Bends and Overbends (Unlocking the Chromatic Scale)


  • The diatonic harmonica (the typical 10-hole variety) provides a limited set of notes.
  • Actually 8 out of the 12 in the full “chromatic” scale.
  • Known as the “Diatonic” scale.


It should not be a surprise that the notes on the harmonica are limited … Could you imagine cramming all the notes from a grand piano into one little harmonica?

  • Nevertheless, the little harp does cover three registers or octaves.
  • You play the scale starting in the first hole by blowing, then sucking (drawing), and then moving up to the next note, and so on.
  • But when you get to the 7th hole, the pattern reverses:

  • Which means that the harmonica has to skip some notes.
  • If you’ve got a harmonica with a “C” printed on it, then you get to play the “white” keys of the piano.
  • (But not all the white keys.)

In conventional “old fashioned” tablature, this would be written like this:

Or like this:


Although these are common tablatures, they require that you translate Number-Arrow or Number-Circle or Number-Letter to a particular hole on the harmonica and manner of breathing. It hurts my brain to do this.

In TurboTab, the scale looks like this:

If you’ve got a harmonica handy… go ahead and try it yourself. In fact, try all four styles of tablature.

And while you’re at it, please give this a whirl:

Now, I hope you agree that TurboTab is way more intuitive, and fun! It has other benefits too:

  • TurboTab shows you, visually, which hole of the harmonica you need to put your mouth.  And it shows the relationship of one note to the next: move right two hole, move back one hole, etc.
  • TurboTab displays the duration of each note… and rest!
  • Because it is visual, you can even “practice” a tune without even having a harmonic in hand!  Just by following along with your eye, blowing and drawing, and visualizing your head and mouth motion!
  • And it does other things, which you’ll see below. Like displaying bends, slurs, vibrato, tremolo, and other ornamentation.


A Little more Harmonica “Theory”  – Bends and Overbends

If you were paying attention, you would notice that we skipped some white notes in the scale above:

  • You see that the F4, A4, and B6 are missing! Bummer!

There is actually a method behind this madness, for which we can thank Joseph Richter, a Bohemian instrument maker from the late 1800’s. (for more info, see Pat Missin’s historical treatise, “So just who was this Richter guy, and what did he invent?”

  • But fear not. The notes are “in there somewhere.”
  • This is where the proverbial “Bending” notes comes in to play.
  • In other words, can get the “missing” notes of the diatonic scale by “bending” some notes “in-between” two other notes of the scale:
  • So now you’re probably wondering How do I bend notes on the harmonica? And if you’re inquisitive you might also wonder WHY does this happen?
  • I will tell you. But first, I need to break the news that…
  • ..there are actually a whole bunch more notes that are “in there” somewhere:

Written in TurboTab notation, this looks like:


Advanced TurboTab Notation

coming soon: how to use turbotab to visualize slurs, vibrato, tremolo.

For the time being, here is the full legend of the current TurboTab symbols:



GETTING STARTED (Its really easy)

  1. Select song from the list and click “preview” to listen.
  2. Select “accuracy” mode to practice hitting the correct notes. The tablature should be intuitive: red means “blow” blue means “suck” or “sip.”
  3. Once you have mastered playing the correct notes, move on to “birdseed” mode. This will challenge you to play at proper speed and rhythm. (Note: the current version only plays at one speed. The next version will allow you to adjust the speed, and also loop the selection.)
  4. When you are ready to move on to bending notes, select one of the intermediate level tunes & use the following legend.
  5. The next step is to develop your tone, and introduce expression into the music. We have provided two tools to help you (and are working on more.) One is a set of advanced symbols the represent slurs, glides, trills, tremolo, vibrato, etc.


The other tool is a mini spectrogram, found under the “Tools” menu.  This is an early prototype and does not have the interactive function set up yet.  Check back in the near future.

Remember the Harp-A-Matic rules:
“First – play the correct notes;”
“Next – play the correct notes, correctly!”


  • Don’t rely on the numbers on your harmonica to find the holes. Just take a chance and play any note that you think is close. Then move your head left or right until you land on the correct one. Then you’re good to go… all subsequent notes are referenced to wherever you left off. Think in terms of distance or intervals. Actually DON’T think! Train your “muscle memory” to
  • Although TurboTab provides both pitch and timing, it does not reflect much of the personality of harmonica playing – like syncopation, tremolo, vibrato, slurs, chords, intervals, vamps, etc.  We are working on ways to incorporate these nuances; but in the meantime you need to figure them out on your own – both by listening to live performers, and by injecting your own expression into the music – getting yourself into “the groove.”


Introducing Harp-A-Matic™ mobile app:


Difficulty Levels

1: Toddler: (super easy for year 3+),

  • 2-3 holes; 4 measures

2: Beginner

  • one octave, simple timing (quarter, eighth notes)

3: Novice

  • more than one octave, dotted quarter notes, syncopated

4: Intermediate

  • bends

5: Advanced

  • bends, slurs, warbles, tremolo

6: Master (Ace)

  • Overbends