How to read Harmonica tabs?
Updated: Aug 2
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.
Now you can just try the tabs here
If you want to know a little bit more:
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
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
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 ...
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
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
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 each staff.
Enjoy this new way to write and read your harmonica music!