over your notes, air stream, resonance, and tone.

So, celebrate when you finally get your first bends!  But remember--that's only the beginning!

Draw Bends

Draw bends are available on holes 1 through 6--but hole 5 will not bend as much as a full half step.  Don't try to bend lower than the note will go or you risk damaging the reeds.

Here are some tips for getting your first draw bends.

  • Don't even worry about bends if you can't get a consistent pure single note.
  • It ain't as easy as it looks! Don't give up! It takes a while to get it!  And remember, don't try it unless you can get consistent pure clean single notes--you have to master that first.

    Blow Bends

    Blow bends are normally learned after draw bends, because the low end of the harp (holes 1 through 6) are used more, especially by beginners, than the top end of the harp, holes 1 through 7, where the blow bends are available.  Note that hole 7 will not bend as much as a full half step, so don't try to force it or you could damage the reed.

    Blow bends are done by constricting the air stream by tiny movements toward the front of the tongue.

    Start the natural blow note with your tongue flat in the bottom of your mouth.  Slowly, keeping the tongue flat, lift the tongue toward the roof of the mouth.  Keep the air stream constant, and where you feel the note start to choke--that's the crucial spot.  Very tiny changes to your tongue position cause the note to transition from the natural note to the bent note.  You have to experiment and remember your exact mouth position.  The vocal tract is more constricted in the mouth and throat for blow bends than for draw bends.

    Try whistling a note and bending the pitch upwards.  A similar tongue movement happens when doing blow bends on the harp.