The harmonica is a wonderful instrument for a novice musician. It’s small, portable, inexpensive, and easy to get started on. Advanced techniques make it as challenging, and as rewarding, as any wind instrument. One of these techniques is “bending.” It’s the method that gives the distinctive wailing sound that became a trademark of the electrified blues of the ’40s and ’50s, heard in the work of Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry, and Little Walter. To get that great bluesy sound, you need to understand a few simple rules and bit of aerodynamics.
Bending means you are lowering the pitch of the harmonica’s reeds. The best pitch changes occur on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th holes of a standard diatonic harmonica in the key of C major (the best choice for beginners). A bend on the draw (or breath-in) note of the 2nd hole, for instance, lowers it from G to F. Bending notes on the 1st and 6th holes is harder, but still possible. It’s tough to bend notes on the 5th and 7th holes on a standard harmonica, and only tricky blow bends are possible on holes 8 through 10.
To get started, you need to form the correct embouchure. Make sure your lips are moist and that they form an airtight seal around the holes. To play clean notes, you must breath through the instrument rather than sucking on it. The physics of bending are simple. You are changing the airflow pattern over the reeds, causing them to vibrate more slowly, producing a lower note. Although tilting the harmonica works, it’s better to change the shape of the mouth so air flows over the reeds at an angle. To form the correct bending shape, say the word “yaw” while breathing in.
The chart below shows what pitch you are aiming for as you bend the draw notes on holes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 of your C major diatonic. Bending adds more notes to the harmonica’s repertoire, so that it resembles a chromatic instrument, with flats that give it the range of a piano’s 12-note octave. The more you practice the more you’ll be able to hit the “sweet spot” of each reed. Air should hit the reeds of different holes at slightly different angles to achieve the correct bends. Now you know the basics, you’re ready to wail the blues to your heart’s content!