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 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
First, be sure you can get a good, clean, pure, loud, single
note before going any further!
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.
One good approach is to use the "lip
block" embouchure. It helps you relax
and get your mouth open, which helps improve your resonance and makes bending
While breathing in from your
diaphragm, make "eeeeee" and "oooooh" sounds. Notice
how your jaw drops on the "ooh" sound, and pay attention to the feeling
in your throat. The bend happens when you go from "eeeeee" to "oooooh".
Try holes 2, 3, and 4 for your first bends. The "Oh" should be deep
with an open throat; try saying "orange". Your throat should be like
the first "or" part. Whisper it. Orange. Whisper
it louder. Whisper it breathing in. Try bending with the mouth/throat
position of the "Or" part.
Make sure NO AIR leaks in through
your nose. This is very important. If air leaks in through
your nose it will be very very difficult to make the note bend.
Make sure you have an air tight seal of your mouth on the harp. Air
leaks get in the way of bends, whatever their cause.
Don't try to force it. Bending is essentially
effortless. If your mouth/throat/tongue shape are right the bend
will naturally happen. Think about holding an egg in your mouth during
a bend. Keep playing with the shape of your mouth and your tongue
position. Very minor changes in mouth/throat/tongue position make
all the difference.
Drop your draw and open up your vocal tract while continuting to draw air
in smoothly--remember, don't try to force it.
Try whistling while breathing in. Bend the pitch of your whistled
note down. That's what it feels like to do draw bends.
The tongue is the key (for beginners). Start with it flat and forward in
your mouth. While drawing in with the "eeeee", *slowly* pull it back, keeping
the front low in the mouth, and humping it in the back. At some point the
sound should begin to choke a little. That's the crucial spot. Treat it
like the "friction point" on a clutch car... if you move too fast you'll
stall the car--or miss the bend. At that crucial spot, adjust your
mouth position from "eeee" to "ooooh". At first, it may help to increase
the air pressure a little. But, you don't have to
play loud or hard to get bends. You can bend notes playing quite
Breathe in while making a hard "K" sound. Notice where you make that sound
in your throat. That's one place in your vocal tract from which you can
get a draw bend.
Breathe from deep within your body--from
your diaphragm. Feel your stomach push out a little bit. This
will help your resonance and make bending easier. Lie on your back
and slowly breathe in. Put your hand on your stomach and notice how
it moves up and down--that's the location of your diaphragm. Draw
in your air from there.
Try different key harps. The mouth position is different for different
keys, and if you're having trouble with one key another might work better.
For example, if you can't get it on a C harp, try an A harp or a D harp.
As they say, "Practice, practice, practice..."
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.