How To Read Harmonica Tabs For Beginners

The harmonica is a joyful and simple instrument for anyone to get started in their music journey. The bar to entry is low and getting started playing familiar tunes is easy with tabs. Tabs are a simplified version of musical writing that only indicates the notes being played, but not for how long.

There are a few different ways people write tablature, or tabs, for harmonicas. We’ll break down the three most popular ways and you’ll be playing “Camptown Races” in no time!

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What Are Harmonica Tabs?

What Are Harmonica Tabs

Tabs are a simplified way to read music. Sheet music can be complicated and intimidating, and increasingly difficult to teach yourself. Tabs, however, are clear, simple, and easy to pick up and get started right away.

Tabs vary across instruments. The thing that remains common across all of them is that they do not indicate rhythms or the duration a note should be held/played for. Tabs require you to develop a skill called “playing by ear.” This is a process of listening to a song and familiarizing yourself with the tune. After this, you should be able to recreate the rhythm of the tune.

Below we are going to outline three different methods of harmonica tablature. The main difference between all of them is the symbol or indication of whether you should draw or blow on the note. The “notes” are indicated using numbers in each of these tabs. Ten hole diatonic harmonicas, or common “blues harps,”use numbers 1-10.

The 1 is the lowest hole on the harmonica or the farthest to the left. The 10 is the highest hole or the farthest to the right. Drawing or blowing on each hole produces a difference in pitch on the scale.

How To Read Harmonica Tabs With Arrows

One of the most popular ways harmonica songs are tabbed is with a combination of numbers and arrows. The numbers indicate which hole on a ten hole diatonic harmonica you should be playing. The arrow indicates whether you should draw or blow on that hole.

Draw is the harmonica term for inhaling on a note. Blow is the term indicating an exhale on a note. In arrow tabs, a downward arrow indicates that you should draw on the number above the arrow, while an upward arrow indicates that you should blow on that particular hole.

The holes are numbered 1 through 10 from lowest to highest or left to right. So when you see a number and an arrow underneath it, they are paired together to let you know whether to draw or blow on the correct hole.

As mentioned earlier, tabs do not provide the rhythm or how long each note should be played for. This is why musicians who read tabs have to practice “playing by ear.” 

How To Read Harmonica Tabs With Brackets

Reading harmonica tabs with brackets is a bit less common than our other methods, but you may still run across it in your playing. It is still simple and effective, and as always, easy to learn. All the tab methods use the same system to identify the number hole you should be playing. The main difference is how the blow or draw is indicated.

A number inside of a bracket indicates that the note should be played with a draw breath. A number by itself indicates that the note should be played with a blow breath. As an example, if you read [4], then you would play a draw breath on the fourth hole. On the flip side, a 4 by itself would indicate a blow breath on the fourth hole.

How To Read Harmonica Tabs With Plus and Minus Signs

Our third simple tab method is fairly common and equally simple. We are once again relying on the same numerical system as the other methods. The chief difference in this method is the inclusion of a plus or a minus sign.

A minus sign beside a number indicates a draw breath and a plus sign or no sign indicates a blow breath. The minus will always be present in this method, but some people switch between using plus signs and not using any sign for blow breaths. So you may see -4 letting you know to draw on the 4 hole. Then you will see either +4 or just 4 letting you know to blow on the four hole.

Reading Tabs With Bending Notes

Bending is a bit of an advanced harmonica technique that involves lowering the pitch of the note. While you may not be ready to tackle bending just yet, you’ll need to learn what the tabs mean when you do reach that point.

Each of the above methods have their own version of bending notation. For bending with brackets and plus or minus signs, the bending is indicated by the addition of a lowercase letter “b” beside the number. Bending with arrow notation is a bit more complicated and specific. There are several different directional arrows indicating more specific blowing techniques.

The chart below outlines the different bending techniques as indicated by their respective arrow.

Draw breath in
Blow breath out
Half step draw bend
Half step blow bend
Whole step draw bend
Whole step blow bend
Whole and a half draw bend

Where Do You Find Harmonica Tabs?

Where Do You Find Harmonica Tabs

Tracking down harmonica tabs has never been easier. There are entire websites dedicated to crowdsourcing tabs for popular songs. One of the most popular websites is called HarpTabs. This website uses the minus symbol system for their tabs and has a large catalogue filled in by users.

If you are looking for a slightly more curated selection, then consider visiting your local music store. They likely have a few well curated books on harmonicas that include skill building and tabs for performance. These books are a great place to go if you are looking to expand your horizons and explore different styles.

If the music store isn’t an option, but you are still interested in browsing some books consider hopping over to Amazon. The giant online retailer has a number of best selling harmonica books that vary between instructional level and style of music included.

If you are looking for easy songs to get started, think back to your childhood. Nursery tunes and children’s songs are familiar and great early practice pieces. Consider tunes like Old MacDonald, Camptown Races, and Clementine to get yourself comfortable with reading tabs. Once you’ve mastered these, move on to basic pop songs before going for Stevie Wonder solos.

How To Read Harmonica Tabs For Beginners, Final Thoughts

Learning a new instrument can be intimidating and can certainly feel overwhelming. The beauty of a harmonica is no matter what you play it will probably still sound pretty nice. It’s a big reason this little instrument has been such a popular place for people new to music to get started. There are certainly some advanced levels and techniques to learn, but getting started is easy.

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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