How to Play Your First Bend on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

You will need to do some preparation for bending notes on the harmonica. Once you have an idea of how to tune your mouth to different notes, and you’ve created your bend activator by narrowing the airflow at your K-spot, you’re ready to try bending a note.

To bend notes successfully, you need to be able to close off your nasal passages and to play a single note without air leaking through your lips.

To get your first bend, start with Draw 4, or maybe Draw 5 or 6. Your first inhaled bend could happen anywhere in the first six holes, but you’re most likely to succeed first in the middle holes because the bends in those holes are all shallow bends and because you don’t have to try to create extremely small or large oral cavity shapes for the highest and lowest notes.

Listen to this example to familiarize yourself with what harmonica bends in Holes 4, 5, and 6 sound like. You can always benefit from knowing the sound you’re trying to achieve by hearing it first.

Bending with a free tongue

To get ready for your first bend, you can put on your best clothes and coolest shoes and get a new haircut and manicure. Or you can just pick up your harp, find Hole 4, and play a nice long draw note, breathing gently and deeply. That’s the note you’re going to try bending.

To turn that nice clear Draw 4 into a bent note, do this:

  1. As you play Draw 4, use your tongue to form the “eee” sound (the note will start to sounder brighter when you place your tongue in the “eee” position).

  2. As you slide you tongue back into the “ooh” position, raise it slightly to create suction.

    At this point you may hear the note slide down in pitch if the moon is in the right phase and your lottery numbers are right.

  3. When your tongue is in the “ooh” position, try making the “kookookoo” sound, pulling your tongue away from the roof very slowly and feeling the suction trying to pull your tongue upwards.

    As you feel the suction, try slowly sliding the K-spot forward and backward along the roof of your mouth. At some point along that path, you may get your first bend.

Your first bend may come quickly or it may take days or even weeks. Be patient and you’ll get it, and that time will come sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, work on other harmonica skills in between trying for bends and listen to the sound of bent notes. As you listen, you’ll start to notice when a bent note occurs.

Bending with your tongue on the harp

Some harp players never learn to bend with a tongue block — with their tongue on the harp. As a result, they may be in the middle of playing a cool tongue-blocking effect and then switch to a pucker to play a bent note, and then go back to tongue blocking. That’s a lot of inconvenient switching, and it’s not necessary.

Bending with a tongue block isn’t any harder than bending with a pucker, and it’s not even all that different. You just have to adapt to doing it with the tip of your tongue forward in your mouth.

To get started, try this without a harmonica:

  1. Place the tip of your tongue between your lips, with your upper and lower lips sealed gently against the top and bottom surfaces of your tongue and the left edge of your tongue sealed against the left corner of your mouth.

  2. Leave an opening in the right corner of your mouth that allows you to breathe easily.

  3. As you inhale, whisper “kuh-kuh-kuh.”

    The place where your tongue touches the roof of your mouth is where you create the K-spot.

  4. Try creating a K-spot as you inhale.

    You do this by raising the part of your tongue that says “k” close to the roof of your mouth so that you feel suction.

Now try it with a harmonica:

  1. Play Draw 4 out of the right corner of your mouth as you block the holes to the left by placing your tongue on those holes.

  2. As you sustain Draw 4, whisper “kuh-kuh-kuh.”

    The place where your tongue touches the roof of your mouth is your K-spot.

  3. Play Draw 4 again.

    As you sound the note, raise your tongue to try and form a K-spot so that suction occurs in the narrowed passage between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.

Work at this until you can get Draw 4 to bend down.