How To Master the Three -3 Bends (For Harmonica Nerds Only!)

Of all the draw bends on the harmonica, the -3 is the hardest because there are THREE half step bends that can be accomplished.

Whereas the -1, -4, and -6 can each only be bent down a half-step,
The -2 can be bent down a whole step,
The -3 can be bend down a step and a half.
-3’ (half-step)
-3" (whole-step)
-3’’’ (step and a half)

One of the best ways to practice playing these bends in tune is to play them along with a piano or a piano app. On a C harmonica:

-3 is B
-3’ is Bb
-3" is A
-3’’’ is Ab

The reason that this exercise is so good is that it provides excellent ear training as we try to match the pitch of the harmonica to the pitch of the piano.

When I do this, I like to push down on the sustain pedal and keep playin the note over and over and really listening to the harmonica to see if it is perfectly in tune. I’ll bend it until I can hear it’s too low, and then come back up. Then I’ll raise the bend a little bit where it’s obviously too high, and then go back into proper position.

By going too high and too low, it helps me convince myself that I’m really playing the note in tune.

Another way to convince yourself about your intonation is to use the Bend It Better tool.

Other great ear training bending practice at the piano I learned from Alex is to pedal back and forth between the -2 and the three bent positions on the -3. The notes on the piano are
G Bb G A G Ab G A and the tabs are;
-2 -3’ -2 -3" -2 -3’’’ -2 -3" (repeat over and over)

This is a great exercise because we have to practice going back and forth between the various bent positions and then released again on the -2. Very technically challenging. And to make it EVEN MORE challenging you can change the G to an F# or an F so that your pedaling between the three bent -3’s and a -2’ or a -2". That’s heavy duty stuff!!!

Besides playing the notes in tune, trying to get the tone to sound good is another long road. I think the best way to work on getting good tone on these bends is to play melodies and scales and listen to how the note sounds in context with the other notes that you are playing (it doesn’t sound as good as the other notes!) By experimenting with different mouth positions, over time, you will get note to sound better and better.

Simply playing the 1st position major scale is great for practicing both -3" and -2" and we can use the middle octave to get the right sound in our ears:
4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -7 -6 6 -5 5 -4 4
and now we play it in the low octave
1 -1 2 -2" 3 -3" -3 4 -3 -3" 3 -2" 2 -1 1

Chances are the -2" and -3" don’t sound like the other notes! There are two ways you can play with addressing this: 1.) “How can I change my mouth to get the bent notes to sound more like the unbent notes?” and 2.) “How can I change my mouth to get the unbent notes to sound more like the bent notes?” Both of these questions are GREAT to explore and will lead you down the path of improving your tone.

In 2nd position, there is a nice little blues turnaround, which I play here that is a great way to practice both the -3’ and the -3" bends.

The notes in this lick are: B D B, Bb Db Bb, A C A, ending with a trill on G and B.

The tabs are: -3 -4 -3, -3’ -4’ -3’, -3" 4 -3", ending with a trill on -23. It’s a tricky little lick to play, and my intonation was not all that good on the video I referenced here!

If you’re into Jazz, and you know well the song “Straight No Chaser” by Thelonious Monk, playing the beginning of that tune is a great workout for these half-step and whole-step bends as well.
-1 -2 -3" -3’ -3
-1 -2 -3" -3’ -3 4 -3’
-1 -2 -3" -3’ -3
-1 -2 -3" -3’
-1 -2 -3" -3’ -3 4 -3’

Or the tune “Birdland” by Weather Report -3’ -3" -3’ -3" 3 2 3 -3’ -3" 3 2 1 -2

If you like country music, learning the major pentatonic scale in 2nd position is a great idea, and great way to work on the -3" bend. We can use the high octave:
6 -6 -7 -8 -9 9 10 9 -9 -8 -7 -6 5
to get the right sound in our ear to play it in the low octave
-2 -3" -3 -4 5 6 5 -4 -3 -3" -2
you can add in the -3’ to give it a little more soul:
-2 -3" -3’ -3 -4 5 6 5 -4 -3 -3’ -3" -2

Of course any simple melody in the key of G is good for practicing the -3". Like Mary Had a Little Lamb
-3 -3" -2 -3" -3 -3 -3 -3" -3" -3" -3 -4 -4
-3 -3" -2 -3" -3 -3 -3 -3 -3" 4 -3 -3" -2

Take any simple song, children’s song, or hymn that you know in 1st position, and now transpose it into 2nd position, and chances are you’ll be using that -3" bend. This kind of transposition between positions is always a great mind-bending exercise in and of itself.

For the -3’’’ bend (as well as -3’’ bend) a GREAT workout is to play the blues scale in 3rd position. Again we can use the higher octave to get the right sound in our ears:
-4 -5 6 -6’ -6 7 -8 7 -6 -6’ 6 -5 -4
before tackling the very challenging low octave
-1 -2" 3 -3’’’ -3" 4 -4 4 -3’’ -3’’’ 3 -2" -1

But the scale that I’ve discovered recently that puts such a great demand on bending intonation is to play the 5th POSITION MAJOR SCALE. On a C harmonica, 5th position is E and naturally would be the Phrygian mode (which is like a minor scale but with b2.)

I’ve used 5th position to play the blues scale a bit. Again, on a C harmonica, this is E blues scale, and it actually sits pretty nicely:
2 3 -3" -3’ -3 -4 5 -4 -3 -3’ -3" 3 2

But recently I’ve been delving into the world of overblows, and using a (4) overblow, it was brought to my attention (from watching Alex Paclin) that you can play 5th position MAJOR SCALE, so E MAJOR SCALE on a C harmonica. This is super-challenging!
2 -2’ -3’’’ -3’’ -3 (4) 5 (4) -3 -3" -3’’’ -2’ 2

But EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW OVERBLOWS, playing the first 5 notes of this major scale is FANTASTIC technical exercise. The notes are E F# G# A B G# F# E. If you can play those notes on another instrument like piano to get the sound in you ear, then try this very challenging run on the harmonica:
2 -2’ -3’’’ -3’’ -3 -3’’ -3’’’ -2’ -1

All right that’s firing from the hip about things that help me with my bend intonation in tone, specifically with the most challenging draw bends we have on the harmonica: the -3.

What’s your experience with -3 bends? Do you have any tips for us?

Rock on,
Luke

7 Likes

Hi Luke,

Thanks for this article. I will start practicing and see if it helps. I used the Bend It Better Tool and I can get the -3’ and -3’’’ fairly consistently but rarely get the -3’’. I even tried to slowly change mouth/throat/position and go from -3’ to -3’’ to -3’’’ and back again and almost every time go right through the -3’’. Not sure where the sweet spot is to nail it.

Any advice from you or anyone else would be appreciated.

Thanks,
Kevin

1 Like

Hi @kjlarochelle,

The problem you describe with the hole 3 draw bends can sometimes be the result of the shape of the hole 3 draw reed (assuming that your technique is correct). Getting proper gaps on both of the hole 3 reeds (draw and blow) is also important for playing the hole 3 bends.

Adjusting the shape of a reed is, unfortunately, quite difficult to learn and can result in a totally destroyed reed. :frowning_face: To learn the method and to see how it changes the ease of bending you should best use a harp that, if destroyed during your learning process, “does not break the bank” (if you know what I mean). :point_left:

Out of curiosity, what is the make, model and key of your harp?

Regards,
– Slim

3 Likes

Hi Slim,

It is a Horner Special 20 in the Key of C.

Thanks,
Kevin

1 Like

Hi Slim,

After reading your message. I grabbed my Horner Special 20 in G and A and went to the Bend It Better Tool and was able to nail all the -3 bends. Not sure why but those two are easier then the C. I also have a Lucky 13 Bass Blues in F and that was difficult to nail the -3’’. But after nailing it in the G and A I got better at the C and F. So it looks like it’s a technique issue and I’ll have to practice more before blaming the equipment ;).

Thanks,
Kevin

5 Likes

Hey Kevin - that’s quite an accomplishment my friend! Congrats!!

Yeah, the higher keys require more subtle changes to get the different bends, so require a bit more finesse from that perspective.

The lower the key, the larger the mouth movement needed to make the bends happen.

Congrats again, my man!

Rock on,
Luke

2 Likes