The Third Hole

From “Harmonica World” Aug-Sept 2011

New harmonica players soon find that notes are missing from the bottom holes. Afterwards they learn about bending, a technique I’m still working on. Bending allows great expression for blues and provides the missing notes, particularly for the third hole, the topic for this article.

After some practice, or a lot, a beginning player will get lower draw notes to dip (or bend) slightly. Yet more practice has draw notes starting on a bend which releases to the normal unbent notes. This is a nice move, particularly for the draw 4 and 6 holes. Having gotten the technique, some players won’t let it go, and use the bend every time.

Play a draw 4 note, then a draw 6, otherwise written 4D and 6D. Repeat a few times, listen carefully. Is there a slight bend at the start? If so, try playing the notes with no bend. It may be harder than you think.

Note: The TAB system is 2B = blow 2 hole: 3D = draw 3 hole. ‘ indicates a half bend, ” means a full bend.

Having mastered bending up to a draw note, and playing it with no bend, the next step is to hit a bent note and hold it. For those challenged by this, try the following. Bend down to a note, then stop playing. Keep the same tongue and mouth position, try the note again. The bend should come straightway. For beginning players this takes much practice.

Now assume you can hit bent notes confidently, or failing that, imagine some future day when you can. Now consider the third hole draw note. It actually comprises 4 separate notes, the unbent note, plus three bent ones. These four notes span one and a half tones, or a minor third, each note useful in the right context.

First the notation. Starting with the unbent note, a 3D, then 3D’ and 3D” repesenting the half bend and full bend and full bend respectively, as outlined above. The final note, with the deepest bend, is written 3D”‘.

Now play them. Take a C harmonica. Find a piano, or failing that, google “Virtual Online Keyboard” to get one on your computer. Play a B on the keyboard, then play the 3D. They should match (google “keyboard note diagram” to find the B). Now play the next note down, a Bb (the black key), then play the 3D’ bend.

Try these two notes several times, listen carefully to your 3D’. If it is flat, you’re bending too far. A common problem.

Now play the A, then the 3D” bend. Then the Ab (another black note) and the 3D”‘ bend. Go back and forth between these two notes, checking your tuning carefully against the piano.

Finally, play all four notes along with the piano. Start with the 3D and go down, then start with the 3D”‘ and go up.

For some this exercise is straightforward, for others challenging, for (many) others pretty much impossible. Playing bent notes exactly in tune is an essential skill, albeit hard. If you’ve never measured yourself against the piano, so much the better. Set aside practice time for these notes. I do.

A great feature of bent notes is their urgent tone, which fits the blues so well. Not all music needs this bent note tone. In partiuclar, a first position tunes often use the 3D” note. The challenge is get this note sounding like the other notes in the tune, that is, to have a similar tone. This is hard.

Try the following notes: 3D 4D 3D” 4D Notice how the 3D” stands out? Getting the 3D” to sound exactly like the other notes is pretty much impossible, for me a least. However, the surrounding notes can sound like the 3D” Try the 4D, then pinch your lips a little tighter, to restrict the air flow. You should notice a more strident tone, a difference more pronounced with better quality harmonicas. Now try the exercise again, using this “pinched” sound on the 3D and 4D. These two notes should now sound more like the 3D” bent note.

In addition to matching bent note tones. this pinched sound is great when you need to cut through a loud session or band. To hear this technique in action, listen to Kim Wilson on “What’s the Word”, an early Fabulous Thunderbirds album. If you’re not familiar with Kim Wilson, then meet one of the modern greats.

I mentioned four third draw notes. Actually there are five. Listen to a great blues harmonica player: Little Walter, Big Walter, Rod Piazza, Dennis Gruenling. Their 3D’ bends sound just right. What you’re often hearing is a note somewhere between a B and a Bb (assuming a C harmonica). Finding the exact spot for this 5th note defines the great blues masters.

I’m still trying to get it.