How I Bent My First Note

January 2004

I’ve read some other people’s accounts of this life-changing experience, and some pretty good ones, too. I thought I’d add my experience to the pile.

I started trying to play harp toward the end of senior year of high school in New York, 1969. I had played piano since I was 8 years old, mostly classical, and had always improvised and written my own music, too. I had expanded my interests out into many styles, and was in my first real band. We played rock, blues and jazz with some of my originals, too. The drummer, a classical violinist who taught himself drums by emulating Elvin Jones, also taught himself harmonica from listening to Chicago Blues recordings and just absorbing it. In a few weeks he was sounding really good- in a few months even better. I was impressed at how well he played, and how quickly it happened. I also fell in love with the Blues, period. I went to hear Paul Butterfield and James Cotton at a club in The Village, and that sealed it- the music blew my mind. Growing up in NYC, I had never heard any blues live. There weren’t many places to hear it, very few Blues players, and a general lack of awareness of the music.

After I got comfortable playing Blues on piano, I wanted to try harp- it was portable, unlike the piano, and you could bend notes on it, unlike the piano. I also met my first serious girlfriend around that time- she liked the way my friend played the harp- a little extra incentive for me to learn it. So I bought one at Manny’s on 48th St. in NY for about $2.50 and started honking on it. I sounded like any other kid who tries to play-terrible. I had no clue how to bend a note. I asked my friend Kieve, who couldn’t explain it – invisible things went on inside your mouth that he could do effortlessly but couldn’t impart to me. I tried for months with no success and almost gave up.

In Sept.1969, I went away to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. During orientation week, the Chicago Seven- Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, et al- made a fund-raising appearance at an NU lecture hall. They were on trial for planning the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I was against the Vietnam War, which was the central issue of the day and the main reason for the protests at the Convention that led to the trouble and the trial. So I went and squeezed into a spot with 4-500 others. It was really something to see all those guys in person, get a feeling for each of their personalities and beliefs, and listen to their speeches. My most vivid recollection is of Abby Hoffman as a wild court jester leaping all over the stage, saying outrageous things. Tom Hayden seemed like a grim anti-government politician with a serious message. I don’t remember Jerry Rubin very well. Another of them was into Bhuddism, one was a pacifist/conscientious objector. One might have been talking revolution- it’s a little hard to remember. A lot of people were talking about that back then because there was such anger against the government and “The Establishment” in general. It was heavy, I didn’t know a soul there, and it was my first time West of Pennsylvania.

I walked out of the hall that day, trying to absorb what I had seen, what it all meant, and trying to figure out where I stood in relation to all of it. Somehow, I felt like playing the harp. I fished it out of my pocket, a Marine band in G (from Manny’s), put it to my lips, and suddenly, I bent the 4 draw. I was shocked- that’s what it felt like- WOW! Indescribable, an oral balancing act between vacuum, pressure, and breath that transformed the harp from a mundane wood and metal object into a magical, organic vessel that vibrated, sang, and changed me in the process- forever, as it turned out. All thoughts of politics vanished as I bent 4 draw over and over while I kept walking, and then started to apply that one note to some simple Blues licks. I had heard them hundreds of times but could never play them before this moment-what a feeling, what a revelation! Within a few minutes I was bending 1,2,and 3 draw, later, 6, and finding more and more Blues licks. They had been there the whole time waiting for me to bend so I could play them. I was speaking with a voice I didn’t know I had, because I had never had it before- I wished that my girlfriend back in NY could hear it, and my bandmates, too. It changed me forever. I felt like people who’d known me before didn’t really know me anymore. And since nobody here knew me at all, I was starting my time in Evanston as a different person than I had been just days before in New York. It was exciting, strange and a little disconcerting. I had to tell someone I knew.

I went to a pay phone at the train station and called a guitarist named Dave who I’d played with in Brooklyn, who was attending Lake Forest College (about 15 miles north). I told him about it and took the train up there to play for him- I was practically jumping out of my skin. I’ll never know why I had my breakthrough at this particular moment, whether the political rally or just being in Chicago had anything to do with it. All I know is that it did happen exactly as I’ve recounted here.

Getting the Overblows and Overdraws

Getting the Overblows and Overdraws
Many people have Emailed me asking me how to overblow and overdraw. So I figured that I really should put a short summary of how to do it here on the web site. I deal with it (and everything else) at great length in my video,“New Directions for Harmonica”, and I prefer teaching this live, but nonetheless, here it is.

First, I regret that I use the term “overblow”. I got the idea to call it that in 1970 from asking a sax player what I was doing. He thought that I was overblowing harmonics from the natural overtone series, the way you can on wind instruments like sax, trumpet, flute, etc. I wasn’t . The term also gives the false impression that you have to blow or draw harder to get the notes to come out from doing this. You don’t. It’s just another kind of bending, and if the harp is adjusted right- reeds adjusted as close as possible to the reed plates- you don’t have to blow or draw harder. Overblows and overdraws provide a player with all of the notes that are ”missing” from the diatonic harmonica.

Adjusting Reeds
It isn’t hard to adjust a reed if you need to. First, remove the cover plates.The draw reeds are on the outside of the lower reedplate- you can push them in with a fingernail. If you need to push them back out again, you can reach in with a small jewelers screwdriver, a toothpick, etc, and push them back out. The blow reeds are on the inside of the upper plate. Reach in and push up to get them closer to the plate, and push down from above to move them back away. There are other things you can do to the reeds to make them overblow and overdraw more easily, but these are the most basic and most important.

All reeds have a slight curve that keeps them close by the base and slightly curved up at the end. it is very important to maintain this curvature.

The position of the tongue and shape of the mouth create the resonances that enable a player to bend, overblow, or overdraw notes. There must be a vacuum inside the mouth/throat area for efficient bending, so the nose should be closed for all types of bending. (Most players do this naturally, but I thought that I should mention it.)

I will assume that anyone reading this already knows how to bend. For a standard bend, a player can bend the higher pitched reed on a hole down to just above the lower pitched reed on the same hole. For example, on a C harp (the harp I’ll refer to from here on), you can bend 1 draw (D) down to just above 1 blow (C), so that 1 draw bend is a C#/Db. It works like this for all the bends, both draw and blow, no matter how close or far apart in pitch the two reeds are. On the second hole, for example, 2 draw is a G, 2 blow is an E, an interval of a minor 3rd between them. So you can bend 2 draw down to Gb/F# (a half step) and F (a whole step).

The only reeds you can’t really bend are 5 draw and 7 blow, because they are both just 1/2 step higher than the other reed on the same hole. You can bend them a little, but compared to reeds on the other holes, they don’t have anyplace to go. The way a standard bend works physically is that the higher reed bends down for the first part of the bend, and then the lower reed bends up for the rest of it. It sounds weird, but this is really the way it works. Take a harp apart, try bending in front of a mirror, and watch the reeds. It takes two reeds to bend.

Until a player can play all the draw and blow bends smoothly, he shouldn’t attempt overblowing/overdrawing. He should also learn all of the notes that he is getting on all of the bends- it will really help later. (Playing the notes on a keyboard while bending is a good way to check pitch of bent notes.)

When you are ready to try overblowing, practice blow bending 8 blow, and getting it to bend very smoothly at moderate volume, up and down, so there’s no crack where the pitch changes- I will assume that whoever is reading this knows how to blow bend. (8 blow bends down from E to Eb.)

Move down to 6 blow (G) and try the same thing on that hole. If you are relaxed and your harp is set up well for this (reeds close to the plates), a higher note will pop out of the harp- Bb, a minor 3rd higher than G. The 6 blow reed (G), acts as what is called a “closing reed”, and the higher- pitched draw reed, an A, actually bends up to a Bb, giving you the illusion that the 6 blow has “popped up” a minor third. When you get good at this, you will find that the overblown note is very flexible. A player can bend that Bb down almost to A, and up to B or even C if the harp’s reeds are really set up close to the reedplate.

This technique works on 1,4,5,and 6 blow, getting Eb, Eb, F#, and Bb, and along with all the standard bends, blows and draws, fills in all the notes of the 12 tone (chromatic) scale for the first two octaves of the harp. The technique for 5 and 4 are slightly different than for 6. As the notes get lower, the mouth has to assume a shape that would make a deeper sound if you pronounced it. For example, 6 would be “gee” (with the g like the g in golly), 5 would be “guh”, 4 would be “gooh” . (You can also overblow 2 and 3 blow- you will get Ab from 2 OB and C from 3 OB.)

I think that harps from A to Eb are the easiest ones to overblow on. When the harps get much lower, it is harder to get 4 (and 1) overblow. The positions for overblowing get further back in the mouth, and it’s more difficult to maintain them with the right amount of pressure to make a sustained, strong sound. 6 overblow can get a little tricky on the higher harps like F for the opposite reason- the embouchure might be too tight for some players.

Getting the overblow on the first hole is different. The easiest way to get it is to blow 1, draw 1, then make the shape of a very deep “who or coo“, and blow 1 again, and you will get an Eb if your reeds are anywhere near the plates. The back of your tongue will be very close to the roof of your mouth. Do this smoothly and fairly quickly. Then, remember the position your mouth was in for 1 overblow and try hitting the Eb directly. It’s not easy, but with enough practice, it does get easier.

You can also get 1 overblow using mouth breathing- no breathing from the lungs through the throat at all, just pushing air quickly in and out on the first hole with your tongue making that “who” shape, getting D and Eb on draw and blow. Overdraws On the top of the harp (7 to 10), since the draw notes are now the lower- pitched reeds, we overdraw , so the higher blow reed bends up. Reed adjustment is even more critical. These reeds are very short, and if they are not close enough to the reedplate, you can get a very uncomfortable strained feeling in your neck and sides of your head when you try to overdraw.

Start with 7 draw, B. Try bending it down much the same way you would bend 6 draw. This isn’t a deep bend like 2 draw- if you were to pronounce the word “key”, that’s a similar mouth position to the one you need to overdraw 7. When you do it right, you will hear a note a whole step higher (C#) come out. 7 draw is B, which acts as the closing reed. 7 Blow is C, so it bends up to C# when you “overdraw”. The note you get is flexible, as the overblown notes are.Though it is hard to bend it down toward C, you can bend the C# up to a D pretty easily. The ability to bend overblows and overdraws also gives a player more bends on the harp, more ways to be bluesy.

Overdraws are available on 9 and 10, and give you G# and C#. So now, with bends and overblows, you can play all 12 tones in the top octave of the harp, plus a C# above high C. It can be harder to get overdraws on higher key harps, because the reeds are so short and high, but with good adjustment, it can be done. The lower harps are easier to everdraw on, even down to G and low F. But even on these, good adjustment is essential.

Good luck. By being able to play all the notes, you will be able to get more music out of your diatonic harmonicas. That’s what it’s all about.