Bending is, without question, THE blues harmonica technique. It's the key to the kingdom.
Without bending, you lose half of the instrument's expressive capacity. You lose the cries, the moans, the wails.
When you achieve your first bend, you will feel as if you've just cracked the code. You've been baking flat bread in your cave for months, and suddenly--voila!--you've gotten that bread to rise.
So what is bending? What does it feel like to bend notes on the harmonica? Most importantly, HOW do you bend?
Here are quick-start answers to those three questions:
1) bending is a way of changing the INTERNAL configuration of your mouth, using your tongue, palate, and throat, so that you apply pressure to the airstream in a way that lowers the pitch of a note. On a diatonic harmonica, draw bends are possible on holes 1 through 6, and blow bends are possible on holes 7 through 10.
2) when you bend, it feels as though you've found a way of reaching down into the hole and grabbing the note, wrenching (or subtly inflecting) it downward. It's a surprisingly PHYSICAL technique. And it feels good! When a pro player plays a fast run across three or more holes and executes a series of bends, the closest equivalent is a pro skiier carving his way through a slalom course. Each bend, like each turn, is a different challenge, requiring an instantaneous reconfiguration of the mouth-space. But what finally counts is the musical line that the player carves into your ears and heart by flowing powerfully BETWEEN those bends.
3) Aha! This is where my videos come in. Learning to bend is like learning to ride a bicycle. How can you possibly explain that balancing/pedaling....THING in twenty-five words or less? You can't. Yet once somebody teaches you the basics and guides you through your maiden voyage, riding a bike seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Bending notes on the harmonica requires the ability to make and HOLD a single note. If you're a novice player (i.e., a raw beginner), you should visit my beginner's page and learn some basic single-note techniques before approaching the challenge of bending.
Here at Modern Blues Harmonica, I offer the following lessons on the art of bending:
§"Bending the 4 Draw": For most beginners, the 4 draw bend is easiest--and therefore the first that I've always introduced to my students. This video offers a wealth of tips, metaphors, and suggestions to get you bending and bending well. There's also a series of eight exercises that help you consolidate and expand the technique. Please note: Bending requires a fairly well-developed ability fo play clear, leak-free single notes.
§"Bending the 2 Draw": The 2 draw bend (one whole step down) is the flat seventh: a key note in the blues scale, and one that beginners need to master after they've developed some basic bending ability on the 4 draw. This video will get you where you need to go.
§"Bending the 3 Draw": NOT just for BEGINNERS and ADVANCED BEGINNERS, but for INTERMEDIATES as well. The 3 draw bend--several different bends, actually--is more challenging than 4 draw and 2 draw. Gussow helps you extract the deep bluesy sound that lies buried in the harp; he uses a guitar to explain exactly which pitches you're trying for and where they're located.
§"Blues Scale": All blues harp instructors teach a version of this; it's that important. The QuickTime video lesson is supplemented by a PDF tab entitled "Blues and Country Scales." This is ideal for ADVANCED BEGINNERS (it requires 2, 3, and 4 draw bends), but BEGINNERS will learn critical information from this and INTERMEDIATE players will benefit from this tuneup.
§"Country Scale": The Grand Ol' Opry counterpart to the blues scale. This should be part of every blues harmonica player's armory, since you never know when the band will throw you a curveball. Charlie McCoy, Jimmy Fadden, and Mickey Raphael know all about this country scale.
Here's a quick FREE lesson on bending. If you like this, you'll love the much more thorough studies of bending technique in the videos and tabs above:
BONUS TRACK: Here's how one player named Baker described the beginner's experience of bending on the MBH forum:
The milkshake analogy worked for me.
Put your finger in your mouth and imagine it's a straw. Now imagine you have nothing in your cup, just air and you're breathing in though the straw. This is the mouth position for playing an un-bent note.
Now imagine you have a really thick milkshake in your cup. Adjust your mouth position to suck the milkshake up through the straw. Note that this is not about breathing in or sucking harder, it's about changing the pressure inside the mouth – You should notice a few things happening. Your jaw drops, your tongue goes to the bottom of your mouth and you'll feel pressure on your finger and cheeks, pulling in. This is the mouth position you want for bending.
Now put a harmonica in your mouth and try to recreate the same mouth positions.
Try on the 2 hole draw and the 4 hole draw. Some people find it easier on the lower note, some on the higher.
It can take a while. Some people get it straight away and some people it takes longer. It took me a couple of weeks from what I can remember.
Once you've got it, practice going from the un-bent to the bent note slowly with control. Then try starting on the bend note and releasing up to the unbent note, again slowly with control.
After that try leaning some songs that require you play just the bent note isolated – not bending into it.