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  • Stéphane Laidet

How to read Harmonica tabs?

Updated: Dec 22, 2020


In a harmonica tabs you will find how to play a melody on your instrument. These tabs typically contain the answers to these three questions:


- 1) Which hole do I have to play?

- 2) Once I know which hole to play, should I draw or should I blow?

- 3) Should I change the pitch of the note with a bend or with an overbend?


HOW DO TABS GIVE AN ANSWER TO THESE QUESTIONS?


- 1) Which hole do I have to play?


You just have to play on the harmonica the hole corresponding to the number you read on the tab.

Ex: If you read 7 on the tab, you have to play the seventh hole starting from the left side.

Normally the instrument position is correct (diatonic, chromatic and bass harmonica) when you have the lowest notes on the left side of the harmonica.



- 2) Once I know which hole to play, should I draw or should I blow?


To show if the note is drawn or blown, there are several ways: The most common writings are these:


a) With a small arrow.

If it is directed upward, you blow and if it is directed downward, you draw.

(read from left to right)






b) With a horizontal line.

The numbers at the top are the holes to draw and the numbers below the line show the holes you need to blow.






c) with the + sign before the blown notes and the - sign before the drawn notes






- 3) Should I change the pitch of the note with a bend or with an overbend?:


You can change a note by using two techniques, bending or overbending.

(It is not my intention to explain these techniques in this blog, it is only about tabs)


The bends lower the pitch of the original note. It is written with small horizontal bars on the top of the hole number. One bar for each semitone the pitch lowers.

Ex: I blow on the eighth hole and bend the note down halftone:




The overbends (overblow or overdraw) raise the pitch of the original note. It is written with a small circle over the number of the hole to play.

Ex: I do an overdraw in the seventh hole:




AN EXAMPLE WITH ONE MELODY WRITTEN ON HARMONICA TABS USING THE 3· MOST COMMON WRITINGS:

With the arrows

With the horizontal line


With the - sign and the + sign

These are three ways to write the same melody. There may be sometimes variations in writings (with the horizontal line, some people put blown notes upon the line and drawn notes above, etc...)




FROM TABS TO MUSIC

HOW TO PLAY THE TAB:


Here is a possible interpretation of the music written in these tabs if I do not know the original melody:











Here is another possible interpretation of the same tab.











But this tab could sound like this too:










We could give many example of different playings while reading a same tab.

WHY?

Because harmonica tabs have no rhythm.


So when you want to include rhythm, you need to add a score.

Like this: (the tabs correspond to a G harmonica)

or like this:


This can be a little confusing because you'll have to read two lines simultaneously..


I PROPOSE A SOLUTION WITH A VERY SIMPLES NEW KIND OF TABS:

I propose in this web a new kind of tabs inspired by one of the 3 most common systems and that include rhythm, all in one line. Here is an example with the same melody as in the first 3 examples.

So now, with rhythm, you can really know how is the original melody!

And it sound like this:











YOU CAN DOWNLOAD SOME TABS OF BLUES SONGS AND POPULAR SONGS. THEY ARE ALL FREE RIGHTS SONGS.

TO ACCESS, CLICK HERE.



FOR MORE DETAILS ABOUT THE FARMOTABS:


1/ At the beginning of the first staff, the key of the harmonica is noted, the

tuning (the most common for major diatonic harmonica is the Richter

system), and the number of holes of the harmonica.







2/ Blown or drawn:

Each note’s head is shaped like a triangle

• The triangle is upward if the note is to be blown

• The triangle is downward if the note is to be drawn.

The stem is always upward



3/ Reading which hole of the harmonica is played:




The holes to be played on the harmonica are written under the notes.


a) Groups of notes:





For tongue blocking, we write for example: (1/4)

1 is played, 2 and 3 are blocked with the tongue and 4 is played.


For chords, we write for example: (234)

Holes 2, 3 and 4 are played simultaneously.


An example with a well-known American traditional song, Oh Susanna:


4) If a note is produced by bending.

On the harmonica, a bend lowers the pitch of the original note.






The blown and drawn bends are written using horizontal bars

above the holes numbers. The pitch lowering depends on the amount of

horizontal bars. One half tone per each horizontal bar.


(in this example, the first note is played by drawing the second hole and

bending 1 tone (2 halftones) and the 3rd note is played by blowing in the

8th hole while bending one halftone)


a) Available bends on a diatonic harmonicas

a Richter tuning harmonica, the most common tuning

Drawn bends:

Blown bends:

5) If the note to play is an overbend (overblow or overdraw)

The overbend raises the pitch of the note





The overbends are written with a circle above the hole number.


a) Available overbends on a diatonic harmonica

with the Richter tuning, the most common tuning

Blown overbends (overblow):

Drawn overblows (Overdraw):


Some other overbends and the multioverblows and multioverdraws can be played on the harmonica but these are the necessary ones if you want to play the chromatic scale over the 3 octaves.


6) Rhythmic notation and articulation are the same as for a conventional

score


Here are 2 complete measures (4/4) separated by a measure bar.

The duration of the notes is indicated in the usual way, eighth notes,

quarter notes, triplets etc ...


Reminder

a) For a tremolo, repetition effect of a note, or tremor (for the throat

vibrato ), this writing is used:






if very fast if quit fast


b) If both notes are the same pitch, be careful, a tie prolongs the note.

This is only one note.






c) for notes with slight or very slight volume, this writing is used:







The letter p indicates that the volume of the note is slight, pp is very slight.

Likewise, the letter f means that the note is Strong, ff means very strong

note.


7) Some notations specific to the harmonica:


a) We write, if necessary, the pronunciation of the notes.

For example, “To” under the note to attack its beginning or the sound

“Wa”, etc.







8) Example with all the available notes on a C major harmonica

(A 10 holes harmonica in Richter tuning)


On the lines 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 beginning of the first staff.

Enjoy this new way to write and read your harmonica music!




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