How to read Harmonica tabs?
Updated: May 3
Tabs for harmonica are usually without rhythm. If you want to include rhythm, you need to add a score and it begins to be confusing. A shame because it's half part of the music!
On tabs, you'll find:
- the number of the hole written
- if you should draw or blow
- if you need to make a bend or an overbend (the two techniques used to change the pitch of the note).
The bends lower the pitch of the original note and you write it with small horizontal bars on the top of the hole number. One bar for each semitone the pitch lowers.
The overbends rise the pitch of the original note and you write it with a small circle upon the number of the hole to play.
To show if the note is drawn or blown, there are several way:
Sometimes it is written with a small arrow. If it is directed up, you blow and if it is directed down, you draw. Here is an example. Below, there is a score to write the rhythm too.
Sometimes it is written with a horizontal line and the numbers at the top are the holes to draw and the numbers below show the holes you need to blow.
The tabs I propose in this site are inspired by the two systems and include the rhythm, all in one line. Here is an example with the same melody as in the first 2 examples.
Here's a detailed explanation on how to read it.
1/ At the beginning of the staff, the word "TAB" is written vertically with the key of the harmonica.
2/ Blown or drawn:
The arrow is upward if the note is blown or downward if the note is drawn.
If notes are beamed quaver, all the stems are oriented in the same direction. It’s the note’s head which let know if it is blown or drawn:
B D B D D D (B = Blown D= Drawn)
3/ Reading which hole of the harmonica is played:
Each line or space corresponds to a hole of the harmonica. It starts with the first hole that corresponds to the lower line of the staff, the second hole with the first following space etc… ( the even holes correspond to the space between lines)
An example with a well-known American traditional song, Oh Susanna:
4) If a note is produced by bending.
Bending works with certain drawn notes as well as with certain blown notes. On a harmonica, a bend lowers the pith of the original note. The pitch lowering depends on the amount of horizontal bars. One half tone per each horizontal bar.
(in this example, a C harmonica, the 3rd hole drawn is B but it changes to A because the note lowers 2 half tones).
5) If the note to play is an overbend (overblow or overdraw)
The overbends can be drawn (overdraw) or blown (overblow) only on certain notes. If we amplify the movement of the tongue, we can obtain even higher notes.
6/ Rhythmic notation and articulation are the same as for a conventional score
b/ For a tremolo, repetition effect of a note, or tremor (for the throat vibrato ), this writing is used:
if it is very speed
c/ When several notes are played at the same time it is written as follows: :
In the example, two eighths notes drown into the holes (2,3 and 4) and a half note drown into (1 and 2).
7/ There are some notations specific to the harmonica.
a/ you can write, if necessary, the pronunciation of the notes.
For example, write the word “Ta” below the note if it begins with an attack.
8/ Example with all the available notes on a C major harmonica
(A 10 holes harmonica in Richter tuning)
On the staves 1 and 3, notes are written on harmonica tabs.
On the staves 2 and 4, notes are written using the conventional scores
If you need to change the key of the tune, just take another harmonica and write the new key at the beginnig of each staff.
Enjoy this new way to write and read your harmonica music!