The Harp: How to Play the Thing, Part 4, or Uh Oh, Bending
Updated: Mar 6
How to Play the Thing, Part 4, or Uh Oh, Bending
OK, one more last thing: bending. A couple of pages ago I wrote that you shouldn’t bother about bending. That was then. But at this point, if you have come this far, you are probably curious about the how and why of bending, and you should be. We have already addressed the why: because all decent harp players bend notes. You can’t play blues unless you do. That includes Paul Butterfield, of course. No bending, no blues harp, no Butterfield; he would have still been playing the classical flute. And with practice and persistence – here comes the how – you will bend, too.
Above is that diagram of the C harp with bends again. I saved you the trouble of scrolling back up to the previous file. So now, do me a favor and pick up that C harp again, and we are going to bend some notes. Get that harp, preferably the Hohner Special 20 or Rocket: draw on the 2 hole. Get a nice, clear, single note. Now tilt the back of the harp up toward your nose as you change the embouchure of your mouth and tongue, and drop your tongue down toward the bottom of your mouth. Keep drawing on that note and experimenting with your embouchure until you hear a lower tone. It will happen, maybe when you least expect it. That is the bent note, G flat, the ½-step bend. Try it again: tilting, dropping the tongue, 2 draw. Keep at it until you hear that lower note. Then, try the same thing until you hear yet another lower note, this time the F.
Yes: look at the diagram and you will see two bends in the 2-draw hole, the ½-step and the whole step. And while you are looking, you will of course notice that there is one bend in the one-draw hole, the D-flat. Then there are those two bends in the 2-draw. There are three bends in the 3-draw, and they are not easy to hit and play separately, but they are there. That first bend in the 3-draw hole, the B-flat, is also the half-step bend, and you will be playing it that way pretty much whenever you play the 3-draw, as I mentioned above. It is known as the flat (or “blue”) third, and is crucial to the sound that makes the blues sound blue. To confirm and test this, play that 3-draw normal: it sounds bright and fluffy, doesn’t it? But Nah: we don’t want bright and fluffy in the blues. Now bend it that half-step bend, gently: that sounds blue. After a while you will be able to bend without tilting the harp upwards -- just by altering the embouchure. And I guarantee you that you will be thrilled when you hit your first bend. I was, and I remember it to this day.
Continuing on the harp: there is only one bend in the 4-draw, to get the D-flat note. No bends in the 5-draw, and one bend in the 6-draw hole, to play the A-flat note. Now, every time you pick up the harp, practice those bends. They're not easy, but you will build on that technique and work on bending the notes in the other holes. Two good lessons on how to get started bending are from Liam Ward’s site: Harmonica Bending For Beginners (learntheharmonica.com) and Top 5 BENDING mistakes on harmonica (learntheharmonica.com). One small caution: where Liam says “we can bend holes 1-6 draw, and 7-10 blow,” ignore the statement about 7-10 blow. That is way advanced.
One last last thing before we get to the Twelve Commandments of how to play the harp: look at this diagram:
You have probably noticed that every note in this lick, taken by Tomlin Leckie from a random Huey Lewis tune, is a draw note. But you have already figured out by now it is in the draw notes that blues music resides. You have realized that the bending of the notes occurs in the draw notes, on holes 1-6. Good. But this has a practical implication, as well: sometimes you are going to almost run out of breath as you play all those draw notes. Tomlin has a lesson in which you are going to play a lick from “The Gangster of Love” that has four consecutive triplets – twelve notes – of 2-draw, (https://www.tomlinharmonicalessons.com/how-to-play-gangster-of-love-part-12-accompanying-a-singer/) right here:
Can you play it? Good. Now pick up the harp again and, without tabs or background music, play all the 2-draw bent notes that are in “Low Rider.” Go ahead, you know the song. The moral here: control your breathing. On occasion, you’re going to have to.